Friday, June 12, 2009

What it means to be a Chayal Boded

Family and Friends,
I hope that you and your families are well and enjoying the beginning of summer.

I have constructed a slightly different update than my past ones. Thanks to army regulations, I can't explain too much of I am doing right now, but here's a quick overview of my past two months:

  • After my 29 km + 9 km (with stretchers), 9 hour Massa (march)--up and down mountains and finishing on top of Masada--I was awarded with my unit's (Nachal) distinctive light green beret. My mother made the trip to celebrate with me, and we spent the week traveling all over the country visiting family, friends, drinking beer, and enjoying tasty BBQ's.
  • I am thoroughly enjoying my return to Orev (Special Forces unit), but it is significantly harder than the regular units. After a week of unrelenting 2 hour, mile-long-mountain-range-conquering exercises with live fire, we had a three hour march back to base, arriving at 4:30 AM. With a smile on their faces, our commanders gave us the famous "7-MOVE!" phrase (giving us 7 minutes to change into sports gear and sprint across the base) for a sunrise Krav Maga session (IDF hand-to-hand combat). Over the following 40 hours, we had several 3 hour marches and live fire drills, sleeping a generous 1.5 hours. Regardless, I haven't been happier in the army than I am now!
  • We have begun orienteering, the most interesting part of our training thus far. We are given starting and ending point and "destination points" in between that we have get to. In pairs, we create our own path (we're up to 11 kms now) and memorize every step of the way. Trick is, you can't use your map the entire time and it's all at night! Quite fun until you're lost for an hour and a half and have NO IDEA where you are. In recent news, everything looks EXACTLY the same in the desert!

What it means to be a Chayal Boded

Inspired by an article by two Chayalim Bodedim (Lonely Soldiers; soldiers who serve in the IDF without family in Israel), I have put together a list of experiences that detail what it means to be a Chayal Boded in the Israel Defense Forces. These are brief stories and feelings that I have experienced over the past 7 months of army service. As usual I have not sugar-coated my words; as you will read, the last 7 months have been the most demanding, depressing, and rewarding moments of my life.

- On your first day of army service, you do 30 push ups when your commander tells you to run to the wall and back to formation in 30 seconds. You quickly learn the word for wall in Hebrew. It’s “kir.”

- Living on a Kibbutz 8 hours each way from your army base. Calling your friends to buy you food from the supermarket because it will be closed for the weekend by the time you get home. Arriving at 3 PM and knowing that you’ll be headed back to base for more training in less than 36 hours.

- When the bus driver says “10 minute break” you automatically start your stopwatch (thank you for the auto programming, IDF). You laugh for a minute, but are sitting in your seat promptly at the 9:50 mark.

- Enjoying your one night to sleep-in without heating in 30 degree weather. You wake up automatically after 6 hours because your body no longer knows how to sleep any longer.

- Having one home-cooked meal a week (or every other week) from your host family.

- Making the trip home once a week if you’re lucky, but usually once every 2-3 long weeks of training.

- Making the 12 hour trip halfway around the world HOME to Cleveland, Ohio, once a year for less than 4 weeks. You relish every moment in YOUR bed, with your friends and family, and eating Chipotle burritos—double meat, extra guacamole, please!

- Spending holidays on base and guarding settlements in the West Bank. Enjoying 5 minutes of Hanukkah songs and half a Passover meal before returning to training and guard duty.

- Learning to live life 5 seconds at a time. To tie your shoes, switch uniforms, and run from formation to formation in seconds at a time.

- Learning to endure unrelinquishing pain and permanent bruises from head to toe.

- Showering once a week after returning from the field and praying the entire trip back to base that you’ll have hot water for those three glorious minutes.

- To spend every minute of every day missing your family, friends, and home in the US.

- To be on guard duty from 3-6 AM, staring at a pitch black desert and reminiscing about past girl friends. Seconds will never pass by as slowly.

- To experience the death of a dear childhood friend (Kambili Moukwa, 22) through emails, a week after his death. To spend the next two weeks in complete shock and depression, crying on guard duty at 3 AM since you have had no time to grieve. At that exact moment you realize that you are truly halfway around the world from your friends, family, and the life you once had.

- To wake up freezing (at 4 AM in the field), run while freezing, and to go to bed freezing with only a thin jacket to keep you warm. In short, to be colder than you’ve ever been in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s 3-foot snow winters.

- To wake up burning up (at 4 AM in the field), run while burning up, and to attempt to sleep in a tent of 12 near-naked guys but wake up every 15 minutes because it’s just that hot! In short, to be hotter than you’ve ever been in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s 100+ humid summers.

- To learn to live on 6 hours of sleep. To be so tired that you fall asleep eating, running, and shooting a large machine gun (all true stories!). To have a personal best record of 32 seconds from boarding a bus to head-back, mouth open, snoring bliss. In short, to be more tired than you’ve ever been—and yes, that includes all-nighters before finals at Case Western Reserve University.

- In short, to HATE the Negev (desert) and Basic Training more than anything you’ve ever hated in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s winters and summers and college finals!

- After falling asleep shooting your Negev (large machine gun) at 2 AM, going back to your two-man tent, searching for your phone, and checking ESPN to see if the Cavs won—and falling asleep while typing the “V” in Cavs.

- To have your iPod preset to play Travis Tritt’s “Great Day to be Alive” as soon as you leave base. Why? Because it truly is a GREAT day to be alive!

- To be 23 years old and live in a tent for seven months. To feel that your 15-man tent is a Four Seasons Hotel after a week of squeezing the three largest soldiers of your unit into a two man tent and sleeping on rocks.

- To spend half of your 40 hour weekend talking to friends and family on Skype and telling the SAME stories over and over again. Honestly, you only want to know what’s new with your friends and family—and talk about something that’s NOT the army!

- To see your best friends once or twice a month because they serve in other units and don’t leave base when you do. When you see them everyone agrees to not mention the army for the next 10 minutes. Everyone sits in silence.

- To want to serve with and be the best of the best. To serve more time to be a part of a Sayeret (Special Forces Commando unit) because you know you will only get one chance to serve and had better make it the best you can—and that if you’re crazy enough to leave your life in the US to serve in the IDF, you’re sure crazy enough to be in a Special Forces unit!

- To crave a NokOut chocolate and vanilla ice cream bar for seven hours during a Massa (march) back to base. To bolt to the nearest kiosk to buy the ice cream bar the first minute you leave base.

- Being “awarded” top soldier with 70 lbs of massive machine gun and ammunition and (attempt) to crawl, run, and best first to attack the enemy.

- To risk your life everyday with live fire drills, patrols, and missions in Arab territories.

- To struggle everyday with Hebrew; to not be yourself because you simply can’t express your feelings in Hebrew. To think about every word you want to say before you say it, and right as you begin to speak, your commander is yelling at you about something else you don’t understand. To sit in a classroom learning about chemical weapons, orienteering, and mortars and not understanding a single word.

- To talk to your friends at home and stop in the middle of your sentence, forgetting the words: field, building, and water bottle.

- Having trouble connecting with friends back home because no one can relate to or understand what you’ve been going through.

- Never connecting 100% with your fellow soldiers because you don’t follow Hapoel Tel Aviv (a soccer club), listen to Ayal Golan, or went to anyone’s high school. To sit quietly in the corner listening to Kenny Chesney while everyone else sings Mizrachi music.

- Not having anyone to celebrate the recent Washington Redskin’s victories with because no one is a football fan—let alone know how to throw a football.

- Joining a baseball league so you can lace up your cleats, chew sunflower seeds, and not care that you’re 0-2 with 2 K’s. You’re just damn happy to smell the freshly cut grass, hop over the first base line on your way to left field, and talk about the Cleveland Indians—in English!

- Being told repeatedly that you’re not Israeli. Others criticize you asking why you are serving with them.

- For four months of ego shattering Basic Training, you never once receive a “good job” from your commanders. A “that wasn’t terrible” brings a grin to your face.

- To be turned down over and over and over by Israeli girls, hearing the same line “…if you weren’t in the army….” Who knew the oath of duty to the IDF what an oath of bachelorism?

- To be yelled at for seven months by a 19 year old who on several occasions has told you that you cannot use the restroom when you are sheer seconds from exploding.

- To miss Saturday college football games, 5 PM Winking Lizard Happy Hours, not asking permission to use the restroom, waking up next to your loving girlfriend, Shabbat family dinners, the births of cousins, and family milestones. To be lonelier than you have ever been.

- Being asked by EVERY Israeli if your life and fraternity resemble American Pie.

- When telling Israeli’s you’re from Cleveland, Ohio, EVERYONE responds with “Ohio!” They say they’ve never heard of Cleveland, but then ask if you know some song about Drew Carry and a city that “Rocks.” This still makes you laugh every time. You now tell people that Drew is a close family friend. They buy you a beer and love you.

- To stay up until 6 AM to watch Ohio State football games (you won’t mention which games they were because they didn’t win either of them).

- To spend your first birthday in Israel with an Akpatza (emergency wake-up) in the field. While carrying 120 lbs of gear and marching in formation, you realize that you have wandered two kilometers in the wrong direction. This is all at 3 AM. Happy Birthday to you.

- To experience extreme fluctuations in emotion; being ecstatic one minute to homesick the next—literally in the snap of a finger—and have no idea why.

- To have religious-settler children bring you cookies and tea while on a stakeout around their settlement in the West Bank. The children are all smiles until they see you’re not wearing a Yamika and rush back to their house to get you spares.

- To spend Shabbat on base and sing Shabbat prayers around the table with your Tzevet (unit), feeling the pride of serving in the only Jewish Army in the world. After the “newest,” hardest week of your life, you and your Tzevet are just happy to sit down and eat ONE meal together that week without constantly looking at your stopwatch.

- Random people yell good luck to you as you walk around in uniform. One second before falling asleep on the bus, a little girl pops her head up from the seat in front of you and let’s out the purest giggle, shyly yelling “thank you, soldier!” before jumping back down. You have never been so proud in your life.

- To be reminded that your friends are making $8,000 per month while you are raking in a prosperous $300 per month.

- But despite all this, you are a part of something that defines your identity and religion. You’re richer than your friends because you know that “the core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” You rise from your tent in the field to a sunrise so perfect Steinbeck can’t find words to describe its beauty. As you prepare for another exhausting 18-hour day, and know that because of what you’re doing everyone reading this can visit Israel, the little girl from the bus can go to school without rocket attacks, and our Jewish people will always have a home.

I hope that this lets you into my world a little bit more. It is not an easy life that I, and every other Chayal Boded, live in Israel, but a necessary one to ensure that there will ALWAYS be an Israel. Not to mention that it's the most rewarding experience of my life. As always, I have to propose the question: what have you done to support Israel recently? It doesn't require service in the IDF: a thank you card to soldiers, donations, visits to Israel, and lobbying for Israel's right to exist are all ways to support this amazing country.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy weekend and Shabbat Shalom!

With love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg