Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Return to Orev, April Fools' in the field, and experiences guarding in the West Bank

Family and Friends,
I hope you are enjoying the Spring and the snow is finally subsiding!
Here are the main experiences detailed in the email:
  • Return to Orev: reasons, explanations, what it means
  • Great friend, Jeremy's visit to Israel
  • Guarding and patrolling in the West Bank
  • April Fools' in the field
  • Recent luck with scorpions and wisdom teeth
Before I explain the story about my return to Orev, I ask for those of you who know my grandparents to make sure that you DO NOT share with them the news that I am returning to Orev. At their respective ages, they have enough to worry about with me serving in the IDF, let alone to know that I am serving in a special forces unit. They are aware that I am serving in a combat unit, and let's keep it at that.

As detailed in one of my recent blog entries, after passing a 4 day intensive tryout (gibbush) for Nachal's Special Forces Units, I began my service in the Orev (Anti-Tank) Unit. However, I was asked to sign an extra year--a total of 3 years of service--and after long family discussions, decided to serve in the 50th Airborne Battalion. Having transferred from Tzanchanim (Paratroopers) in 1982, the 50th Battalion is Nachal's most famous unit with a rich history and famous alumni. Having talked to current and past members of the 50th Battalion, I was excited to serve in the historical unit and alongside top notch soldiers. However, despite the 50th's historical greatness, it has declined greatly over the past two years, largely due to the elimination of a tryout (gibbush) to enter the battalion. As such, it has become a regular battalion with soldiers from all aspects of society.

From day one, I did not fit in with my fellow soldiers. The dramatic drop in discipline from the Special Forces to the general "gdudim" (battalions) is astounding, and contrary to all logic, I missed the strict discipline and impossible 5-second time increments that we were given. I constantly got into verbal fights with fellow soldiers, frustrated why they simply did not care about those around them and had no pride in their service. My fellow soldiers resented my desire to make our training harder, more disciplined; they resented my American background and lack of Hebrew. I had one person in my unit tell me that, "you're not Israeli, you'll never be Israeli. I don't know why you're serving with me." I spent the last 4 months walking around my tent in silence; I am a ghost without friends. When returning from weekends off, while soldiers hugged each other and asked about the other's weekend, I sat in the corner; no one cared what I did or embraced me with a hug. When I received the honor of the Negev (my light machine gun that is given to a top soldier in each unit), others looked on in disdain, disgusted that I, an American, was chosen to lead the unit into battle. I was constantly cursed behind my back and at times to my face. When my good friend Kambili passed away, I was a complete wreck for 2 straight weeks, and my commander, seeing how upset I was, promised to help me through the grieving. Never once did he so much as ask me how I was doing. As you can imagine, without close friends, estranged from my fellow soldiers, and with my heart and head still in the Special Forces, I fell into depression, hating every waking moment of my service. I lost my pride in my service.

Constantly in contact with my commanders in Orev, I began to pursue a way to return. I realized very quickly that the freezing 20 hour days in the field, of incomparable physical and mental pain, are bearable--potentially even fun--if spent with friends. While treated as an outcast in 50, I was welcomed with open arms each time I saw my unit in Orev. They would walk by and sing songs with lyrics
asking when I would return. In my short tenure on this planet, I have rarely met such loving and motivated people. This is where I belong.

I was staring a very simple decision in the face: 2 years of depression and disgust for my service, or 3 years of pride and life-long friendships. For those of you who know me well, I am a very prideful person. I wear fraternity letters more than one should and I graduated college with a large Jewish Star on my mortarboard. My service in the IDF has been fueled with fierce ideologies and a love for this country. With both waining, I realized my decision was already made for me: I would return to Orev.

I made this decision a month and a half ago. I have spent the last 6 weeks battling the army's bureaucracy, each week being told, "only a little bit longer." As a top soldier in 50, my commanders and officers did everything they could to fight my departure, but following a meeting with the Magad (the high officer in charge of Nachal's Basic Training and Advanced Training bases), I was finally and officially cleared to return. Sunday, April 19th, will mark my return to Orev and an extra year of service in the IDF.

When I received the official word that I would return to Orev, a genuine smile swept across my face for the first time in over 3 months. I realize that for many of you (and those that I have already talked to about my decision have made it quite clear) an extra year of me serving in the IDF, another year away from home, another year in harm's way, is frustrating and upsetting. I realize that a decision like this affects you all as well, but I hope that you understand that this is a choice that needed to be made, for me to enjoy and take pride in my service. It comes with a sacrifice, another year away from you, but a much richer and happier service. I apologize for putting an extra burden on some of you, but know that I will stay safe and come home as soon as possible.

I found a video of Orev (this is of the paratrooper's Orev, but essentially the same as Nachal's) so you can get a little understanding of what this unit is, what our training is like, and what we do. I mentioned in my last entry that on the Negev is an invisible laser that can only be seen with a special night vision that I wear on one eye (making me resemble RoboCop). You can see a soldier with all of the equipment on a mission at around the 43 second mark of the movie. At the 2:35 minute mark you see the training with the massive Orev anti-tank missile. Other highlights include intensive Krav Maga training (IDF hand-to-hand combat), urban warfare training, CRAWLING!, and parachuting--my biggest fear of my entire service (still have that fear of heights!).

About a month and a half ago, one of my best friends, Jeremy Stone, came to visit from Cleveland. Although it was his last spring break of college, Jeremy decided to partake in a comparative women's health care course through CWRU's social work school. Lucky to get a few days off from the army, I surprised Jeremy at the airport and spent the next two nights touring Jerusalem, drinking beers, and catching up on nearly a year of stories. Getting the following weekend off from the army, Jeremy finished the course and joined me at the kibbutz. Another two nights of Purim partying and a trip down to Tel Aviv with yet one last night of partying left both of us completely wiped out. The highlight for me was showing Jeremy around the kibbutz, the apple orchards, and climbing old guard towers around the kibbutz's perimeter. It was a mournful good bye, and seeing him made me realize how greatly I miss all of you, but we planned for trips after my service and his med school to South America, Australia, and a Safari in Africa--many, many years of great trips to be had. You can see pictures here, in my website's photo gallery, of our time together.

Since my last installment, I have spent two short tours patrolling and guarding in the West Bank. The first tour was for three days in Hevron where we helped guard a Jewish settlement and a Yeshiva (a very religious school). Not only was it my first time in the West Bank, it was my first time guarding something other than our training base. For up to 6 hours at a time (I would soon learn that this was a rather short time), we would stand and watch the surrounding streets and civilians (both Israeli and Palestinian) from guard towers. Of course, I spent my 6 hours with my 15 lbs Negev and half of the 50 lbs of accompanying ammo. To say the least, it was an exhausting and painful 6 hours, to which I came back for a rest and return for another 3 hour session shortly thereafter.

As it just so happened to be, we arrived at this base on Purim and were greeted warmly by religious settlers with "Mishloach Manot" (bags of cookies and candy). A film crew joined the settlers and filmed our ecstatic reactions for a high school in England who had sponsored our gifts. When they discovered that I was a Chayal Boded from the U.S., they interviewed me, asking why I came to serve and what my experiences have been. After some sweets, I headed for a second shift of guarding, watching hundreds of Palestinians walk past a main square. Guarding with my massive Negev, I was a popular sight for many of the Palestinian children, most of whom oogeled and ogled at the gun. However, there was one child, about 8 years old, who stopped and stared at me. At first I thought he was taken back by my gun, but after 10 seconds I realized he was staring directly at me, not blinking. Gazing back at him, I needed only a second to read his face: pure hatred. For this child I was nothing more than someone occupying his land. He had no idea who I am, where I come from, what my story is, my political beliefs, or most likely much of the history of the West Bank. For him, I was an unwanted soldier. I was greatly taken back by this child's face who continued to stare at me for another 10 seconds before his mother drug him away. In those 20 seconds, I had instantly become entwined in the bloody battle over the "occupied territories"; I was the face of occupation for this child and many of the Palestinians walking by. I spent the rest of my guarding session with this child's solemn face engraved in my mind. I could feel his pain, I could understand that at such a young age he does not understand the history of the situation or what I am doing there. After another two hours of guarding and contemplating, I came to a certain conclusion that I think we all need to practice: don't judge a book by its cover. Yes, I realize that this is idealistic, potentially even naive, but it is the epitome of truth in our society. Yes, this child had obvious reasons to hate me and what I stand for, but he had no idea who I am. I think this story is the thread that weaves the levels of bloodshed in the Middle East together. In so many ways both sides have lost track of what they stand for and how they want their grandchildren to grow up. The blanket of hatred is so thick that some don't even consider the other person a human being. And yes, despite my conservative stances, I think the underlying message we can all take from this is to not judge people too quickly. Do you really know where he comes from? How he grew up? What he was taught from a young age? The answer is usually a definite no. Have the decency to ask his name and what his story is. You never know what you might have in common.

My second guarding tour was less "exciting," if you will. I spent an 8 hour session guarding in a tower with another soldier, and then two patrol shifts. A patrol is very much what it sounds like: you walk around and "patrol" an area (usually an Israeli settlement) to make sure that the settlers are safe. I was "lucky" enough to do two patrols (I was the only Negevist there, and each patrol requires a Negev), one of 12 hours and one of 17 hours. With my Negev and 25 lbs of gear (40 lbs total), for 12 and 17 hours, I walked up and down mountains on the settlements' perimeter. Not allowed to remove any part of our gear for the entire patrol, we guarded over night, allowed to sleep in pairs for two shifts of one hour (two hours of sleep for the night). The only highlight of the experience was the settlers. There is plenty of negative press about radical Israeli settlers, so I expected nothing less than for settlers to look at me in the same light as the 8 year old Palestinian boy. Much to the contrary, we were greeted with cookies and tea and a myriad of "Shabbat Shalom's" and thank yous. The funniest part for me was when a few children were walking by and stopped to ask us where our "kipot" (yamika) were. A very religious settlement, every male wore a kipa, and these 7 year olds could not figure out why we were not wearing any. They insisted that we needed to wear kipot and ran away with promises of returning with two for each soldier. I laughed, realizing that these children were not too different from the Palestinian boy in Hevron, raised in a secluded area with a one-track mind.

On a side note, much of this occurred during Passover. It was my first Passover in Israel and by far the easiest Passover of my life. In Israel every bakery literally shuts down for Passover, and almost every restaurant is kosher for Passover (no wheat, flour, etc). When I asked a waitress if their menu was kosher for Passover, she laughed and replied with, "of course! where do you think you are?!" Without the temptation of my friends eating pizza and bread in the US, Passover flew by.

After Passover we headed back to the Shetach (field) for training in our "Kita" (a unit of 15 soldiers and a commander). The distance between the commanders and us soldiers was lifted and we were allowed to call our commanders for the first time by their first name. In the middle of the first night in the Shetach, we had an "akpatza" (an emergency wake up to simulate that we were under attack). After a few minutes everyone was in their gear, in formation and ready for the order from our commanders. One of our commanders, called a Samal (his designation is to toughen us up with brutal training), told us, through a radio in the middle of our formation, that we had 7 minutes to prepare our "Mizdar Conenut" (a representation of a war time situation where you have to have all of the unit's gear organized and checked). After 7 minutes, we stood back in formation, and the Samal continued to yell at us through the radio in the middle of the formation. Keep in mind that this is at 3 am and pitch black in the Shetach where you can barely see 10 feet in front of you. Everyone is completely confused, trying to locate our Samal. Each time we would glance around, the radio would yell back at us, our Samal telling us to look forward. Then he called out five people's names (all five of them in a row), and told them to "pull petzuah" (drop injured on the ground) and the five people next to them to lift them up. Completely baffled how he knew who everyone was, we all stood around in shock. He continued to yell at us through the radio for another 20 minutes, each time knowing exactly who everyone was and what each person had done incorrectly. We continued to look at each part of our encampment, thoroughly confused where our Samal was and how he could see us. Back in formation, the Samal asked us how we thought we had done and why we hadn't finished the task on time. After 15 seconds of silence and all of us utterly confused, he asked us if we knew what day it was. One person replied April 1st, and without thinking, yours truly piped up in English, "You've got to be shitting me!" At this point we found out where the Samal was when he and the other commanders burst into laughter from their tent, the Samal sitting in his sleeping bag, radio and night vision in hand. Barely controlling his laughter, he gave us 2 minutes to get back to sleep.

As usual, my luck has run its course rather beautifully. I had my wisdom teeth pulled in the army base (for the record, laughing gas is not permitted on army bases), and despite shots to numb the general area, not sleeping through a tooth extraction is a very painful experience. I believe the quote of the week was the dentist, after 15 minutes of prodding and pulling my bottom wisdom tooth, finally pulled it out and yelped, "whoa! that's huge!" I have a feeling there is a direct correlation between the size of the tooth and the amount of pain that comes with its removal. For my pain, I was granted 3 days of "gimmelim," or leave from the army, a fair trade off.

My second run in with gimmelim was the following week. While charging up a hill during a training exercise, I dropped to the shooting position on the ground. During exercises, one is required to wear knee pads but they serve as a formality as they fall down to one's ankles as soon as one runs. As such, I dropped down on my knees, crawled forward a few meters, popped back up and continued to charge the hill. Again I dropped down to laying position, but this time, after two seconds, I felt an agonizing pain shoot through my knee. Jumping up, I ran forward, glancing down to see something black shuffle away. At the end of the exercise, I lifted my pants, expecting to see blood gushing from my knee. Quite to the contrary, my knee had ballooned up, and my first step on my right knee led me straight to the ground. With help from another soldier, I reached the bottom of the hill. Our medic came over, asking me what happened, and when I mentioned a small black insect, he called immediately for a ride to the hospital, questioning me over and over if I was positive it was black. I explained that it was happened quickly but was 95% sure, and then asked why. He said that I had been stung by a scorpion, and if it was yellow, I could be dead soon. Driven to the hospital, EKG and blood tests confirmed that it was a black scorpion, also poisonous, but not deadly. In unbelievable amounts of pain, I was granted another 5 days of gimmelim. Ironically, my reports of gimmelim to family and friends here was responded with "mazel tovs." It's apparently quite the treat to get gimmelim, even if it is a painful experience.

I hope that you continue to enjoy the warming weather, and for those of you in Texas, Arizona, and desert regions, keep an extra eye out for scorpions!

Scorpion venom free and happier than ever in Orev,
Much love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg