Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Few Good Boys

I had the good fortune to join Sayeret Tzanchanim on the cusp of two weeks of navigation training. While navigation exercises are one of my favorite parts of military training, they also provide a golden opportunity to get to know one's fellow soldiers. Navigation training uses a buddy system, whereby one man navigates while the other tags along as a safety precaution (the two switch roles midway through the night). The extra man, known as the golem (kind of like the legendary Jewish Frankenstein of Prague), has nothing to do save make conversation. I took advantage of this social angle and in no time flat had exchanged life stories with most of the guys on my new team.

My former commander liked to talk about the incredible diversity of our team. With soldiers of Ethiopian, American and Yemenite descent, he was mostly right. Until the day I left the unit along with nearly all the guys who are not Ashkenazim from a kibbutz or the urban elite. Serving in the Paratroopers has returned me to the diversity of modern Israel. My new peers are of every ethnicity: Ethiopian, Russian and a mishmash of Sefardi backgrounds. We have secular kibbutzniks, religious settlers, arrogant arsim, and rich kids from northern Tel Aviv. Nearly everyone has an opinion on Judaism. The only exception may be the Russian immigrant who makes no qualms about having taken advantage of the Law of Return (the immigrant law that allows all Jews to move to Israel) despite his Christian faith.

Our diversity is a fulcrum for a rich cast of characters. There is a short Ethiopian known as Day-Glow whose family has little idea that he is serving in a combat unit. Our Russian Christian has a smoking habit so bad that the second the officers are out of sight a cigarette appears between his lips. And then there is the most popular kid, a lovable runt nicknamed Chewbacca. Unlike his namesake, our Chewbacca is a foul-mouthed little operator whose charm covers up a fear of heights that has prevented him from passing paratrooper jump course. Another team member is known throughout the army for barely surviving jump course. Both his principal and reserve parachutes failed to function until seconds before hitting the ground. Jump course left my new team with one final legacy. The week after wrapping up the course, one of the guys reported to the wrong base on Sunday morning. He never returned and no one has seen him since.

At my swearing in ceremony way back in January, a friend commented that the young men in my former unit looked visibly more mature than your average nineteen year old. Not only are my former teammates physically and emotionally mature for their age, they also share a high level of motivation and commitment to their military service. My current team is much more of a mix. A third of the guys are real stars, with the necessary tools and attitude that would have allowed them to succeed in the most elite units. Another third know their stuff yet lack the full-on commitment to always give their all. Ask them what part of training they most enjoy and "free-time" is the easy answer. The final third have little discipline, no maturity or are just plain lazy. How they remain in a special forces unit would be a mysterious save for the fact that guys are very rarely tossed from our unit. Unlike my former unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim has no culture of weeding out weak links. Commanders are instead challenged to meld what they have into an effective fighting force.

The relative immaturity of my current unit has made me far more conscious of my advanced age. Not only do I have half a decade on most of my peers but having joined a team who enlisted in March 2010, I have four more months of army experience. In my former unit, my advanced age was rarely a factor largely because my entire team was more or less the same age in "pazam years" (how long we had served), the key judge of a soldier's seniority.

Finally feeling older has brought unexpected advantages. Confidence has slowly replaced the insecurity and confusion that characterized the start of my army service. Having always been a late bloomer who only really succeeds after truly mastering the environment, I now feel ready to bring my full personality into play.

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