Friday, June 24, 2011

The Final Battle?

You are zero. Your eighteen months of training are worth nothing. And all the effort and commitment you displayed over your service mean squat.

My lieutenant did not actually say these exact words to me this Monday. He used other words, framed in obscure military jargon and polite circumlocution, to share the same devastating message: That having finally arrived at the start of the active service I have trained for over eighteen arduous months, I would not be serving with my peers as a combat soldier. For reasons that defy goodwill and common decency, my officer has relegated me to serve the remaining three months of my military service as an assistant logistics boss (sarsap) for new recruits. An assignment that spells the end of my stillborn dream of serving as a combat soldier in the IDF.

I had trouble believing what my lieutenant was telling me. Like everyone else, I knew several soldiers from my unit would soon be assigned to jobs—medics, logistics, training instructors— that would take them away from our forthcoming deployment. Rookie platoons like my own are always forced to fill these slots, losing a few soldiers that return to the platoon after completing their six to eight month long external assignments. Because I only have three months left in the army, and because my platoon has its share of indifferent types that would like nothing better than a cushy external assignment, I was sure I would have nothing to do with this bit of sorry military redistricting.

My platoon leader clearly felt differently. He explained that the assignment was based on his conclusion that he cannot rely on me (that is, I make him look bad), pointing to the bus and kitchen incidents from the last two days as proof of my instability. When I pointed out that my name had been fully cleared in both incidents, and that if anything they said more about poor judgment by senior officers than by yours truly, he inanely replied that I have been negatively involved in a hundred other similar incidents. My attempt to point out that a hundred similar incidents of nothing still add up to nothing failed to make an impression. As did my reminders that my effort and results through every facet of our training have been amongst the very best in the entire company. As did my request that he bear in mind how far I have come and sacrificed to serve as a combat soldier in this army. Does the fact that every other soldier in my platoon could be assigned this logistics job and later return with our unit to a future combat deployment mean nothing? Or the fact that quite a few of them would be happy to bounce out to a cushy logistics posting for a few months? The bottom line, my commander stoically responded to everything I said, is that I do not want you with me.

What he did not say, and what I later came to understand from conversation with other officers, is that the decision to ship me off to the island of logistics purgatory was shaped by the fact that I have only three months of service remaining. External postings like this logistics job are known for softening up soldiers, leaving them with little motivation for the far more grueling duties of a combat soldier on their return. As a result, combat units like my own dislike releasing their soldiers to such postings. Sending me, especially if my platoon leader does not care for me, is thus perfect since I will soon discharge and  in any case would not have returned from this posting for future combat deployment.

Having butted heads with my commander to no avail, I turned to friends and family on my kibbutz and considered my options. The simplest and most distasteful route would be to bend my head and accept the lowly logistics assignment. Every alternative would necessitate a grand display of stubbornness and help from friends within and without the military system. The best outcome would see the assignment canceled and deploying as a combat soldier with my squad. A second best route would be transferring to another unit that will allow me to serve as a combat soldier. A final option means recognizing that my dream of serving in combat is finished and instead trying to bring my service to an early end (kitzur sherut), an unsavory though preferable conclusion to three months of dreary aimlessness. While considering which of these battles was worth waging, I reminded myself what to me was already obvious: by no means would I accede and while away the rest of my service as a silly deputy logistics boss.

My resolve was tested over the remainder of the week through a series of ugly and even dramatic encounters with various senior officers. Following my initial chat with my lieutenant, logic suggested turning to his superior, my company commander (mem’pei). Logical? Perhaps. Yet not helpful since this senior officer is well known in our unit for having the split personality of a Jekyll and Hyde. When I approached him for a meeting several hours after having first spoken with my commander, the mem’pei turned on me with an almost visceral snarl and yelled that he had no interest in speaking with me. My vain attempts to convince him otherwise merely enraged him further and I was forced to back off from the almost foaming excuse of a man entrusted with leading some eighty men into battle.

After slipping a call the next morning over to Zvika Levy, a well known advocate for lone soldiers, I joined the rest of my unit for the day’s hike through Wadi Kelt and around Gush Etzion. The natural springs and secluded monastery of Wadi Kelt steadied my nerve while the tour around Gush Etzion left me with the uneasy feeling that instead of concluding my service defending the same stretch of turf I once called home as an overseas yeshiva student, I may be saying farewell to my squad and this territory with today’s frivolous sightseeing.

Wednesday evening brought the most theatrical encounter of this dragged out drama. The entire battalion was waiting to enter an assembly hall and begin a ceremony to commemorate the First Lebanese War when the battalion officer responsible for manpower issues (shalishut) approached me. In plain sight of everyone, mere feet away from the entire senior officer corp of the battalion, the manpower boss blasted me with the following outburst.

“I hear (from Zvika Levy, as I later discovered) that you have this tremendous desire to serve as a combat soldier. Well, come to my office on Sunday morning and I will reassign you to the Home Front Command (a co-ed force that is at once the newest and least respected combat unit in the army).”

“Excuse me? I trained for the last eighteen months, and was recognized this past March, as a trained combat soldier in the Recon Paratroopers. With all due respect, here is where I deserve to serve as a combat soldier.”

“Oh yeah? Well, if you want to serve here you need to add a extra year to your service time. All combat soldiers in this unit serve a full three years, and you are signed to just two.”

At that point I tried to provide the manpower chief with a brief summary of how, when I came to the Paratroops in December 2010, I made very clear to the relevant manpower officer that I had zero interest in signing a third year and hence was ready to pass on the special forces recon battalion. And how nevertheless I was shuffled into the special forces, trained for six months, and acknowledged at a pretty ceremony in March as a certified special forces combat soldier. The idea that with three months left in my service I will be pressed into serving another year that many older lone soldiers never are asked to serve is preposterous, especially when the only reason for this pressure is the senior officers' desire to shuffle me off to a silly job that has been dropped in my lap because I am discharging in three months! “Special forces soldiers may in fact have to serve the full three years,” I concluded to the manpower chief, “But to drop the requirement on me now, in this circumstance, after blithely ignoring the rule while I gave my all over a year and a half of training...I mean, really?!”

The manpower boss was ready to explode by the end of my remarks. Before he could, however, the overall commander of the Recon Paratroop Battalion, whom had been observing this whole tragicomedy from a foot away (along with every other soldier in the battalion), gestured the manpower fellow over and instructed him to tell me I would instead meet with the battalion commander. A good sign, I hoped, since having failed to even hold a conversation the other day with my company commander, the battalion commander was the next step up the military pyramid.

My company commander must have read my mind for at that very moment he came over to speak with me. The man who drew me to the side for a brief chat had transformed back into Dr. Jekyll from the monstrous Hyde I encountered two days before (thanks, it seems, to a chat from Zvika Levy!). Choosing his words carefully, he insisted he genuinely cares for me and understands the challenges of lone soldiers. He then prattled off a lot of nonsense about how the logistics assignment they are sending me to is a great honor that I am especially suited for. Before I had a chance to pop the sugary confection he was spinning, the memorial service began and our chat came to a sudden halt.

The next day was the company "pool day," a bizarre coda to a week that was designed to be fun and games and instead become a live-action horror show. It was clear to me that whatever else happened by the pool, I needed to let my superiors know in no uncertain terms where I stood on this whole story. As the pool day was drawing to a close, I finally saw my chance and approached the bipolar company commander. Looking him straight in the eye, I politely informed him that I had no intention of accepting relegation to the deputy logistics job. Hyde seized control and, with barely concealed fury, the little man hissed that my refusal to follow orders had brought me a hearing (a mishpat, whose punishment tends to be losing home leave for a month straight and serving as a glorified garbageman during that time) the day we returned to base. He did not have to add that the judge, jury and executioner at the hearing would be the company commander himself.

With the hearing scheduled for my return to base (I am away next week on a mandatory week-long post-army career-advice workshop for lone soldiers, an opportunity the company commander tried to prevent me from attending), I remain wrestling with the question of what to do. Do I stick to principle and suffer the consequences? Or bend my neck, "for the meek shall inherit the earth" and slide away to three months of counting toilet rolls and bed sets.

Update: While I would still appreciate feedback to the question, I would be remiss if I did not include the answer whose roots are firmly anchored in my heart and mind. That answer is very simple: Live by what you believe in. I would not be in the army in the first place if I had not acted on that credo. Imagine how fast we'd run if we knew where we are going. No, the future is not very clear, but that does not mean I am ready to abandon the faith that took me this far. A faith that leaves me ready to face whatever the coming months may bring.


My back and forth with my officers has brought another lone soldier’s story to my attention. Mike, signed for two years in the army as a participant in Garin Tzabar, was sent to medics course seventeen months into his service. He left with an understanding with his officers that he would add on some time to the two years he was serving to make it worthwhile for him to attend the three month long medics course. The understanding is that he would sign on four more months. Unbeknownst to Mike, while he was at the course his officer signed him up to another year in the army. To do so, the officer signed his own name where Mike's name is required. Many arguments later, as of this writing Mike is suing his lieutenant in civilian court. Hear hear!


  1. good luck, i hope you manage to serve as a combat solider in the orev unit

  2. Been following this blog for a long time, and have the utmost respect for you, but I gotta say, after reading this whole saga, are you not losing the forest for the trees somewhat?

    While I understand the hit to the ego inherent in falling from a prospective shaldagist to not even serving actual time in a combat unit, the reasons that were given seem pretty legitimate. You are only serving three more months, and it is one hundred percent true that a 3 month stint in logistics can affect a returning combat soldiers morale.

    I think you need to remember all your reasons for joining the army in the first place, and realize, that although the classic zionist dream of being an Israeli G.I. Joe commando is quite alluring, there are much more concrete goals that you have aspired to and fulfilled.

    If you think the logistics job sucks, but is still needed, I would suck it up and finish the 3 months. If it is a complete bullshit job with absolutely no utility, I wouldn't fault you for trying to initiate early discharge.

    And yes, you got fucked - but look at the reality - your platoon commander is obviously an asshole who hates you, and after this whole incident, do you think you could be under his charge and have the cohesiveness that is really optimal for a combat unit? Probably not.

    The fact that you would not accept a combat position in home front command (and I understand that it is no orev tzanchanim) betray the signifigance of your ego involved here vs. a true desire to help out the country in a combat role. I am not faulting you for this at all, as it really is only natural after the last 2 years you have been through.

    Just my two cents - In my opinion, you'd much better serve the country right now if you left the army and talked some sense into the increasingly Mccarthy-like govt. and their scary anti-boycott laws that they have enacted. So go out there and start some good ol' civillian activism!

  3. Sammy, I haven't been following this blog for years but I'm confident that Israel will get more of it's fair share of civillian activism from you. With all due respect to the previous commenter, don't rush out on the army, don't settle for becoming a logistics paper pushing panzy pushover (John Belushi, K9), and don't settle after all your hard work for the home front command.

    I found this mini-episode of your story thoroughly entertaining and l'fi aniyas da'ati, which subsumes total ingorance of your relationship with you commanders, it sounds like bias against americans. Try as you might to acculturate to contemporary Israeli society (a difficult and not necessarily noteworthy accomplishment) they will probably always see the skinny chinese speaking college and graduate school midwesterner who joined one year and 9 months ago.

    Seems to me though that an option you mentioned was not pursued - speaking with your batallion commander. throw him in the mix and see what puree comes out. I know you've been living there so who am I to tell you this based on a book, but I've read most of Start Up, and a chunk of that book describes the jekyll/hyde duality of inter-Israeli relations. It's normal, it's how things are done there. So get ready for some more screaming and frothing at the mouth, because it seems to me that in Israel if you want something bad enough you can get it, as long as you can shout loud enough. b'hatzlacha.

  4. You are a pansy whiner. I'm glad you're not in my Navy unit.