A boy in soldier’s uniform

Do you know the feeling you get when you first walk on stage for the opening act, the lights brighten and hundreds of pairs of expectant eyes stare at you from behind the dazzling haze of the headlamps? Or the feeling you get at the starting line of the 100m sprint, as you measure up your opponents from side to side and swallow the butterflies that tickle your stomach? Or the feeling you get as you step onto a crowded train from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva on Sunday morning, dressed in full IDF uniform – sleeves up, beret on shoulder, polished black boots and your M16 semi-automatic hanging by your side?

The uncertainty of acting the part of the ‘IDF soldier’ is a feeling that accompanied me during basic training and the rare weekends I was let off base. When I first arrived in Israel, I would excitedly stare in awe at every soldier sitting on a bus – looking all badass and professional, at once heroic and glorified, returning from dangerous cross border raids and top secret missions. Now I am that soldier – and yet I don’t feel the part. How would I react if my younger ‘me’ approached me now on a bus, sycophantically asking all kinds of questions in a cute and clumsy manner?

For when I enlisted, I was but a boy in uniform –  hardly out of high school – thrust into the conflict and sent to be trained for the defense of the state. Sure, unlike my Israeli peers, it was a choice that I wholeheartedly made on my own  – to leave behind everything I knew and to enlist in the IDF to protect my homeland. Yet despite my motivation and my desire, nothing could really prepare me for the reality of army life. The army is always over-glorified and romanticized from the outside – yet until you enlist and experience the drain of day-to-day punishments, endless crawling, little sleep and tuna for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s difficult to truly understand the life of a soldier.

Which is precisely why I find myself in a transitionary stage of sorts: almost 5 months into my service, I don’t quite feel like a soldier, yet I’m beginning to get used to the absence of personal freedom that I had as a civilian. I find it mostly expresses itself in the little things: being required to sport that uniform short crew cut, shaving daily, having my mobile phone switched off the entire week, or not being able to speak to my parents in Australia for weeks at a time. Not being able to eat what I want, or when I want to, and of course, having every tiny detail of my life dictated to me: from when I can sleep, to where I can relieve myself, to how I am supposed to look, and where I have to stand and guard.

These are the little trivialities that you don’t see from the outside. Everybody imagines that the life of a combat soldier is essentially that of Rambo: you go out on a mission, get the baddies, return to base – sweaty and uninjured, eat a hearty meal and go to sleep. Of course, nobody sees the countless of hours of mind numbing guard duty in the middle of the night, the hours spent rehearsing getting dressed as quickly as possible (our commanders place high value on being ready and dressed in full uniform under 3 minutes- so you can imagine how many times we practiced and re-practiced this until everybody got it right), the weariness, the hunger and the psychopathic cold of undergoing basic training during the winter – an inhumane freeze that chews away at your bones.

And despite all that I have been through, I still think twice when somebody asks me: “what do you do?”. “I’m a soldier” you may imagine I respond – yet it doesn’t come naturally. It’s almost forced – like a lie, like I try to cover up something that I’m not. And it’s not that I’m ashamed or embarrassed or shy. It’s that I just don’t feel like a fit the part – yet.

An interesting thing happened last Wednesday. We had returned from days of training in the shetach (the desert hillsides) back to our “base” (it’s not much of a base – just a few tents in the middle of the forest), when a few busloads full of teenagers from abroad pulled up beside us in the clearing. It was a group of a ‘Shnatties’ who were here to connect, discuss and debate with us all the burning issues that they had been studying and experiencing thus far (Shnat programs are year long Israel programs before university for Jewish kids that have finished high school). They needed a few representatives with fairly decent English to represent ‘the Israeli solider’ and interact with the diverse gaggle of Australian, South African, English and American kids fresh out of high school.

I approached my group – standing tall, my boots muddy and sandy, my green pants torn from hours of crawling, with sweat and dry blood stains on my shirt, my m-16 slacked over my right shoulder, with my index finger poised – covering the trigger and the cartridge case. I eyed the kids up and down: tight jeans, tank tops, sunglasses and iphones: a mixture of ‘alternative Melbourne’, ‘country USA’ and ‘annoying King David Johannesburgian’. Only 1 year separated us in terms of age, yet as they stared at me in absolute awe, the difference couldn’t be more striking. “I was you, that boy in the corner, sitting cross-legged, baseball-cap nonchalantly off to the side – only half a year ago!” I wanted to blurt out. Yet I remained composed and stoic, my face refusing to reveal the overwhelming emotions that began gurgling inside. The guys began listening attentively and getting involved in the conversation, the girls – completely captivated, as if in a starry eyed trance began leaning in my general direction. On the inside I kinda still felt like one of them – 19, fresh out of high school, getting bussed around Israel on a surreal Zionist summer camp. On the outside, I projected some kind of aura, something that transcended simply looking the part – for them I symbolized “Ha-Hayal Ha-Yisraeli” (the Israeli soldier (and an Australian one at that), together with all the emotional baggage that that represents for certain people.

And with that, for the first time I felt like the soldier sitting on the bus – looking all badass and professional, at once heroic and glorified, returning from dangerous cross border raids and top secret missions. And not just on the outside…

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