Monday, March 2, 2009

Basic Training down, Advanced Training on deck, and the loss of a dear friend

Family and Friends,
I hope that you have managed to keep warm and safe from what I hear has been a harsh winter. With Spring around the corner, I bring you another update on my army service. By popular request, I will now include an outline at the beginning of each update to give you a brief update on my activities.

  • Losing a dear friend, Kambili Moukwa; feeling trapped and detach from my life in the US
  • Experiencing war in a country where I live; friends serving in Gaza and hearing about rockets falling near my house
  • Stories from my 4 months of Basic Training
  • Battling mental and physical exhaustion; finding the few bright spots to keep you going
  • Becoming the world's best dishwasher and weeder
  • Spending a week with my parents and family friends
I want to start this entry with a fond farewell to one of my dearest childhood friends, Kambili Moukwa. Moving to Shaker Heights from Seattle before middle school was a rough transition for me. I had few friends. I played cello, not quarterback. I focused on geometry, not the latest fashion trends. I ended middle school with a handful of friends, one being Kambili (Kam) Moukwa. Kam was one of my first friends and loved by everyone in our grade. With a radiant smile and contagious laugh, it was impossible not to love him.

On New Years, I texted friends back home, "Hope it's a great year! Drink one for me, I'm on guard duty and it's 3 AM." As I found out one week later, New Years was the final day of Kam's life. A student at the University of Pennsylvania, Kam was found dead outside of a Philadelphia club the following morning. No foul play was reported, the autopsy ruled out substance abuse.

With a war waging in Gaza, I was worried for my friends serving in war. As I scrolled through my email a week later, I came across several emails from family and friends informing me of Kam's untimely passing. With tears in my eyes, I read each email, staring at the computer screen in complete shock. While I was actively asking others for updates on friends in Gaza, I didn't dare fear the safety of my friends at home. Regardless, I was required to return to the army on Sunday morning and for the entire week barely spoke a word. One night on guard duty I stared at the clear skies and began to cry. Although I knew these were the same stars that my friends saw in the US, I felt completely trapped halfway around the world. While my friends sent cards and flowers to the Moukwa's, and negotiated trips to the funeral, I was stuck in the field learning how to shoot a M-16. This is a feeling that will never leave me. We often talk about the sacrifices that we make for what we believe in, but nothing compares to holding the cold metal of a M-16 and simultaneously feeling defenseless. I have never missed each of you as much as I did at that moment.

Kam was a dear friend, and a true "neshama," a truly good soul. His smile will never fade; each time I look at the bright stars, I think of his radiant smile. Kam, know that you are loved and missed and when I get the opportunity, I will visit your resting place.

As each of you saw on the news, in an attempt to protect its civilians, Israel launched an attack on Hamas in Gaza. As usual, the world wagged its finger at Israel's decision; the usual anti-Israel, ignorant reports came from Europe, Asia, and America. Muslim nations spoke out, demonstrators lashed out across the world. Israel, as usual, was the "bad occupier." Somehow all of these vocal, eager to condemn voices were silent over the past 8 years as rocket after rocket fell on southern Israel, each targeted at civilians. Israel had no choice, its people rose up and said enough is enough, we will not sit idly by while our civilians are attacked. While I was lucky enough to be in basic training, my friends answered the called as their units were sent into Gaza. For weeks I did not hear a word from them; for weeks I prayed for their safety and each of my fellow soldiers.

The feeling of war in a country is a frightening thing. The terminals of the bus station were eerily silent; the vibrant Mizrachi music was muted, soldiers did not celebrate their release for the weekend. The numbness of the entire country reminded me of America on September 11th. When I heard that rockets fell on cities in the North, I grabbed my friend and shook him for the exact location of impact. My home is in the North. Was my home, my adopted family, my friends harmed? This is a feeling that I hope none of you ever have to experience. It is one thing to watch CNN and cringe at the news, it is another to wonder if your home is still standing. I have started a list of websites, articles, and movies on the right side of my blog that defend Israel's actions and correct common lies of media reporting with Israel. I highly recommend that you read a very moving letter by an IDF soldier to the owner of a Gaza house where he was living for a few days; it is the first link on the website.

Unfortunately due to army classification, I am unable share most of my experiences from Basic Training, but I have put together a few humorous and entertaining stories to give you a taste of the last 4 months of my life.

In the middle of Basic Training we had an intensive week of learning to shoot the M-16 from all positions and times of day. I had been asking for "yom sedorim" (a day for lone soldiers to take care of problems with banks, cell phones, etc) for a month and was finally granted it on a Sunday. While everyone returned to base Sunday morning, I returned Monday morning. When I arrived on base, I called my commander, who was sleeping somewhere, and told me that I would receive a call from another commander on what to do. One hour later, I received a call from this commander who told me to take all of my gear into the field. I explain that all of my army gear was locked up on base, to which he told me the classic Israeli phrase, "al-tidag," don't worry, we'll get it later. With only my personal gear, I hustled down to the field to meet up with my unit.

The next day and a half were filled with shooting from day to night, night to day. Fearful of the forceful bang of the M-16, I make sure my earplugs were correctly nestled in my ears each time. Regardless, I lost hearing in my left ear, but after an hour it returned. Since I'm a lefty, I was instructed to shoot at the right end of the shooting range, laying next to a wall. Unless you have shot an M-16, you cannot fully comprehend the sheer force of the sound waves that come out of this killing machine. The reverberation off the wall literally hit me on the right side of my face with each shot. I felt a force stun my right ear, but figured that it was no different from what happened to my left ear before. However, after 4 hours I still could not hear anything from my right ear save a very annoying high-pitched ringing in my head. When I told my commanders that I hadn't heard for 4 hours, and they informed me that there was no doctor on base and I would have to wait until the following morning. Five minutes later, I was told that we have a few minutes to change into our workout clothes. I reminded my commanders that all of my equipment was locked up on base, to which I was told to, "borrow someones." Asking around, only one person had an extra pair of shoes, 3 sizes too small for me. Unfortunately in the army you can't say no, so I was forced to take these shoes and run the 2 km workout in my vest, helmet, and far too small shoes. After a few minutes, the shoes became vices on my feet, and I finish the run barely able to walk.

With my feet in agonizing pain, I return to the shooting range, where my commanders told me that they didn't want to chance my hearing and put me on guard duty for the next day and a half. The following night, I visit the hospital on base. After taking my vitals they asked me to wait outside. One hour later, they told me to eat dinner since the doctor would not be back for a while. Three hours later, I finally entered the doctor's office. At the exact second that I sat down in his office, the entire base lost power. Half an hour later, power up and running, he informed me that I need to go to the ER. The commanding officer told me to sleep on base for the night so I could be up at 5 am for the first bus into the city. When I got to the tent, the officer asked me where my personal gear was, and I informed him that it was in the field. He replied with "al-tidag" (don't worry, we'll get it in the morning), and told me to bed so I'd be ready to leave at 5 am. The morning came and everyone forgot about me. Waking up at 7:30, I ran outside and asked what I need to do. Someone asked where my gear was, I replied in the field. He told that there were no cars going there, and that I'd need to get it myself. Three miles later, I had my gear and was back on base. Just missing the bus to the city, I waited 2.5 hours for the next one. Finally in the city, I asked around for 30 minutes until someone knew how I could get to the hospital.

At Saroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, I checked-in and headed to the ear specialist. Waiting outside her office, I sat across from a soldier dressed in a tank jump suit, unshaven and filthy, an IV in his right arm. Talking to him, he informed me that he had been in Gaza and was brought here for hearing trouble. Immediately, I felt insignificant having suffered hearing loss in a shooting range. Staring at his tired eyes, I began to put my training in perspective. Sure training is rough, but it's not war. Days are long and tiring, but I am not in Gaza, I don't fear my safety. Looking at the soldier, I felt small, and when my name was call, I insisted the soldier take my place in line.

The doctor ran a few tests and after 10 minutes told me that I have "trauma and temporary deafness" to the ear. I returned to base and over the course of several days, my hearing returned. After spending the weekend on base, we prepared for a week living in the field. It was a rough week where we had 4 minutes to eat each meal and were woken up each morning to our commanders screaming "attack! attack!" In the darkest of winter nights, we had to dress, tie our shoes, and run to our defense positions around our campsite in mere seconds.

Our commanders instructed us to collapse the entire site, and get ready to march to another location. With my 20 lbs vest and M-16 on me already, I was given a 60 lbs bag to carry. Our officer walked by me and questioned why I didn't have anything in my arms. He slammed a 30 lbs tent in my arms, posts and all. A soldier to my right suffered from carrying 3 sleeping bags and put one on my shoulders. Marching in the cold, darkness, I tripped over 2 wool blankets that someone had dropped. Bending down, I threw one over each shoulder, on top of the sleeping bag that's on top of the large bag, that's on top of my vest. At this point I couldn't raise my head and was forced to find my way by following the footsteps of a soldier in front of me.

I continued to walk for 20...30...40 minutes. Not hearing a sound, I managed to look up and realized that there was no longer anyone around me. Getting to the top of a hill, I looked around but saw nothing in the pitch-black desert. I dropped my gear and ran north. Nothing. I ran South and saw a faint red light a half mile away. Putting all of the gear back on, I made my way back to my unit. As I collapsed on the ground under 120 lbs of gear, I was cursed at by my commanders for getting lost. I asked one of the commanders what day it was. He said January 20th. I laughed. He looked at me with a puzzled look. Smiling, I told him, "not a bad way to wake up on your birthday." Smiling, he informed me that they had a birthday surprise for me. That night we crawled 100 meters over rocks and boulders, up a mountain. When I reached the top he smiled and said, "Happy Birthday, Weinberg!"

About a month ago we received our specialties. There are sub-commanders (Mefaked Hulia), large machine gunners (Maggist), rocket launchers (Louwist), and grenade launchers (Matolist). However, the most respected and desired specialty is to be a Negevist. The Negev is a 15 lbs "light machine gun" that is awarded to the soldier with the most "rabak" (determination, energy) and is usually given to the most talented soldier (it is considered "kavod" or an honor, to be given the Negev). Having run the army obstacle course (Bochan Maslul) in one of the best times in the platoon, I was rewarded with the Negev and its 40 lbs of ammo. You can read more about the Negev here.

We spent a week living with the Negev, learning to unjam the gun in under 15 seconds, crawl with it, and shoot in a variety of positions. We even had to name our Negev. A Negevist is supposed to be the toughest soldier in his unit and our commanders made sure that we would not only be talented shooters, but brutally tough soldiers. For hours everyday we crawled, sprinted, and became one with our Negev. Waiting outside of the dining hall, we would stand in 2 lines, holding the Negev at shoulder's length for minutes at a time. The Negev comes with an invisible laser that can only be seen with a special night vision scope that I wear on one eye. This allows me to shoot accurately at night and similarly resemble RoboCop. Since the night vision only covers one eye, you see a double vision of green and black, night vision and normal darkness. At first this is very confusing and we spent an hour marching in darkness with soldiers falling over, tripping left and right.

The final night included written and physical tests on the Negev. After a week of brutality, we expect to be done until our commander instructed us to put all of our gear on and stand in a straight line in the middle of our platoon. For the next hour and a half we put on a show for the entire platoon. With every officer and commander yelling at us, we crawled, unjammed the Negev, sprinted, shot from all positions, spun left and right on the ground, jumped up and then dropped on our stomachs. Our fellow comrades, dressed in pajamas rooted us on.

When the highest ranking officer of our platoon asked me what my Negev's name was, I smiled and said, Kam.

Our "Massot" (marches) have increased greatly. Starting with a 2 km Massa at the beginning of Basic Training, we just completed a 18 + 3 km Massa that spanned 4.5 hours. We marched 18 km with vests and M-16s--me with my 15 lbs Negev. When we reached the top of a mountain, we expected to be done, only to finish the march with 3 km of "alumkot" (3 stretchers with one soldier on each stretcher). I rotated between stretchers, our officer yelling at me to get under a lagging stretcher and run it forward to the rest of the pack.

As you can see, exhaustion is commonplace in the army. With your body battered and bruised, it's all too easy to enter depression and hate your service. Soldiers are always tired, hungry, and lonely. However, there are a few times that get you through these rough patches and make you remember why you're here.

Dressed in uniform and walking in Tel Aviv with my friend Zach, a woman in a car kept staring at us. A little skeptical, we tried to ignore her. When the light turned green, she rolled her window down, smiled, and yelled "behatzlacha!" (good luck!). Although she thought that we were headed to Gaza, her smile and warm regards lifted both of our spirits.

We discovered a breakfast diner in Tel Aviv called Benedict's. Sitting next to my friends Ethan and Aaron, we each ordered a table's worth of food. Having just gotten off base, we were dressed in uniform, and of course, starving. The server laughed at the mountains of food in front of us. 15 minutes later, using the bread to drench up the remaining syrup, our server returned, stunned to see 17 empty plates in front of us. She smiled and returned with 3 shots of whisky on the house and removed 3 of the pancake orders from our bill.

Another plus of the army has been my weeding and dish washing skills. I am on the brink of becoming a professional weeder, and can wash 30 20-gallon tubs in under half and hour. My ability to serve pasta and chicken nuggets with a ladle in each hand also ranks in the top of my unit.

Two weeks ago my parents and dear family friends, the Gonick's, Sadler's, and Bradfield's, came to Israel on a "Green Technology" trip. I had the pleasure of returning to normal life: sleeping, eating, drinking, and eating some more. We visited 3 wineries, hiked Masada, ate steak and seafood, learned about the environmental problems Israel faces, and my personal favorite, slept in hotels, in real beds, with fresh sheets. I had an amazing time reconnecting with family friends and establishing new ties with the Sadler's. I was able to spend quality time with each of my parent's personally and share stories about the army with my father.

At the end of everyday, it's hard to keep smiling through mental and physical exhaustion, but there's one quote that I keep saying over and over. As my dear friend Bill Bradfield says, sure things can be shitty, but at the end of the day, "Life is Good!"

With a glass of Woodford Reserve in my hand and a full stomach of my aunt's homemade pot roast,
Much love and VDBL,
Nadav E. Weinberg