24 Days

I’ve been on base for the last 24 days. It was the first time I closed for so long. I thought it would be worse than it actually was. A friend of mine in a different battalion closed a similar number of days more than once, and each time he would complain to me about it when I saw him. The reason I bring him up is because I consider him to be a tough soldier. Even he would say how grimy he felt himself by the end, how psychologically exhausted he was. Yet for me, I felt fine.

For my American readers who may not understand why a month in the army is so difficult, after all, in the U.S. they stay on base most of the year with only holiday vacations. The reason is simple. Unlike on an American base, Israeli bases aren’t geared for long stays. Laundry and dry cleaning isn’t available to us. If we want something laundered, we have to do it ourselves using crude methods (our hands for washing, our shampoo for soap, and the sunlight for drying).

And many of us are just too tired for that. Not to mention our time is all used up for other things.
The difficulties aside, the truth is that half way through the month I forgot about home. I resigned myself to the circumstance of the army. It didn’t hit me just how much I had forgotten until I finally came back home. For example, I typed this while laying on my bed, with the central air working above me and the television working in front of me.

My belly is full with food, junk and otherwise. I am by myself, no one to share space with. How I missed this.

The first week was a waste of time, our company was on a week-long vacation marking the completion of our basic training (tironot). My unit was scheduled to stay on base (since someone has to be on base at all times). So my unit’s week long vacation came the week before so that we could stay while the company was gone. What a week that was. We practically did nothing, other than kitchen duty.

But all good things come to an end. Once the entire company was back on our new base for advanced training, we went down to the field. We came back at the end of the week, and took major tests that relied on our knowledge of everything we learned during basic training. Literally everything we had been taught was on the various tests.

There was one big test of 65 questions done on a computer. You heard me. Just like in College, a test on a computer – with multiple choice. And then there were various physical stations of all the guns and items our unit uses. Each soldier had to pass through all the stations and show proficient knowledge of the weapon or item, and show a good ability to use it properly. Why is this important? If a soldier whose job is to blow up tanks with the Matador is unable to do his duty, every other soldier nearby should be able to take over without a problem.

Upon passing these tests, one is officially a rifleman level 05. Proficient in the use of various weapons and items, knowledgeable in the execution of warfare and first aid, and more cool stuff like that.

Then, more field. I like it when we go to the field. We do a lot of shooting into the hills, and I have to say it’s a really nice feeling walking through the grass at night with my weapon raised to my face as I aim down my sights and place shots in front of me.

All this field is basically for us to learn how to maneuver. In tironot we learned to maneuver in pairs. Now we learned to maneuver in squads (four soldiers, each with his designated job), then in classes (8 soldiers, then the whole company, then the entire battalion right up to the Battalion commander.

It’s a lot of noise, a lot of mess, a lot of order out of chaos and chaos out of order. And I’ve come to enjoy it.
When we weren’t in the field, we were in the shooting range in field like conditions. There, we would run hundreds of meters back and forth, then fire at targets in the range, all under a timer. As usual, if you didn’t place enough bullets in the target, you would have to repeat the exercise over and over until you pass it.

During this time, Gaza began shooting rockets at Israel. Our Battalion Commander gathered us one night and told us if the army enters Gaza we could be called upon to act as back up that takes over previously held positions. In other words, if a unit guarding the border of Gaza enters Gaza, we could be sent to guard the border in their place. Or if some unit was doing missions some place (Hevron for example), and was then diverted to Gaza, we could be sent to do their missions wherever they were.

For this reason no matter where we were or what we were doing, our combat gear was always laying in formation nearby. Every magazine was always checked to be sure it was full, every canteen was always checked to be sure it was full, everything had to be ready so that we could be sitting in full gear in moving buses within half an hour of being called to duty.

A week and a half passed with us waiting this way. We did a Masa of 17 kilometers this way. Someone asked before we went “what if half way through the Masa, we get the call?” The answer? “We’ll run back.” That was the only time we (I) hoped desperately there wouldn’t be a call.

Sadly, in a twisted ironic fate, the day the IDF entered Gaza was the same day that my unit’s turn came to guard our area. One company would go guard one base, one company would guard another base, and my company would guard another base plus a bunker where the Kfir Brigade keeps its guns and ammo.

For a week, the army couldn’t call on us to go, instead other battalions like us were sent. I was guarding the entrance to the bunker early in the morning when some soldiers from one such battalion came to get ammo to bring with them to Gaza. I watched, jealous. That could have been us.

The day after the army entered Gaza, a blood drive came rolling through our base. Nearly every soldier from our battalion, including myself, gave blood. I managed to see some of my lone soldier buddies from Michve Alon, we hung out in a nearby room talking. All of a sudden, I heard a loud thump behind me. I turned to find a soldier, face down, fallen on the ground. My buddies were in shock, weren’t sure what was happening or what to do about it. I jumped up to his side, and then he began to shake uncontrollably and you could have made a swimming pool from all the drool on the floor on his side.

In first aid we know exactly what to do in this situation, but knowing there are three doctors and one medic in the room next door I decided not to waste a minute in calling for them. I ran outside and took off for their room where blood was being taken “Medic! Seizure! Medic! Seizure!” They came running.

We stuck around, told what we knew. The soldier, having fainted face first, landed without putting his hands in front of him. He was shut down before he hit the ground. His front teeth were messed up, but we were all confident a dentist can take care of that no problem. He was brought under control, and we were asked to leave.

I saw him a few days later, he was fine.

I can’t say we didn’t have anything to do while guarding the bunker. Having guarded it for one week, at all hours of the day and night, I am convinced the bunker is the only place that carries with it any danger at all.

Around where our base is, there are Bedouin living in huts. And the Bedouin love to steal army equipment to sell on the black market, it doesn’t matter to whom they will sell it – terrorists or to criminal elements – money is money. So one Friday night, there I stand on one of the bunker’s three guard posts. This post is situated high off the ground and overlooks the entire south side of the bunker.

To reach this guard post, it takes a 15 minute walk from the entrance of the bunker. Not to mention the 15 minute walk to reach the bunker entrance from our base. The other two guard posts, are both near the entrance. Hence, I’m a world away from them. Besides the three posts, there is a patrol which should theoretically come by once in a while, but sadly some theories aren’t practiced.

It seemed like a quiet night, the radio was silent most of the time. On Shabbat, even the non-religious refrain from using the radio unless there is a good reason. It was about 1:30am when my friend guarding the gate to the bunker comes on the radio. His voice, slightly agitated, “there’s some people approaching here” he then yelled twice the operative word for our emergency team to come. The emergency team is a group of soldiers whose job is to be the first response to any situation.

I was not sure what was happening. So there were people, maybe they are soldiers? Why was he so spooked? Then he came on the radio, this time his voice was calm. He cooly said, hiding the urgency in his soul, “they are firing on me”.
Someone else on the radio asked instantly, “They are firing on you?”

He responded just as cooly, “They are firing on me.”

At this moment I wanted to hear on the radio that patrol was on its way to him, or was already near him, or that the emergency team was already almost there. But instead at that moment I saw someone turn on a flash light near a bunker near my post. I was thinking maybe it’s the patrol, though why would they use a flashlight at night?

Still, I thought it had to be something under control, so I radioed to ask if patrol just turned on their light. The moment I spoke into the radio, the person with the light heard me, because in the night sounds are more easily heard from a distance. He shook his head, afraid that I was close to him, he then shut his flashlight off and I saw the figure run off from right left. This was a direction without a road, with only hills and dirt, a path a patrol wouldn’t take just like that.

Clearly, this was not us. And clearly, something is happening. No one answered me on the radio. A minute before, the emergency team said they are here. Patrol said they are on their way to him. Just a minute before the radio was alive like I never heard before. Now, when there should have been all kinds of status reports and findings – there was nothing. The radio was dead silent. No one was speaking, not my friend at the gate. Not the emergency team.

My only conclusion: everyone is dead (or otherwise unable to answer).

And at this realization I felt scared. I remember my hands felt shakey, just a little. I remember my breathing became a little heavier. I remember I had thoughts like “what now”, “I can’t see shit in this darkness.”

This lasted for a good 5 seconds. Then I felt deep disappointment in myself for showing the symptoms I just described to you, I put myself together and held my gun firmly raised. My hands, no longer shook. My breathing was again normal. I never knew you can force yourself back to normal like that.

I began scanning the darkness, looking everywhere for the figure, for anything suspicious. I was determined that this post would stand. I checked my 360 at all times, I made the darkness my home, and checked the stairs that led to me every once in a while. Thankfully, in the night, it would be impossible to come that close without me hearing it.

It was like this for over an hour and a half. During this time, I kept trying my radio. I hated having to try over and over, not just because they weren’t answering but because I hated not having my hand on the trigger since I needed it to hold the radio to my mouth.

The only people that heard me were some guards on another base, we used the same frequency. Eventually, someone called my name from the distance (I was disappointed, because he should not have used my name but improvise something else). I answered him with a short sound, watching all sides closely. He couldn’t see where I was, it was too dark. I tried to guide him with the glow from my watch, I was in cover and holding my hand above the watch so it couldn’t be seen easily.

He found me, and then it turned out he was here to start his shift. The first thing he said was “can you stay here with me for a little?” To which I said OK, as I was in no hurry to go out without knowing whats been going on.

He asked me about whats been happening, and I told him everything I knew. He filled me in on what I was missing. That my radio is broken, that everything is fine. That no one is dead. That no one but the one guard saw people. I was confused.

At this point, our company commander (Lieutenant) was at the bunker entrance looking for bullet holes, and then went looking for a hole in the fence. The fence has sensors that would have told us of any disturbance. He didn’t find bullets, he didn’t find any breaches in the fence.

Our Battalion commander (the highest officer in our Battalion, a Captain) was in a military jeep circling the bunker, taking paths to and from, searching for any signs of recent activity.

Do you know any army in the world that has its Battalion commander doing this kind of job at 3 in the morning on Shabbat? In the IDF, our officers lead from the front.

And what about the person with the flashlight? The soldier that came to take his shift didn’t believe me that I saw someone other than patrol. But then, after thirty minutes I saw him again, this time outside the bunker a good distance away on a hill, using the flashlight again. I quickly showed it to the soldier with me, and he successfully radioed it in. Our battalion commander quickly drove in the direction, and was driving in the area until the sun came up, looking for this person.

A different guard post on our base, the post that guards our Armory, had a good view of that direction and saw a lot more than we did. He would guide our Battalion commander all night, “go more left”, “you’re almost on him”, “more right”….etc etc.

Sadly, nothing came out of that night. And I was there for two shifts just because I wanted to know whats happening. But I wasn’t happy with guesses. I undertook to investigate because I wasn’t satisfied not knowing. During my guard duty by the entrance after this event, I looked for bullet holes myself, or any traces of bullets on the ground nearby or in the walls, anything. I found nothing. I asked the guards who were there in the same shift as I was that night, whether they heard the shots. They didn’t. But, the person guarding the armory on base confirmed hearing shots fired in our direction from his.

So there were shots, and I knew there was definitely someone in the bunker until I caused him to flee. I decided probably this was a thief, who had friends fire from the opposite direction as a distraction. There was also music playing loudly in the distance both from behind my post, and from the other side of the bunker. It stopped shortly after the battalion commander began driving around.

They wanted to distract us. But they failed. I suppose it’s a good thing they situated our posts the way they did. I thought that was the end of it.

Everyone else thought that the whole thing was simply the figment of someone’s imagination.

After all, most people didn’t hear any shots. And the “people” that he saw could have been cows that were grazing nearby the entrance. I also began to subscribe to this opinion.

On another night, I was on base. And the guards from the bunker again reported they were being fired upon. The emergency team was dispatched. Again, we knew nothing and found nothing. I suppose in the anger of the war in Gaza, the surrounding Bedouin take shots at us in the cover of darkness in the distance, and then flee.

One of the times I was part of the emergency team, it was midnight, and there was a call for us to come. No one said why, all we knew was we’d been called. At the time, I was asleep on my bed with my boots and kneepads on. Someone came running down the strip of buildings where we slept yelling “emergency team! Emergency team!”

I sprang out of the bed, sleep still hadn’t left me as I ran to my combat vest laying neatly near the emergency equipment. The equipment consists of a folded stretcher and a book bag full of water bottles, and a radio. One person carries the stretcher on their back, one person carries the bag on their back, the commander of the team carries the radio. My job was to be the fighter, so I carried nothing other than my gun.

I reached the equipment first, everyone was still asleep. As I put on my vest, I remember feeling uneasy. In my rush, my watch broke off my arm under the weight of the vest as it came down my arms. I put it in my pocket thinking “now isn’t the time to deal with that”. Once my vest was on, my world became very narrow. I was in focus, and any thoughts I had vanished. I was all business.

At this point, my commander and the other guys came running to put on their vests. I was already ready, and sleep had left me. “CAN I JUST GO!?”, I asked as I was already walking away “CAN I JUST GO!?” The commander said yes, and I took off running like never before.

My friends are in trouble, there was already shooting before, who knows what could be happening now. As I ran, I felt at some point the rest of the team should have caught up with me. They never did. About a kilometer later, I made it to the bunker entrance. The entrance gate, against all protocol, was open.

Either something has happened here, or the guard at the entrance decided to open the gate before we arrived so we could more quickly reach wherever we are needed. I ran through the gate and reached the guard post near it. I practically shouted at him my question of where am I needed “to where!?”
He calmly answered “I didn’t call you guys”.

I was furious. We were called, and he knows nothing! At that moment my class commander, who was on duty as patrol, called out a small distance away the name of our emergency team commander. I answered the call, not wishing to waste time with “no, its Robert, the commander isn’t here yet”

I went running to the patrol hoping to be given a direction to go into already. As I approached I asked “To where!?” My commander responded, calmly, firstly…And I cut him off, as I immediately picked up on what he wanted from me – to relax. So I said, with my breathing completely normal and my body completely slow and at rest and a smile on my face like nothing is going on, “I know, I’m calm.”

My suspicion was that nothing indeed was going on. My commander picked up his radio and told my team’s commander that I reached the bunker, and that he needs to have someone explain to the person who alerted the emergency team the difference between the name of the place where an emergency team was called and the name of where we are guarding (they are similar).

So I took off, by myself in the night, for a false alarm. Wonderful. I couldn’t even be too angry, the person who alerted us is my close friend.

The next morning, I was guarding the entrance again. This time, some Bedouin fired on automatic. I assume he was shooting into the air. Based on what I know about Arabs, when they hear good news they take their family kalishnikov rifle, go outside, and fire off shots into the air. The night before, some Israeli soldiers died in Gaza. I didn’t bother to even call it in.

Maybe if people would use their brains some more, things would be less exciting around here.

Guard duty became a psychological challenge. Before I suited up for guard duty, I would think about how each shift was simply to stand there and wait. Maybe they’ll shoot, maybe they wont. Maybe at you, maybe not. And probably from a long distance so that they can flee before anyone can catch them. But, I’d think, so long as the ammo stays in the bunker – job well done. The trap I felt of being in (quasi) conflict reminded me of the movie Hurt Locker.

My night shifts in the far away post would inevitably end with the next guy asking me to stick around with him. Are people scared, or just selfish? I stayed, but only because I felt this post was one that should have two people guarding it at night. And I felt badly leaving someone who had to ask. To be honest, I came to enjoy the night shifts. I no longer felt like we were wasting our time.

One of the guys I kept company wondered how I wasn’t scared to be alone out here at night. I told him what I learned about fear. Its a choice. You and someone else out there both make bumps in the night, and you both feel the same. If you choose to let yourself remain scared, then what follows will be the decisions of the person out there. And his interests are the exact opposite of yours. Like your interest in remaining alive, and free.

But if you control yourself, and make your own choices, what follows next will be the results of your decisions.

I’m not sure he understood me, and I think this person wants to leave combat and drop down to the jobnik level. I hope he does so, if thats what he wants.

Our guard duty week ended on Thursday. Now we are again available to be called as backup wherever some unit needs relief. Typing this from home I can say I don’t want to be called. But, tomorrow I go back to base, and from there I know I’ll be hoping that call comes.

This song is dedicated to my brothers in Gaza:

One thought on “24 Days

  1. You’re right son: war is a personal state of mind selected upon oneself, which is only as strong, as the one’s mind is. Don’t expect mercy, and never let your guards down – at the end it’s always between you and enemy facing you, who has come prepared to pay ultimate price.
    See you back home soon.

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