Every combat soldier has a twisted desire to see action, imbalanced by his fear of suffering injury or seeing a friend go down. Lone soldiers tend to share this desire one step further; part of the journey from overseas spectator to frontline participant is a longing to get a hands-on sense of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Some of my garin friends have satisfied this need. Two of them serve in the Givati Brigade, and have seen action against smugglers by the Gaza border and all sorts of activity in the West Bank. One was called to separate rioting groups of Jewish settlers and Arab villagers in Samaria; rubber bullets and tear gas helped keep both sides away from each other and the soldiers in between. The other has countless stories of detaining and interrogating Palestinians on patrols, roadblocks and ambushes. Another garin friend in the Golani Brigade was front and center on the northern border during the Al Nakba clashes on May 15. A close friend who moved to Israel from America shortly after me has seen more action than probably anyone in my garin. Working as a journalist, she has covered demonstrations across East Jerusalem and as far away as Tahrir Square in Cairo.
And then there is me, with nineteen months of training to be some sort of special forces fighter and not an hour of real work to speak of.
Until now. This week marked the end of the Paratroop Brigades months-long refresher training. The final night march of the week was brutal, easily the toughest physical/mental challenge I have had in the army besides misakem maslul. I nearly blacked out repeatedly when waves of dehydration-like syndromes enveloped me during the last three hours of the march. With the week complete, I have forever finished the tough training exercises that are the most rigorous parts of military service. Starting in two weeks my unit will be heading to the West Bank for kav (literally, ‘line’), the army term for the territory combat units are responsible for on active duty. There I will finally have a chance to appreciate what all my training has been for, to finally gain a sense of the real challenges faced by a combat soldier.
What should future lone soldiers do if they really want to get a taste of the action?
1) If serving less than three years because of your age, serve in the regular infantry (gdud) rather than a special forces unit (gadsar or any of the elite units like Maglan, Duvdevan, etc). If your service time is already three years, then by all means, invest the added energy and try and get into an elite force.
The reasoning is quite simple, backed up by the experience of many lone soldiers. First, elite unit have longer training sessions. While this means soldiers get exposed to skills like navigating and Krav Maga that the regular grunts do not touch, it also means more of one’s service will be spent in training rather than active service. Second, many special forces units, especially the most elite forces, are not exposed to the day in and day out engagements in the West Bank and along the borders. Elite units are saved in reserve for infrequent special missions. Sure, they are extra glamorous and challenging. But especially if one is serving less than the full three years, the amount of actual action you will see on a half dozen special operations missions pales in comparison to the work the grunts face every day. Yes, the majority of a regular grunt’s work is harmless foot patrols and boring sentry postings. And the food and gear cannot compare to the more elite units. But it is the regular infantry, not the elite units, who hold down the frontlines.
Note, special forces units require all members to serve for three years, even if less time is required of a lone soldier to serve in the army given the advanced age at which he enlisted. Though elite units have been tightening up on this requirement over the last couple of years, there are still dozens of lone soldiers in gadsar units and elsewhere who for one reason or another serve less than the three years. I am a perfect example. While the Recon Paratroops require soldiers to sign three years like every gadsar, I have never been asked to add time on to the two years I volunteered to serve when I first enlisted in 2009. Why? Disorganization and ignorance by the logistic folk in my unit.
2) Pass on course makim (the NCO course) and stay a regular grunt.
This suggestion shares a similar argument to its predecessor. Serving as a staff sergeant (mak or samal) requires one to take a three month course. This course, besides having a less than sterling reputation, removes one from active duty for the duration of the course. Becoming a staff sergeant can also lead to assignment away from the frontline since graduates of course makim are needed to fill a range of noncombat positions, from training new recruits to a few less exciting, logistic-type jobs.
Serving as a mak and samal means added responsibility and greater leadership. Both of these are very worthwhile, especially for the type of person (myself included) who finds greater meaning serving as a mentor and leader. But the advice I am giving here is not about having the best military service. It is simply about how to maximize one’s exposure to frontline duty.
3) Become a sniper or a similar specialized dealer in death.
Becoming a sniper requires one to leave the frontlines for several weeks in order to attend sniper school. The “sacrifice” in time on the frontlines is worth it because as a sniper, you are a highly valuable combat soldier, far more likely to see action than a regular grunt (sacrifice is in quotations because despite the intent of this advice, to maximize frontline duty, it is worth remembering that time away from endless hours of sentry duty and bad food is not really a sacrifice). A similar argument goes for other specialized weapons, from the basic Negev light machine gun to the heavier equipment.
4) Serve for the maximum three years, volunteering for extra time if your advanced age means you only have to serve sixteen or twenty-four months. This last bit of advice is very much tongue in cheek since outside of pilots and certain commando units, no soldier in his right mind would or should ever volunteer extra time once he is already signed up for less time as a combat soldier. This is not meant to sound cynical. Merely realistic.
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