Sunday, March 6, 2011

Really really good title

There is no doubt training is fun….very fun at times.  Nothing can compare to an entire brigade with tank and artillery support conquering a piece of land and turning night into day with the awesome amount of firepower used, knowing that the cardboard cutouts, despite their best efforts, really have little chance of surviving the onslaught as their fate is sealed.  

Artists rendition of cardboard target 30 minutes into the battle

More importantly for my unit, however, training was a great environment in which to build cohesion, professionalism and a sense of mission into my soldiers.  Its also not too bad getting off most weekends to try to have a bit of a social life.  On the other hand, it was also among the most difficult times I experienced in the army.  It wasn’t the physical challenge, which was slightly less than last year’s training, but rather the difficulty of learning to command soldiers who were less than ideally disciplined and not always so excited to be here.  It was a period of time that really taught me that doing what is right is certainly not always what is popular, but  as you’ll see in a moment it has paid off.

Planning navigation for the rest of the patrol...
...Or just trying to do a crossword puzzle

The move to “Kav” (literally “line” – active duty) carries with it, depending on the location, quite a bit of excitement since you feel things get a bit “more real.”  This will technically be my fourth Kav, but they have all been short and my role has been limited.   “Kav Ayosh” (Judea and Sumeria) is the most complicated and active Kav in Israel which brings with it more responsibility since, rather than being a border like Egypt, Lebanon or even Gaza, where  the Israelis are on one side and the Arabs on are on the other, in Ayosh you literally are “in the middle of it.”  If you glance at map of Ayosh you will see hundreds of Jewish and Arab villages and towns sometimes not more than a couple of hundred feet away from each other, roads and bus stops that are shared and daily smaller incidents that can easily become “very big” incidents.  These realities demand a much more “three dimensional” handle on the situation and makes knowledge of the location all the more critical. 
Night Patrol.  Notice requisite cigarette in driver's hand...this is to maintain operational readiness and support the American economy - producer of Marlboro light.

At this point in time I would like for Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and their associates in Iran and other Zionist hotbeds…as well as Peace Now and of course Geraldo Rivera not to keep reading.  Thanks.
Explaining where we are on the patrol...or asking my soldier for his autograph
Part of the rapid response team, my medic look so hardcore (rt)

So what do we do on Kav?  Well I obviously can’t tell you everything  - mainly because sounding secretive makes what I do sound much more interesting – but just think James Bond meets Delta Force while riding around in the A-Team’s old van… In any case I spent my first two weeks mainly commanding what I guess would be translated as the Rapid Response Team (RRT we’ll call it).  This is quite a mixed bag.  On the one hand it makes life always a bit more exciting knowing that if something happens (like the Coke machine taking someone’s money) you have a decent chance of being there to handle the situation.  On the other hand it stinks sleeping in boots for days.  Additionally, I got a chance to take my soldiers out on some patrols in the area, an excellent way to both militarily get to know the area from different vantage points as well as eh…non-militarily connect with the Land and the People. 
Class given on the various military uses of Bamba and Coke.

I should note, for anyone who has not been in Judea and Sumeria, it is unbelievably beautiful, by far the most incredible part of Israel in my opinion, even more than the Golan.  Characterized by hills and valleys covered with an enormous variety of trees, bushes and flowers, Judea and Sumeria is a unique part of the Land.  Just as wonderful are the people who populate the area.  Those Israelis who live in these towns, villages and settlements (oh no! I used a politically incorrect word!) are particularly patriotic and dedicated to the helping the State through army service, education and volunteering.  The communities themselves are very close-knit and warm and have a very strong connection to the Land itself through agriculture as well as frequent tiyulim (trips) – an Israeli tradition. 

Ok we’ll have to end here since it is past my bedtime, this blog is way overdue and I want to save things for up and coming blogs.  Don’t worry, blogs about my trip to the US and thing since will be coming soon (I use that term loosely of course but stay optimistic folks!).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Small Fires and Big Fires

This may surprise some of you but typically I am not wearing a vest and combat pack in the cold at 3:30 in the morning somewhere in an urban combat facility in the Beka Valley when I light the first candles of Hanukkah.  Some of you may even be shocked to find out that my first Sufganya (donut of sorts) of Hanukkah is usually not somewhat frozen with a hard red candy that may have once been jam in the middle of it. 

Fire sign saying "Happy Holiday" with my unit's symbol.  
Lit at the end of the exercise at the Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

 'I' and me at the end of the exercise, we are happy its over

Still, while many of my friends and soldiers were disgruntled that Hanukkah started in the final hours of a grueling battalion level drill that started Monday afternoon and Thursday morning, I saw something very symbolic in it. 
Me in an armored personnel carrier (APC).  No not makeup, leftover facepaint.

About 2000 years ago, in the days before when Hanukkah would first happen, the Maccabim (they existed before the Tzanhanim and Golani) were also running around in the cold in their vests and defending the Jewish people.  True, we were shooting at cardboard targets all week and the Maccabim slashing at Greek warriors, but I have a literary license…


Monday night my unit is waiting to board planes to fly up north for the beginning of the drill and excitement (and apprehension from my soldiers who had never before experienced such a large and intensive field exercise) was in the air (get it?).  I had to admit that while last years exercise included helicopters, being on a plane (the same kind used for parachuting) with my unit, with painted faces and full gear, I was “pumped up” as the kids say these days. 

The 'chevra' (guys) in the plane

They are very excited.

Still, as I looked at the young soldiers around me, all of which except for my company commander and the unit doctor were younger than me, I experienced two conflicting feelings..  On the one hand these were warriors ready to defend Israel just as I imagined soldiers always to be.  Each one looked like a character from any war movie you’ve seen – the tough guy that always keep going, the goofy one that always says the wrong thing, the quiet one, etc.  On the other hand, I was struck at how young they all looked and indeed were.  Only a year ago they had put on their uniforms for the first time with their beret on the wrong shoulder and no clue how to fold up their pants over their boots.  Yet, here they were, ready or not, officially designated as Israel’s first line of defense against any enemy that might arise.  My contemplation was cut short as the wheels landed suddenly on the pitch-black runway somewhere up north..

Me and my soldier B at the beginning of the exercise (pre knee pains)

The first march of about 20 km was not easy as it included a 1000 meter rise over a mountain and each of us were carrying 40-55% of our body weight on our backs.  We survived and while I’ll spare you all the details of the week, suffice it to say that we are all much better prepared after this difficult week and excited for the training to end in the coming weeks and return to active duty “on kav” (on a border). 

The picture doesn't capture it well but this is the steepest hill...on earth.

Taking a quick break in the morning for praying, eating, changing from 40 degree clothing for night to 90 degree clothing during the day.  Welcome to Israel

Fast Forward. 

So as I said, this was a particularly meaningful way to start Hanukkah and one that put a smile on my face.  Little did I know that at the same time that were lighting the first candle together, only an hour away, families were being evacuated from their homes as the fire in Northern Israel began to rage. 

At first glance, a forest fire, for those of us who grew up in America, does not seem so terrible.  After all, America is used to it and has the means to fight it properly.  Indeed, 41 dead and 15,000 acres of burnt forest doesn’t seem “so” huge by US standards.  However when you consider that almost all of those 41 died on one fell swoop as they raced up north on a bus to evacuate a prison in danger; when you consider that one of those was a 16 year old volunteer firefighter, an only son; and when you consider that 15,000 acres is about half the size of one of the largest forests in Israel, the proportions somewhat change. The catastrophe has truly shaken the country.

Carmel Forest (overlooking the CF Spa) before the fire.  
One of the most beautiful places in Israel.

The fire ravages the forest.  

On a personal note, I discovered Thursday afternoon, after we had slept a few hours, that my company’s First sergeant was not around and that his house had burned down in the Kibbutz of Beit Oren.  Someone asked if his house was covered by insurance and I started thinking of just what it was to lose your home.  I don’t think losing the physical structure, your clothes or other basic necessities that makes it so terrible, although I can only imagine that being homeless even if only temporarily, is awful.  Rather, it is the tangible irreplaceables such as pictures, gifts, letters and cards coupled with the memories and feelings towards your home (rather than house), that makes it such a traumatizing event for people. 

Citizen of the north after being evacuated (just my guess).  

I’ll end on a bright note, which is not only literarily more pleasing but a good attitude for life (I’m a psychologist in my spare time for all of you Charlie Browns in need of a talk).  My friend J posted (again, get it?) this on his status and I think it sums it up well. 

“we may complain about the bureaucracy of Israel or the lack of customer service [what is service?].. but what other country has banks that offer interest free, no penalty loans up to 60,000 shekel to rebuild homes; free hotel lodging while waiting for the fire to be put out; free park admission to take peoples' minds off it; 1,000 free cars by eldan set aside to help ppl... etc. etc.!!! I love the Jewish people and our eternal Homeland!!”

Chag Sameach and may rains come speedily and heavily!

 IMPORTANT! How you can help!

As I’m sure many of you are exploring ways to help, donations to my company’s first sergeant’s family are currently being accepted through an organization I work with called  Am Segula.  PLEASE support him and his family in any way/amount that you can (it is tax deductible and 100% of it goes right to the family – check or paypal/credit card are accepted)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

As I wrote to myself in my private journal, I am certainly not updating enough so I’ll try both here and there to change that.  Two weeks ago was “prep week” (can also be renamed equipment headache week) which included making sure that each soldier (as well as each commander) was prepared for the coming 2 months of training here in…Israel.  The week consisted of fixing, tying, taping and anything else you can think of to do to equipment to make it “battle-ready.”  Wednesday and Thursday of that week were devoted to misdarim (formation/display) of the equipment for the platoon, company and battalion commander (each one carrying with it higher levels of stress and demands).  In the end we stood well (for a young platoon), but we (the commanders) felt that the standards could be higher and that the soldiers would get better as they learned more and had time to fine-tune their equipment and knowledge. 

We looked forward all week to Shabbat, which was to be on base, which meant time to sleep a little since the week had left us with 3-4 hours of sleep per night.  This was of course cancelled as we were called away to …… in order to …… .  The important detail I can give you is that on Shabbat we did not sleep more than an hour or two and I got a chance to get sick again. 

Yes for those of you familiar with my sinuses, they enjoy taking advantage of any opportunity to get me sick. Luckily, the beginning of this past week was “refreshers” for the soldiers in their various unique skills/weapons (light machine guns, grenade launchers etc) so they were not with us, thus I could sleep a bit and recover.

This past Wednesday afternoon we went to the field for fire-team level drills (4 person) – back to basics).  Each squad leader took his squad off to practice and I had a great time working with my soldiers and was impressed with their work ethic (which up until now had been less than desirable with the day to day stuff to do on base) in the field.  They did the drills with energy – running, diving and shooting well, exceeding my expectations.  I let them know that they had worked well and that I expected things to only improve both on the field as well as on base.  Indeed, if they continue at this level I will really be pushed to up the bar myself in order to keep up, which is excellent.  Afterwards, I had a chance to sit with them while waiting for our field tests (with our officer T) and I discussed with them how I felt we should be when training in the field.  I explained to them how important it was, especially in the field, to be quick, on time, serious and energetic.  With the free time we had while waiting I also gave them some background on navigation and how various landforms were called in navigation. 

WARNING: Tangent up ahead

Navigation skills are not taught and are not a requirement for the regular soldier (only for commanders and special forces) but I feel that it is a skill they should have some knowledge in.   Indeed it seems that what you are taught in commander’s course is enough for a very good soldier but only a basic commander.   Similarly, officer’s course seems to teach enough to make a very good commander (squad level) but only a basic platoon officer, and so on and so on.  This seems, at the end of the day, a matter of time and money, which determine the length of the courses, more than any inherent lack in quality .  In any case, I think that each level passing down knowledge, as much as possible, to the level below, can overcome this handicap.  I ask my officer all the time about things I didn’t learn but feel I should (how to land a medivac helicopter for example). Thus, I hope, as often as possible, to fill free time, in particular in the field, with short ‘classes’ on various skills such as navigation, first-aid (I am, after all the son of a doctor ;)  etc.

Anyway, on Thursday I went home in the morning to my uncle’s memorial ceremony.  Aharon Gerbi z”l, my mother’s brother, served in the Israeli Navy from 1969-70 and died in service in 1970.  It was the first time I had been to this ceremony in uniform and it certainly felt a bit different.  On the one hand, he died some 16 years before I was born so I have little knowledge of him other than stories here and there.  On the other hand, I felt close to him as a soldier wearing a uniform in the same military – a testament to the value and fruit of his sacrifice.  10 soldiers (seamen?) and their officer from the navy and an army chaplain arrived, as they do every year, to commemorate Aharon’s sacrifice.  After the ceremony, my family brought food and drink for the soldiers outside the cemetery.  On the way out, the chaplain, my uncles and I stopped just a few feet away from Aharon’s grave to help another family make minyan and say the memorial service for their loved one who had fallen many years ago as well.  It reminded me that every family in Israel has it’s own story, it’s own loved ones that fell defending Israel. 

That evening I arrived home and hopped over to the synagogue for the afternoon service.  In between the afternoon and evening service, we had about 20 minutes where someone usually teaches something from the weekly Torah portion.  I happened to glance at the portion and decided to teach something small that I noticed that connected to my experience earlier at the cemetery.  In the Torah portion, Parshat Chayeh Sarah, Sarah, Abraham’s wife dies and Abraham sets out to acquire a portion of land in which to bury her.  He approaches the Hittites and asks to speak to Efron.  He acquires from him Ma’arat Hamachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah are all buried there) for 400 shekel (what a deal!).  In any case, I found it interesting that only at this point in the Torah does Abraham actually buy a piece of the Land of Israel, only when he needs to bury Sarah.  In light of this, I said, it seems that there is a special level of connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that is actualized not only through living here but also through being buried here (which seems supported by the tradition of bringing Jews from all over to the world to be buried here – Herzl, Jabotinsky to name a few famous ones of the last century).

Shabbat was on base with just a few soldiers guarding and we all got a chance to catch up on much needed sleep ahead of the week.  Last night some friends came to visit from Jerusalem with homemade pizza (Thanks B and H!) and some relief from being cooped up on base.  Afterwards Pops and I got a chance to talk on the phone for about an hour about things including my up and coming visit to the States which will hopefully be at the end of January.  Today we start open field exercises on a squad and platoon level, which is going to be exciting.  I feel that my squad has a lot of potential and we can go far together.  More to come soon. 

PS Any responses to the blog are appreciated and noted by the editing department.

PPS Sorry on the lack of pictures, more to come next time!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My blog is the reason not everyone should be able to have a blog...

I’m just going to warn all of you, I have no idea how to write a blog and my English has not gotten any better in the army…if anything it is ze much worcer zan it has ever wased.

By the way thank you to my brother for inspiring the blog titlle ;)

That being said, continue to read at your own risk.

I had waited a long time for this – to start as a commander, to lead soldiers to become combat-ready warriors…but the first days came as a slap in the face.  Commander’s course had taught me well how to lead troops in a various field exercises and use all of the weapons in our arsenal but the difficult day to day duties of a commander were clearly left for on the job training.  The main problem was that as some of you know the IDF isn’t known to be the most disciplined army in the world and my platoon apparently had taken it upon itself to be a leader in this particular field…of being very undisciplined.

Unrelated picture giving away the IDF's most cared for secret weapon...the way we stay awake through boring classes on gas masks and how to clean your rifle again (after cleaning it for over a year and half)

The first night my officer asked me to get dinner rolling in the small 25 person outpost and finding “a few good men” to help make their dinner was a challenge.  Everyone had a different reason why he wasn’t the ideal candidate for the position and only after 15 minutes of searching for the soldiers with the weakest excuse and then convincing/cajoling and borderline begging them into the kitchen did I narrowly succeed in my mission….of making dinner myself with the other helpless soldiers as sous-chefs (I’ll embarrass my dad by letting you all in on the secret that I initially spelled that as sue-chef, su chef, psu chef, sooooo chef anything else you can think of only wikipedia saved….my French is limited primarily to “we le surrender” and “hembergerrrr”). 

Me pretending that someone is listening to me.

The challenges continued.  The complaints about the guard duty list, the simple “no, I’m not doing that” to just about anything I told a soldier to do followed by the more gentle “it just don’t work that way around here…you know the whole commander soldier thing, you can’t just tell us what to do” all caused me numerous times to escape to the staff living quarters and scream silently “what is going on?!”  The other commanders, who had been with these guys only a month or two, recognized the my frustrated face, just smiled and said “yeah I was the same way, don’t worry about it.”  That reaction, by the way, did not make me much happier since it meant that an untenable, at least for me, status quo was in place.

Picture from navigations during commander's course

Nevertheless, while it took me a bit of time to get my bearings, things did start to get better.  I worked with the soldiers so that they would not feel that another "bossy commander" who did't lead by example had shown up and that we were instead a team.  I stayed up late and visited them on guard duty to talk to them, get to know them, hear their problems or grievances with anything from medical to financial issues as well difficulties they had with the command staff  and various other tzuris.  I tried my best to understand their issues, write down notes of things that need to be checked such as one soldiers foot pains etc but I also let them know about me and how I felt the platoon should look, how combat soldiers should act etc.  Most of them agreed in theory but said once again “here it isn’t like that.”  I explained to them that maybe it wasn’t until now but it will start being that way soon.  A long road lies ahead.

In any case, I realize a few things during those first few days: a) commander’s course hadn’t prepared me for this at all b) this was going to be harder than pulling teeth from an ornery alligator (only funny for those who saw the Waterboy) c) I would have to get a game plan fast and make sure that my officer and fellow squad leaders were on board as a unified front.   

We finished off the last week or so on the Egyptian border (you know the part with all the sand and giant beetles) with my nights on a Hummvee patrolling, looking for tracks and catching dangerous civilians who had gotten lost on their family trip to….no idea where since nothing is around there.  Monday morning we packed up and set sail to Einot Tsukim (Cliff Springs – this becomes relevant in a second) near the Dead Sea for a battalion level drill which had a 15 mile hike starting with a several hundred meter climb of aforementioned cliffs.  Towards morning we arrived at our destination for a dry run at 7AM (temperature already at around 98 F) that ended 2 hours later just in time for logistics to discover that “woops we didn’t bother to bring more water during those two hours.”  Waited around in the blistering heat that had crossed  into the 100’s with ease somewhere during the first few steps of the dry run for water to arrive.  I should mention we didn’t have food….since we were to have finished both runs by 9.  Around 10:30 we started the wet run or live-fire run (temperature around 104) which was stopped in the middle around 11:30 at which point we started treating two of our soldiers for dehydration and mercifully kept them from getting a heat stroke (all in all about 25 soldiers were treated for mild to severe dehydration by the end of the drill).   We started gathering up the guys and heading back to for the 7 km hike back to base through the mountains.  It was tough keeping them going, they were exhausted, thirsty, hungry and most of all pretty angry that things hadn’t gone according to plan. Long story short, 2 hours later, we were all back at base minus 2 folks from another platoon who had been evacuated to the hospital for possible heat stroke (last I heard they were doing just fine). 

Picture from previous battalion level drill

All in all, it was certainly “baptism under fire”  (ok considering that I am in the army, that is an exaggeration since no one fired at me…but we fired?) in some cases, trying to keep myself going as well as help the soldiers get back as well.  As is the case whenever the going gets tough, the bond between soldiers and me as well as between the platoon as a whole gets just a bit stronger. 

Well I hope this was at least passable as a first blog and hope even more that somehow the quality improve.  In any case, Shauva Tov and speak to you all soon!