Thursday, 27 March 2014

Reflections on Basic Training

Well it's been a while. Not for lack of want or motivation to write, but that I simply didn't know what to write. There are all sorts of restrictions I have on what I can and cannot include that I thought I'd leave it to a general musing, post-Tironut (basic training).

I've been serving now for just over four months, and I have loved every moment of it. However, the army teaches you that love for what you do is not necessarily in the specific moments, but in the bigger picture of it all (though there are very many positive, specific moments). The sensation of your feet burning in pain on a march is not exactly enjoyable, but if you look past that and realise that all this is to make you a better soldier, all becomes easier.

So what does basic training look like? It's full of a lot of discipline, a lot of fitness, a lot of shooting, and a lot of being on your feet. There are so many stories I could share from the past four months; every day (and night) is packed with training. However, I'll share here two specific stories that highlight the contradictions and paradoxes of life in the army. The first was a march we did one night. We were, as usual, in the field. Training in the field means sleeping in tiny, two-man tents that, due to our unwashed feet, smell awful by the second night, and subsisting off combat rations of some tuna and tinned fruit. (By the way, I can't remember the last time we weren't in the field. As the saying goes, "the field is our home, the base the hotel, and home the dream"). One late afternoon we were told to drink the usual pre-march 3 bottles of water, we geared up, and set off as it got dark. The weather at this point was grim to say the least. The wind slapped our faces, the rain poured down, and the cold got into our bones. That's not some overly poetic way of describing it, it really felt like that. Carrying all our gear, keeping up with the pace whilst trekking up and down mountains and ravines got us hot and sweaty. However, the freezing cold rain on our soaking uniforms must have confused our bodies. I genuinely feared hypothermia. Every water break we had, I would start shivering, though my body was sweating profusely. My eyes kept closing from exhaustion. Still, like all these countless similar experiences we've had, we pushed each other along. As long as you keep your mind strong, your body will follow.

On the other side of the coin, I don't think I've ever quite laughed more than I did after this story. A few of us went with our Samal (the strictest commander) to the shooting-ranges. Whenever a person, an animal, or anything that could cause problems, appears within visual range of the end or the sides of the shooting range, you have to stop immediately. I've never had that until that day, when an entire herd of camels came wondering up to the edge of the range. The samal tells us that we have two minutes to shoo them away. So, as it goes with everything in basic training, we start our stopwatches and sprint to these camels. As we're having fun shooing them away, I look at my watch and see we have 40 seconds left to run back 300 metres to the range. We figured they were at a sufficient distance to start shooting again, so we start sprinting back. I look behind me just to check everyone is there, and what do I see? A line of my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, and a mad camel that is sprinting its guts out chasing us. The look of panic on our faces was priceless.

Such are the paradoxes of army life; difficult moments mixed with the comical. However, I think that to really get the most out of it, you have to smile equally during both. Yes, there are annoying moments, like having to redo tasks over and over and over again for hours, just because you didn't complete it in time at first, but a) whinging helps no one b) it makes you a better unit. On reflection, my unit's commanders were the strictest out of the Gadsar, but it payed off. We are, I would say, the most disciplined of the lot.

So what does basic training look like? Each week is dedicated to a specific subject, meaning that by the end of it all each soldier has a good grounding in the basic skills. We spend weeks in the shooting ranges, weeks out in the field learning field survival, how to deal with chemical and biological warfare, training exercises working in small teams to capture territory, and much much more. During basic training, there is great distance between the soldiers and the commanders, and nothing is done without "opening a watch", i.e. every single little thing we do has to be done in the time given by the commander (even going to the toilet). Everything thus becomes pressurised, but this only creates a disciplined unit. Tasks that once seemed impossible to do in 2 minutes, now easily takes us 40 seconds.

As the training continues, you slowly become more of a combat-ready unit. We were each given our speciality weapons. I am my unit's Negev machine gunner. Put it this way, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of a burst of one of those.

I'm writing this post from England. Having finished basic training, and just starting advanced training, the army gave me a couple weeks' leave. It was strange at first sleeping in a warm bed, waking up when I wanted, eating very well. Now I'm going to have to get back into the swing of army living. However, I have had an amazing trip; seeing my family and friends. It's not easy to say goodbye again, but I'll be back for another trip soon I'm sure. Though I am away from my family, I am with the best unit during the weeks, and whenever I'm back on the kibbutz I have the greatest Garin to go back to. They really are like family to me. 

Having some fun with some old friends during my trip to the UK

The family together for a Shabbat

So we now go into advanced training, building it up so that in the end we're well-versed in brigade-wide exercises. That culminates in June when we receive our green berets. After that, we go on to our unit's specific training, dealing in counter-terrorism, explosives, navigation, communications etc.

At this point, I'm going to have to make a little plug. In short, the army does not supply us with absolutely everything we need. Added extras like warm clothes, camelbacks etc. are seen as surplus and not provided. However, to do our job most effectively, we need these. We have an online donations page at This is a great opportunity to play a part in Israel's defence. We genuinely need these donations to help us do our work. Thank you.

So what advice would I give to anybody starting the training? Never lose sight of the bigger picture. Running from here to there, and back again countless times as punishment is never fun. Crawling 400 metres with the 7.6kg Negev machine gun and 30kg of ammo on your back is never fun. Crawling up a hill just to eat your lunch of tuna and some peanuts is never fun. Battling your way up a mountain whilst choking on tear gas is never fun. However, all these experiences only make you stronger and only bring you together as a team. What's more, the Zionism that might have brought you to that point will take you to the end of each of these experiences too. To be training in the first Jewish army in 2000 years is a privilege. Privileges like that are enough to make you smile through it all.