Thursday, January 27, 2011

Near Breaking Point

The abyss beckoned. A phone call was all that stood between thumbing my nose in my commander’s face and stumbling down a road that meant insubordination, jail time and possibly much worse.

The pity was that the last week had provided an engrossing glimpse of what my training is for. For three nights my unit had torn up the desert in hummers, ambushing enemy tanks in nightlong war-games. My squad had been so extraordinary, in fact, that one war-game had been started from scratch after my team wiped out the enemy’s forces far quicker than was desired by the observers. Our pride was put in place, however, when a chance encounter with an enemy tank revealed that the gunner was a military dental care trainee, temporarily assigned to a task for which she had little knowledge or enthusiasm. So much for the competition! Then again, many of the Egyptian tankers who fought Israel in 1956 and 1967 are said to have been at a similar level of skill and motivation as my dental friend. So perhaps she was not chosen so randomly after all!

I stayed on base for our final night of desert warfare, volunteering for the evening sentry shift so I could leave the next day. 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. My commander had assured me I could leave Thursday morning so I could take care of some lone soldier concerns and arrive on kibbutz on time.

As my commander rushed off to the all-night exercise, I hastened to confirm my plans to leave the next morning. “Oh scratch that,” he replied offhand, “You need to return with us to base tomorrow so you cannot leave in the morning. In fact, you may not be getting out of the army this weekend at all.”

Then he rushed off. And I was left with six hours of guard duty to puzzle over this abrupt change of fortune. I had an idea what may be in the works. Last Shabbat I had been caught sitting and reading during an especially asinine sentry assignment. No punishment had yet been doled out. And so despite having received assurances that I would get out to attend this weekend’s seminar, it seemed my commander intended to drop the axe on these plans.

Or perhaps that was just the beginning. Next week my unit was on break for regilah, the once every four months vacation soldiers receive from the army. The dismissive tone in my commander’s voice suggested that the punishment he had in mind threatened not only my Garin Shabbat this weekend but all of next week’s precious vacation.
Staying on base for regilah is one of the more miserable punishments. My recent stretch of shavuz made losing my regilah even more unwelcoming. While the past week of desert warfare, following on the heels of speaking with my samal and Daniel, had done wonders to lift me from my shavuz, I was counting on the regilah to give me a chance to put my recent troubles behind me for good.

With my commander out of contact until noon tomorrow, I could do nothing all night but stew over my predicament. It did not take very long to slip into the tragic embrace of the vicious shavuz cycle: punishment/shavuz/mess-up, repeat. I was not simply miserable. For the first time I was furious, irritated at everything to the point that no matter the consequences, I intended to leave the next morning as originally planned. Bugger all, I figured. I am prepared for whatever penalty that comes my way. Who needs them.

Fortunately for my future in Sayeret Tzanchanim, I spoke with a close friend over the course of the night. My friend had himself volunteered as a lone soldier several years ago. So he knew what he was saying when he reminded me that the temporary satisfaction I may get from leaving base is not worth the long term negative impact. Not only may others think less of me, but my own opinion for what I accomplished as a member of the IDF could be seriously imperiled. “Years from now you won’t remember the frustrations,” he concluded, “as much as what you do—and do not do.”

A few hours later I was outside the base, waiting for the bus to Beersheva. Before boarding, however, I called my company commander and requested his help in resolving my predicament. To my surprise, he proved amenable to my situation and after a few inquiries, gave me the go ahead to leave base and head north for the weekend with my Garin.

As I fought through the massive crowd waiting to board the bus, I reflected on the final piece of advice my friend had offered me in our pre-dawn phone conversation. You are the only one in your company, officers included my friend noted, who knows what life is really like for an independent young adult. The irony is that my friend’s advice is a double edged sword. While his point was that I should take strength from my knowledge of the good life, that familiarity also means I am aware of the life I cannot lead.

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