Relieved reservists rest and reflect

"You can see I'm meditating, do you think there's a gram of belligerence in me?"

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August 15, 2006 00:46
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Television crews from around the world were on hand at 7:50 on Monday morning to film the last artillery shell fired by the battery next to Kfar Giladi before the cease-fire. All through the night, the gunners had been firing away at a heavier rate than usual. Some of the soldiers joked that they didn't want to have to put any of the heavy 155 mm. shells back into storage. Two hours after the guns fell silent, the rows of shells still stood next to the cannon, on alert for any sudden change in the situation, but the soldiers had already spread mattresses in the shade and were taking some well-deserved rest. "In all my regular service, we shot two shells," said Oren Schwartz, a reservist from Bnei Brak. "In the three weeks we've been here, we shot more than 400." Now that the firing is, at least temporarily, over, the reservists can get down to what they routinely do in rest periods - talk politics. "I don't think that you can say that all we did here was for nothing," said Schwartz. "We didn't get everything we set out for, but the IDF did a lot and we can see that." His friend Yoel Berholtz from Hadera was more scathing. "The general feeling is that it was a waste of time: We didn't get our soldiers back, Hizbullah still has its weapons, a lot of our guys got killed and then we stopped everything in the middle." The argument raged in every encampment in the North. In a large field near Kiryat Shmona, armor and engineering units were setting up camp next to their Merkava tanks and Puma AFVs, brewing coffee, playing backgammon and taking turns at the makeshift showers. "Thank God that it was all over before they sent us in," said Mickey, a tankist from Beit El. He realized that many soldiers feel differently and even cheated of their share of the fighting but thought they were mainly young regulars: "It's all a question of what's waiting for you back home. There's a conflict between personal and national considerations. Perhaps it would have been better to continue fighting, but personally I'm relieved. Besides, I don't think the nation had the stomach for a longer war." Eitan, a combat engineer, thought "logic says we should be pleased not to be inside, but there are our soldiers there and this is what we came here to do." Alon, a chemistry student at Tel Aviv University, was doing yoga in the shade of his tank. For a few minutes he tried to disconnect from his military surroundings. "You can see I'm meditating, do you think there's a gram of belligerence in me?" he said after being asked his opinion on the cease-fire. He acknowledged the absurdity of his being a tank commander and admitted that it had crossed his mind not to take part in the war, "but I didn't want to make any provocations or trouble for my officers. Perhaps next time I won't turn up. If anything, I think that this has proved that wars aren't the solution." The next war seemed to be on everyone's mind. As reservists, they knew that soon they would be heading home but that the next call-up could happen any time. Moshe, a chef at a Tiberias hotel, said that "we've lost because now we're in a worse situation for the next war. Then they'll be using chemical warheads. We should have had this war six years ago, when Hizbullah wouldn't have been so well prepared. "When this all began, I thought [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz were handling things well. Olmert made a great speech at the mayor's conference, but then they started dithering and now this war is unclear - part meat, part dairy. I don't really understand why they called us up at all." Ariel from Ramat Gan disagreed: "We didn't lose this war. Now they know that they can't just come up to the border and kidnap our soldiers and all we'll do is ask to negotiate. Now they know that we mean business." For many of the soldiers, climbing off their tanks for the first time in a week, the return to normalcy was slow. "What day is it?" asked Yizhar, who grows cherry tomatoes at the Vulcani Institute in Rehovot. "I've lost track." It's also the first time in days that they've learned of the news and the political argument raging "back in Israel." One tanker sat in his underpants on a Merkava, clutching the morning newspaper with its long row of photographs of fallen soldiers. "You open the paper and you just want to cry," he said. The cease-fire enabled the IDF to evacuate soldiers who were only lightly wounded or shell-shocked and whose condition didn't warrant evacuation under fire. Many were first taken to the field hospital in an underground bunker in Kiryat Shmona, from which they went home or for further treatment in a regular hospital. "Reservists take things differently from the younger soldiers," said Amir Schwartz, a medic at the field hospital and a magazine editor in Tel Aviv. "They are still full of it and just want to get back to their buddies back in the field. We have to convince them to take a rest and a shower. By then their parents usually turn up and they calm down. "The effects of the fighting will take time to show. With the reservists, who have been plunged from their regular life straight into battle, the shock comes much sooner. A lot of them broke down here, especially when they hear about friends who were killed." The signs of shell-shock are either depression or hyperactivity and the need to constantly recount details of the battle. One reserve paratrooper who was in a house in Kantara that was hit by Hizbullah fire is walking up and down outside the hospital, describing what he saw. The first treatment for such a case was to have one of his friends continually accompany him, just listening. After a couple of hours, a car arrived from his unit to take him to the base near the Kinneret.

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