Monday, 21 February 2011

Sgt. Sank

What a crazy couple days I have had; all leading to me sitting back here in my room in my kibbutz, Ortal, at the start of ANOTHER regila! Yes, that's right, despite only going back to the army on Thursday, following a week's long 'regila' (holiday from the army for kravi soldiers), I was in the army approximately 48 hours before I was sent on another week's holiday!!! I will explain, as we go along...

First of all, let's start with the 'regila' that I just had, it really was a great one. I managed to see all my friends; both from my garin and guys from the platoon, as well as spending some time on the kibbutz. The highlight of the regila was probably the incredible football match where Spurs beat Milan away in the Champions League, but in general, it was a nice break from the army and I relaxed in the days and partied pretty hard in the nights. Right in the middle of my regila, I was called by the army to go to this special event in Jerusalem. The tzanchanim brigade sent a small group of soldiers (mainly officers), supposedly the "best of the brigade", to a boarding school near Jerusalem where we talked to students about their upcoming draft and how important it is to do a meaningful army service. I was obviously picked to go because of my story and when I introduced myself to all the students as a "lone soldier from London", the spotlight was immediately upon me and they were all asking the usual questions. As much as I was annoyed to give up a day of my holiday, it was definitely a worthy cause and a highly enjoyable experience to be with all these high ranking officers; including the commander of the whole brigade and the commmander of the training base, the latter of whom I am now on first name terms with!!!

Watching the Spurs game on the kibbutz - pure pride.

Another thing that happened recently was my change of ranks. I went from being a 'rabat' (corporal) to a 'samal' (sergeant). My rank changed because of the amount of time I have been in the army; all boys become sergeants after completing a year and four months of their service. So although I haven't actually done something to achieve this increase of rank, it does mean that I get to put the three stripes (which represents being a 'samal') on my aleph uniform, the uniform I wear when travelling to/from the army and for formal events. I found out, after reading about it on, that becoming a 'samal' also activates a 1.8 shekel increase in my army wage!! Putting the three stripes on my uniform is a very clear sign of being relatively veteran in the army and since I started my service before the rest of my army friends from November '09 draft (due to the fact that Garin Tzabar participants draft together in October), I am the only one in my platoon, apart from the commanders naturally, who has the priveledge of being a 'samal'!

Showing off my stripes!!!

As I do for every blog, I write down on my iPhone a brief outline of what I will write about in the upcoming post, as it is quite hard to rememeber exactly what happes over a period of seventeen days. Well, I had written a specific topic that I wanted to talk about in this blog but, as things turn out, ironically, it has become even more topical. I was going to talk about one particular thing that has been slowly annoying me in my army service. That thing is how it seems that every time I make a good friend in the army, he ends up leaving me and going to commanders' course. This happened a number of times already; with guys from both my original class on the training base and those who are with my now in the battalion, going off to commanders' course. I was never bothered about not going to 'makim' (commanders' course) as I was never much of a model soldier; staying behind to clean up or volunteering to do stuff was never really my style. I was kind of lazy and was happy to be a 'hapash' (simple soldier i.e. not a commander) for the whole of my service, as I have been very comfortable in the battalion and on the 'kav'. However (I think you can see what's coming here), the night before I went back to the army following my regila, my officer called me to tell me that I was going to 'makim'...

A couple of the guys from the 'erev mahlaka' (platoon evening) that we had on the regila. I had to say goodbye to them, as I left to 'makim' :(

For me this is a massive deal. As I said, I was never keen on going to 'makim'; content on staying a 'hapash' until the end as I have enjoyed being with my platoon and company so much. Another reason why 'makim' didn't suit me was that going to the course would mean giving up on a lot of the lone soldier rights that I take excellent advantage of, for example, taking two weeks off at Pesach when my parents come, is going to be highly unlikely if I am on the course, since every day is supposedly vital in becoming qualified. However, since being told that I would be going to 'makim', I have realised that it is an amazing opportunity and now I am desperate to go for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's another of the many experiences that I have thrived on doing throughout my whole army service; doing a three month course with guys from all the other infantry brigades (golani, givati etc) and learning how to be a commander is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is also great for your C.V. once you leave the army; to say that you were a 'kravi' (combat) soldier in tzanchanim and completed commanders' course is surely a good way to sell oneself. The more that I have convinced myself that I would never go to 'makim', makes it even sweeter that I have actually been chosen and recommended by my own commanders and it gives more determination to go to the course and really try and do well. I can't tell you enough how happy I am to have been asked and, despite being slightly skeptical at first, am now 100% focused on doing this. However, nothing is definite yet, I am first doing three weeks of prepartion for 'makim' (hence, the reason for the regila) and only after the preparation, will I be evaluated if I am suitable to go to the course. Over the next couple of weeks, I will explain in more depth the procedure of this preparation, as well as what going to 'makim' means, in terms, of the rest of my service.

I am literally over the moon about the whole 'makim' thing and now just hope that everything goes well and I end up going to the course in around a months' time. So, I'm now on another regila (!) and plan to do pretty much the same as what I did in the last one. I will be sure to write another blog after the end of the first week of the preparation for 'makim' and will let you know about what happens...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Mr Navigator

Today is the first day of my week long 'regila', a not-often-enough holiday given to combat soldiers. It's a well-earned break from the four continous months of 'kav' Gaza that tzanchanim have completed so far, although for me personally, it is like a second holiday, following the two weeks off I had with my parents recently.

The 'sho'alim' (wolves) that is my platoon.

The '17' just gone was another really good one, mainly because I managed to go home for a weekend in the middle, as part of an extended day off to sort things out on the kibbutz. It all started with this special navigation course that I was sent to, which was done with the elite paratrooper unit. At first, despite being very interesting, I just couldn't understand the whole navigation thing. Learning about topography and reading maps is not really strength of mine, but by the middle of the week I had slowly started to get it and was succeeding in the navigations. For the final exercise, we had a 12km night navigation without maps (!) and without instructors. My partner managed to get us lost for three hours in his part of the route, but I succeeded in finding all the checkpoints in my half of the navigation (albeit by luckily stumbily onto one of them) and I was able to memorize my 6km half of the route; including distances, directions and a detailed description of the surroundings. By the end of the week I had been converted to actually enjoying it all and the thrill of being in the 'shetach' (open land) alone at night with just a compass and your memory to find your way, was rather exciting. Did I forget to mention the 12kg radio that I carried on my back the whole week because my partner is more of a veteran in the army than me by a mere four months? O ye, that bit was kind of hellish. Anyway, I can now say that I am able to navigate, a skill only taught to the upper echelons of the army; like officers and elite units.

Carrying food as part of company duties in the pouring rain - but still smiling!!!

For the navigation course, we were mainly based at the paratroopers' training base, where I was situated for the first eight months of my service; completing both basic and advanced training there. Going back there was such a fun experience; watching all the 'tironim' (soldiers in basic training) running around, standing for attention and getting punished is always fun once you know that you have "been there and done that". Walking around with the red beret is also a great feeling and made me feel very veteran, as the 'kumta' (beret) is like the Holy Grail for soldiers still on that base, a right that only those who have finished the dreaded masa have. So walking around the base made us feel pretty good about ourselves and reminded me what a long time has passed since it was me standing in line outside the dining room before entering for every meal. Being back on the base also meant meeting up with friends who are now commanders themselves, which is surreal to think how they were once doing press ups with me as punishment but are now the ones punishing their own soldiers with press ups!!!

One of the funniest moments of the 'kav' so far - the patrol car getting stuck in the mud!!!

Despite all the trouble going on in Egypt at the moment, the border with Gaza has, thankfully, been pretty quiet. Nonetheless, I did manage to fire my gun over the border for the first time, albeit warning shots, which was really cool. Also, I met the regiment commander, an extremely high ranking officer, who came to visit us on base. He actually took my place on the patrol, in order to check it all out, so me and him swapped places, in a kind of football-style substitution. It was a ridiculous situation; an officer with 40 more years of army experience and 9 ranks above me (he's a general - two ranks away from chief of staff - compared to my lowly rank of corporal) coming to switch me! I decided against giving him a slap on the back and wishing him "good luck"!! These two events from the latest '17' gave me a realization of the journey I have taken. Looking at where I am now and what I've done (in this last fortnight alone) just shows how unbelievable it all is. To think about what I would worry about two years ago; whether it be to finish an essay on time or stressing about a weekend arrangement and comparing it to what I have to deal with now, not just the whole Gaza thing, but living out here on my own as a lone soldier. Looking at what I'm doing now in comparison to my old life or to my friends in university is a point that I continue to bring up on the blog, thus showing its importasnce to me and something I am extremely proud of.

My new 'kat' (butt) for my gun, which adds to the bling that everyone desires...

As much as I was looking forward to my regila this week, I could definitely tell that my Israeli friends were much more excited than me, which made me realize something. As much as I love my kibbutz, I still don't have that true "home" feeling in Israel i.e. a place I can relate to, like my home in London. This doesn't mean I am unhappy in Israel, as you know that isn't true, it's just that spending my weekends living out of a bag is sometimes very frustrating. I have come to realize that I will only have that "homey" feeling once I have a place of my own out here, which will probably be once I have been released from the army. This living out of a bag and travelling long distances at weekends is simply part of the army experience and something I have got used to. So while my Israeli mates were looking forward to a week of waking up every morning at home, like being on half term from school, for me, it's more like an extended weekend. Saying this, I do love my weekends and am obviously happy to spend a week seeing friends, spending time with my girlfriend and being out of uniform!!!

The company's goldfishes!!!

Got to go now and enjoy my week of freedom! Will be sure to post another blog at the end of the next seventeen...