I finished basic training in the Israel Defense Force. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always fun. But the past seven months are done! Done with the punishment pushups, twenty-second sprints, static presses, constant saluting and calls to attention. Well, it’s still the military so we will certainly respect our commanders, but perhaps punishment will be less.
Someone in my company said it best: “In basic training, they take eighteen-year olds and make them soldiers; in advance training, they turn us into warriors.” In order to learn how to fight effectively as part of a large unit, we have to be disciplined, to be responsive to orders. Basic training taught us the importance of time, how to respect the stopwatch, how to account for everyone, and much more.
In addition, we certainly were taught the beginnings of how to fight. Within the first few days, we were all issued M-16s. This was an odd scene for me. It turned the idea that the Israeli government is willing to trust its security to eighteen-year olds into a reality. These kids were handed rifles without hesitation. But we all quickly learned to respect our weapons. After days spent at the firing ranges, I’m comfortable with it. And after sleeping with it for weeks in the field, my rifle and I have become very close.
Field weeks are always the toughest, but they have the potential to be the most enjoyable. Our first field week was probably the hardest. Our commanders needed to “break us” into operating in the desert. And that means crawling…through everything. We would wake up and our commander pointed a hundred meters up a mountain and said, “in that box up there is your breakfast. Go crawl to it.” We also learned how to tell directions, how to walk in different formations, learn hand signals, first aid, how to carry wounded soldiers, and other things. But mainly we just crawled and hiked.
Now the purpose of field weeks is to learn how to fight as a coordinated unit. At first it was a unit of two; how to attack a hill with your partner. Then we learned as a unit of four. Advance training builds on the foundations and we can finally perform as a significant fighting unit. We’ll learn as a squad, then a platoon, then a company and finally end with a week long exercise called ‘War Week.’
Towards the end of basic training, each soldier was assigned a specialty weapon. As an American, a taller guy, and one of the stronger soldiers, I was made the machine gunner. It’s an honor because it’s a very important position; I provide cover for my friends and open a way for them to attack the enemy. But it’s also very difficult because the weapon is heavy and awkward to carry.
This is no truer than on our masas, long nighttime hikes with full equipment. Each hike has lengthened in distance; at first it was four kilometers, then six, then seven plus one with someone on the stretcher. Our last one was eighteen plus four with the stretcher. These hikes will culminate in our masa kumta, a final hike in October to receive Tzanchanim’s red beret.
Basic training was a trying experience. It was tougher mentally than physically. A month ago, I passed the six-month mark since my enlistment. That means I have less than a year to go. Another lone soldier and I discussed this and, as so often happens, we started talking about home and our month off we are both looking forward to after advance training. My desire to be here is quickly sapped of strength and energy. That was also the beginning of one of the hardest weeks of my life. It was the week I learned how to use my new machine gun. How to use the 10.85 kg weapon, hold it over my head while singing Hatikvah, climb over walls, run and crawl with it. My body was spent and my mind was near exhaustion.
But someone asked me that week if I regret being here. Do I regret breaking my nose while in the field? Do I regret getting my body, my arms, my hands cut up? Do I regret the punishment and the pushups and the sprinting? Do I regret not understanding everything? While all of the above has made my life very difficult and challenging, it gave me hope that I never even thought of the word “regret.”
Life is hard because you can go from such a high to such a low within seconds. But you deal with it the best you can. You remember why you’re here. And you look at the big picture. Never regret.