The last two weeks were very different from each other. The first of the two was our shooting week. It’s a week full of nothing but the shooting range, where we did nothing but shoot all day and all night every day with a break only to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I shot so much, I have no desire to shoot a weapon for the rest of my life.
One night, we finished shooting at 2am. They let us go to sleep, I laid down in my sleeping bag under our big tent where the entire company was sleeping, and the next thing I know our commanders are waking us all up. It was still night time, I looked at the time, it was 4:30am. “Fill up these bags with sand” one of them said.
So, a few of us began filling up the bags with sand. I had no idea whats going on, why did they wake us so suddenly? Is this a punishment? For what?
Then they told us to open up the stretchers, and place a certain number of bags on each one. This is a Masa Alumka, we finished shooting week and now we would walk back to our base (about 3 kilometers away) carrying these heavy stretchers on our shoulders. This will happen a lot during advanced training, and we’ll never know when its going to happen.
The next week was a week spent in Jerusalem. First, we peeled a ton of potatoes for the poor. Then we went the Old City, and did a small tour. Walking the old city with our weapons was something very gratifying, tourists and natives alike thanked us as we passed them by. Someone stood in front of us as we walked by to grab a picture with us in the background, I came out and put my arm around his shoulder and smiled. He put his arm around my shoulder, and I hope they like the picture.
Then we went to a more comfortable base overlooking the city, we each had a room with blankets and pillows, and air conditioning for everyone! It was a lot like college, it was a week full of lectures and group discussions. We talked about societal frictions, about Zionism today, about Israeli history, about Lone Soldiers from abroad like myself.
There was a day when we watched the movie about Michael Levin, a Lone Soldier from Philadelphia. He was on his month vacation home, when the Second Lebanon war began. He cut his vacation short to go back to Israel and fight with his unit. Unfortunately, he was killed in Lebanon. The whole country showed up to his funeral.
I’d seen this movie before, I remember how much I cried the first time I saw it. Now, sitting in this big auditorium with my battalion, I felt pain not for him but for his family and parents. After all, I understood him well, and his choices. Our social worker told me the night before that after the movie they would ask all the Lone Soldiers from the Battalion to sit in front of everyone and tell our story, why we volunteered, and take questions.
By the time the movie was over, I couldn’t speak. I was holding back tears, and my mouth was often in front of my mouth to hide the quiver in my lips. Everyone was quiet. One of the officers stood up and said something I didn’t expect, but am very thankful for: “Everyone has to be back in this room in 7 minutes.”
I walked to a faraway bathroom and cried. When I heard people, I walked into a stall, and sobbed quietly. When I came back, they had us sit in front of everyone and I told the battalion I wanted to do this since I was 14. How my parents took it when I told them, and people found the story very funny.
They asked questions like whats the most difficult thing for me, except the language…
I responded, except the language? The hardest thing IS the language, duh. In America, words were my greatest asset and I could explain anything about anything. In Israel, because its all Hebrew, I’m like an idiot. (Hahahaha, goes the crowd).
What is it like living in a place with a different culture and food?
Its like a long vacation, with a rifle. (Hahaha, goes the crowd).
Do you feel Israeli?
“Absolutely not.” (Hahahaha goes the crowd)
We also had former soldiers came to tell us about wars they fought. One came and told us about a mission he did during the Second Intifada. Another told us about a battle he’d fought during the Second Lebanon War. They hid no details from us, parts were dark, very dark.
We talked about the military code, and went over various scenarios for “what would you do” discussions. People joked a lot, it sounded like half my company was on its way to jail. But by the end of it, it was obvious that everyone understood that they had to behave in a way that complies with our moral code.
In the end, we went to Ammunition Hill to learn about the battle. I think we did this because our Company Commander was a paratrooper (as was our Battalion Commander). This battle was fought by the paratroopers, and it was a very hard battle. There is classic song about this battle, I felt it described very well what its like to be in a war.
The Paratroopers went to this battle with Two Battalions, a size of 150 soldiers. They were up against a force of 150 Jordanian Legionnaires, holed up in fortified bunkers. As the first battalion entered the fight, within a few minutes half of the first company was a casualty (dead or injured). The song has powerful lyrics, really. The Israelis buried the Jordanians on the Hill as well, and left a marker that said “Here lay brave Jordanian Legionaries”.
We then went to Yad Vashem, my goal to carry a gun and ammo in the halls of my people’s tragedy was finally accomplished. We couldn’t do the tour armed, but it was enough for me that I wandered the lobby and the outside with my rifle and two full magazines. When the tour ended, we put our weapons back on, and I wandered around again.
As I walked in the building halls, a Tag Lit tour group was coming my way. I was a member of such a group a little over a year ago, and I remember seeing the IDF soldiers in these very same halls. Now, here I was, being stared at by passing tourists. They passed me by, in a state of culture shock, staring at my gun and looking at the expression my face might make.
In this moment, I felt Israeli.
This is the privilege of a fighter. I suffer, I feel aches, and I lose sleep, but if enemies come I get to blow them away.
We visited Har Hertzl where we went to various graves including Michael Levin’s. There was also a Tag Lit group there. It must have been very interesting for them to see us in our uniforms, with our Berets on our heads and our sleeves down, visiting graves of fallen soldiers.
The last grave we visited was someone who’d been killed in Gaza during the current operation (Protective Edge), one of our Battalion commanders knew him and spoke about him behind sun glasses. His voice cracked as he spoke.
This coming week will be physically draining, It will be all in the field, like much of advanced training. We’ll practice war maneuvers with our entire company. As our company commander put it about the coming week “things that aren’t supposed to happen, can happen.” I can expect to be very tired.