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.

BONUS

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.

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