Friday, December 26, 2008

Into the Wild: The IDF

Family and Friends,
I hope that all of you are well and are enjoying a plentiful holiday season.
This is by far my most compelling and entertaining update and carries with it great significance. As such, it is quite lengthy, but details my first month and a half in the IDF.

Firstly, since many don't have a visual understanding of where I live, here is a Google map of my Kibbutz, its relationship to the rest of the country, and just how far I have to travel each weekend to and from my kibbutz to my base (located outside of Be'er Sheva). Click HERE to see the map.

Secondly, I have unlocked my international calling and as incoming calls are free in Israel, I can talk to all of you from my base when I have rare moments of free time. You are able to call from your phone or from Skype by buying credit (13 cents/minute). My international phone number is 011-972-54-9005721. I have already talked to many of you, but please keep in touch and if my phone is off, please leave a message and when I get a chance, I'll make sure to call you back.

On November 19th, 2008, I reported to Tel-Hashomer at 9 am for my draft into the Nachal Brigade of the IDF. My draft was for Nachal and Tzanchanim (paratroopers) and all members of Garin Tzabar heading to one of the two units reported together. As you can see from the pictures, it is a coming of age moment for Israelis to send their son's and daughter's off to the army. My family said their goodbyes and wished me good luck as I walked through the gate with my Garin to begin the next two years of my life.
Regardless of where you are reporting to serve, everyone is required to report to Tel-Hashomer (aka Bakum) and then be sorted into his/her unit. As such, Tel-Hashomer is a massive base and in Israeli tradition, completely confusing with few signs. No one told us where Garin Tzabar had to go specifically, so we asked directions from several people working on the base, and again in Israeli tradition, each gave us completely different directions. After 1 hour of walking back and forth on the base and carrying 70 lbs of army gear, we finally found the rest of Garin Tzabar. When we finally arrived, we were greeted by Nissan, our Garin leader, and many of my Garin members, all there to wish us the best of luck.
Following joyful goodbyes, we were filtered into our units, and ended up sitting around for 8 hours until our names were called and then boarded buses to Bach Nachal (Nachal's Base). When I finally arrived at the base at 7 pm, we ate dinner immediately and began what is known as Tromp Tironut (Pre-Basic Training).

Before I begin explaining my last month and a half in Nachal, I want to elaborate on two points. Firstly, this is my second time writing much of this update as we had a very explicit presentation on what you can and cannot write in emails and post on the internet. Having suffered numerous security breaches, it is now illegal to elaborate on most of one's army experience. Therefore, many of my vivid portrayals of the army have to been rewritten to generic explanations.
Secondly, I have labeled this post, Into the Wild: The IDF, for two reasons. For those who have not seen the movie Into the Wild, I highly recommend a trip to Blockbuster tonight and watching a true masterpiece. Although the movie was riveting, I was quite upset with the ending (it is, however, based on a true story) and cannot understand how someone can give up on life. With these thoughts in mind, I wanted to title this entry after the movie in a symbolic correlation of Christopher McCandless's (the main character) journey to experience what he considered was his calling while surviving on his own--away from family and friends--to my ideologies in serving in the IDF, thousands of miles away from my family and friends.
That being said, I want to begin with a quote from Mr. McCandless that I believe summarizes my time thus far in the army and hopefully the rest of my service:

"The core of mans' spirit comes from new experiences."
Looking back on my Tromp Tirunut experience, I didn't realize how easy I had it. The purpose of Tromp Tirunut is to ease new recruits into the army's rigid structure of "Ken Hamefaked!" (Yes, Commander). For half a week we learned how to form a "Chet" (like the Hebrew letter, it's a formation in the shape of a open staple) and "Snay Torim" (two lines of soldiers). Both are done in a matter of seconds and for many, after a month in the army, people still don't fully understand how to go from formation to formation while standing at attention (one hand on your gun handle, other hand behind your back, head up, and feet together in a "V").
As you can see from the map, I live 500 meters from Lebanon, about as far north as you can get. Leaving at 8 am the first weekend, I arrived at my kibbutz 4:30 pm, 8.5 hours later! To get back and forth, I have to catch a bus from my base to Be'er Sheva central station, another bus from Be'er Sheva to Tel Aviv central station, and a 3rd bus from Tel Aviv to Koah Intersection, the intersection at the bottom of my mountain. Another 10 minute ride from Koah to Yiftach and I am finally home. Regardless, after getting out of the army and getting away from strict discipline, living minute to minute on your stopwatch, and living in a tent, a long bus ride is a welcomed change.

The second week was my first true "Into the Wild" experience: a four day tryout known as a "Gibush." I have spoken to many of you about the opportunity to serve in a Special Forces Unit in Nachal. In each brigade (Nachal, Tzanchanim, etc) there are general units known as a Gdud, and special, smaller units known as Gadsar or Sayeret Units. The Gadsar units are broken down into Parsal (a reconnaissance unit), Parchan (a tactical bomb squad), and Parnat or Orev (an anti-tank unit whose missile is called the Orev).
Talking with members of Garin Tzabar from past years, some of which are in the Gdud units and others in the Gadsar units, I was informed that if you have the opportunity to serve in a commando unit, it is a superior experience. The people are extremely driven and constantly push not only themselves but those around them to be the best he can be; Gadsar does an extra 6 months of training which includes a parachuting course and extensive Krav Maga training (hand to hand combat); the accommodations are equivalent for both Gdud and Gadsar units for training, but afterwards, the Gadsar units receive better food and sleeping quarters. As a commando unit, Gadsar is used in tactical missions around Israel, often involved in raids and arrests in Arab villages. The catch to serving in a Gadsar unit is that I would have to serve and extra half year, something that I debated about, but after some thought realized that if the opportunity presented itself, I would willing do an extra six months.
As you know, I am a person who has always pushed myself to be the best in everything from cello to a leader in my fraternity and university. Faced with the opportunity to serve with the best of the best and serve in one of the top units in the top military in the world, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to try out for Gadsar.

The "Gibush" (try out) was four days of non-stop crawling, running, marching, sit-ups, push-ups, running up 50 ft, 70 degree sand dunes with a 40 lbs sandbag on your shoulders, and mentally tiring exercises. Again, I am not allowed to detail the Gibush day by day, but I want to emphasize that this experience was literally NON-STOP. When you crawl, you crawl in full army gear over desert rocks, cacti, and thorns for hours at a time, then jump up and sprint from place to place. Mix in rotations of sit-ups and push-ups, and doing several miles of marches with a 200 lbs "alumka" (stretcher) or a 40 lbs sandbag on your back, and we're just getting warmed up. Sleeping for stretches of only 2 hours you are beyond physically and mentally exhausted; my Hebrew suffered significantly after a day. Every 20 minutes you are required to drink half of a large water bottle (quite possibly the toughest part of the experience), and the only free time you get is 30 minutes to eat each meal. My lips were so chapped that it hurt to open my mouth to eat. I was so full of water that combined with the pain of blistered lips, I ate no more than 1,000 calories a day while burning upwards of 5,000 calories a day. Keep in mind that the entire time you are trying to impress the commanders who are writing down every little movement that you make. You want to be first in every exercise despite the fact that you have nothing left inside of you. The purpose of the Gibush is to push every person to his limit and beyond. The army is looking for the mentally strongest soldiers they can trust to remain calm under pressure.

Here's a summary by numbers:

400 soldiers started
120 soldiers finished
70 soldiers were chosen (35 for Parsal (recon unit) and 35 for Orev (anti-tank))
8 lbs that I lost over 4 days
5 lbs that I gained over the next 3 days of nonstop eating
1 of 35 soldiers chosen to be a commando in Orev

The walk back from the Gibush to my base was one of the most best feelings of my life. Everyone who had tried out but didn't finish came out to greet us, clapping and cheering, a true hero's welcome. As I put my gear back in my tent, one of the soldiers in my unit came up to me, looked me in the eye, and told me the following:
"Nadav, we had no idea what to think of you. You're an American who came to serve, and everyone thinks you're crazy. But you don't understand what you've done; in Israeli society to finish a Gibush says everything about a man's character and who he is. You have my utmost respect. Congratulations."
I had barely talked to this soldier before. I was so taken back that for a minute I forgot about the tremendous pain I was in, and smiled. The most amazing feeling swept over my body, and my eyes began to water. I had done it, I was in Israel, serving in the IDF, and had completed one of the toughest try outs of any army in the world. My commander came up to me next, with an ear to ear grin, he shook my hand and slapped me on my back. Not bad for a 22 year old Clevelander.

The next day with the whole platoon of 120 soldiers at attention, they called out a list of 10 names, one of which was mine. I had been chosen to serve in Gadsar. Leaving base, I have rarely been happier. I was bruised from my ribs to below my knees, my hands were cut and bleeding, I hadn't slept in a week, but I couldn't stop smiling. I had done it. Despite being far from fluent in Hebrew, I had done it. I spent the weekend at my family's at Moshav Ein Habsor, exchanging army stories with all members of the family. I felt more a part of Israeli society than ever.

The following week I reported to Gadsar where I was told that I had been placed in Orev, the anti-tank unit. The week was unbelievably challenging. Long gone was the relaxed pace of Tromp Tirunut. We had half the time to do the same tasks, and if anyone dared to move or talk in formation, everyone was in "matzav sti'im" (push-up position), holding the position for several minutes or doing push ups. The purpose of Tirunut (Basic Training) is to take 18 year olds, break them down, and build them up as disciplined soldiers. Trust is key in the army; your commanders need to know that no matter the situation, you will obey orders in a matter of seconds. Although I struggled from time to time with being older than those around me, I was rarely frustrated as those around me were quite mature and unbelievably generous people. I felt right at home. My 3 commanders were extremely strict, but some of the most amazing people I have ever met.
At the beginning of the next week, I was pulled aside and told to speak with the commander of my platoon. He presented me with a piece of paper and a pen and told me that to stay in Orev, I would have to sign for an extra year. We discussed the opportunities that lay ahead if I stayed and he informed me that although in past years Nachal had made exceptions to older soldiers with 2.5 years instead of 3 years, this was the first year that they were instituting a no tolerance policy of less than 3 years. I spent the next two days talking with my 3 commanders, asking for their advice, listening to their experiences, and trying to sort my life out. I wanted so badly to sign; I was privileged to be one of a select group of people in the world to serve in an special forces unit of the IDF. My decision was made after a very emotional conversation my parents and hearing my father's stories about his service in the IDF. After hanging up the phone, the commander of the platoon approached me. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I reached into my pocket, looked at the folded contract, and handed it to the commander without my signature. I apologized and thanked him for his time and support. I thanked each of my 3 commanders for their wisdom and support, and said goodbye to each of my new friends in my unit. This is a decision that I will reminisce about for the rest of my life and a part of me will always regret my decision. Carrying all of my gear, I stopped at the top of the Gadsar barracks, kissed the Gadsar sign, and prepared to begin my service in the 50th Airborne Battalion.

My transition was rough. I am surrounded by quality soldiers, but I feel older, I feel 22. Discipline is not as strict, and in some sick-twisted way, I missed getting yelled for every little mistake. The roughest part of the transition was like my unit in Orev, everyone in my new unit had already bonded, and now came along a 22 year old, American, ex-Orev soldier. People looked at me differently, not knowing what to think. Breaking into a new group of friends, I have struggled to find my niche in the unit. However, as time passes and we bond through the trials and tribulations of Basic Training, I feel more at home with the group of guys that I am serving with. My commanders are tough and I have many more American friends in the platoon. I can't explain how nice it is to run into some friends and speak English for 20 minutes a day.

For 3 days two weeks ago, Nachal had Hebrew classes for all of its international soldiers. It was both a blessing and a curse. It was great to spend some time just learning Hebrew (and a nice break from the army) and spending time with Americans, but it made me more homesick than ever. Everyone talked about Chipotle, Bud Lite, IHOP pancakes, bacon, and all the little things that you cannot get in Israel. I started reminiscing about all you: family, friends, relationships and all the things I have left behind. The most amazing thing about the army is that since you have virtually NO personal time, all the little things are exponentially magnified. Reading a newspaper, checking my email, listening to music, drinking a beer, and not having to look at my watch to see if my 5 minutes are up while taking a shower or going to the bathroom mean more now than ever. I appreciate life and freedom in a completely new way.

The last two weeks have been an introduction to the M-16, how to take it apart, fire it, and take care of it. We have done several "Masot" (marches), each increasing by 2 km (4, 6, and 8 km) and had a couple classes in Krav Maga. The last Masa we did was 8 km at 4 am in the freezing cold desert wind. With the entire sky shining above us, we walked through the sunrise and up to the Tel Arad fortress where we were given our Nachal tags in a moving ceremony. The following day we packed up and boarded buses to Jerusalem for our "Tekes Hashbah" (soldier swearing in ceremony).

The Tekes Hashbah for Nachal takes place at the Kotel (Western Wall). With the entire new Nachal unit standing in formation, each soldier receives his M-16 and a Torah. The head of the base read the Oath:

"Here I am swearing and committing myself, upon my word to remain loyal to the state of Israel,
To her rules and her authoritative government and to take upon myself unconditionally and without any limit the discipline burden of the Israeli Defense Forces,
To obey all orders and instructions which are given by the qualified commanders and to devote all of my strength and even to sacrifice my life in order to protect the homeland and the liberty of Israel."

Standing in front of the Kotel with the Israeli flag waving in the wind, holding one's M-16 and the Torah, each unit screams "Ani Ashbah, Ani Ashbah, Ani Ashbah!" (I swear, I swear, I swear). With family and friends surrounding me, I realized in that moment that all of the little things that we spend so much time worrying about don't matter. There is only one Jewish homeland, one Jewish army in the entire world. We are surrounded by enemies on all boarders and fight for our existence each and everyday. As a Jew, each of us has an obligation to support and defend the most important piece of land on this earth. I proudly screamed at the top of my lungs "Ani Ashbah, Ani Ashbah, Ani Ashbah." I have taken an oath to defend this country and help it however I can. If I don't do that, who will? Ask yourself what you've done recently to help Israel. You don't need to serve in the IDF to swear an oath to defend the only Jewish homeland; I challenge you to donate time, energy, and money to Israel. If you don't, who will?

For all of us, fear is ever present. We always catch ourselves saying,I don't have enough time, enough energy. Having served in the army for only a month and a half, I have a new respect for the larger things in life. We spend too much time complaining, too much time blaming others. Stop putting off your fears and dive in already because on the other side of fear is freedom.

I have never been more proud to be Jewish, an American, and an Israeli.
I hope each of you take on your fears and duties this new year.
With much love, VDBL and h**,

Nadav E. Weinberg