Tag Archives: Israel Defense Forces

Embarrassed Hero

13 Apr

Soldiers in the IDF are brothers, sons, husbands, daughters, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, and any other conceivable relationship. As a result soldiers hold a special place in the hearts of the public. Greeted with open arms, given vouchers for shoes, discounts on felafel, idolized by tourists and little boys. I am not entirely comfortable with the attention, and aside from the first week in uniform, I generally do not think about my role as “hero” or “role model” when I am traveling from place to place in uniform. Usually my focus is on arriving home from base to begin laundry, or returning to base to begin the next couple weeks of training. Over the past two weeks, a number of small moments made me reconsider and appreciate my current place in Israeli society, even as I am embarrassed when they happen.

Two weeks ago, I stopped in the market on my way home from base, even though I was not looking for anything in particular, I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere of Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat. Ignoring the aching shoulders from my bag of laundry, I stopped at a fruit stand to admire some of the incredible colors that this vendor had displayed. He gave me an orange. I told him that I was just looking, and I had no intention of buying. He said not to worry, and filled a bag of fruit for me. I did not like the idea of taking fruit from a vendor for whom this is his means of earning a living. He told me it was a gift of thanks. Knowing he would be insulted, I took the bag. He blessed me, my family, and my fellow soldiers, while tourists looked on and photographed.

My unit and I had a tour of Jerusalem and Latrun recently. So as we toured those two locations, we were the subjects of candid and posed photographs. While we were waiting for our buses, an Israeli school group passed by. One asked me how I felt to be a soldier, others asked me if I get scared or if I am always brave, and a third asked if I had ever killed anybody. Between the questions and among the screeching of nine year old girls, I spotted one boy off on his own. I went to talk to him, put my beret on his head, he puffed out his chest and saluted. He wanted to keep my beret, which had I had a spare, would happily have given to him. Shaking off my embarrassment, I realized how much this little gesture meant to him, he told me how excited he is to become a soldier. The next day at Latrun, which features a large display of tanks onto which visitors are welcome to climb, it happened again. Although I have been there a number of times, I never can resist the temptation to climb on top of these massive war machines. I grabbed a buddy and we started to climb. On the tank next to ours was an Israeli family of five. The two boys stopped to watch us, they asked their mother if she would request a picture with us. Of course we obliged, the boys were delighted, the parents thanked us, and we, besides some giggles, hardly gave it a second thought.

These three interactions highlighted for me the importance of my role as a soldier to the citizens I protect. My discomfort with the attention remains, but in the last several weeks I have tried to be more aware of how I am presenting myself to others when in uniform. Whether or not they are looking to me for an example I will never be sure, and I would prefer that they look elsewhere, but just in case I try to go above and beyond when asked for directions or a photo opportunity. One of the values of the IDF is that of being an emissary, so no matter my discomfort as the subject of photos and blessings, I hope to remain conscious of the fact that the wearers of green play a critical and multifaceted role in the State of Israel, even if it makes me blush.

End of the Beginning

19 Mar

Although we have not really accomplished anything, we have accomplished so much. Last week we concluded basic training, which while significant in a number of ways, some of which are not yet known to me, still leaves us with a significant portion of training on the horizon. Therefore, we have reached not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. Over the past five months, I have gathered a number of observations about Israel through the lens of the army, as well as observations about the army itself.

Isolation is beautiful. When serving in the army, being located far from centers of civilian life seems to be fairly commonplace. While potentially isolating, it also provides countless opportunities to catch glimpses of Israel that are relatively rare to the permanent city dweller. First of all, the sky is packed with glittering stars, and a new appreciation is found in tracking the cycles of the moon, especially as it relates to the holiday calendar. Various wildlife makes regular appearances, nobody was more surprised than I when a herd of camels decided to visit the gate of our base while I was on guard duty. The solitude also presents the opportunity to think without the interruption of officers or other soldiers, to sing, to pray. I am relatively certain that I would not trade my favorite Shabbat minyan in Jerusalem, but singing solo and welcoming Shabbat in a guard tower was a unique experience. Sunrises, sunsets, while always the same, never the same twice.

The army hurts. Crawling, running, carrying, sit-ups, push-ups, crouching, standing. Learning to separate different types of hurt was a skill that I learned in the first two weeks of my service. With a bloody lip and a developing black eye, there was no reason to stop, nothing that had happened to me was going to cause long term damage. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises are part of the deal. Unless any of those things are actually serious, you gather yourself and wait until you have a moment to survey the damage. Like in the famous book, The Red Badge of Courage, it becomes are mark of honor to have calloused hands, nicked up knuckles, and a couple good black and blue marks. Nobody actually wants any of these things to happen, but when they do it is the perfect time to demonstrate toughness, and of course some machismo.

Thorns and rocks. Not entirely sure what to add here, except that only combat soldiers in the IDF can say for sure which plants in the desert have thorns and which do not. Oh, wait one moment, they all have thorns. Big thorns, small thorns, ones that really hurt, some are just annoying, thin ones, long ones, brown ones, green ones. There is no shortage. Of course avoiding the thorns just leads to encounters with jagged rocks, sometimes pebbles which feel like boulders, and sometimes boulders which you wish were pebbles.

The equalizer. Before I drafted I often heard about how the army was the great equalizer in Israeli society. For the most part, I would say that sentiment is correct. Obviously there is still a significant population that does not serve in the military (I’m looking at you Hareidim), but for those who do serve, the army is largely equal. It does not care that I am approaching my 28th birthday and am serving in a combat unit with boys who are eight or nine years my junior. We all must complete and pass the same obstacle course, we sleep in the same tents, eat the same food. It does not care that I have a university degree or that the guy next to me comes from a wealthy family, or that the guy next to him has serious financial difficulties. Yes, the army does aid lone soldiers, and soldiers who have significant needs external to the army, but the expectations remain the same. Military hierarchy demands that I follow orders of officers along with the rest of my platoon, even though I have read more books and articles on war and national security in my university classes.

Teamwork. There is a culture of helping one another as well as cheering each other on, or attempting to provide additional motivation. Since the requirements of training fall upon every soldier equally, we are constantly looking out for our buddies. When we are allowed to help, we help. When assisting is prohibited because of the individual nature of a specific challenge, we offer verbal encouragement. Although the words do not physically assist in getting somebody over the wall, they provide a chorus of support, literally everybody is rooting for each other. On our long marches, we push each other uphill, forming a long train whose only goal in that moment is to reach the top of the next rise in the terrain. Everybody is suffering, some more so than others, but it does not matter since it is happening together. We took our first steps together, and eventually we will finish together, so goes the mentality.

With the beginning having just ended, and the next phase just beginning, I think saving my additional thoughts and observations is probably wise. We have seen the tentative calendar for the coming months, and they promise to lead us in new directions with new untold challenges, and a host of new personal and collective experiences. Stay tuned.