So after giving you guys my impressions, I figured I’d hit you with a little day to day to fill you in on what it’s like out here.
The first day (after a weird night of sleeping in a freezing tent with people I didn’t know) was bizarre. We started learning the ropes. We had a lot of what they call opening conversations, where the different commanders of the unit introduced themselves all the way up, giving you their army background, their expectations, and their pet peeves.
We also had interviews with all the different commanders. Most of the company had interviews up to platoon commander (the first officer), but for some reason me and the other American kept moving up the chain up to the company commander. It might have been because we were lonely soldiers or because we had high Kabah scores (Kabah is your mental and psychological quality assessment, it’s based on testing and interviews in your army process and takes into account upbringing and background, it’s a strong factor for acceptance into a lot of the selective army units). The thing was meeting all the commanders was interesting, although it was the same questions over and over again. They are all surprised that I am here, that I came alone or even came at all. I can’t tell whether it’s because of their low expectations of Americans, the fact that all they do all day is deal with 18 year olds who don’t want to be there, or because what I’m doing is harder than I realize. Either way, it’s nice to be appreciated off the bat.
The first days also introduced us to a lot of the discipline that exists. The big one is Digum, or how you dress appropriately. Digum is incredibly important to them, and incredibly annoying. Every button must be buttoned, the shoes must be tied a certain way (thank you Russian Ex-special forces man), the belt and shirt buttons must align, Sleeves buttoned or crisply rolled, beret must be folded properly, pants hemmed right above the boot, Hat on outdoors, off indoors. It’s maddening. I slip up constantly. I’ve gotten into the habit of randomly patting myself down in the right places to see that everything is in order. Except there is so much to check that it kind of looks like the Macarena.
We also have Alerts and Alarms. They call they alarms Hakpatzot, which literally means being jumped. Basically at anytime of the day or night, they can yell “Hakpatzah!” and we have three minutes to show up outside, at our posts, in our boots, with a list of where everyone is. They love to do it about 15 minutes before we are suppose to wake up.
On Tuesday, my second full day at basic, we started to get some of the equipment. Beyond the “mattress,” sleeping bag, and flea-ridden blanket we got on the first night we were assigned a whole mess of other stuff. We got uniforms, thermal wear, and awful coat, a dusty rain slicker, helmet, and a combat vest. It is all visibly old and tattered, much of it covered in dust, and all of it from Vietnam-era America. They definitely don’t waste the good stuff on the kids in basic.
The worst part about getting all this equipment is having to keep it in order. About once or twice a week we have an equipment check, where we have 15 or so minutes to get all our shit down flagpole (about a 5 minute walk in itself) and arrange it in a very specific formation. The first time we did this was a nightmare. The commander walked up to me and said, “Listen to me, you are responsible for making sure all your friends get here on time and everything is in order, get it? Your responsibility.” And with that I ran like an asshole lugging everyone’s shit all over the place, frantically trying to put it all in order. By the end of it it had taken almost 35 minutes and I was sweating like a maniac. We got chewed out for a solid half hour. Though I just don’t see anyway we could have done it any faster. I think they just give us impossible tasks every once in a while so they have an excuse to chew us out and run us around.
On Tuesday we also learned how to march, the whole left-right-left thing is totally legit. If you think stomping your feet in time would be easy, you’d be right! But it’s amazing how little rhythm some people have. They fuck up their feet, can’t be on time and all in all complain bitterly about it. They march us to and from the dining room, they claim it’s a way to show off our discipline, formations, and show the whole base “who we are.” It’s bullshit. I mean I “get it,” but it’s bullshit. It turns a 5 minute walk into a 15 minute odyssey. In order to pass the time I use the even tempo to sing to myself any show tune in 4/4 that I can think of. It only helps so much.
Wednesday was the day from hell, we had Kitchen duty. All of the Ptornickim left us high and dry by getting out of almost any type of cleaning. Which basically left me a 3 other guys stuck in the dishwasher for 11 hours. We washed by hand the dishes for an entire Brigade, twice. By the end of the day I couldn’t stand, my feet had swollen and blistered (partially because of my awful unbroken-in boots), and I was soaking wet. They still marched us home.
Cleaning in general is an amazing pain here. I know it’s not actually the case, but sometimes it seems like we are the only platoon that ever fucking cleans anything. Supposedly the bathrooms are our responsibility. What this translates to is me cleaning shit 2 times a day. When it gets really bad I keep muttering to myself “I have a degree, I have a degreee.”
I know the Israeli army is mandatory and thus has few standards. But as a personal project, I’m going to try to make it a requirement that you be able to shit in a straight line before you are given the option to shoot in one. I swear the number of people who “miss the toilet,” or don’t understand what “out of order” means is astonishing.
Thursday was the first day I really felt my Hebrew was inadequate. We had a lesson on the M-16 from our fast talking platoon commander. While this would sound like chinese to any 18 year old without weapon experience, it was doubly hard for me to try to keep up. While I managed to get all of the salient points in the lesson, taking the test at the end was supremely difficult. I just didn’t have time to really read through all the questions, and I ended up getting a 60%. She let me retake it (I think she had to in order to let me get the damn thing), and I did much better with more time. In general though, I do much better with visual lessons over classroom ones. They help me connect the Hebrew to visual things and I understand much better.
Friday came around faster than expected and it was already time to go home for the first weekend. We got up early, did all our cleaning, shined our shoes, put on our Aleph uniforms (cleaner nicer uniforms for ceremonies and going home), shaved and stood in assembly for the Rasap (the discipline officer of the whole company) to evaluate us. He grounded a lot of people to the base on the spot for bad digum or not shaving. Then the Mem-Pay (Company commander) came out and informed us of a pretty disturbing event.
Since Gilad Shalit has come home, Hamas, Hezbollah and really any terrorist group operating around Israel has vowed to kidnap more soldiers in an effort to exact another prisoner exchange. That morning at Nitzanim (another base for basic training) a car pulled up to a soldier waiting for a bus and offered him a ride. After he refused, two men jumped out of the back and tried to abduct him. Luckily he got away.
It put in perspective what I was doing there. How important it was, and how dangerous it could be. I kept my eyes open the whole way home and spent a lot of it really thinking about what I’m doing here, and why. When I got home I thought I wasn’t all the tired. I ended up passing out for a 5 hour nap before waking up for dinner and going back to sleep.