Sunday, January 10, 2010

Age Aint What it Seems

Isn't it hard being six years older than your peers? Being a year older than your commanding officer? Don't the guys come across as little kids?

I get asked such questions fairly often. After all, joining an army of eighteen year-olds at the grand old age of twenty-five means I do have more than a half-dozen years on my fellow soldiers. Not to mention experiences like college, work, living on my own and international travel that my peers simply lack. My commanding officer, all of twenty-four years, is certainly something special to have been appointed an officer for such an elite unit. Yet if anything his life experience pales in relations to my fellow grunts, since our officer has not taken his uniform off for more than a week in the last four years. Imagine missing out on the real world since 2006 and you can begin to understand the way his mind works.

The reality is that my age and experience have not hampered me in any way. The reason is simple: I do not feel, act or look any older than my peers. Plus, serving in an elite unit makes my age even less of an issue since the guys with me were largely selected for their motivation and maturity.

Real age, as it happens, means little in the IDF. Israeli soldiers only care about their pazam (army acronym for perek zman minimali), the time they have served in the army (of course, they only CARE about how much time is left!). In pazam years, I am the same age as my fellow soldiers, all of us only a month young. (um, except the many onetime pilot cadets that crowd my unit!). As long as our conversations and activities revolve around the army, I never seem any older than the other one-monthers. If anything, I come across as even younger than my peers because so much of the culture and language is foreign to me.

Pazam aside, there is another reason I never feel older than my peers: I don't look a day older than the lot of them. My fellow soldiers love asking strangers who they think is the oldest soldier in our platoon. No one ever points to me. When asked to guess my age, answers never slip past twenty. As no one ever told me I have a baby-face before the army, I am at a loss for how to describe my youthful appearance. Teen-age face? No, insists one of the guys in my squad, you simply have an American face.

The last reason I do not feel older has nothing to do with me other than my good fortune to serve in such an elite unit. Motivation and maturity are baselines requirements to have been selected into my unit. As a result, all the guys with me seem far older than their early nineties birth-dates would suggest. Not only do my fellow soldiers think and act more mature, they even look older than the often scrawny and baby-faced Nachwalis (slang term for soldiers of the Nachal Brigade) training alongside.

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