Reaping what I served

The story of a girl who discovers the army is not what she thought it was.

ELIAN ZACH  (photo credit: Courtesy: Steph Goralnick)
(photo credit: Courtesy: Steph Goralnick)
"I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go,” I cried, my whispers turning into moans, the morning of my recruitment to the Israel Defense Forces. I was lying still in my pitch-black room, both scared and deep in denial. In a flash, the covers were snatched from over me. “Stop being a spoiled little brat and get out of bed, now!” Lieutenant Dad barked in his raspy bass.
Just two weeks before I had been partying with my girlfriends at a Club Med in Turkey. Suddenly, I was uprooted; I was 18, and the first to be recruited in my circle of friends. I was terrified, jealous and resentful of my friends, who still had long months to enjoy being high-school graduates.
I grabbed the bed sheet tightly. I was face-down, like a cat hanging from a tree. My dad was about to say something thoughtless and nasty when Sergeant Elinor, my older sister, stormed into my room.
“This isn’t helpful. Please leave,” she ordered Dad, as I sat on my bed and stared at my feet.
In most Western countries, after high school people go to college, search for love and build careers. In Israel they do that too, only first everyone – including all the members of my family – is a soldier for two or three years. My mom was the commander of a squad of cadets, who were all taller than her, and most likely in love with her. My sister served at the Defense Ministry doing something both hush-hush and bad-ass, and my dad was an officer in an elite paratrooper unit. His army stories were the real deal, including everything from historical wars to the loss of friends, from protecting freedom to maintaining morale.
“I put another one of these in there,” Commander Mom said as she tucked one more pack of baby wipes into my oversized backpack. “It will be fun and refreshing, you know, between showers.”
My idea of fun and refreshing was drinking a cold beer on the beach with my boyfriend rather than wiping my sweaty pits with glorified paper towels, but I politely said, “Thank you, Mommy.”
I needed her on my side. She organized without looking at me, afraid my eyes would contaminate her with my pain.
On the way to the recruitment center we quietly listened to the news on the radio, while I was praying for a mild yet time-consuming car accident.
Unfortunately, it was a safe, short trip. Soon I was alone, surrounded by girls just like me. Once we were uniformed, fingerprinted, vaccinated, photographed and interviewed, we got our army ID cards, valid for two years – a fact I refused to accept.
Boot camp was a disaster. In the heat of August we underwent physical training and took classes. We slept only six hours a night, interrupted by random, hour-long stints of guard duty, just in case we got too comfortable. I did not eat, and was running on empty. At mealtimes, I’d go to the dining room, grab a slice of bread, and stare at it till we were excused. On the upside, I was the thinnest I had ever been and fit into my seventh-grade denim cut-offs.
The first time I fired an M-16 rifle, I did as I was taught. I aimed at the target, kept very still, and fired. Thumped by the recoil, I found myself lying on the ground. Bullets from my fellow cadets’ guns were flying overhead, and the smell of gunpowder filled the shooting range as I remained on all fours, sobbing. When I got my target back, I wiped away the tears and discovered I had done well.
I had joined the Military Band, but by this point I’d forgotten about the rigorous auditions, and being selected out of thousands of qualified performers; I felt neither grateful nor honored. For the weeks before I was placed with my permanent group, I toured remote combat bases with a guitar player, performing for soldiers fresh out of battle, often after they had spent 48 hours in a tank.
The troops were lovely.
They listened to our 10-song repertoire, though the performance was gnawing away at their free time (i.e. sack time). I felt sorry for myself and waited to get the hell home.
During my weeks out in the field, my dad called four times a day, even when he was abroad. I could sense he was genuinely worried, and was happy my physical well-being was still his top priority. But I felt safe most of the time. One night in a base at a Gaza settlement, an alarm was heard. A terrorist was trying to infiltrate, but the girls hosting me in their room were super-chill about it, saying, “Yeah, so? Routine, baby.”
Fear for my life was never an issue. Yet I felt stripped of my individuality, one that I had spent years carefully forming. The day after I learned we could incorporate bags from our personal wardrobe to perfect our olive-green military look, I strolled into base sporting a big, furry baby-blue messenger bag. It was so bright and fuzzy the disciplinary major spotted me from across the base, summoned me into her office, and urged me to tone down the fuzz. There was no charming my way out of anything.
Spending nights away from home was the worst.
I’d be informed I was going away for the week the night before, and couldn’t protest. It was final. I was ripped away from my parents’ home, my one place of solace, where I felt protected, like a teenager should. There, I was someone’s daughter, sister and friend, not just a number. It wasn’t the early mornings, the long hours, or even the nights away that bothered me. I couldn’t bear losing my freedom and feeling imprisoned, owned.
On weekends, my mom would make my favorite food and I would eat, laugh, and sleep serenely in my comfy bed. It was part celebration, part relief for everyone at home. Thursday through Saturday I was myself, but when Sunday came lurking, I stopped.
When the sun set on Saturday evenings, there was no more eating, laughing, or sleeping. No one around understood what I was going through. Serving was like college; if you didn’t do it, something had to be wrong with you.
But the days went by and I stuck with it, mainly because of my dad. I wanted him to see how lost and broken I was, and tell me it was okay to leave. But he never did.
Finally, I was introduced to my band, consisting of one gay guy, two gals and one mean gal. It was kind of like Glee in uniform, with all the drama happening below the surface. I was hopeful that doing what I loved as my army service, a rare treat, would change everything. But I hated it.
At that point, I could’ve been the army’s Beyonce and I still would have been miserable. But I wasn’t a Beyonce. I wasn’t even a Britney. I became a grumpy, mediocre singer who wasn’t desirable either socially or artistically.
In my band, the gay guy and one of the gals were my friends. The mean gal and her minion were not.
When my gay friend left the army following a long struggle with depression, it was the last straw. I decided to see the army shrink, plead insanity, and get it over with. Since my unit was one of the most desirable and prestigious, the doctor didn’t even consider transferring me, and just let me go. On paper, it was that simple. When I left base for the last time, George Michael’s “Freedom” was blasting on my car stereo.
AT HOME, my dad was sitting in the living room, devastated.
He never actually told me so, but I’d shamed him.
I started volunteering at a women’s shelter, attempting to contribute to society on my own terms.
I then worked as a hostess, waiting to move to New York to pursue my dream of becoming a loudmouthed Natalie Portman. My dad set only one condition for my departure: timing. I could move only after my theoretical discharge date, and not a day sooner. No head start for me.
Tension built between my dad and me. Waking up and seeing me every morning was a reminder that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. He lost all respect for me, and behaved like I didn’t exist. He would grunt whenever I dared to state my opinion on anything, and then ignore what I’d said. I wanted him to scream at me, to tell me how he really felt so we could finally put it behind us, but he only yelled when the phone bill was too high. He didn’t know who I was, and made no attempt to find out.
One night, after a long head-butting episode, my dad took me out to his favorite Japanese restaurant. I was so nervous about that one-on-one outing, scared we’d have nothing to talk about. He took a bite of his salmon sashimi and said, “You think we don’t get along because we’re different, but we’re the same. It’s like looking in the mirror.”
My dad, who at age 13 refused a bar-mitzva – a concept unheard of even in the most secular Jewish communities – was right. We were both opinionated, proud and stubborn.
NOW, AT 28, it’s been a decade since that awful August morning. Going back and forth between New York and Tel Aviv, my relationship with my father started to restructure itself, and our main common interest became Israeli politics.
Over casual chats on the phone about current events, and heated arguments in New York restaurants when he’d visit, I learned so much, even though we often disagreed. He’d say, “In order to see the full picture, one must be in Israel, live it.”
In my case, I had to step away to finally see clearly.
I discovered the army I had abandoned was one that sent text messages to Palestinian civilians to alert them of upcoming attacks, and encouraged them to evacuate. Israel, against all odds, remained humane, pluralistic and democratic. Little by little, embarrassment and remorse started to creep in.
Ironically, I was not a pacifist. I knew Israel needed to defend itself – but somehow, when it was my turn, I hadn’t felt the same urgency. Only the ultra-Orthodox were exempt from service, claiming to protect Israel by prayer. Poetically put, they were guarding it with a giant Torah shield.
Though a source of great controversy in the Jewish state, they still seemed to have a better argument than I did.
When now asked about my military service, I lower my head and mumble, “I did a little bit.” With a hint of hypocrisy and lots of regret, I hang on to my six months of service, because I can finally see how immature, unprepared and ignorant I was then.
My dad and I never talk about that time. He doesn’t know how dramatically my feelings have changed, and a part of me doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction. But I’m older now, arguably wiser, and know that the first step toward a confession is the hardest one to take.
I want him to know how I wish I could have a doover.
But because I believe in fate, I feel that leaving the army, regretting it, and telling this story, was mine. I hope it’s of service.