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.
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!!!
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...