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.
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:
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.
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