Roxanne, My M16
The IDF is a weird place, and it takes a lot to get used to it. Even in non-combat positions. To the degree that I named the assault rifle I was given for only three weeks and was forced to part with at the end of training. Why? Hopefully you'll understand by the end of this piece. But in the meantime, I want to share with you my experiences thus far with being a “Jobnik”, a non-combat soldier in the IDF.
Before anything, I must say this. There is glory, pride, and responsibility in being a jobnik. One could argue that life as a jobnik doesn't require as much bravery as a combat soldier, and they would be right. By definition, most non-combat jobs are not inherently dangerous. In fact, most of them are safe and secure, many in offices and away from the battlefront. But if you made aliyah and decided to serve in the army, it took bravery to make that decision regardless of where you end up serving, and anyone should be impressed. I remember how after we watched a film about Michael Levin Hy”d during training, my fellow soldiers came up to me to tell me how impressed they were with my decisions as a Lone Soldier, despite the fact that Michael Levin was a paratrooper, and my army career will likely be based behind a desk. One involves the risk of life, but both involve incredible lifestyle changes and integration into a new system, which are hard to say the least. And both will have their highs and lows, and I've seen jobniks who have a more difficult service than combat soldiers, because it is much harder to see the fruits of your labor if your job in the army isn't done in the field, and the tasks you are given are more subdued than your friends in combat. You don't see as much action, and you'll be more frustrated with your work. You won't have adventures like your friends will. But you are still serving Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, and you should remind yourself of that always.
Most Anglo Olim I meet who are going to the army, at least the guys, want to serve in combat. As my Tzav Rishon drew closer, I prepared myself for going into tanks (Shiryon) with a few friends. I was ready for it. And then the results told me my asthma would prevent me from combat. When the soldier who works in the Machal office called me up, it sounded like someone had died. Telling a guy he's not fit for combat is apparently some of the worst news you can give anyone. Ever. But I dealt with it, spoke it over with people, and it didn't bother me so much. I figured that whatever they were going to do with me would help the state somehow. And then I picked up the phone and got in touch with a high ranking cousin who works in intelligence.
You see, as a jobnik, there are good jobs (army spokesperson, intelligence, foreign relations), there are “eh” jobs (organizers, office work), and then there are the kind of jobs your mother warned you that you'd best do well in school or you'd become one of them (truck driver, army “chef”). The important thing is to immediately start looking at the options. Don't cut corners, don't take anything as a given. Be pushy, be insistent, talk with friends who have friends who dated someone who knew a guy somewhere. Protexiot (connections) of any kind are incredibly important, even the weirdest ones. Make sure to search the web for more information, and then check with people who were actually in the job. Certain positions sound great in theory, and then end in three years (or however long you are serving) of frustration, boredom, getting a new stripe every ten or eleven months, and then leaving and going to India. But if you can get in with the right people, and find yourself in the right job, then you've got in made...in theory.
Well, I spoke with lots of people, and learned about the intricacies, ups and downs of each job. However, nothing was set in stone yet, and I went into basic training without a clue as to where I would be at the end of it. So began my basic training, full of doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and excitement. I'll spare you the details of Yom HaBakum, the first day in the army, because, let's be honest, there's nothing exciting to tell you. Shots, X-rays, bank accounts. One piece of advice. Don't leave your phone in your bag when they tell you to. Otherwise, unless you packed a library in your pockets, you will be incredibly bored. Without a doubt. Also, savor the Bakum shnitzel, it will be your first bite of army food, and trust me, for the most part it only goes downhill from there. I'll give you one more tip before you come to Tironut Efes Shtayim, jobnik basic training. Pray. Pray as hard as you can that you won't be placed in Machane Shmonim. I had the zechut of being in Machane Shmonim, a place which is full of lizards, cats, wasps, and lots of mold. The base in on the verge of collapse, and nothing seems to have changed since it was constructed by the British mandate. So why do I call it a Zechut? Because, as I have been told, it is the bottom of the barrel, and it can't get worse than M.Sh.
You arrive in your base at night when you're exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and looking for the first sign of something that looks like home. It'll hit you the minute you put on your uniform, but also when you finally get to the base, that you are officially not in Kansas anymore. Don't worry. The army is probably doing this to you as some tactic of turning you into a more mature person. I mean, no matter how old you are, arriving in a strange place at night is sure to weird you out. I drafted on a Thursday, so eighteen hours after getting onto base I was home for Shabbat. But those eighteen hours were weird. They were my first encounter with my tent, my army “bed”, and my army “mattress”. I wasn't so thrilled, but then again, I wasn't thinking it was going to be a five star hotel either. So whatever. I went home in the morning after filling out some forms and enjoyed my first free public transit. Not too exciting.
The next week was when things got up and running. That week was mostly a bunch of classes and getting to know the staff. But by Tuesday, I had met the love of my training- my lovely M16 long, which I named Roxanne. This gun was to be my best friend the entire time. She was to be with me at all times. Advice? DO NOT LEAVE YOUR GUN. Better if you don't even take it off except when changing, in the restroom, and in the shower. Leaving your gun is grounds for punishment, punishment like having to stay a few hours late on the base on Friday when everyone else is going home. Not fun. Take care of the gun, get to know it, and do with it whatever they tell you. That includes putting the gun under your mattress at night. Commanders come and steal the gun in the middle of the night if you aren't doing that, and that will also get you in trouble. I had a friend who put his gun next to his bed, and was holding the strap as he slept. The Samal (the guy who takes care of discipline and then like) took the strap off of the gun and took it away, and then woke my friend up. The kid was in shock, what had happened to his gun. Don't let it happen to you.
Another few points of advice. Don't complain. Unless something is physically causing you pain or danger, or you feel your rights are being violated, don't complain. You are going to eat terrible good, sleep on a bed which is absurdly uncomfortable, and your boots won't fit perfectly. Your blisters will have blisters, and after a bunch of pushups you'll just want to be back in that terrible bed I mentioned before. But don't worry. It's all for only three to five weeks, and complaining just will not help. Make sure you get all your rights as a lone soldier. Don't settle for anything less. If you have a right to a Yom Siddurim, you take it. If you have a family event, get off for it. The commanders aren't there to make your life difficult. They are there to make you a good soldier, and part of that is to ensure that you are satisfied and that your life is in order. Make sure you keep your attitude positive. I don't mean just not complaining, I mean smiling at every chance you have. In our Machlaka, we always managed to get up from pushups with smiles on our faces, and that changed the game entirely. We had so much fun doing them that pushups became a prize our commanders would give us before meals. We would all get in formation, get in position, and scream the count as we went down. Everyone loved it, even those in really bad shape.
Also, enjoy the company you're with. If you're going to be sharing a bathroom, showers, and a tent with people, it's not worth it to be upset with them or have beef with them. They're going to be the ones you'll have inside jokes with, they're the ones who will be leading the dinnertime discussions, and they're going to be the ones who worry for you when you don't eat breakfast ever (yup, that was me). It's a brother/sisterhood of people who don't mind eating Bamba which doesn't just contain germs from some else, but also the grease from their gun, of soldiers who will record happy birthday messages for your family members. Get used to them, cut them some slack, and give them and yourself as many reasons as you can to smile and laugh (but not when a mefaked is watching).
Make time for your spirituality. Not just because you're religious. Do it because there are outlets and air conditioning in the Shul. Your little time to daven or learn can become the most enjoyable part of your day. Shabbat in the army is one of the greatest things ever. You eat, you sleep, no one tells you what to do, and the food is considerably better than it is during the week (but then again, negative one is greater than negative two...). But the most magical things, if you're in a religious plugah, come before Shabbat and on Friday night, when the Chiloni mefaked explains to you the halachot of carrying a gun on shabbat, and you'll see the friends you thought weren't religious put on their kippot and sing Kabbalat Shabbat louder and with more energy than you ever could. There are few words other than magical that accurately describe that kind of experience.
Most importantly, remember that what you are doing is incredible. People will respect you to no end for it. Right before my Tekes Hashba'a my Mefaked sat me down for a personal evaluation, with a huge smile on his face despite the army's requirement for distance between commander and soldier. He told me my scores (yes, you are graded on certain things in the army), and then said something I don't think I'll forget for a long time. “When I meet people like you, I react the way you said every Israeli you meet reacts: what an idiot. You left behind everything you had, your friends and family, everything, back in America or wherever you came from. But then I get to know them, and I realize that everything is back there except for your heart, which is here, and that is more important than anything else. All the commanders here call you “the big Zionist”, and we all respect you to no end and are impressed with you”. I literally almost cried, but what he said was important for any Oleh or Olah who has joined the army. Yeah, it's hard. You'll do more pushups than you want, run more than you can, and have to pick up individual leaves out of a rock garden which serves no purpose at all, except to fill your time.
Sometimes you'll come back to the tent completely exhausted with no will to do anything but shower and pass out, and then you'll remember that you've still got to call your mom. Do it. She only insists on hearing from you so much because she is so unbelievably proud of you. Take as many pictures as you can take without getting in trouble and send them to your friends. They're proud of you too.
Don't forget what it took to get here, and the motivation you had when you began. That will become the main force to move you in this hard time. I'm proud of the fact that there were nights when I almost cried and felt like I made a mistake. But the fact that I put up with it ensured that the next time I cried in the army was when I was handed my certificate for being outstanding soldier in my Machlaka. It pays off, and if you're not proud of yourself yet, there are dozens of others who are.
You are truly living the dream. Don't forget that. Hopefully your placement, training, and service will be easy and enjoyable, and remember, brave soldier: measure a person not by the strength of their arms, but by the strength of their resolve. עלו והצליחו!!!