Introspections

When I look back on the past 9 months of army service, I find it difficult to believe that I have really achieved, accomplished and succeeded the many acts and events that I have undergone over the course of my training. Things like jumping out of a plane and parachuting safely to the ground. Marching 90 km up Israel’s coastal plane to the base. Unleashing my ‘inner animal’ and going insane on the punching bag. Crawling for endless hours on some abandoned desert hill. Or just fitting into a stressful framework without the language or communication skills of my peers.

 

It feels as if I do not have my self to owe for completing these “acts”. It’s like I wasn’t really there – rather that I somehow vicariously watched a movie of myself doing all these things without really having done them myself. After all, a year and a half ago I was sitting at my desk late into the night preparing VCE exams, waking up late, cycling to school and jumping the fence to make it to class on time! How things have changed eh? It’ seems unreal that this once-nerdy kid could be capable of such incredible things.

 

Could it be that I am really the same person? Could it be that the tall guy bursting into a room with an assault rifle, roaring “everybody down” in Hebrew ad searching for imaginary cardboard terrorists is the same geeky bespectacled high school kid, making himself a dolmades and yellow cheese sandwich and then sneaking upstairs to watch The Simpsons whilst Mum teaches a piano lesson?

 

Sometimes I regret that I don’t ‘live in the moment’ – that I’m not fully 100% concentrated in the present: Completely immersed in the task at hand for it to leave an indelible memory on my mind. There are simply too many distractions: The pain of the blisters on my feet, the weight on my shoulders and the constant dread and anticipation of ‘what’s going to happen next’.

 

I often connect the memories of the past 9 months in the army to emotions and feelings. I will remember how I felt when … – maybe not the act itself, but the feeling when X occurred. If an event didn’t inject me with enough dread/fear/worry/anxiety/excitement or enjoyment, then it’s as if it never happened. Every single day and every single week is so jam packed with stressful situations, that when I finally have the time to catch my breath and recount the week that was, I almost don’t remember anything.

 

I remember every moment of Yom Hazikaron this year (Israel’s memorial day) because of the emotional impression it left on me. I hardly remember what I did for Hannukah because there was nothing emotionally extreme enough for my mind to justify keeping that memory.
Funny how the mind works.

 

I had a dream last Thursday night that I was back in Year 12, and Andy and I were making a funny assembly video for the school. I rang him up that Friday and remarked how strange it was for me that (relatively) so little time had passed between then and now – yet these events are worlds apart. Now I am surrounded by completely different people, a different environment, culture, language, climate, country, land and history. I’m serving with guys that I never would have met my entire life had I not left Australia!

 

A few weeks ago, Ronny saw a video we made in the Garin (3 month pre-army preparation course for new immigrants) shortly before we enlisted. She said that she felt a slight pang of regret to see the contrast between who I am now, and the kid I was in the video. It’s not that she doesn’t like what I’ve become – on the contrary – she’s proud of me like a mother is of her son. It’s just that what she saw was ‘the passing of youth’, and that gave her pause to reflect. She saw the transition in me from an energetic young teenager who believes he has the solutions to all the worlds problems – to a slightly more calculated, reserved and sceptical young man who is starting to accumulate earthly experiences. I haven’t “lost my innocence” so to speak – I’ve just grown up. Perhaps slightly less naive. Slightly more mature. Slightly more responsible, and slightly more confident.

 

On the eve of my 20th birthday I feel like I’m not quite a kid, but I’m not quite an adult either. I’m sure that once my army experience is over, the transition will be complete and I will have the tools to cope and succeed in the multitude of challenges that life has to offer. Until then I’m still learning – about myself, about the world and about my place in the world.

 

Until that day comes, I’m trying to concentrate on enjoying the journey as much as possible, and not the heavy backpack weighing down on my shoulders. To quote fallen lone soldier Alex Singer, whose excerpts inspired me to sit down and write this brief anecdote:

 

I don’t want to lecture anymore about Zionism and decisionmaking. I’d rather tell you about walking through a wadi in the middle of the night with a million stars over my head, and singing as I walk because I’m so content and so enjoying myself, and climbing mountains and looking over the desert, and seeing eagles and a huge waddling porcupine, and the goodness of the rest which always comes after a night of trekking with so much weight on my shoulders. There are nights which make the weight disappear, and I love those nights.

 
 

{disclaimer – pseudonyms have been used}

Dealing with disappointment

Do you know the feeling you get when you ‘almost made it’? When something was within your reach, and then unspeakably, unexplainably, it slips out of your hands in slow motion? – like in the movies, when the protagnists are hanging off a cliff edge and then one of them loses grip and disappears into the abyss – that stare of doom forever capturing their final moments of fear? It’s the feeling you get when you’re informed of that job promotion, or that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize for sobriety – only to be told later that it was all a mistake, and that your name was mistakenly announced – “you were never sober”, the Nobel Prize Commitee tells you, “you were in fact a raging, inebriated alcoholic from the get go.” These analogies somehwhat exemplify my experience over the past 24 hours. After a year of hard work and training, test and interviews, changing enlistment dates and numerous travels to the army office and back, my dream of enlisting into a particular special forces unit was dashed. I was almost in, with 2 days to go. I was on top of the world. And it felt great. Which makes this emotional rollercoaster so much more painful.

It’s been quite a journey to get here – Gibbush Tzanchanim in May, getting the news that I had passed (!) in June, getting my enlistment date moved from August to November, fighting to attend Yom Sayarot – passing that and then passing Gibbush Matkal as well! Gibbush Matkal is a gruelling week long “hell-week” style physical test, that the most motivated army canditates attend in order to enlist in one of the IDF’s top tier, elite units. Naturally, over the past three weeks since getting the results, I was on top of the world – one of the few who finished the gibbush and got selected  – and today I had to resign myself to being regular, simple and plain again.

I received the call last night – an army clerk informing me that I was to be dropped. I scrambled to make a few late night calls to fellow friends who had already enlisted in these units, and thus had some connections with the officers who pass and fail the aspiring canditates. It was both a disappointment and a relief to find out the reasons behind this last-minute fiasco: They had simply accepted too many canditates, and Olim Hadashim – new immigrants – whose families remain behind overseas, generally have a lower security profile to begin with, than the Israelis that try for these units. I wasn’t the only one held up by this last minute surprise either. Another 5 guys I knew, Olim like me, had been hastily culled from the list, merely 2 days before we were due to go in. Luckily though, I was still given the option of enlisting tomorrow, albeit to the infantry brigades of the IDF.

There are essentially two ways to view this scenario – two outlooks that will define hereafter my service in the IDF:

The first is the negative outlook: That now I will never be satisifed as a regular solider. That I have trained mentally and physically for an entire year, and invested all my willpower for nothing. That the army has screwed me over – like all those stories that I hear about ‘so-and-so’ that will never happen to be – that has indeed just happened to me. This attitude is inherently flawed because it sets me up for disappointment from the outset – even before I have gone in. It is wrong for me to feel this way even though I cannot help it.

The other option is to bite the bullet and look at the positives: I still get the chance to serve in the IDF, I don’t have to wait until March, and it’s still Kravi, Achi! I made Aliyah in order to give back, to contribute and to work hard in the Israeli army – to serve and defend the Jewish people – and that is exacly what I will be doing when I put on my army fatigues tomorrow afternoon – regardless of where the IDF chooses to place me. The brigades – the ‘Gdudim’ in hebrew – have a shorter training circuit by a few months and are generally assigned to the more mundane and routine jobs that keep this country moving. Being in a place where the ‘Yokrah’ (prestige in hebrew) is a little less, is simply a matter of semantics when one looks back on his army service. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that “Gam zoo le tova” – “this too is for the best”. I’m also a strong believer in destiny, and that there is definitely a good reason, and an excellent life lesson learnt with this entire affair. “It is written” before me, my destiny was outlined, and it was simply a matter of living up to this moment and discovering the path that I am to tread. And yes, despite the unsavoury news, I still feel that I have suceeded.

I’ve proved to myself that if I can put my mind to it and give my maximum, I can achieve – anything. You can only give 100%, and the rest, so to speak, is out of your hands. That annoying little element of uncertainty that bugs the hell out of me – that hovers on everybody’s shoulder like an unwanted stain, constantly whispers into my ear that maybe, maybe it will not be. It will not succeed. It will not work out in the end. It was not meant to happen. That yes you have 2 days until you reach the light at the end of the tunnel and there is still a minute chance that they will drop you at the eleventh hour. Anything is possible. Dreams become reality and reality morphs into nightmares. The future is uncertain, yet I believe that “it is written” and this was meant to be. And this thought of all things provides me with the most consolation. I can do everything in my power to minimize the element of uncertainty, yet I can never eliminate it. And that’s the great irony: our path is laid out before us, yet it curves in mysterious ways.

Conversations with Yoni

Over the course of the past few months, I engaged in long discussions with my close friend from the garin, Yoni, about service in the gdudim, in regular infantry, versus that of special forces units, Sayarot in hebrew. It’s a given that Olim normally arrive in Israel with the motivation levels of a horny Chihuahua overdosed on viagra, and thus many of them volunteer and attempt to get accepted into the elite special forces units in the IDF. Yoni however was different. His position – for an Oleh – was rather radical and from what I found, strangely noble. He argued that he “Davka” wants to be a regular infantry solider – to serve side by side with the layman – the ones who spend hours on guard duty, man checkpoints and conduct the day-to-day work on the ground. These are the guys in the “Shetach” (the field in hebrew) – who may go in slightly less motivated than all the GI Joe Olim straight off the plane from America in their quest for modern-day Maccabee-dom – and yes, some of them may be left slightly short of breath after a 5km run, but these are the guys that we should invest our time and effort into improving. ‘From the ground up’ in other words. “We can be an inspiration to others” he argued. After all, the brigades fight the wars and suffer the bulk of the casualties – not that that should be a reason to run there bareheaded – but that Olim and other Israelis who really want to contribute should be ‘side by side with the man in the trench’, not sitting on their high horse within the sayarot. From this persepective it’s easier to be a Special forces solider in the IDF, as everybody there is super motivated, is there on a voluntary basis and absolute discipline and self control is a given. Every one is ‘mentally ready’ over there. That’s not where the work is. That’s not even a challenge. Sure, aspire to aim as high as you can. But anybody who thinks that they have what it takes to be a SF solider should consider first and foremost  the Gdudim. Thats where they need to be. And Yoni wasn’t just saying that. He really believed it and wanted to set a personal example.

I found Yoni’s outlook interesting for a few reasons: firstly, because he was not only motivated by a desire to serve, but because he was motivated by a desire to improve. The Zionism running through his veins is one of self sacrifice in a place where much of the blood, sweat and tears that he – we – will endure will go largely unsung and unnoticed. After all, a SF soldier has but to board the bus as all heads turn accordingly in awe and admiration (perhaps slightly exaggerated, but you get the drift). A regular ‘Gdudnick’ does not bask in the aura of everlasting glory – his is the curse of the foot soldier – he may put in more work and effort and time and willpower than Moshe and Gidon from Special Forces, yet he remains judged and confined by his shoulder unit-tag. What struck me most about Yoni’s worldview however, was the modesty and humility with which he viewed the whole situation – a modesty welded into his personality that cannot be learned or acquired, and that I can only envy. “This is the real challenge” I hear him saying in my head as I type this up in the wee morning hours before I go in tomorrow (today!), and although the question of ‘what could have been’ keeps on pounding through my skull like a woodpecker, I realize that the experience that I’m in for now is no less honourable, and demands far more patience, effort and respect for those around me. This is the challenge. Now is the time for me to really get to work.

At times like these I remind myself why I immigrated to Israel – the country I love. I came here because I believe in the Jewish state, in our right to self determination as a people, “lihiot am hofshi be’arzenu” as the last line of the anthem goes. I made Aliyah in the hopes of building a fair and equal society that will be the envy of the world. A place where ‘freedom’ and ‘peace’ will one day replace today’s political discourse of ‘war’ and ‘violence’. And of course, I came here to protect the Jewish people and defend their homeland – as a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces. I didn’t come here to get into the elite units per se – even being considered was just a bonus. Yes it is disappointing that I nearly made it, and I’m now coming to grips with it, but I’ve long known that every job in the army is extremely important, and just like in a well designed mechanical clock – you need all the cogs and pieces, no matter how small, for everything to work properly. Frankly, I’m just really excited to get in tomorrow and start my service. This country is dear to me, and I want to give back with everything I can. Sure, there might be less prestige in my new place – but I’m here doing what I believe in, and fighting for a cause that defines my very identity. And that’s what counts.

I go in tomorrow into the infantry brigades, and I’m still as motivated as I was when I got off the plane. I’m young, healthy, and of sound mind (at least as far as I can tell – the rest is between me and my therapist. Just kidding 🙂 ) and the future looks prety bright. I’m finally fulfilling my dream of serving in the IDF and I will proudly wear my uniform and know that I am making a difference. This country was built from the ashes of the Holocaust because of resilience – because of people who in the face of despair chose never to give up. Who never said ‘I can no longer’. People who defied the Nazi beast to immigrate to Israel and turn their hopes into reality.

Tomorrow it is my turn, as I join the IDF and fulfill an ancient legacy dating back 3000 years – I will now be a warrior in King David’s army – and I’m fighting for what I believe in. And when I look at it this way, this whole experience is something that I’m greatful for – far from disappointing, to say the least.