Tuesday, 22 November 2011

ADF (American Defence Forces)

This weekend, while my soldiers are almost certainly telling their family and friends all the stories and experiences from their first ever week in the army, here I am to tell my side of the story...

What an exhausting week! I don't think I've ever worked my socks off like I did in these last five days and the 'tafkid' (role), without me knowing why, was simply ten times harder than when I was a commander of the same job, a little over four months ago. Primarily, the sheer number of soldiers around was simply staggering; both at the 'Bakkum' (the base where one drafts for the first time) and at the 'Bach' (paratrooper training base) the newly drafted tzanchanim were everywhere! I didn't think it was possible that I would overtake the number of soldiers I had last time, 42, but by the end of the week, once late-comers and others had been added, I was left with a grand total of fifty two (!) soldiers, all of whom called me today to inform me that they had arrived home safely. This draft of tzanchanim, November '11, is the biggest in the brigade's history and this only added to the work we already had. Doing this 'tafkid' meant that once again I was back at the 'Bakkum' to meet the draftees on the day they turned from civilians into soldiers. It is a dramatic transition and one of the most extreme instances of a 180 degree change in one's life that I can think of. After getting their army ID and having some injections, they then are given their brand new uniform, in which they change into. Within twenty minutes, as they stand there shell-shocked in the olive green uniform of the IDF, their world has been turned upside down and the first person they encounter on the "other side" is me!!! I did my best to ease them into that first day at the 'Bakkum', while at the same time constantly reminding them that they were soldiers now and the significance of that. This meant, even from the start, I needed to keep them disciplined; making sure they walked in lines, were presentable at all times and when speaking in front of me, addressed me as their commander accordingly, by calling me "Mefaked" and standing straight with their arms behind their backs. It all sounds a bit silly and like something out of a movie, but that is what basic training is like and can even feel like somewhat of a game, however, as a commander, you need to play that game.

No space in the rooms for us means sleeping in the corridor...

In addition to the fact that this was the biggest draft in tzanchanim's history, November '11 also marked the biggest ever draft of lone soldiers and 'olim hadashim' (new immigrants) to the paratroopers' brigade. Even though my draft is only two years prior to this current one, the difference in the amount of lone soldiers is simply overwhelming and if my mathematics are correct then there are something like six times the number of lone soldiers now, compared to in November '09! The reason for this dramatic rise is not unknown, in fact, I heard it from the horse's mouth itself, in a speech made by the 'Bach' commander to us, the commanders, in which he explained how tzanchanim were aiming to recruit more lone soldiers and new immigrants because they understand that they are generally the best and most virtues of soldiers. Coming from the 'Bach' commander himself, this is a compliment and credit to programs like Garin Tzabar and Machal that bring lone soldiers over to Israel, as well as being a tribute to all lone soldiers in the army. I wouldn't say that I'm famous, as a lone soldier or in general, but due to a mixture of this blog, the "small world" nature of the army and the fact that I have been around the army a bit (different courses, kavs and jobs), it has made me a little bit well-known within the "lone soldier world" of the army at least. Thus, they were a couple of instances this week were I was recognised by some of the new lone soldiers, who had either heard of me or read this blog. At one point while I was walking with my new soldiers (of whom I am at distance with), another new soldier shouts out, in a strong American accent "I know you, you're Sam Sank"!!! While my soldiers stood in both shock and amusement, I took him aside and then spoke to him in English for a few minutes and told him that I would help him with whatever he needed. When it comes to soldiers, I am definitely bias towards my own kin!!!

Myself and another 'mefaked' talking to some of the soldiers, unveknownst of are half attire!!!

Being a commander of these sort of soldiers is extremely difficult. When I say these sort of soldiers, I mean newly-drafted, inexperienced soldiers who are in shock from the new surroundings of being in the army and some of whom think they are still in civilian life but at a summer camp or something. One of the aspects of my role is to make sure that these guys know exactly where they are now and that is a working, discplined army, whereby combat soldiers are trained hard and face consequences for their actions. This week, I was forever reminding my soldiers of the procedures of army life; whether that be by telling them to tuck in their shirts or by checking on every single thing that they are told to do. Since they are so "young", it is impossible to trust them, not because they are not trustworthy (although some of them are not), but since they are so unfamiliar to how things work that, as one who is experienced in the army, I need to make sure that everything is done to the standards set by the army. This continuous notion of giving orders and then checking and correcting the final result is what made my week so draining and difficult, in terms of the workload. For those soldiers who were still acting with a civilian "head", my job was therefore to change that into a soldier's mindset and this ultimately meant disciplining them. I have to say, although it's never nice to see someone else suffer as you once did or in general, for me, as a lone soldier, it was very much amusing to see myself barking orders in Hebrew at these new recruits who had yet to "reset themselves" (as the army expression goes).

Phones I had confiscated from soldiers, who were using them during the day. Israel has gone iPhone crazy!!!

My most memorable moment during the last 'trom tirnout' when I was a commander, was probably the night of the 'gibbush' where I sent off my soldiers to three days of hell, after I gave them an Al Pacino style, inspirational speech and then marched them onto the basketball court before embracing each soldier. This time, the "night of the gibush" was also as memorable, but for totally different reasons. Before leading them to start the 'gibush', I was my soldiers for an hour or so to help them prepare their equipment and get them all organised. That night, however, must have been one of the coldest nights in Israel's history because I could barely function properly! Due to the upcoming 'gibush' the soldiers were forbidden to wear anything underneath their uniform as a health measure, on the other hand, I was wearing about five layers and was still freezing my bum off!!! As I then proceeded to lead them to the basketball court, I thought of the three excruciating days they had in front of them and how cold I was. Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and just re-live my whole service again because I've had the most incredible experience. This was definitely not one of those moments. After we had handed them over to those responsible for the 'gibush', along with the other commanders, I ran back to the rooms and got straight back into bed and under my covers. Sometimes it's great being commander!!!

So it was another terrific and meaningful fortnight. A lot of the times when I have been a commander, have been the most fun and most momentous throughout my whole service. This week will now probably be the last time I'll hear "Mefaked Sam", as after this 'tafkid' is finished, I am going back to my company and back to 'kav'. So I'll be sure to make it a good week...

Friday, 18 November 2011

Communal Crossword

The soldiers, of which I have been responsible for over the last few weeks, are now settled in 'makim' (commanders' course) and, as a result, signals the end of my latest role as a commander. I am home for the weeekend now but am once again at the 'Tzanchanim Bach' (training base for paratroopers) next week to start yet another job as a commander.

For the last fortnight I have been situated at the 'Bach' where I have been a commander for soldiers who were preparing to go to 'makim'. It wasn't the most strenuous couple of weeks I've ever had and, at times, the work I was doing seemed more like that of a babysitter than that of a 'mefaked' (commander). Nevertheless, I did have some responsibility and tried as best I could to have as much of an influence as possible on the would-be commanders. I felt this most during the week of navigations, where I taught and advised my soldiers the process of navigating; from reading a map, to learning how to understand and identify the terrain. For me, it was important passing on the knowledge I had to younger soldiers (some of whom may even go on to be company commanders or even higher) and I may even have a lasting influence on them, since it was their first handling of the skill. In a sense, it is a way of giving back to the army, but, more evidently, it shows the successful way in which the army works; how one generation of commanders teach the next generation and so on. In both the jobs I have had as a 'mefaked' so far, despite being temporary ones, both have had a significant influence on me and have made me feel proud of the work I've been doing. In both 'tafkids' (roles), I have played the sort of chaperone role, in the way that I have taken soldiers and got them prepared for that next step; whether it was for basic training or for 'makim'. Like, I said these 'tafkids' aren't considered prestigious like that of being a commander of basic training, however, I am very much appreciative of the opportunity I have had, especially as a lone soldier, of being a commander and affecting younger soldiers' army service.

With my soldiers the night before they left for 'makim'.

For the last night of this 'achana l'makim' (preparation for commanders' course), the overall commander of the whole paratroopers' brigade came to talk to the soldiers about the step they are taking and what that means for the rest of their service. It was a speech I've heard before during my 'achana l'makim', albeit by the previous brigade commander, but his words of leadership, responsibility and authority still inspired me greatly. However, it was his admiration and pride of the tzanchanim brigade that really affected me and reminded me how special and formidable the paratroopers are. On one distinct note, he spoke how no one can know what lies ahead, but if one day, by some certain circumstances, soldiers were needed to be dropped in enemy territory to protect our land, then it us who will take on that incredible duty. By passing jump school, each and every one of us paratroopers are qualified to undertake operational jumps and we proudly show off this qualification through the wings on our uniform. More than that though, it was his sheer confidence in the army as a whole and his way in explaining that the IDF is the modern-day bodyguard for the Jewish nation and how we will stand up and defeat any obstacle that comes our way. In no way was his promoting war, rather instilling in us the exhilirating pride to be wearing the IDF uniform and protecting this country. It is those sorts of speeches that make him a brigade commander!!!

This is me when I started the army; my uniform is fresh from the packaging and has no form of pins or tags. But a lot has changed in two years...

The 'tafkid' officially finished this morning and as my soldiers went off to the base for 'makim', I took the train home with one of the other commanders. On our train journey home, my friend and I decided to do the daily crossword from the newspaper, which happens to be my latest hobby (despite the fact I am rubbish at them since I can barely understand the clues and can only answer the questions which asks for capital cities). When we strated to struggle in a couple of the clues, the man sitting next to me looked very intrigued in what we were doing and helped out with some answers. Before long, the girl next to my friend had also joined in and the four of us completed the crossword together (at one point the girl grabbed the pen from my hand to fill in a clue!!!). It made me think how nothing of the sort would ever happen in England, where complete strangers would come together and interact on a very friendly basis. This is one of just many, in fact countless, instances I have witnessed since living here in Israel, where people simply help out each other; with hitchhiking being the obvious example. Even when calling out for someone on the street, to ask for directions or pass on something, one says "achi", which translates as 'my brother'. I have come to realise that the Israeli society is based on a mutual care for one another, most likely derived from the fact that Israel has been in difficult situations where everyone sticks together and pulls through as one. I also think it's a combination of the charitable nature of the Jewish community and the uncanny 'chutzpah' (cheekiness/audacity) of Israelis. Whatever it is, following the empowering speech from the brigade commander the night before, I realised how strong Israel is and how we will overcome anything. Feeling extremely zionist, I then proceeded to walk home in Tel Aviv's heavy rain, in what seemed an unusually pleasant and fitting reflection of how I was feeling.

... now, two years later, my uniform has changed dramatically, with the addition of pins, the beret and ranks!!!

As I said at the start of this blog, I am continuing on the 'Bach' to do yet another temporary 'tafkid' and for the next three weeks I will be a commander of 'trom tironut' (the same job I had three months ago) for the November '11 draft of tzanchanim. Once again, this means I will be a 'mefaked' of a large group of newly-drafted paratroopers in their first two weeks of being in the army. The last time I did this 'tafkid' I had one of the best periods of my whole service and absolutely relished the opportunity of being a 'mefaked' for the first time. This time, I am equally as happy to take on the challenge once again, although the novelty of being a commander has ever so slightly worn off. I was, however, somewhat looking forward to going back to my company, seeing my friends and experiencing the current 'kav', which is in the West Bank. Although, I will still get to go to 'kav' when this job is finished, I was ready to leave the 'Bach' and get back to the "real army". In saying this though, I would never turn down a job of being a 'mefaked' and, of course, there is the 'oketzing' that comes with it; I'll be out for next three consecutive weekends! Being a commander in 'trom tironut' for the November draft is even more significant for me, not only because the soldiers coming in will be my "grandchildren" but also because there will be loads of lone soldiers from Garin Tzabar. To think I might be the first ever 'mefaked' of some guys who have made aliyah would be a big deal for me. I'll just have to wait and see who I get next week...

So that was pretty much my last couple of weeks. On Sunday I am back on the 'Bach' in preparation of the new draft, which happens on Thursday, after which I will be with my new soldiers for two weeks. I'm sure I'll do another blog at some point and share with you all the experiences of this next 'tafkid'. Three more weeks of being "Mefaked Sam", I just love it...