Saturday, September 11, 2010

Running to the End

I have been keeping something from you all this week, something that kept me in my own little world during the m'sakem (war games). See, just before we set out on Sunday for the start of the m'sakem, our commander told me I had a va'ada at week's end. The same sort of va'ada we all know from last May, the sort of meeting which usually ends a soldier's service in our unit. It was difficult to focus on our first mission having just heard that this week could very be my last with you guys. Yet by midweek, when we were curled up next to each other in the bushes, what was a distraction became a reason to appreciate every moment. I know, it sounds silly, yet my secret made me treasure our lack of sleep, the heavy packs on our backs and especially the final stretcher trek up the highest peak in the Yizrael Valley.

One moment remains with me more than any other. Remember when the sun came up Thursday morning and we were ordered to scrap the original plan and make a run for the border? An hour into the march, with everyone pretty miserable to be trekking in the heat after three days of near zero sleep, we passed a Star of David and the words am yisrael sprayed sideways on an empty white hut. Crazy as it sounds, as I passed the graffiti I felt the same thrill from the day I made aliyah. My mind read the graffiti as proof that our dangerous mission into enemy territory was over. The aliyah-esque excitement, however, came straight from my heart. Seeing the graffiti reminded me why I am here. Why I always smile in disbelief when soldiers, even some of you guys, pester me about joining the IDF. Why did you ever leave the bright lights of New York City? How come you didn't enlist with the Marines? (side note: Israelis, like non-Americans the world over, believe that US Marines are the elite of the US Army. Why? Blame it on that Lava Monster ad).

That silly graffiti reminded me I am here because of my faith in this country. My desire to take part in the ongoing drama that is Israel. Faith, desire... fanciful words that disguise the simple answer: Israel has my heart. And what is love if not a relentless belief in the other, finding a partner with whom you can change the world?

I shared the above words (or at least an oral, Hebrew version of them!) on Friday night with the nearly two dozen guys that compromise my fighting team. We have been together since the first night of Basic Training in December. If my journey with them is to end in a few days, this shabbat was our last best chance to make sure they knew the real me.

My commander had a few words of his own to share with me the next day. Unlike my remarks (which he had not been present for), his words were caustically blunt. I don't think you should be in this unit, he said. If enough of your peers indicated the same on Friday's sociometry (a what? see here), you are done for. So, do you think the guys support you?

I was in no mood to defend myself against this unexpected onslaught. But I was determined to respond. And so I admitted that some of my peers likely gave me less than sterling marks on the previous day's sociometry. Lets face it, public blunders have a way of making bad impressions and I have a can't-take-it-back grenade and a nightmare of a navigation to my name.

Demonstrating leadership and responsibility, on the other hand, is how good impressions are made. Since the army is largely a top-down affair, leadership positions are not so much earned as bestowed by all-powerful superiors. Call me spiteful, yet since avoiding an early exit from the unit in May I never received a crumb of extra-responsibility. Everyone on my squad had a turn at team leader--save for me. Everyone was tasked with responsibility over a particular supply depot (signals, vehicles, warehouse gear, etc)--except for me. With guys as motivated and capable as they are, I told my boss in closing, chances to lead are chances to shine. Hamlet, not Horatio, wins accolades come sociometry time.

It was not necessary to spell out to my commander who may be responsible for keeping me from the limelight. Nor was it necessary to wonder if I had the support of my peers. Late on Saturday night, a dozen guys sat with me to put on paper a rationale for why I deserved to remain on the squad. The paper was their idea, not mine. As were the signatures of my entire squad that covered the final draft.

My va'ada was later postponed till after the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) weekend. The delay meant I had three days at home to reflect on the portentous meeting. Three days that included a two day holiday dedicated to reflecting on the past and future years. Ironically, it was not until after the holiday that I finally came to terms with what awaited me on the morrow.

My thinking space came on a long Saturday night run. With no destination in mind, I let my feet and the occasional green traffic light guide my way through Jerusalem. For two hours my steps retraced nearly every path they have taken in the capitol. I ran by the tayelet overlook in the south; the dazzling Calatrava bridge at the western entrance to the city; the imposing Belz Temple in the ultra-orthodox northern neighborhoods; Hebrew University up on the eastern slopes of Mt. Scopus; and around the golden walls of the old city.

I doubt I blinked once. It was the people, fur-lined wide-eyed Belz hassids, nervous Arab couples cuddling by the wall, seminary girls touring the tayelet, haughty arsim racing past me in the shadow of the bridge, that held my attention. Their faces remind me why I am in uniform. The looks we exchanged remind me that despite the frustration of serving with a commander who looks and does not see, I cannot despair. Because my service is a privilege, a promise to defend all the eyes that crossed my own during my late night run.

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