Friday, 28 October 2011

Staff Sgt. Sank

Once again I have found myself at the 'Bach Tzanchanim' (training base for paratroopers), this time as part of a new temporary job as a commander. While the rest of my company starts a new 'kav' in the West Bank, I have been living it up for the past couple of weeks.

The moment we were all waiting for...

First things first, however. Thankfully, our prayers were answered last tuesday, when Gilad Shalit was released from captivity after five years and four months. I doubt there is one person reading this that did not know of his release or watch the events of last week unfold. For me personally, it was a joyous and highly emotional day. On the day itself, I left the Bach in the morning, in order to go home for the second part of Sukkot and the weekend that followed. That morning, along with the other commanders who I'm with in this current 'tafkid' (job), we arrived at the central bus station in Tel Aviv, in order to go home. We were all very agitated to get home and sit in front of the TV to see everything that was going on. As we walked over to the platform we needed, there was a big crowd blocking our way. Those who are not familiar with the bus station of south Tel Aviv, should understand that a huddled crowd in that area is commonplace and normally means some sort of incident involving misbehaving drunkards and the resulting containment by the police. Thus, I assumed it was another of those mishaps, but as I walked past, I realized that everyone was crowded round this tiny television inside a cafe that was showing the news. It was still quite early in the morning, so it was a long time before Gilad arrived in Israel, yet tens of people were fixated to the screen, in order to get an update on the situation. It reiterated to me the importance of last week's events to every single person in this country. I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV at home and I am not ashamed to say that when I saw the footage of him saluting the prime minister while exiting the helicopter in full uniform, I had genuine tears in my eyes. Without entering the debate about his release and the prisoners we sent back, seeing him back home in Israel is truly ground-breaking, in terms of what this country does for each and every one of its citizens. I could literally write a whole blog on how much this means and it was undoubtedly, one of the most momentous days in Israel's history and is fantastic to see him home.

The soldier returns home and is received by the Chief of Staff.

After such a deep and touching subject, it's hard to move on to talk about the rest of my week but, just like Gilad needs to try to move on and live a normal life, so will the contents of this blog. A few days after my return from London marked my two year anniversary of being in the army. This means a couple of things; primarily, that I have only got six more months left of service. Finishing four fifths of my total time as a soldier is astounding and now (but not during the past two years) it seems to have flown by! Now that I am two years into the army, in the addition to the fact I am qualified '08' (commander), I therefore move up a rank from sergeant to staff sergeant, with the official translation of the rank 'samal rishon' being "sergeant first class"!!! Now I have the 'samal rishon' rank sewed on my 'madey aleph' (dress uniform), as well as on one pair of my 'madey bet' (work uniform), while I am in this current 'tafkid', of which I will explain momentarily. Being a 'samal rishon' gives you a lot of respect within the army as it shows you are no longer a youngster. This is seen especially when traveling to and from the army, where I have seen young soldiers subtly glancing at the ranks on my uniform; most probably thinking how far they are away from those sacred patches!!!

Me and my new ranks; a 'falafel' in the centre of three lines.

So now to this new 'tafkid' that I keep mentioning. As of last week, I am currently a 'mefaked' in 'achana l'makim', which means that I'm a commander in the preparation for commanders' course within the paratroopers. In a sense, I am being a 'mefaked' for the would-be commanders from the paratrooper brigade, by preparing them for 'makim' (commanders' course), which they start in a few weeks. Every person who goes to commanders' course from the paratroopers (like I did a little over six months ago -, goes through this three week preparation before they start the real course. This 'tafkid' is not the most exciting in the world, as I am more or less just babysitting the soldiers; taking them to the dining room, keeping them quiet in lessons and telling them what time to go to bed. Yet, it is a 'tafkid' nonetheless and it's another exciting experience for me at being a 'mefaked'. Like I said, I am mainly with the soldiers to keep an eye on them, but I still hold some authority over them and have the responsibility to care for all their needs over the next couple of weeks. I am a lot older (in army age) than all of my soldiers, of which I have 13 guys from 101, so they are both intimidated by me and interested to hear of my experiences in the army of 'kav' and of 'makim'. These feelings of both respect and fear that they have towards me, allows me to be more of a commander than the 'tafkid' needs me to be!

My soldiers in the shooting range last week.

Being back at the 'Bach' again as a 'mefaked' is so much fun. As a soldier in basic training on the 'Bach', I was always taking orders, running to be on time and had little freedom whatsoever. Now it is the complete opposite; being an experienced 'lohem' (fighter) with ranks on my uniform means I can go almost anywhere I want on the base. The best thing, however, about being back on the 'Bach' is seeing my old soldiers when I was a 'mefaked' a couple of months ago during pre-basic training ( Although I only had those soldiers for a fortnight, I definitely made a lasting impression on them and, of course, one always remembers their first ever commander. So walking through the 'Bach' means every so often, a former soldier of mine shouts "Mefaked Sam" and runs up to me to say hello. Or, in some cases, the soldiers are with their current basic training commander and are still very much at distance. Thus, when they see me, I can see that they've recognized me by the look on their face, but are unable to come over to me because they are walking in line or something like that! They are almost all "grown up" having nearly finished basic training and it nice to think that it was me who had the first impact on their service as a soldier.

I have a couple more weeks left of this current 'tafkid', after which I will return to my company, which has just started a new 'kav' in the West Bank. The week I go back to my company also marks my platoon becoming veterans, a very significant and beneficial event, of which I will explain in the next blog.

There is only one way to end this week's blog...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Fasting in Lebanon

After being in London for thirty days, I was hoping for an easy transition back into the army routine, but that was one of the craziest weeks I've ever had. I was only in the army for seven days, yet still managed to spend Yom Kippur on base, finish the 'kav' in Lebanon and then complete one of the hardest field exercises the IDF has to offer. This all is but a speck on what is surely the most important thing to have happened in the last five years.

Firstly, my return to the army after a full month off was actually very smooth. Not only was I looking forward to seeing my friends and getting back into the swing of things, but the knowledge that in six months time I'm done with the army helped me to return with a smile on my face. Everyone was happy to see me and hear of my stories from back home, but as ever, any extra manpower in the 'pluga' (company) gives everyone a boost. A mere few hours after being back on base and officially the gdud's property once again, I was thrown straight into the deep end and into something I'd never done before. Due to my status as an '08' soldier, one that has finished commanders' course, I am therefore qualified to be a commander of one of the vehicles of a 'siyur' (mounted patrol along the border) and this is what I was assigned to do shortly after arriving on base. I cannot talk about what a 'siyur' entails, but I can say that I did have a certain amount of responsibility and was responsible for a number of soldiers. Realistically, I didn't have to do that much, although it did show me that my 'mem mem' (platoon commander), who has become like a good friend as well as being my commanding officer, has a certain level of trust in me. It was a new experience to be in somewhat of a minor authorative role in the field (as supposed to when I was a commander on the training base) and although it was slightly daunting at first, I started to relish the experience.

Mid-siyur shopping in a petrol station!

Last week was Yom Kippur and it was my first and will be my only YK in the army. For the previous two YKs I was in my old kibbutz, Ortal, where I simply fasted and just tried to pass the time, much like I used to do when in England. This year, however, I was in very different circumstances, albeit not to far away from my old kibbutz. Along with about just half of the soldiers in the pluga, I started the fast on a big meal and then went to the Kol Nidre service at the tiny mobile synagogue on the base. I was a bit apprehensive about going to prayers, but it turned out to be a very meaningful service and something that I won't forget easily. The fact that it was all a bit patched together just added to it's specialness, whereby everyone gave input to a part of the service, giving it a multicultural atmosphere of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Moroccan and even Ethiopian themes. It really encapsulated the beauty of Israel. At one point I accidentally lent on the light switch and turned off the lights, so one of the Druzi drivers was called in to turn them back on (!), again the beauty of Israel in it's most simplest forms. On Yom Kippur itself, I was on siyur for the majority of the day, so the fast was not easy at all, as we were effectively not resting. Being on border patrol during YK is one of the most unique thongs one can do, knowing that I was protecting Israel's northern border so it's citizens can go to synagogue in peace is exceptionally rewarding. We broke the fast on coffee and cookies while overlooking the landscape of southern lebanon, without a doubt, an unforgettable Yom Kippur!

My bed on 'kav'.

This week also marked the end of 'kav tsafon' (northern border deployment) for my gdud. My friends all said that it was one of the worst periods of their service for a number of reasons and were thrilled to be leaving. Luckily for me, I was absent for the majority of the 'kav', having had the role as a commander for a couple of weeks and then being in England for month. After leaving the north, the whole 'gdud' did a field exercise near the dead sea. I had heard that it was going to be hard and having not really done anything like that in as much as a year, I was actually excited to do the challenge. However, the reality was a lot harder than I'd imagined. We walked from 8 in the evening until 5 in the morning, covering over 20km of mountainous desert; 9km of which, were done with open stretchers. Once we finished all the walking, then the actual battalion exercise began, which lasted several hours, meaning several hours of us to runing up hills in the scorching heat. I can honestly say now, it was one of the hardest things I've done in the army. Walking up and down hills for an hours and hours ("hills" doesn't give credit to what we climbed) with my unbelievably heavy bag is no easy task. The pain was everywhere; from my burning shoulders (struggling to cope with the weight) and excruciating lower back (having to hold up the massive bag), to my legs (striving to push the rest of my body up the steep gradient) and all the way down to my feet, whose state is so severe that it's too horrific to put a picture of them up on the blog. How can one get through a night like that when it genuinely seems humanely impossible and it feels you can't physically continue. This question is what sums up what being 'lohem' (combat soldier) in the IDF is all about. As I walked along beside my 'mem mem', I feel as though we shared each other's pain; hearing him grunt on the numerous 'aliyot' (uphill climbs) and then him hearing me sigh once we would reach every summit. The army is all about being there for the guy next to you, whether its your friend or your officer. It's those sort of hellish nights that builds this army into the strongest in the world and I'm proud to say that we all finished it together.

Grounding of the coffee - a ritual activity for army 'youngsters' in my company.

I can't believe and never thought I would be able to write this sentence in one of my blogs, yet the news on Tuesday night was that Gilad Shalit is coming home. When hearing of the news in the army, we found ourselves overcome with joy and emotion and spontaneously started embracing one another. Without going into the whole debate, it is 100% the right decision from the government and it has taken far too long. I pray that the exchange goes as planned and that I'll be able to write on the next blog how it is fantastic to see him back with us and in full recovery. Imagine the moment when he'll actually walk into the room and reunite with his parents; it's very hard to describe the happiness and relief and all the other emotions that will be felt for every single Israeli. I have found myself a few times this week in pure disbelief at the thought of him coming back, it has gone on for so long that there was a genuine fear of him never ever returning. As I have said a few times before on the blog, Gilad Shalit's fate has naturally been the most prominent issue in the Israel media for five years and the campaign for his release has been ongoing and has never really slowed down. It is just unbelievable that after all the years of marches and posters and songs, he is finally coming home to us.

I am back to the army tomorrow but should be out again on Wednesday for Sukkot Bet (I am currently out for Sukkot Aleph). In the next blog I'll be sure to write about entering my final six months of my service and what that means. Also next week, we'll be starting a new 'kav'. Hag Samaech to you all and hoping for a safe return for Gilad...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Goodbye again London

I am now back at my flat in Tel Aviv, having flown in from London yesterday, after being there for the last month. I had the most amazing time at home with all my friends and family; doing everything I wanted to do and seeing everyone I wanted to see. Whereas last year, it was very hard for me to come back to Israel after the month back home, this time it is a completely different story and I am feeling fine to go back to the army tomorrow.

What a month! Pretty much like last year's trip but probably even better. For four weeks, I endulged myself on all the things I miss about London; from watching Sky TV at home to playing football with my mates. Apart from the two hour session of playing football, I did zero exercise (transition back to the army may be hard work then!) and took no restraint to the amount of food I ate and time I spent lying around being lazy. But then again, that is what the 'meyuhedet' (special holiday) is all about and after more than a year of not being home, I have to admit that I deserved it. Every day was simply fantastic and I spent some quality time with my parents (and all my family) during Rosh Hashannah. Going to shul and feeling part of the festival is actually somehting I don't really do in the surroundings of the army or in Tel Aviv, so that was also a nice part of the holiday. One of the main highlights has to be all the Tottenham matches that I managed to get tickets for, and going to Spurs with my papa (just like I used to in the old days) was extremely special. The fact that we won every game while I was in England, including a fantastic defeat of our rivals Arsenal, made my friends try and convince me to stay in London as I became somewhat of a lucky charm! As much as I don't ever regret leaving London, there are a lot of things that I miss and it's also important to rememeber that this month was a holiday for me from the army, maybe this explains why I had such an incredible then. Coming back here this time was a lot easier than last year and I think the fact that I came home to my apartment in Tel Aviv has a lot to do with it.

With my new baby cousin, Harry, who was born while I was in London.

One of the other highlights from my trip was when I went up to a couple of my friends' universities to visit. Since I was in England during September, most of my friends had already gone back to university and since I've never experienced the uni lifestyle, I went there for a few nights. It was a crazy couple of nights, filled with alcohol, partying and general madness, and it was great to catch up with all my friends and blow off a lot of steam with them. Coming home from the universities left with me some interesting thoughts however. While all my friends are living the non-stop party lifestyle, where they literally do nothing all day, don't turn up to lectures and then party all night, I am leading somewhat of a different style of life. When comparing who is doing something more meaningful or fulfilling, I'd say it's easy to see that the army and aliyah has definitely given me a purpose to life. Nevertheless, I came away a tiny bit jealous and kind of frustrated that I'll never experience what they're doing, which is three years of care-free, student living. Although my plan is to go to university here in Israel once I'm done with the army, it's not the same experience (not necessarily worse, just different and more mature) as the one my friends have been doing for the last three years. It doesn't make me regret my decisions at all it just something that I won't expereince fully, but then again, in life, there are many things one will never experiences and I suppose I have to always look back on the fact that in the long run what I am doing now and continue to do post-army is what really matters.

With my best friends on a night out at uni - and, yes, I am wearing an army t-shirt!

As I neared the end of my amazing trip I started to say goodbye to my various friends and family. Goodbyes are alway so difficult, I mean how do you say to a good friend "see you later", when really "later" means in a years time. As much as I try and keep in good contact with my mates it is quite hard due to all the circumstances, so this trip where I see them a lot for a concentrated amount of time is great but something out of the norm. Although when I was back home, everything felt like normal after five minutes and seeing everyone again so many times in such a short period is great, it makes it even harder to say goodbye. In the end though, there's nothing you can do but part ways and as fun as it was for the last four weeks, everyone moves on and here I am back in Israel. Saying goodbye to my parents however, is something completely different. I think I realised that the main source of any anxiety, sadness or pain that I have following time off from the army is not because I have to finish my holiday and go back to reality, instead it's the fact that I have to separate with my parents every time. I have a unique relationship with my mummy and daddy (the fact I still call them that alone shows that I clearly am still attached to them!!) and making aliyah was the hardest thing I ever had to do as it meant leaving them behind. Leaving them yesterday was as hard as ever and it's simply because I love them so much and miss them all the time.

My parents by Chinatown in London, on one of our many day trips together.

It was truly a wonderful month and something I can enjoy and be grateful for but still come back here to Israel and get on with my normal life. While last year I questioned my life here on my return from London, this time I am a lot more confident of everything and the fact that I can look forward to life beyond the army in six months time is exciting. I go back to the army tomorrow and back to my platoon on the Lebanon border, in the coming weeks there will be some interesting developments to my army service, of which I will update in the next blog. I will be closing Yom Kippur, so fast well everyone and just feel lucky you're not guarding in the scorching heat as I probably will!!!

Singing my heart out at Spurs.