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Since I have absolutely no idea when the next time I’ll have the chance to write, I thought I’d throw a small little post together before going back to base.  And, yes, it appears as though Life on the Line will be more than a three-part series.

We’re in the army. We smell and we know it.  It comes with the territory.  Just do the math: If we’re on base for three weeks at a time and we have four uniforms total, how often do we wear clean clothes?  The answer is: not often enough.  But, in training, it was different.  When going through training, you always had an idea, at least a rough one, as to when your next shower would be.  “We’re in the field for three days? Great. I’ll shower on Wednesday.”  While on the line, “we’re in the field for three days” can very easily turn into “I have no idea when we’ll be back.”  Though I can’t put any specifics down, last week was one of those weeks for me.

“Klazmer, get your gear. We’re back Tuesday.”  So I threw enough stuff in a bag until Tuesday, grabbed my vest and stood in line with the others.  Nobody thought anything of it.  To us, Tuesday meant Tuesday.  Very quickly, Tuesday turned into Wednesday, Wednesday into Thursday morning and, finally, Thursday morning into Thursday night.  Two more days, not a big deal. Simply put, shit happens. And then it rained.  It rained day and night. Then the Sun poked through, giving us hope that everything would dry up.  But, just as quickly as it had appeared, the Sun left, taking our sliver of hope with it.  Then it rained more.  But we had our job to do, rain or shine.  So we did what we had to do through rain and mud.  I’m not even going to bother trying to describe the amount of mud. Just check out the pictures.

Left: The pool of mud that was actually used as a pool on one occassion. Right: You can see the level of mud on our APC. This was taken after we tried to drain the pool and we left it to dry up for 3 days.

After finally being switched, it had been nine days since my last shower.  Nine fucking days of sweat and rain and mud and dirt caked into my skin.  Needless to say, it was difficult for everyone to stomach my stench, myself included.  Back on base, I ran for the shower.  I scrubbed what I could in that short amount of time but, immediately after, I was going home.  So I ran back to my room and saw my Alef (Israeli equivalent to the American Class A) hanging neatly, as if it were waiting for me. Forgetting for a minute that wearing your alef means that you’re going home, it was just such a relief. A shower. Deodorant. Dry socks.  Clean uniform.  It was like I was in heaven.

Even to describe the feeling is difficult.  Imagine being a little kid.  It’s winter.  The ground is covered in snow. You just came in from sledding and you’re absolutely freezing.  You have to strip down all your wet clothes in the garage, something you’ve been dreading all day.  That eight and a half seconds that you’re in your underwear and not yet in the house is awful.  But then you step inside.  The heat is on.  You feel it immediately in your nose.  Your mom takes a sweatshirt fresh out of the dryer for you and then, with a smile, hands you a mug of hot chocolate.

That’s the best description that I can provide (Raxxess).  In reality, coming back to a sweatshirt and hot chocolate would have been far more pleasant but having your dreams of a shower and fresh uniform come true at the end of nine long days was more than sufficient for me.

Starting Day 1 in the army, toranut (תורנות) is simply a part of life.  Toranut is the overarching term to describe various types of bitch detail that each base requires.  According to Google Translate, toranut means service by rotation.  In reality, it means either additional or pointless work put on us because others simply won’t do it.  The types of toranut one can be sentenced to (from worst to best) are:

– Kitchen
– Sergeant Major
– HQ Platoon

Before jumping in any further, it’s important to note that being sent to toranut was not always the worst thing in the world.  During basic training, one could be sent to work in the kitchen or pick up trash while his friends were crawling through mud and thorns.  If that were the case, he was given several endearing nicknames by his friends that they shouted at him throughout the duration of his toranut.  Son of a bitch and evasive asshole (it sounds better in Hebrew. Oketz Manyak – עוקץ מניק) were favorites in my platoon.  I can still imagine the shit-eating grin on one friend’s face when he was picked for toranut during a particularly unpleasant day of basic training.

Though the shit-eating grin isn't displayed, you can just imagine the look on his face... Son of a bitch.

Since we’re now out of training, toranut is considered the worst thing possible.  All night jeep patrol? Great. Twelve hour shift as the radio room runner? Sweet. Week-long deployment in a small camp where you sleep in a converted shipping container, don’t shower and go to the bathroom outside? Sign me up. Toranut in the kitchen? FUUUUUUUUCK!

Working in the kitchen is by far the worst.  For starters, you wake up two hours earlier than everybody else.  The Sun is just coming up outside and you’re already in the kitchen, cursing the day that lay before you, praying it goes by quickly.  But you know that it won’t.  You spend the majority of this 12 hour hell washing all of the cooking utensils.  We’re not talking about a few plates and bowls.  Oh no. We’re talking about all the stuff required to feed a base of 300 people, three meals a day.  Fine, whatever. I’ll throw my earphones in, listen to some music and make it pass.  If only it were that simple.  The cooks seem to get some demonic pleasure out of just being absolute pricks.  All of this together, makes that day go by slowly.

Believe it or not, this is an accurate representation of what needs to be washed every damn day

Going through toranut in the kitchen once, makes you never want to do it again.  When you hear your name called to be in the kitchen, your mind starts immediately looking for excuses as to why you can’t go.  “Ok… No, I’m not puking.  I don’t have diarrhea.  I have no cuts on my hand… Shit! What else? How can I get out of this?!”

Working for the Sergeant Major is slightly better because you don’t have somebody standing over you the entire day.  It’s easy to slip away for twenty minutes here and there.  Like the cooks, the guys who work for the Sergeant Major seem to evoke the same amount of pleasure from being absolute assholes.  The overwhelming majority of these guys used to be combat soldiers until they were dropped to their present position as a form of punishment.  Lucky for them, that “punishment” includes working a week, having off for a week.  Why don’t these guys just do the work that they make us do instead? I wish I had an answer.

Working for the HQ Platoon is, by far, the best form of toranut.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still bitch work.  But you’re working inside your own company.  Your personal reveille isn’t too much worse than that of the other guys. And, best of all, you’re treated with respect.  Nobody yells, nobody threatens.  “Hey, I need you to get this, this and that done.  Once you do, let me know. You can have two hours off.”  A lot of that work can be setting up for Company Night or various other enjoyable things that we do.

Company Night - Sitting down to a nice barbecue dinner

Life on the Line – Part I

Internet security is a big part of the IDF these days so, since I don’t feel like getting my ass thrown in jail, I’m going to adhere to the strictest interpretation of those rules. So, where am I deployed? I’ll say that my unit is currently on the border with Gaza. What am I doing? To answer that question, I’m going to write a three (or more, we’ll see how it goes) blog series called Life on the Line.

Before I get started, however, maybe I should explain what it means to be on the line.  Let’s start with preconceived notions; I don’t care what war movie you’re thinking of, it’s not like that.  No, two opposing armies are not lining up against one another on an organized battlefield. And, no, we’re not living in holes with our eyes glued on the horizon watching the enemy’s every move.  So, what does it mean for us to be on the line? We spend the overwhelming majority of our time on our base (what we do on base is part of this and the other posts).  Our job is to simply make sure that there is no encroachment into Israeli territory.

The Patriot and Band of Brothers are two good examples of what we're not doing (And, yes, I put these in mostly because I don't have actual pictures for this post)

Now, to start Life on the Line with Part I – The Night Shift.

One of the absolutely most important things in the army is communication.  Without effective communication, it’s simply impossible to know what’s going on within our unit or with other units in the army.  A huge part of that communication is radio.  Our company has a radio room that is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Regardless of what is going on outside, those radios are never alone. Not for a minute. Not for a second. Never. To ensure that that’s the case, there is always one radioman and one runner on duty.  This past week, I had the pleasure of being the runner during the night shift – midnight to noon.

When you know that you’re going to be awake for a twelve hour shift, the planning starts well beforehand.  The hope was always to knock out a three or four hour nap, starting around 7:30 or 8:00 that night, and get up in just enough time to put on my uniform and brush my teeth.  The reality was quite different.  Generally, I got an hour or so of sleep before starting my shift.

Midnight, the shift starts.  Both the radioman and I are in a shitty mood.  We look at our watches – it’s 12:07AM.  Only another 11 hours and 53 minutes.  Fuuuuuuck…  All we want is to sleep a full night.  Yet, we both know that that’s nowhere in our immediate futures.  We look at each other, as if expecting that the other has come up with a genius idea in the last 12 hours to make the time pass faster.  We both know better than that.  So we amuse ourselves with the same things as the night before and the night before that – backgammon, guitar, reading, order pizza, talk about life and politics (which is really just code for what soldiers actually talk about), joke about life in the radio room, take pictures make little movies.  It’s enough entertainment to make the time pass.   But there’s no other way of saying it; as the time goes on, we get dumber.   

Radio Room Idiocy - Exhibit A

These lighter moments are invariably broken up throughout the night.  I need to wake up a driver or a tracker or an officer.  Other than that, most of the night is rather monotonous.  So we check our watches and come up with some new song or video to make and make coffee and check our watches again.  Suddenly the boredom is broken – we just got a report that someone did X (as in a variable or things I can’t expand on. Nothing bad, don’t worry, Mom).  So I have a few minutes of “excitement.”  I run (very rarely is it an actual run) to wake up an officer and his drivers then I make my way across base to get a tracker.  That’s it, back to the radio room.  My “action” is over.

6 AM – sunrise.  The sky begins to brighten, the birds chirp.  There’s hope in the air.  One of us lets out a smile.  We quickly realize our error. For us, it’s false hope.  We’re only half done our shift.  The smile disappears.  We sink back into our chairs, urging the other to make some more coffee.  Later and later into the morning, we start to hear noises in the company – groans of the morning, feet dragging, unhappy voices.  We drag through the rest of our shift. Noon – we use what little energy we have left to squeeze out a smile.  Triumphantly, we exit the radio room, taking in the light, the warmth, the noises of the day.  We did it.

This post (like most of my posts at this point) is long overdue.  Several months ago, the Nahal Brigade sent its lone soldiers from the November ’10 enlistment to a three-week Hebrew course.  None of us really understood why they decided to teach us Hebrew in a formal environment after  having served eight months in the army.  We simply accepted our three-week vacation with a smile.

During this “time off,” I was in touch with Joel Chasnoff.  Joel, now making a living as a stand-up comedian, was a lone soldier in the IDF’s Armored Corp in the 1990’s.  His book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade, was written about his time in the army; the fun, the hardships and the overall bullshit of life in the army.  During our training, this book was passed from soldier to soldier.  During each step, we reflected on Joel’s experiences and stories as compared to our own.  The 188th Crybaby Brigade slowly became like a bible to some of us.

Cover of The 188th Crybaby Brigade

During his stay in Israel, Joel expressed interest in meeting lone soldiers currently serving.  I took it upon myself to try to bring him to base to speak with us as a group.  After having to jump through some hoops (damn bureaucracy), Joel came to visit us on base in mid-July.  We spent about two hours with Joel listening, talking and comparing stories.  We asked him to expand on his experiences and he asked to hear some of ours.

Joel on base visiting with Lone Soldiers

It’s been more than a decade since Joel was discharged from the army.  Immediately, one thing became clear to us.  It doesn’t matter what unit you’re in – infantry, tanks, artillery – nothing’s changed.  During meals in the field, we passed around cans of tuna, corn, olives and chocolate spread, always with a loaf of bread. While American soldiers eat hot MRE’s, we had to earn the right to cook tuna with squares of toilet paper.  While on base, we fell asleep during classes, we got yelled at for joking in formation and we come up with things to do in order to pass guard duty.

The truth is that we were screw ups in training. We never stood in formation on time. Never.  One day my entire platoon spent an hour and a half doing punishment sprints while carrying kit bags.  We could never stop laughing or goofing off or making fun of each other.  I can’t count the number of times we were told to shut up during classes, marches or bus rides.  The things our platoon sergeant shouted at us just made us laugh harder.  No matter what we were doing – punishment sprints, carrying heavy equipment for no reason whatsoever or any generic mission in an unreasonably short amount of time – we always managed to have a good time together. It doesn’t matter what the rough times are, we always helped one another through.

If you’re looking to join the IDF, reading The 188th Crybaby Brigade is a must.  Does every story match up to one that you’ll have?  Of course not.  You’ll have your own unique experiences, just like my friends and I do.  But it will help to give you an understanding of life in the army.  When you’re thrown into a random group, you bond with the guys.  You don’t have a choice, it just happens.  You very quickly learn to rely on one another.  Sure you get made fun of and laughed at but it’s from the guys who would do anything for you.  Yes, they bitch and they moan and they argue over guard duty times but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Joel has been out of the army for over ten years  and he’s still in touch with the guys from his unit.  I can tell you that I plan on doing the same.  If you want a preview of some things that you’ll face, buy The 188th Crybaby Brigade.

Life “After” Training

Yes, it’s been a while since my last post, War Week.  Here’s a small update on what’s been going on with me.

After finishing War Week, we became certified warriors.  Following the completion, we had a celebratory breakfast before we started moving out.

The Animals at Feeding Time

Believe it or not, this was extremely bittersweet.  We busted our asses for the previous 8 months to get to this point.  Now that it had come, it was depressing as hell.  Why? A bunch of guys, including some of my closest friends, shipped out to squad commander school and other courses.  Not two or three guys from each platoon. About 30% of the company, gone.  As much as the morning was meant to be celebratory, many took it as: “Hope you enjoyed going through hell together over the last 8 months.  Say bye. Now.”  After spending so much time with these guys, it was weird not having them there.

We weren’t given much time to dwell on their absence.  Those of us who remained with the company were moving out as well.  We finished training, we were finally leaving the training base.  We were now warriors .  We were finally joining the battalion.  At that exact time, however, our battalion was coming off the line and moving into battalion exercises for three months. Put differently, we weren’t done training.

My platoon was the first to get to the new base.  Taking his first look at our new home, my friend summarized it best by saying, “This looks like a good place to kill yourself.”  Sadly, this is the exact emotion that the base evokes.  Imagine a ghost town in the middle of nowhere.  Now turn up the heat. That’s our base.  Getting off the bus and immediately feeling the hottest weather Israel has to offer was a shock to us.  We couldn’t understand why it was hotter than the desert but it was. By a lot.

More changes in the company started taking place, helping mark our transformation into “warriors.”  Or, more accurately put, soldiers who now have rights.  During training, using a cell phone, eating and smoking were allowed only with explicit permission.  No longer… We walk around with cell phones in our pockets and we eat whenever we want.  Even better, there’s always music playing in the company and we’re not required to be in full uniform all the time (Chezi Bet- Boots, OD pants, t-shirt).  It’s hard to believe that the mundane can cause such incredible boosts in morale but it can. So, in the meantime, the battalion is sweating out these exercises and waiting for our next job.

War Week

I feel kind of like Yon, having not written in a month. Luckily for me, I have only one really important week to tell about; War Week.

As I wrote about in previous posts, we’ve been learning about offensive operations. Starting from the most basic level, we’ve been working our way up. War week, our final obstacle in finishing advanced training, was our opportunity to learn how to operate as a company in the field.

The entire week before was spent getting our equipment ready. Split into pairs, we throw everything we need (or were ordered to take) into a large backpack – shovel, spare ammunition, camo nets, extra water, change of uniform, etc. Why no tents? There’s no point in carrying a tent when you know you won’t be sleeping. We check and double check every piece of gear. Is my gun zeroed? Are there any strings or laces hanging off my vest? Does my watch have a cover on it (sun reflecting off the face of the watch can give away your position)? During this preparation week, we spent a lot of time improving our sheef-tzurim, strings that prevent items (knee pads, watch, canteens, etc.) from falling and getting lost. Whatever wasn’t perfect, had to be fixed.

Tuesday, 1AM – Reville. Regardless of rank, everybody in the company is running, taking care of last minute items. At 1:45, we’re in formation. Faces painted, gear on our backs, organized into our four platoons (3 light infantry, 1 heavy weapons), we start moving. Walking over rocks and hills, crossing roads and wadis, not one word is heard through the line as our unit moves slowly through the darkness. Finally, at 5AM, we’re in position. We’re given 15 minutes to clean our rifles and wolf down whatever food we can.

With three tanks and over one hundred men, our mission is to take and occupy eight hills. After a week of studying the plan, every soldier knows his exact place in the exercise. After the safety briefing and a quick dry run, it’s time for the real thing; our first live fire drill as a company. The heavy weapons platoon opens fire with every type of gun they could carry; mortars, machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. My lieutenant runs forward, under cover, to blow a hole through the barbed wire. As soon as we have a path, we start to move. Sprinting through open territory, we take cover for a short time before moving on the first hill. As soon as it’s secure, we cover the two other platoons as they move in under our fire. Over the next two hours, squads and platoons leap frog one another to take more ground, not moving an inch without somebody else covering. As we’re doing our part to the west, the tanks are doing theirs to the east. During the entire exercise, there was not one second when gunfire was not heard.

Around noon, we throw our gear on our backs and start moving. Again, we stumble over unfamiliar terrain; the only difference  isthat we traded darkness for heat. After our mid-day march, we take part in a defensive exercise. Without any real excitement, we return to our original positions to practice our night-time operations. As we wait for the sun to set, we prepare our sandwiches of tuna and white bread for the next 24 hours. At 9PM, the drills start – first dry, then live fire. The same plan that we’d studied for a week and executed twice that morning went as smoothly as expected. The one terrifying difference was seeing the flashes of explosions fired from the heavy weapons platoon,as we ran towards our destination. Don’t worry, mom. No injuries.

Wednesday, 1AM – We’ve been up for 24 hours. We spent that time hiking, running and shooting. Time for a short nap? Guess again. Time for a 16 kilometer march? That’s more like it. Again, we walk through the night. Tired doesn’t come close to describing how we feel. Even the squad sergeants talk to us about their exhausted hallucinations (my sergeant mumbled some bullshit about rainbows and butterflies that nobody really understood). Watching the sun rise over the mountains of the Negev was a welcomed sight. At 6AM, we repeat the same procedure that we did the morning before. Clean guns, eat, hydrate. Safety briefing. Additional briefing about the attack. We didn’t have a week to study this exercise. We didn’t even have 15 minutes. Here are the hills – here’s what you’re taking. Get in position.

Wednesday, 11AM – After our two exercises, our lieutenant tells us one word. Ga-gash. The sweetest, made-up word I’d ever heard in my life. Ga-gash is an Israeli Army acronym meaning “hour limit.” After 34 hours of non-stop activity, we’re ordered to go to sleep. The one thing that the army didn’t think about is that in the middle of the day in June in the Negev, it’s damn near impossible to sleep. Of the seven hours we were given to rest, the lucky ones slept three hours. Most of us were in the one and a half to two hour range. At 6PM, completely content with whatever rest we got, we eat, get our equipment ready and, again, start walking.

Around 11PM, we arrive at the location for our last company-wide exercise; urban warfare. With one squad firing blanks to simulate a group of terrorists, we do our best to recreate an urban battle. With our final exercise out of the way, we hydrate before our last task of War Week; an 8 kilometer march with stretchers open the whole way. At exactly 3AM on Thursday morning, we pick up the stretchers and start on our way. The company commander, figuring we were tired from the week, thought we needed four hours for this hike.

At 5:45AM, with the sun rising behind us, we triumphantly reach Tel Arad, marking the end of our advanced training. The only celebration we allow ourselves, as we wait for the historic site to open, is a brief smile to one another as we lay down for our first real rest in over 24 hours.

The Nahal Warrior Pin, presented to us at the end of War Week

At 7AM, we stand in formation at the top of Tel Arad and receive our pin. We are now officially warriors in the the Nahal Infantry Brigade.

Yes I know, I’m lazy; I haven’t written anything in far too long despite Adam’s numerous protests… But the army is hard work! I get back home and I’m tired and I have to catch up with people and sleep and… play XBOX and… sleep. All these things are both time-consuming and important so blog updating has fallen a little behind. Nothing to fear though, I am back.

So, first of all, here is a quick update since my last post. After months of various meetings, interviews, and gibushim (tests) before I enlisted, I ended up in a commando unit attached to the infantry. I’m extremely happy to be there and can’t wait to find out what it is all about. I had two weeks of Trom Tironut (a sort of pre-basic training phase), which I talked about in my last post. Since then, I’ve started basic training with the unit and have been there for about a month and a half. Everything started off easy enough but, pretty quickly, it has been getting more challenging. There’s plenty that has happened but, since I can only write one post at a time, I’ll start with one interesting story for now.

Shavua Sadaut (שבוע שדאות) is a week that everybody goes through during basic training. It is an introduction to surviving and fighting in the field. It is a notoriously tough week and my experience with it was no different. Sunday morning on base consisted of several hours of organizing equipment. Everything ranging from clothing to tent flaps, shovels, and camouflage materials was packed into bags, loaded onto trucks, and sent on its way. After not too long, the same was done with us. We drove north for about an hour until we got to the lower Galil – a mountainous area with some beautiful views. We drove up one of the larger ranges and got out at the top. We quickly unloaded all of our equipment, put it all on our backs, and started walking the few miles to where we would be spending the next several days. On the rather difficult hike, I noticed a few things which, little did I know at the time, would come to characterize the next few days. Everywhere around us there were thorn bushes, thistles, and other painful looking plants. In addition to the thorns, we were also walking amongst hundreds of cows and, literally endless amounts of cow droppings.

When we got to our destination, the peak of the range, we quickly set to work clearing out an area with our shovels (hacking at thorns and moving cow poop) and setting up tents. Two people sleep in each tent and, thus, every soldier gets exactly half of the equipment to set up a tent: one of two tent flaps, four of eight spikes, and one of two poles. A never-ending problem in the Israeli army (I say never-ending not because of my own experience, but because my dad talks about exactly the same thing) is that half of the tent flaps are Israeli, with buttons that fit into holes, and half of them are American, with buttons that connect to each other. After frantically looking for who has what kind of tent flap and setting up the tents, it was time to get to the day’s activities.

We started with geographical surveys of the area and then many different lessons: how to find north, how to measure difference, ways to avoid being seen in the wild, and plenty more. The lessons were actually very interesting and I find myself now obsessively finding where north is and what time it is using the sun just because well… it makes me feel cool (what now, Bear Grylls?).

The week was also our introduction to crawling, carrying wounded, and Hakpatsot (הקפצות). Now crawling may not sound so bad and, on its own, it isn’t. We however, didn’t just crawl, we crawled over some of the most painful thorn bushes I have ever experienced. If you were seen crawling around a bush, you would be told to roll over onto it and then keep crawling. If you were a particular offender, a commander would come over to you, point to a particularly large bush, and yell ‘MANGA!’ When this happens, you get up, run as fast as you can, and dive face-first onto the thorn bush. Needless to say, everybody finished the week covered in cuts and filled with thorns.

Every night we had ‘hakpatsot.’ We would go to sleep for an hour or two – just enough time to get into a really deep comfy sleep – and the commanders would start yelling ‘Hakpatsa!’ This is meant to simulate a surprise attack. The commanders time you and you have, depending on the mood, between one to three minutes to get out of your sleeping bag, get dressed, get your equipment together, and get into your position laying down outside of the tent, gun pointed at the would-be attacker. The week was also my introduction to combat rations. We got bread, canned tuna, canned olives, canned halva, and canned chocolate spread. The meals weren’t even bad, the only bad part was that we got all of this three times a day, every day, for the whole week. It took me about a week before I could look at a can of Tuna again afterwards.

The week culminated in out Masa Samal – a grueling, extremely fast paced five mile run / hike up one of the mountains near us while wearing all of our equipment. The Masa started off with a quarter mile sprint and continued with a mix of running and fast walking up the face of the mountain. I can honestly say that I have never done anything as physically or mentally difficult as that Masa. This sentiment seemed to be shared across everybody else in my group and everyone had stories of nearly passing out, starting to see black, and barely making it to the finish line.

All in all, it was a very difficult week (which has been followed by many others which I will talk about later on), but also a satisfying one. Things are starting to feel much more serious and much more real. This makes everything harder but also more interesting. More when I get back!

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