Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Fight the System

Sometimes you are clearly wronged. A right guaranteed by army rules is ignored by an ill-informed or ill-intentioned commander. Other times you just feel wronged. Like when a commander keeps you from attending a close friend’s wedding for no reason. While soldiers must come to terms with the reality of a rules-bound hierarchy riddled with self-aggrandizing superiors, there are wrongs worth opposing.

There are also people in and outside the army who can help you right those wrongs. It is always better to not go over your officer’s head, or outside the army, if you do not have to (Why? Because nothing will piss your boss off more). Most of the time you will have to, of course, since a lowly soldier in a hierarchical system needs someone on his side when his beef is with his direct supervisors.

The following is a list of all the relevant people a soldier can turn to resolve an army problem. In general it is worth following the order in which I have listed the suggestions, though there are times when playing politics is necessary and the normal rules go out the window. There are also times when no amount of protekzia, or effort by your part to resist a wrong, will make much headway. An egocentric supervisor opposed to your request will resist the old boys network that call him on your behalf and will always unearth some arbitrary army regulation to negate the rules in your favor. So understand when you go into battle against the system that there are some battles you cannot win.

Note, I have direct phone numbers (and emails) for all of the following, save your officers/adjuncts/parents. Provide your email in the comments section and I can share any requested contact information.

1. Your platoon leader (the katzin, lieutenant)

Lieutenants are tasked with looking out for their troops, not just under fire but personal needs as well. Following chain-of-command, a soldier usually first raises his request with his squad leader (mak, mifaked klitah) or platoon sergeant (samal), either of whom will then pass your message onto the lieutenant. As long as you have a reasonable relationship with your lieutenant, he is always the first person to turn to for assistance with any problem. This is because every dispute will ultimately be decided by your superior. Every other person on this list, in fact, is merely there to intercede on your behalf with your superiors. If speaking with your lieutenant does not help, then you should continue up the food chain, requesting to speak with the company commander (mem’pei, mifaked plugah) and, as necessary, the battalion commander (magad, mifaked g’dud).

2. Mashakeet tash

The female staff soldier (one per company) responsible for soldier’s personal affairs and basic rights is often the first person to speak to for any personal request or problem, including needs and rights of lone soldiers. A soldier may prefer to have the mashakeet tash approach his lieutenant on his behalf. A good mashakeet tash is unafraid to defend, and good at securing, soldiers’ rights with less than sympathetic officers. Unfortunately, most mashakeet tash are far from professional, so often soldiers, especially lone soldiers with many extra personal needs and rights, are left to fend for themselves. Note that in basic training, there is usually an additional female staff soldier responsible only for the needs of foreign born soldiers known as a mashakeet aliyah.

3. Family & Friends

Protekzia is essential to resolving most army disputes in your favor. Having concerned people call your officer on your behalf puts pressure on him to resolve the situation. These people can also advise you what to do, and give you the confidence to continue fighting for what is right.

Working protekzia means starting local, first speaking to those closest to you, and then building on their contacts to reach out to people you previously did not know. If you live on a kibbutz, your host family and others on the kibbutz will usually know a few senior military types that can intercede on your behalf. Your first port of call, accordingly, should be to your host parents (or parents, if you are not a lone soldier). Israeli army officers are expected to be in contact with their soldiers’ parents, and Israeli parents are well known for using this contact to their children’s advantage. As a kibbutz family hosting a foreign born volunteer, my host parents had unimpeachable Zionist credentials in their favor when they reached out on my behalf. The next ring of people to reach out to, such as your local Garin Tzabar facilitator or the professional Garin Tzabar staff, share similar credentials. These credentials are important insofar as they validate going beyond your officer’s back. Lone soldiers can always claim, in fairness, that they only turned for help to the very people charged with aiding lone soldiers such as themselves.

4. Moked Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldier Office)

The army opened an office in 2011 to look out for lone soldiers. The office has no executive powers but in my experience it can effectively channel concerns and information between you and your officers (often the katzin/a tash, your mashakeet tash’s superior).

5. Tziki Aud & The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin

Tziki Aud had been aiding lone soldiers for three decades when in 2010, together with former lone soldiers and the support of Michael Levin’s family, he opened a center headquartered in Jerusalem, dedicated to assisting lone soldiers. With a wealth of experience, patience and authentic concern, Tziki is perhaps the best address for lone soldiers in need of assistance. The center has a wealth of other qualified volunteers worth turning to for advice and protekzia.

6. Tzvika Levi

Like Tziki, Tzvika (yes, it is easy to confuse their names!) is a deeply experienced advocate for lone soldiers. His name recognition amongst top army officers is unparalleled. In the Paratroops Brigade in particular, Tzvika can seemingly speak to any of your officer’s bosses’ bosses with ease and a voice carrying real authority. The mark against Tzvika is that he is always so busy that it is difficult to even reach him, let alone speak to him long enough so that he really understands the full extent of your problem. Nevertheless, he means well and can be a very effective advocate for your cause.

7. Netziv Kvilot Chayalim (Army Complaints Office)

If you are convinced that your superiors have ignored army rules in wronging you, then the official place to log a complaint—and possibly really screw over your officers if they are found culpable—is Netziv Kvilot Chayalim, the army ombudsman. Within the military, saying you want to lichvol (lit. to handcuff, though it means to file an official complaint) a superior is often taken as a threat, or merely the whine of a disgruntled soldier. The process carries serious ramifications. While the complaints office is not military court, its decisions are entered into an officers’ permanent record. Filing a complaint is a long and complicated process, requiring a soldier to fax a written record, the complaints office to investigate and agree to take up the case, and the retired general who runs the whole operation to publish his final report. The entire process can easily take two months.

8. Letter writing & media

If none of the regular army channels and lone soldier advocates can help you, then there are two further options. The first is sending letters to senior military figures (really senior, as in generals and division heads). Even if only one letter is read, the trickle-down effect can lead the officers who are causing you such grief to get a phone call from their boss telling them to mend their ways.

The second option follows the same principle. But instead of reaching out directly to top army men, this time you contact media figures and ask their assistance in sharing, and possibly publishing your army issue, through their media networks. Nothing forces an officer to quit screwing with you faster than a story in the newspaper or radio detailing his crummy treatment of you. The chance of a journalist actually publishing your story is slim. Plus you have to keep in mind that soldiers are formally forbidden from speaking to the media (this is easily evaded by reminding the journalist that your “parents” were the ones to speak to the media). That said, the media can be a powerful weapon depending on the circumstances. I have experience with Yaakov Katz of the English language Jerusalem Post. The most well known and recommended media figure is without question Carmela Menashe, a radio journalist nationally recognized for her advocacy on behalf of soldier’s rights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ten Tips for New Soldiers

This entire blog has been designed in part as a guide for future lone soldiers. That said, here are ten tips I urge future volunteers in the Israeli army to keep in mind as they consider, and if they ultimately decide, to enlist.

1. The IDF is a big, insensitive, ideologically-barren, non-action packed institution

The IDF is an institution, not a Zionist summer camp. Nor is it an action movie-- few combat soldiers in front-line infantry units will be in a firefight, or ever fire their gun outside of training, over the course of their service. Like any institution, it is a big, insensitive, bureaucratic machine that often abuses the individual, intentionally or otherwise. It is not a feel-good, ideologically infused place to realize your Zionist or Rambo fueled dreams. This is the single most important piece of advice I can share because so many lone soldiers grow deeply disillusioned over the course of their service from their treatment by, and impression of, the army. While it is reasonable to take a grueling experience to heart, part of the disappointment lone soldiers develop comes from the unusually high ideals and strong motivations that led them to enlist in the first place. The point here is not to get rid of your idealism at the door but simply to understand what it is you are preparing to become a part of.

2. Do not forget why you choose to serve

Despite the fact that the IDF is essentially a military---rather than a Zionist-- institution, it is still valuable to draw strength from the values and dreams that led you to enlist. Hence, at least once a week you should reflect on the ideals—Zionism, violent videogames, a desire to be all you can be, etc.—that led you to choose to become a soldier. This is a valuable exercise despite, really because, the army itself can be so ideologically empty. It is important to reconnect to what inspires you, even if that dream does not quite jive with the reality.

If dwelling on shattered dreams only leads to disillusionment, then spend time instead reflecting how your service is truly a unique experience. Like all soldiers, foreign volunteers—who, let us not forget, did not grow up in a country drenched in militarism where joining the army is only a matter of finishing high school— tend to forgot how abnormal it really is to fire an automatic weapon, drive around in open hummers and spend weeks at a time in high-security military bases. While such experiences are rarely fun in the conventional sense, they are “once in a lifetime” activities that, placed in the proper context, can remind a disillusioned volunteer that his service does mean something. In other words, do not become a soulless zombie just because you are stuck in a lifeless graveyard.

3. Loss of independence

Joining the army means losing your independence, signing control over your life to a big nameless corporation whose representatives—your twenty year old commanders—often make pig-headed decisions directly against your best interests. Understand this going in and perhaps you will be more prepared to deal with all the frustrations that result from the lack of independence. See here for more on this theme.

4. Overcoming disappointment

Dealing with disappointment—not getting depressed over army frustrations—is essential to maintaining one’s equanimity in the army. Disappointments come early and often: not being able to attend a close friend’s wedding—or funeral; not getting selected for a desired course or unit; realizing that your service is not what you had hoped it would be, not what Yoni Netanyahu described as “to be in the army is to be inside—doing, believing, knowing that, after all, my work does bring peace closer or, at least, save lives and pushes back the threat of war from our gates.”

5. Come to terms with where you serve

Do not get too pent up with where you serve in the army. If you have a goal, go for it. But if you do not make it into the unit you dreamed of, move on.

The main reason for this advice, besides the importance of overcoming disappointment, is that serving in the army is fundamentally a rite of passage for foreign volunteers. Where you serve is far less relevant than that you serve. Army service is different for native Israelis. For ambitious locals, making it in the army—i.e. getting into an elite unit—is part of getting a leg up in Israel society, like attending an Ivy League in the States. While this may be relevant for lone soldiers that enlist straight out of high school, the majority of volunteers from abroad, especially those with a university degree in hand, will make their mark in Israeli society by virtue of their immigrant background.

I was taught this lesson firsthand the day I left my elite Air Force unit. One of the other soldiers on his way out was taking the news very badly. When I tried to reassure him that we would get over this disappointment, he explained that the two of us were coming at the army with different expectations. He had been counting on leveraging his service in our elite unit into his professional future. With my university degree and assurance of what I want to do professionally, the army for me was a one-time experience, not a critical piece in climbing up the Israeli socioeconomic ladder.

The second major reason not to get bummed out if you do not make it into your dream unit is that all combat units are far more similar than new soldiers realize. While some train more than others, the arrests and patrols (that is, the real work of combat soldiers) by a flashy unit like the Paratroopers reconnaissance battalion (Sayeret Tzanchanim) is no different than the arrests and patrols by a more modest outfit like Palchatz (the Home Front Command co-ed combat unit)—or for that matter, than the arrests by an elite unit like Shaldag. Shaldag does not spend every other weekend rescuing Jews in Ethiopia or taking out nuclear silos in Syria. Most of the time they train and twiddle their thumbs, gossiping with their friends in more active units on what it is like to actually get out into the field. Every combat unit, that is, has its own pluses and minuses but fundamentally they are equipped with the same tools and carry out the same work.

If you are just starting the army, appreciating this tip is very difficult. By the end of your service, especially if you have been exposed to a variety of units, you will easily appreciate what I have just written.

6. You are a role model

You are a role model. To everyone: friends, family and people you have never met overseas, Israeli civilians, and perhaps most prominently (and the main point I want to make here) to the soldiers that serve by your side.

If you are upbeat, with a welcoming laugh, you will not only spread good vibes. As the lone foreigner who made sacrifices they cannot imagine to serve by their side, your positive attitude will leave a lasting impression. If you are religious, your attachment to your faith will inform your fellow soldiers’ opinions about Judaism and religious Jews. Everything you do informs your peers about American Jews (or whatever your country of origin), a subject most nineteen year old Israelis know absolutely nothing about.

Lone soldiers are asked every single day by their Israeli peers why they made aliyah, why they left their home country behind for the menial life of an Israeli soldier, why they choose to make Israel their home. It pays to have a meaningful answer to this question (like this, but shorter!). Consider: Through your answer—and, more fundamentally, through how you conduct yourself everyday as a soldier—you are shaping their Zionism, their understanding of what it means to put community before the individual, what it means to make a decision as an adult to teenage kids who still live at home with their parents.

7. Excel and Give your all

The high motivation that drove you to volunteer (and your presence as a role model) means you should excel wherever you serve. Top soldier awards— and more importantly your peers’ esteem—are yours to lose. Furthermore, you should give your all throughout training: every drill, every run, every exercise. Trust me. As painful or pointless as a given sprint or physical demand may be, doing it—and doing it well—is the experience you came looking for in the army. In the moment it sucks but as Abraham Lincoln said, this too shall pass (gam ze ya'avor, in its well-known Hebrew rendering). One day you will look back and want to be able to say to yourself that you overcame the challenge kimo she’tzarich, as one should, in the best way possible.

8. Do not let the army take advantage of you

For all your determination to excel and be a role model and overcome disappointment and accept whatever unit you are in (i.e. most of the previous tips), you do not want to let the army take advantage of you more than is necessary. Volunteering to stay on base for the weekend is praiseworthy. But do it all the time and not only will your morale suffer, but your peers’ esteem will turn to pity at how much of a friar, or sucker, you are. Considering the operating credo in the army is shirking responsibility and taking advantage of others, being mister selfless can get you in real trouble. More generally, the army—as discussed above—is a bureaucratic machine that tends to take advantage of the little guy. You have to know when to push back, when to fight for the rights and respect you are owed as a soldier. See here for tips on protecting your rights and fighting the system.

9. Treasure your Garin

No one enlists in the army through Garin Tzabar because their main goal is to become friends with a group of like-minded individuals on a kibbutz. We came to serve in the army, with our garin and the kibbutz as benefits along the way. Nevertheless, your garin—or the social circle you rely on if you are a lone soldier not in Garin Tzabar—are likely to have as much an influence on your life as your time in uniform. A supportive group of fellow lone soldiers is so helpful in dealing with army annoyances and anxieties (really? read and believe). They are the people you turn to for advice and fun as a soldier and afterwards as a civilian. Far more than the soldiers you serve with, your garin friends will maintain your sanity in the army and remain active pieces of your life following the army. When I reflect on my most treasured memories from the last two years, far more of them are with my garin than I expected.

10. Treasure the Laughs

With all the stress of life as a soldier, there are endless reasons to laugh. A touch of humor keeps even the toughest of challenges—when you are short of sleep, overcome with pain, hating everything and everyone around you—in perspective. Because even when our ideals are crushed, laughter can still save us. To see what I mean, see here or do what I do and laugh at all the silly slang soldiers use.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Common Concerns: Gadsar vs. Gdud

Coming from overseas to volunteer in the Israeli army is a gutsy move, by definition laced with a minefield of unknowns. By sharing my own story, this blog is an attempt to help others best navigate that minefield. Sometimes common concerns get lost in my story, however, and so I am going to try and tackle some of these concerns. If you have any questions you would like to see me address, please post them in the comment sections and I will do my best to get to them in due time.

The Question:
I am a guy getting ready to enlist in the infantry. Should I serve in the regular brigade (the gdud) or try out for the special-forces reconnaissance battalion (the gadsar)?

Every motivated male IDF volunteer faces this question. Lets start with some brief background for the uninitiated (to skip to my answer, jump down to the third paragraph).

After getting assigned to one of the army's five infantry brigades (Givati, Golani, Kfir, Nachal, Paratroopers), new recruits have the chance in the first few weeks to try out for the brigade's special-forces battalion, colloquially known as the sayarot and more properly termed the gadsar (shorthand for gdud sayeret, reconnaissance battalion).

The try-out is three days of relentless sprints and crawls, more or less the same as gibush matkal (the tryout for the army's most elite units). Following the try-out, new recruits are assigned to one of the brigade's three regular battalions (the gdud) or to one of the three companies (Palsar, Palchan or Orev) that make up the gadsar. Unlike gibush matkal, where the elite units take the guys they want (i.e. luck aside, the best guys get selected), standing out in the gadsar gibush does not guarantee selection. The army wants to keep some of the best guys in the regular infantry (the gdud) and so not all the best guys are chosen for gadsar.

Is it better to serve in the Gadsar than the Gdud? Most gung-ho volunteers seem to think so, following the conventional wisdom that the more "elite" a unit is, the better. Based on my experience, gadsar may be better than gdud in the following four ways:

1) Pride
The pride you have in where you serve does wonders for the experience. And while every battalion has its own traditions (and t-shirts, and cheers, and sponsors...), the nature of being in a more selective and more respected unit means that gadsar tend to have more pride than gdud.

2) Higher Quality Peers
The guys you serve with do more to determine your time in the military than anything save for combat experience. Because gadsar selects its soldiers, and because gadsar is viewed as the better place to serve, the guys there tend to be, on average, more responsible, intelligence and ambitious than their peers in the gdud. I write this with some reservation because while conventional wisdom insists it is true, my personal experience leaves me unconvinced.

3) Training (navigation, krav maga, ...)
A gdud trains for seven months (basic and advanced training) and then are assigned to kav (front-line duties). Gadsar train for a year. The extra training time is filled with specialized courses (far less glamorous than they sound!), krav maga sessions and, primarily, field navigation. If you really want to be exposed ('train' is too strong a word for the slapdash regime soldiers receive) to IDF navigation and krav maga, then go for gadsar over gdud. Every gadsar also takes the two week paratrooper course, so unless you are in the Paratroops Brigade (where everyone, gdud and gadsar alike, do jump course), another key difference between gdud and gadsar is getting to jump out of a plane.

4) Active Service
Following training, combat soldiers do three things for the rest of their service: a) more training, b) war, c) patrols, arrests and guard duty along the border or occupied territories (duties collectively referred to as kav). Nowadays there is little difference between what the gdud and gadsar do on kav - depending on where they serve, the gadsar will do more arrests, have less (boring) sentry shifts, and more down time but the trend is towards both units pulling similar tasks. At times of war, like Lebanon in July 2006 or Gaza in January 2009, everyone is deployed and depending on the scope of the conflict, no unit will necessarily see more action than any other. That said, in a limited war, the gadsar are called up before the gdud. In a more expanded conflict (like Lebanon 1982), the gadsar would theoretically go first and provide the reconnaissance for which they are trained.

So where should you serve? The answer comes down to time and personality. The less time you serve (i.e. less than the normal three years), the more you should prioritize the gdud. I have written elsewhere about where to serve if you want to maximize your taste of action (see that article for whether or not gadsar actually requires one to serve the full three years, regardless of age). The more your prime motivation is to soak up Israeli culture and do your time, the more the answer is gdud. The more you are a self-starter that does not let your surroundings psyche you out, all the more reason to go with the gdud. If your idea of success is getting into the most well regarded college, if you are desperate for jump course, krav maga and land navigation and if you are willing to possibly sign for the full three years, then gadsar is for you.

In short, if you are going to serve the full three years, gadsar is the better bet than gdud. If you are serving less time (a possibility even in the gadsar, despite the official rules saying otherwise), then the question becomes more about how you prioritize the four factors discussed above.

In my case, I chose gadsar over gdud because I wanted the extra training perks like navigation and krav maga. I was not concerned with the reputation of where I served, nor am I convinced that the quality of the guys differs greatly between gadsar and gdud. With little personal experience on kav and none with war, my sense is that had I gone with gdud over gadsar, as a soldier serving just two years I would have had more front-line experience and leadership opportunities.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 & Chafshash: A Day that will Live in Infamy

The anniversary of 9-11 is a day for solemn reflection. This year however, the tenth anniversary of the devastating terror attacks was a day for incomparable joy. For me, at any rate. After two years in uniform, and two final months of senseless annoyance, today--September 11, 2011--I left the army. While my formal exit is not till October 12, today I began the customarily vacation (known as chafshash, chofesh shichrur) soldiers receive before leaving the army. And so at least in my world, modern America's day of infamy now has something of a silver lining.

It is a strange day to be leaving the army. Besides the ironic overtone of 9/11, I am discharging as Israel's enemies are showing their teeth. The Palestinians are threatening a third intifada on the heels of trying to win independence next week at the UN. Iran's nuclear weapons program continues with no restraint in sight. And two longtime quasi-friends, Turkey and Egypt, are acting like mortal foes. Just yesterday, mobs in Cairo torched the Israel Embassy even as the post-Mubarak military leadership makes vain excuses and shamelessly imprisons American-Israeli Ilan Grapel. Just last week, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan suspended ties with Israel and threatened to send Turkish warships on patrols off of Israel's coast. When Israel's least worrisome border lies in the north with Hezbollah, the strategic danger facing the country is pretty obvious.

On the morning of 9/11, I was not thinking grand strategy. Joy and sorrow wrestled for my attention. The joy came from not only leaving the army but finally having the chance to put to use one of the Israeli combat soldier's most prized possessions: the teudat lohem (combat soldier ID-card). Israeli soldiers normally have to be in uniform to take advantage of the free travel privilege accorded to members of the military. With a teudat lohem, a soldier can dress anyway he wants as he travels freely aboard any bus and train in Israel. Combat soldiers receive the sought after card two-thirds of the way through their service (at the end of their second year, in other words). Since I am only serving two years, I was supposed to receive my teudat lohem back in March. Per the carelessness and insensitivity that reigns in the Paratroop Reconnaissance Battalion (i.e., my unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim), I did not receive my card until last week. One of the joys of chafshash for a combat soldier is maximizing his travel privileges during his final weeks in the army. I am excited at the chance to take advantage and finally see some of the country I moved to and have defended for the last two years.

While I had the joy of a teudat lohem in my hand, the absence of military pins on my chest was cause for sorrow. Minutes before leaving my base, I discovered that one of the twenty year old drivers attached to my unit had stolen my pins when he went home on Thursday for the weekend. Military pins represent where a soldier serves and are the main keepsake he takes from the army. Two of the pins stolen from me are worn only by soldiers that completed fourteen months of rigorous combat training in the Paratrooper Reconnaissance Battalion. I received these two pins at the ceremony last March when I was finally made a lohem, a combat soldier, in the Israeli army.

The third pin that was stolen from me is the paratrooper wings (known as kanfatz) that I received in May 2010 for completing five military parachute jumps. My wings had belonged to our course instructor, who had personally given me his old-school wrought iron insignia as the best soldier in the course. While I was saddened at the robbery of the two lohem pins, the loss of my parachute course instructor's wings left a special pain. Completing that course, and winning the plaudits of the instructor, had been one of my most cherished accomplishments as a soldier. Even as someone that tends not to idolize his possessions, losing those wings hurts. Especially because they were not lost but were stolen, taken by a fellow soldier as I am literally exiting the army forever.


For several days following Sunday, September 11, I tried to recover the pins that were stolen from me. I tried to reach out personally to the drivers, sending them a message that I had no interest in them getting punished and just wanted my pins back. I got no response. I tried commanders, bugging the lieutenant of my former combat squad and the Rasar, the desk officer that had served as my final superior. None of them expressed any interest in helping me out. Robbery is so taken for granted in the army that they were not interested in holding the thief accountable. The only advice they had for me was to go to a military surplus store and buy imitation pins--something I have no interest or intention of doing.

Losing my pins on the last day of my normal service to a petty thief hurts. If there is a message being sent, it seems to be that I must leave the army as I arrived, leaving aside any mental or physical impressions that came my way over the last two years.