Friday, 13 January 2012

Living in the "lighthouse"

After spending the whole of Chanukah in Tel Aviv with my parents and grandparents, I have been in the army for the last couple of weeks and am now on a weekend off. The fortnight just passed in the army also marked the transition from the 'kav' in the West Bank to the 'imun horef' (winter training) for the whole brigade.

I had only just returned to my company last month, but within two weeks of being with them, I left to go on 'meyuhedet' (special holiday for lone soldiers) as my family came to israel to spend Chanukah with me in Tel Aviv. Like every time, it was incredibly special to be with my parents, and this time with my nana and papa too. Although I do see my family relatively often in comparison to other lone soldiers for example, this doesn't take away from the fact that we are an exceptionally close family who solely miss each other and any time spent apart is emotionally painful. We take advantage of all the time we are together and I have been particularly lucky throughout my service, in the sense that every time someone has been here I have been given time off to see them. We were in Tel Aviv for the whole of Chanukah and then saw in the new year together. Looking back on 2011 and I can't help to think how much I've done in twelve months. I started the year in Gaza and despite working hard as a youngster in the company and closing a lot of weekends as part of 17:4, 'kav' Gaza still gives me fond memories and was a very enjoyable part of my service. As much as I loved being in my platoon and company, going to 'makim' (commanders' course) was arguably the most important and significant event in my whole service, as I've explained on many occasions. Once I'd finished 'makim', the rest of 2011 was filled up by my three roles as a commander on the tzanchanim training base. Sandwiched between all those jobs, I went back to my company, where I experienced 'imun' in the Golan Heights, as well as both 'kav' in the north and in the West Bank. On top all of this time in army, going back to London was a very memorable month and the big move to Tel Aviv and the consequent weekends have made 2011 a fantastic year for me.

Am once again back to being a 'kala' (sharpshooter)...

Now moving onto 2012, which will arguably be the most important year for me since making 'aliyah', as it has huge significance on my future. The biggest thing for me this year is obviously my release from the army, which happens in mid April. Finishing the army is now becoming a scary reality, as opposed to a distant thought, and it's still very hard for me to comprehend that in three months I will have completed my two and a half year service in the IDF. One of my good friends from the platoon, Daniel, who happens to be a lone soldier from Canada, gets released this month and watching him go through the final processes of the army, only emphasizes for me that my 'shihrur' (release) is only round the corner. For more than two years now I have been a soldier and the thought of being "free" makes me feel anxious rather than relieved. The army has not always been easy or enjoyable and I have shared the culture of counting down the days (even from the start) and yearning for freedom that every soldier feels from the moment he receives his 'hoger' (army ID card). However, since I have volunteered to serve in the army and am not entirely familiar to real life in Israel beyond the olive green uniform, being released is a daunting development. The transition from soldier to civilian is not a simple one, even more complicated for a lone soldier, what with the endless list of post-army arrangements, like health insurance and social security to name but a few. Don't get me wrong, I can't wait to start life here in Israel beyond the army, but for more than two years now I have had everything provided for me. Whether it's food, clothing, accommodation, medical care or financial income, the army takes it upon itself to care for all the needs of every soldier and to suddenly break free from this can be a big shock to the system. With April coming around in just a few months, this is all getting a lot more real for me now.

Overlooking the Golan Heights with my new samal.

After saying goodbye to my parents, I returned to my company and to what was our last week of the 'kav' (deployment) in the West Bank. In fact, it was my last ever week of 'kav', as I will be released before the battalion moves from the 'imun' to the next 'kav'. Therefore, it was quite a poignant week for me, since I have spent time on three different deployments; Gaza, Lebanon border and the West Bank. In general, 'kav' can be both your best and worst enemy and last week typified what 'kav' is all about perfectly. So for my last ever week, I was in a 'fillbox' (guard tower) adjacent to a road leading to a prominently hostile Palestinian city. A better description is that for four days, me and three other guys from my platoon, lived, slept, ate and guarded in a lighthouse-style building with conditions inhabitable even for animals. However, it has now become a memorable week for the four of us as we simply had so much fun. That is 'kav' for you; the conditions aren't great, you're away from home and you don't shower for a week, but if you're with good guys, you can make the most out of the situation and have a good laugh, which is exactly what we did. Apart from the hilarious antics we got up to inside the "lighthouse", last week also gave me another taste of the hands-on experiences that happen in the West Bank. One evening we were told to open a check post for the cars driving past our 'fillbox', as part of a standard stop-and-search policy. Being a qualified commander, I was the one who checked the drivers' ID cards and car boots if I felt necessary. I have to admit that I felt very powerful standing there in full combat gear, speaking to Palestinians and giving them instructions. I didn't abuse my power at all, but I did feel at the time that it was one of the most obvious examples of how I've physically helped to defend this country and I couldn't help but feel extremely proud and Zionist with the contribution that I was making. Due to my Arabic being fairly limited and some Palestinians' Hebrew not being strong too, there were occasions where I spoke in English to them. It seemed funny to ask them in my British accent to turn off the engine or to wish them a pleasant evening, but they seemed to understand me perfectly!!!

The infamous "lighthouse"...

After being switched by other soldiers on the 'kav', my company moved to a base in the Golan Heights with the rest of the battalion, where we'll be situated for the next three months, as part of the 'imun'. If a combat brigade is not in 'kav' then it is in 'imun' (training) and this will be my second full 'imun', having missed one when I was in 'makim'. The base we moved to is actually one we've been to before and will be the last base that I'll be on! It's quite unusual to go back to the same base and we are all unhappy to be going to this particular one as it means sleeping in tents, especially since we'll be there during the harsh winter of the Golan. The point of the 'imun', like every training period, is to prepare the battalion for whatever is to happen by doing lots of field exercises and improving the soldiers' fitness. It basically means many weeks of 'shetach' (field work), with exercises at platoon level, all the way up to brigade level and everything in between. There will also probably be urban combat and guerilla warfare too! The tzanchanim brigade commander has said that he's planned this 'imun' to be the hardest in history, on the account of trying to make us prepared for anything. With his psychotic appetite and the weather being a factor too, it could well be the hardest period of my whole service physically and just the thought of those weeks of 'shetach' makes my teeth chatter and shoulders ache in anticipation. I do think, however, that it is fitting and suitable that I finish my service in this way. I could have ended my service on 'Course Nativ' (a two month course where you sit in a classroom and learn about Israel) like many other lone soldiers do, but instead I want to finish by echoing (and fittingly, by suffering) what I've done during my whole service; being a combat soldier. Also, with the next couple of months looking set to be potentially the hardest and most depressing of my whole service, it will make the 'shihrur' even sweeter!!!

So for my final stretch in the army I have a few months of awful weather, painstakingly hard weeks of 'shetach' and the joy of being on one of the worst kept army bases in Israel, but I wouldn't want in any other way! This coming week is the first proper round of 'shetach' of the 'imun' and it's a big one; a field exercise performed by the whole brigade, which is supposed to start with a 'tsnicha' (paratrooper jump!!!). So for the next blog, I could be reporting back having done my sixth and final jump; just need to remember to keep my feet together when I land...

If the description of the "lighthouse" was insufficient, then check this out...

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