Sunday, October 24, 2010

Funeral Reunion

An open grave is the very last place I ever wished to be with my fellow soldiers. Standing in a crowd of uniforms, struggling to hold back tears that dim the sight of a family crushed by unimaginable grief. A reminder that the intense pace of our training, the constant physical and mental gymnastics, is no protection against the spectre of death.

Today I stood by that open grave. Yet my visit was riddled with more ambiguities than any military funeral I could have imagined. A father of one of the guys from my former unit, rather than a young soldier, had died the day before. And so when I joined the young men from my former squad to console our grieving friend, I was meeting my mates of the past year for the first time since my abrupt exit from their ranks six weeks ago. Grief made room for joy as my former soldiers swarmed me with hugs and peppered me with questions on my current doings. New and old stories left many of us laughing. Until the ceremony began, our grieving friend arrived, and the grief in his eyes rebounded across our own consciousness.

The funeral was hardly the occasion to finally see my old comrades-in-arms. Then again, a busy training schedule means my former squad-mates will rarely have much time to connect with me. Many have already advised me that staying friends with guys from my former unit is not worth the trouble. Right now you miss each other, I am told, yet as army life picks up both you and them will soon lose track. Better, they say, to focus on the future and the new guys I will hopefully soon call comrades in arms.

I am not ready to accept such advice. Friendship for me has never been a matter of black and white, accept or deny, certainty. I have difficulty letting go, and doubt the wisdom of arbitrarily giving up on a relationship considering the brief and uncertainty of life. The guys I met during my first year in the army may never become the mythologized bunker buddies I call best friends decades from today. Whatever relationship we do maintain, however, will largely reflect my choices. And as long as I can, I will choose friendship.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Passport over Purgatory

I have a story to share that will forever serve as an antidote to bad bureaucratic experiences in Israel.

We start in Afula, that most unassuming of towns in the Jezreel Valley. On Tuesday morning I arrived at eight o'clock sharp at the local government office. In five minutes I had half a dozen passport photos, produced after the store kindly provided a spare t-shirt to wear in place of my military uniform (unbeknownst to me, military insignia cannot appear in passport photos). Ten minutes later I left the office building with a guarantee that a new Israeli passport (why? check out NbN) with my name on it would be ready in five hours, later that afternoon.

Yes, you heard that right: Same day passport service!

The government clerk, a snappy middle-aged lady named Dina, had first told me that a passport would take a few days. Yet when I explained that I am a lone soldier trying to fly overseas as soon as possible, she crisply replied that I could return in the afternoon and my passport would be ready.

The passport was waiting for me on my return. A quick check revealed that everything was spelled correctly. Except...

"I think there has been a mistake," I stammered to Dina. "Under nationality, it says Israeli. I'm-"


Really?! Yes. Israeli. Wow, when did that happen?!

My surprise was probably only a delayed reaction to having received such smart and efficient service. Especially when the rest of my life has become a front row seat to the worst of Israeli bureaucratic purgatory. On paper I while away the hours at Tel Hashomer awaiting reassignment. In practice? Welcome to the Rubber Room, Israeli army style.

What is the Rubber Room? According to past residents,
* It is a system designed by Kafka and carried out by Mussolini.
* Rubber Rooms are like a gulag, the DOE version of Guantanamo.
* They call it the Rubber Room because if you are not crazy to start with, it will drive you crazy if you are there long enough.

Rubber Rooms are a NYC invention, "reassignment centers" designed to house suspended teachers whom receive full salary to sit in empty rooms and do nothing. My own experience bears uncanny similarities, especially with the sentiment one NYC teacher and US Military vet used to describe the rooms: "They can send this old soldier back to Iraq. Anywhere else is better than the rubber room. I would much rather face Al-Qaeda bullets and bombs."

My own plan to escape the Israeli Army's version of the rubber room was protekzia. When my contacts failed to quickly pull me into a new unit, it was time for plan B: Grab a flight and spend the weeks overseas until the formal reassignment wheels get rolling in mid-November.

Trying to persuade the army to grant me a free flight to America, a one-time perk provided to lone soldiers (soldiers whose parents live overseas) by the American charity Friends of the IDF, opened up an even more intimidating Pandora's box. Countless lines had to be waited in, doors knocked on, and excuses swallowed to make even the smallest headway. Part of my problem is I have become the loneliest of lone soldiers, stripped of any unit or command structure that will intercede and manage the bureaucracy on my behalf. Some days my life feels like a scene from The Matrix,
as Neo discovers that everyone save himself exists in pods connected to spiraling energy towers. Despite the apparent logic of using this dead time to fly overseas, hacking through the maze of military obfuscations is proving very trying.


The most mind numbing experiences often are full of funny asides. My time in Tel Hashomer is no exception.

One day I trooped off to a nearby office complex, filled to bursting with nineteen year old army girls. I came hoping to find someone who could fast-forward my flight request. Instead I found a strange world whose every inhabitant seemed to be either plucking facial hairs or munching on chocolate. Some of the female jobniks were even doing both at the same time! I was greeted with unfailing politeness, as girl after girl looked away from her reflection long enough to direct me to yet another unhelpful office. Wisely, I soon fled, fearing that if I stayed any longer I too would join their ranks.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Departed

One of the other guys dropped from my former unit has pretty impressive protekzia. On our first day in Tel Hashomer, my friend was speaking to his father when the IDF's number two (i.e. the deputy chief-of-staff) came on the phone and asked how he could be of service. When a senior general starts making phone calls on your behalf, we are no longer in the realm of protekzia. We are talking command and control. "Yes, sir. We will grant that young man an interview for our special unit. Right away, sir."

Sure enough, the next day my friend interviewed with Maglan, a special forces unit almost everyone in my situation would like to get into. Despite having one of the army's most senior generals on his side, my friend was not accepted. The truth is he never really had a chance. Maglan slipped a poison pill into the interview, asking him a question whose answer could only be no. His negative response was then used as an excuse as to why the unit would not take him.

My friend's experience is one of many anecdotes I have collected in my new position as a past member of an elite unit seeking reassignment. These stories give lie to the myth that someone in my position is assured of making it to a top-flight unit. The reality is that, for a number of reasons, finding a new home in the army is an unpredictable process with the choicer addresses nearly all out of reach.

For starters, there are no shortage of qualified guys. Forget about the sixty odd guys in my position that all have received some degree of special forces training. There are hundreds of others that have never spent a day in the army yet whose performance on tests and tryouts mark them as good material. The second-tier special forces units that my peers and I are seeking to join often prefer to start fresh with new soldiers rather than bring in "veterans" from another club. Just like in baseball, every team wants a good farm system.

Another reason top units are closing their doors is they simply have less room. A few years ago it use to be common in units like Duvdevan for numerous guys to drop out due to injury. Complains grew, however, and the result are stricter safety standards, less injuries and fewer guys dropping out. Duvdevan and other top units no longer have the empty spaces they once looked to fill with guys in my position. Nothing more than econ 101, supply and demand.

A former commander of Maglan introduced me to a third reason why making it to a unit like his is far from assured. "The truth," he sheepishly admitted, "is that Maglan has an unwritten rule not to take guys who once served in your unit. The reason is petty jealousy, a desire to be seen as just as good as the most elite units." No one in my former unit had ever mentioned any rivalry with Maglan, though both units are known to share similar agendas (then again, who at Princeton thinks Penn is their academic rival?). Nonetheless, I had heard enough from outside sources to put into context what the retired commander was telling me. Top army units compete for superiority in many ways since everyone wants to be assigned the key missions when danger strikes. The similar training of Maglan and my former unit only would increase this tension. It does not help that Maglan can argue that anyone who is not right for my former unit would not be the best fit for their similar approach.

This whole reassignment rigmarole is really unfortunate. And, I daresay, avoidable. If I had my way, after dropping from a unit, soldiers would have one week at home and then one week of meetings and interviews. Two weeks would be the maximum break before the soldier would be back in training with a new squad. My alternative of ambiguous limbo, hardly seems preferable.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Avoid Dachash

I quit the army the other day.

That is, earlier this week the army quit on me.

Or at least that is how I felt when I handed in my military ID card and entered suspended service. Known as dachash (shorthand for d'chiyat sherut, suspended service), the status applies to soldiers whose pay and service time are suspended while on extended leave. Dachash means transportation is no longer free (soldiers with military ID cards ride buses and trains for free) and that the time you take off will be added on at the end of your service (i.e. you still serve your full three years, with the time on dachash not counting towards the time).

For a lone soldier like myself, dachash also means that all the perks we receive--like double salary, housing and grocery stipends, a one-time free flight overseas--disappear. In plain terms that meant I would have to pay out of pocket to remain on my kibbutz (since my kibbutz rent is normally covered by the army housing stipend), not to mention hemorrhage all kinds of money for daily living expenses. And so while entering dachash felt like the IDF had given up on me, far worse was realizing I had just signed up for financial purgatory.

The next day I re-enlisted in the IDF, tearing up my dachash form as I did so. Reenlisting has not made my status in the army any clearer. Because all the other guys waiting to be reassigned in mid-November are on dachash, my position is fairly unusual. I am not in any unit and have no commanders or support staff to speak of. The army, in fact, really has nothing to do with me for the next six weeks. And so with nothing else to do, I was tasked to a local cleanup crew.

Like all elite units in these relatively peaceful times, Tel Hashomer's cleaning squad rarely sees action. My first and only assignment was plenty memorable. Tasked with cleaning up a high-security zone nearby the entrance to Bakum, I was shocked to discover a row of jail cells locked within two rows of barbed wire fencing. The small stone rooms were dark, dismal and decaying dungeons. Peering through a two inch window carved into the heavy door, I asked the solitary jailer why these were here. "Tel Hashomer is an old base," he began by way of explanation. "You may know it was a base for the British in the thirties and forties. You probably do not know that even the Roman Legion once camped out here. Anyways, these cell were built by the (Ottoman) Turks. And then used by the Brits. And today, by us." How bizarre, I mused, that rooms once used to lock up Jewish debtors and freedom fighters now host young Jewish soldiers, recalcitrants imprisoned by a Jewish state.

My cleanup crew was disbanded the following day. And so for the foreseeable future, my army service consists of waiting around for hours in order to sign in and head home. Worse than any jobnik, the derogatory army slang for soldiers with desk jobs, I am essentially a kloomnik (kloom, hebrew for nothing), doing nothing at all. The lack of direction and physical drudgery is mentally taxing. The mental angst has even taken a physical manifestation, burdening me with a persistent migraine that nags me day and night. Ironically, for all the free time and long weekends, my current service often seems harder than anything I have yet faced in the army.

Today brought a rare ray of light. While waiting around Tel Hashomer per usual, I spotted this year's Garin Tzabar arriving for their induction. Speaking with them as they navigated their first day in the army, I was reminded of how far I have come since first visiting Tel Hashomer a year ago. And how, despite all the mountains I have climbed, I am back in line at the base where it all begin, waiting for a fresh start in the IDF.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Garin Hineni: A Year Later

Next week marks a year since I began the army. On 13 October 2009 all of Garin Tzabar, including the sixteen strong fellowship of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, marched out of Tel Hashomer as freshly minted property of the state of Israel. And so it was fitting that this weekend was a Garin Shabbat, the thrice a year event when every member of my garin is released from the army in order to allow us to share a rare shabbat together on kibbutz.

If the military can be divided between training and active service, this past year was very much about training. Everyone in my garin underwent some form of basic training in the past year. Most of the girls entered active service in the spring. The guys in the regular infantry trained through July before joining their front-line units. Although their training ended a few months ago, the infantry guys received the pins that mark them as lochamim (fighters) this past week. For those of us whose goal in joining the IDF was to serve as a locham, a trained combat soldier, those pins signify mission accomplished.

No locham pin adorns my own dress uniform. The silver bird that I would have received in a ceremony atop Masada next September will never grace my chest. Instead my service has ground to a halt, stuck in limbo as I await reassignment. While my training has exceeded that of a soldier in the regular infantry, I am not considered a locham until I rejoin a combat unit and meet their own requirements for locham status. In other words, for all that I have done, I have yet to accomplish my baseline goal of becoming a locham in the IDF.

I could not mask something like envy while listening to my peers on kibbutz describe their frontline service. They spent the summer chasing down cross-border drug smugglers and preparing for junior command positions while I trained relentlessly. They continue to defend our country while I now do nothing at all. Of course I realize that much of their active service is pure drudgery, hours spent guarding inane installations and cleaning dishes. Yet even the most numbing of frontline jobs possess a spirit of authentic soldiery that is absent in ceaseless training. Nothing we did in training, no matter how cutting edge, ever escaped the feeling of summer camp. The lack of any real danger, the constant attention and direction from above...whatever the reason, no one wants to be the ultimate trainee. The goal is to be the real deal, to complete the education phase and get where the action is.

My unsettling resentment only disappeared when I shared my grief with one of the guys in my garin. Ron, a medic in the Golani Brigade, insisted I was misreading the garin experience. Sharing our stories with each other is not about wishing we are in each others' shoes. It is about allowing us to have multiple army experiences, to live vicariously through our peers while riding our personal ups and downs.