Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Breaking distance

Having finishing my 'tafkid' as a commander in 'trom tironut', I am now at home for a couple before I return to my company and to the 'kav' on the northern border, where I have been absent for the last month.

My soldiers lifting me up on our last day together.

What an amazing couple of weeks I have just had being back on the 'Bach' as a commander of the newly-recruited paratroopers. It was an exhausting two weeks to say the least, being a 'mefaked' (commander) in general is hard enough, but having 42 soldiers in their first ever week in the army was a total nightmare! Despite the hardships though, this last fortnight has been one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences that I've had to date, being responsible and leading others was something that was brand new to me in the terms of the army and I absolutely loved it. Giving orders, as opposed to receiving them and being in the know, is something I've never done before in my service. That is the beauty of the first 'tafkid' (role) and I really relished having the opportunity to use the skills I learnt in commanders' course and to show my personality through my leadership of soldiers. The challenge of being responsible for 42 soldiers (which increased by four from last week) is not an easy one and the fact that this week was one of the busiest, most stressful and a complete logistical nightmare made my job even harder. Just being aware of where all my soldiers were all the time is a whole story within itself and I can already see that my phone bill this month is going to break phone network records. I think my phone is even more tired than I am, with constant phone calls to the other commanders, my soldiers and to the commanding officer, all being a regular fixture of the week. I can't begin to describe the headache that is being a commander and this is before even touching on the interaction with the soldiers themselves. Chasing up on people, building the next day's timetable, arguing with those responsible for the dining room, dealing with bus drivers, the list can go on and on. One thing this week has given me, apart from a continuous migraine (!), is a new sense of confidence in myself to deal with all those sort of things; a type of Israeli attitude that forces you to argue with everyone and push your way to the front!!!

A late-night meeting with the overall officer; long after the soldiers had gone to sleep.

I remember when I was a soldier on the 'Bach' during basic and advanced training, I used to look upon the commanders in awe and was fascinated by them and everything they did. Whether it was seeing them whisper to each other so we wouldn't hear the inside information, imagining what went on inside the commanders' quarters or the rare occasion when the 'mefaked' couldn't contain his laughter even though he was at distance with us. However, this week it was I who was doing all the things that I used to notice about my commanders. I could see how my soldiers would get all excited if I failed to keep a straight face (which happened a lot!) or I would notice the fear in their eyes if I suddenly called them out the room to speak with them. I also saw how my new soldiers would be intrigued by the way I looked in comparison to them; whether that be the sergeant ranks on 'bet' (work uniform), the red kumta or the baseball cap instead of the disgusting hat you're given in basic training. It was very fun to be "behind the scenes" for a change and see things from the mefaked's point of view, where, at the 'Bach' especially, your experience is completely different from that of the soldiers. Different yes, but less fun, absolutely not. I can definitely say that, despite all the responsibilities and headaches, being a commander is very entertaining, particularly with soldiers so early on in their army service. The fact that the other guys I was with were absolute legends (and have now become very good friends of mine), only helped to make these last two weeks such a great laugh and if the soldiers only knew what kind of nonsense we got up to in the commanders' quarters after they went to bed!

That kind of nonsnse! The aftermath of a playfight amongst us commanders.

So what was I like with my soldiers? Like I said two weeks ago, I was a lot more laid back with my soldiers in comparison to some of the other commanders. Although we were not allowed to punish them physically (press ups etc) we still had to keep them discplined, whether that be by making them stand at attention or by walking them in straight lines around the base. Some of the other commanders took the role in one certain way; shouting and screaming at the soldiers, while I took it from another angle. I barely raised my voice (talking quietly is actually more effective in terms of scaring them!!) but that was never the intention, instead I was extremely relaxed, probably too much, with my soldiers and joked around with them a lot. However, where I really excelled in my role was my attention to detail and personal care for each soldier. Even though I only had them for a little over two weeks and my job was that of a temporary/transitional commander, I thought it was vital that I looked after them and made sure they got through the start of their service without any problems. One way I did this was by learning their names and where they came from (all 42 of them!!!), of which I was the sole commander to claim to have done. I also took special consideration of the lone soldiers who were in my company; helping them with the language and with any other sorts of problems that they had; I saw their appreciation for my asistance and remembered what it was once like to be in their position. I think they were also impressed by the fact that a lone soldier who is still struggling with the language was now a commander and, to be totally honest, I am surprised as well to as how far I've come. I was by far the most popular commander in 'trom tironut', to be fair though, it suits me to be the one who preferred to be the "popular one" than the "more efficient one"; by letting my soldiers get away with things they shouldn't have!!! In the end though, my soldiers did truly appreciate the work I put in for them and were grateful for the extra effort that I made to help them in their two weeks in the army.

While they worked... I took photos!!!

The best part of the two weeks for me, was the night of the 'gibush'. The 'gibush' was a three day physical trial to get into the more elite units within tzanchanim, something which I attempted and completed in my 'trom tironut'. All but one of my soldiers went out to do the 'gibush' and a large handful even managed to be accepted into those units. After sending them to sleep the night prior to the 'gibush', we, the commanders, were then informed that we had the pleasure of given them a 'hakpatsa' (emergency wake-up call) later on in the night, in order to get them ready for the 'gibush'. This meant we had the joy of waking them all up army-style, so we all proceeded to burst into the rooms, turn on all the lights, bang on the walls and shout out the necessary instructions. That was amusing; seeing them all suddenly in shock, not knowing what to do or what was going on and then clambering around to get dressed, it's so much more fun to experience a 'hakpatsa' from the perspective of a mefaked! Asides from the initial enjoyment, the episode turned out to be something a lot more meaningful. After helping them get all their stuff ready for the impending 'gibush', I then led them all to the basketball court where they were split up into their teams for the 'gibush'. I stood by the entrance to the basketball court and embraced each soldier before he went off to his specific group and to three days of gruelling physical challenges. I gave each one an affectionate handshake, wished him good luck and then tapped him on the back before approaching the next guy. Although, like I said, I was just their temporary commander for an extremely short period of their army service, I did feel considerably connected to each of my soldiers and seeing them off like that was somewhat significant, even emotional, for me.

Mefaked Sam - with ranks on my 'bet' uniform.

The last thing I did with my soldiers was the customary ritual one does when leaving the 'tafkid' and that is to break distance. Although there was not a huge amount of distance to break, since I was very relaxed and open with my soldiers, I still broke "distance" with them and told them all about myself. They clearly all knew that I had made aliyah, I think my accent from the first minute of meeting them kind of gave myself away but it was still nice to tell them my story and then talk about all the funny things that went on (things they didn't know about and then things that happened that I didn't know about). It was simply a great couple of weeks and a fantastic experience, but more importantly I feel privileged to have take part in a form of leadership within the framework of the army. I salute all the leaders that I've had over the years, whether that be teachers or instructors on summer camp, I now know how much of a challenge it is to be responsible and to educate others. Having that experience in the army though, only increases the challenge and I'm proud to have done it. When I finally parted from my soldiers, they were all very sad to see me go and upset to learn that I wasn't going to continue as their commander for basic training.

With my soldiers, after breaking distance with them - my favourite picture!

I am now two years in Israel (my second year Aliyah anniversary passed last week) and I am still amazed by what I've been through and to where I am standing today. After finishing the 'tafkid', I was delighted to find out that my platoon was given 'regila' (five day holiday for combat soldiers), the reason why I am at home now. So, I am off until friday and then I will return to the north and rejoin my company on 'kav'...