Sunday, December 12, 2010

Past & Present Units Compared

"After ten months on the lam, you have finally joined the real army. Welcome!"
Friend's response to my description of the differences between my current and former units.

On my first day in the real army of Israel, I was issued a one-piece insulated jumpsuit known as a chermonite. Signing off on the Snuffalufagus outfit is not simply a sign that winter is coming. It also means that I will be spending parts of nearly every night in the chilly months to come on guard duty. Sayeret Tzanchanim (Paratrooper Special Forces), unlike my former Air Force unit, has a lovely custom of insisting that within our very own base a soldier must always stand guard. Hence I can now say with near certainty that a weekday night will not pass in the next half year without my getting woken up mid-slumber to slip into my chermonite and stand guard over an empty courtyard for thirty wretched minutes.

I left the Israeli Air Force knowing that wherever I ended up things would be very different. No longer would I wear a well tailored tan uniform on my weekends off. Nobody would henceforth have reason to mistake me for a pilot. And no explanations on my part would be necessary to clarify that despite my Air Force tans, I am training to be every bit the combat soldier like the boys in green.

Now that I am one of those boys in green, a freshly minted member of Sayeret Tzanchanim, the real differences between my past and present units are all to apparent. If my former outfit was run and funded like a top-flight engineering firm, my current unit resembles an old mechanic shop struggling to make ends meet. Neither the training nor the facilities where I now serve can compare to what I experienced over my first year in the IDF.

Tash is army shorthand for all the good things in military life (food, facilities & fun)) a soldier is entitled to (Tash comes from the phrase t'nai sherut, service conditions). Elites units like my former outfit are known to make up in tash what they sacrifice in grueling exercises. Add to the mix that the Israeli Air Force is uniformly known as having the best food and the prettiest girls in the IDF (If privacy concerns were not a factor, I would provide photos of some of the girls from my former unit. You'll just have to trust me!) and you can imagine how far down the tash slide I have fallen in my new posting.

The food has gone from plentiful and tasty to scarce and barely edible. The pretty girls and former models have sadly disappeared. Money for unit social evenings has ceased to exist. Also gone is top quality and freely available equipment, from combat tools to the basic tape and fabrics used to fix and clean up gear. My new base is a disorganized mess, populated by several competing units, among them a cache of incarcerated soldiers dressed in US Army fatigue as they serve time for violating army rules. The rooming accommodations are even worse, eight guys packed into a room with half a dozen beds and barely any space to organize our belongings. My new junior officer even had me and a few others go scavenging in a maze of broken housing for loose shelves. I have returned to living out of my bag, an experience I thought I had left behind in the tent I called home during basic training.

The only obvious tash upgrade is weekends off. During training in Sayeret Tzanchanim, every weekend (save for the unfortunate bloke who "volunteers" to stay and guard the empty courtyard within the base) is a shabbat at home. Hopefully the extra time off means I can make a stab at forging a real life and a real blog outside of the army!

Training rather than tash is what really defines the dissimilarities between my past and present army homes. On paper, our exercises look more or less the same. A week of navigation training in both units follows the same rules and routes. Yet the commitment, organization, culture and, above all else, pacing are so different between the two units that training similarities are far from apparent. My former unit cherished professionalism and insisted on living up to the highest standards of discipline and performance. This culture is reflected is a frantic pace where rarely a minute is wasted and soldiers are always busy at something. In Sayeret Tzanchanim, the priority seems to be instilling in soldiers the resilience to withstand the grueling reality of warfare. Professionalism is sacrificed on the altar of valor and grit. Yet intense drills are offset by a relaxed culture that welcomes frequent scheduling gaps. So it was that the other day, a grueling twelve km stretcher run and two hour krav maga session were thrown at my team just as we returned to base on the heels of an all night 25 km navigation exercise. What the relentless series of drills lacked in professionalism they offset in hardship and raw aggression. The goal seems to be about creating young lions that throw their all into a fight yet are quick to slide into inactivity when the danger has passed.

Those young lions, one must not forget, are also conditioned to spend hours as shivering sentry Snuffalufagi. The worst part about our sentry assignment is not the long cold nights on my feet in lonely silence. The guard duty itself, in short, does not concern me as much as the reason why. In my former unit, we never interrupted our sleep to stand around and count stars on base because there was no fear of theft. In the rest of the army, by contrast, pilfering is so common that even in the sanctuary of one's own home locking the door is not enough protection. The mantra soldiers live by is that there are no thieves in the army - everyone is simply trying to get his stuff back! Stories like the Golani infantrymen who repainted and then took off with another brigade's storage container make our seemingly senseless sentry duty slightly more palatable. Even if it means many more hours to reflect on the countless differences between what once and now is.

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