Out There: Trading places

Last week, I watched with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement as my oldest son got ready for his first ‘miluim’ stint.

Herb Keinon (photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
Herb Keinon
(photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
Mine is a mind that grasps general principles, not details. I’m the type of movie-goer who, a couple of days after seeing a flick, will remember its general outline, but little else. Some folks can remember dialogue months after seeing a movie. Not me. If I remember the basic story line, I’m doing well.
As such, I’m not much of a date person. Sure, I remember the dates of some of life’s milestones – like the month and year I graduated high school, or when the Denver Broncos went to their first Super Bowl, or when my mother died, or when I first laid eyes on The Wife, or when the kids were born. But that’s about it.
Much else – as far as the exact dates are concerned – just kind of melds.
Except March 2002. That month I remember particularly well, and not necessarily because it was the absolute worst month of terrorism that Israel has ever faced (130 people killed in one awful 31-day period).
No, I remember that month because that’s when I attained my personal freedom; that was my last month of miluim (reserve duty) forever.
After 15 years serving my country as a sub-par combat medic, my last patrol that month along the Syrian border on the Golan Heights was, well, my last patrol along the Syrian border on the Golan Heights.
“Free at last,” I thought when it was all over and I turned my M16 back in to the armory, “Free at last.”
And, indeed, it really felt that way, as if a major burden and constant concern had been lifted from my life.
I disliked miluim, I really did. I didn’t just say I disliked it so The Wife would feel bad and think reserve duty was much worse for me than for her, stuck as she was with having to deal with four small kids alone. No, I really did dislike it.
I disliked everything about it. I disliked the way it tore me away for upwards of 30 days each year – often at one time – from The Wife and my kids when they were all so sweet and young, and actually needed me.
I disliked, as a “floating medic,” being sent to a different unit each time, having to get to know and get used to a whole new group of guys every year.
I disliked fighting to get out for Shabbat, or spending hours strategizing ways I might be able to shorten my stint, or worrying about when I would have my three-minute turn on the field phone to call home (remember, those were the pre-cellphone days).
I also intensely disliked being a medic.
Generally, one enjoys what one is good at. I was not a good medic. I had a hard time remembering medical terms in Hebrew (I can barely grasp them in English!) I didn’t have the manual dexterity to confidently dress a wound. And I was horrible at inserting IVs, the combat medic’s bread and butter. Everything else could be fudged, but if you couldn’t get a needle into a fellow soldier’s vein, you weren’t worth your antiseptic wipes.
Once, during a chemical warfare drill, we were given the task of wearing gas masks while giving IVs. The problem was the mask didn’t fit over my glasses, so I had to remove them. But without specs, I couldn’t find the fellow’s arm I was supposed to practice on, let alone his vein.
The poor soldier prone at my feet – a fresh recruit serving as one of our mock “wounded soldiers” – saw me without my eyeglasses prick my finger with a needle and draw my own blood as I was preparing his IV. Though he was there to act the part of a semi-conscious soldier suffering from chemical warfare, he sprang to his feet and told his commander he wasn’t going to let me touch him.
Was I insulted? Was my ego tarnished? Heck no. The dude was right; I wouldn’t have let me touch me either! So with that in mind, I watched with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement as my oldest son got ready for his first miluim stint last week.
The Lad finished his three-year army duty exactly a year ago. The army generally gives demobilized soldiers a year’s grace before calling them into the reserves for the first time. Once his year was up, a short training exercise was scheduled.
Granted, my son – also a combat medic – was only going in for a few days of training, but his whole attitude made me ask The Wife whose kid was that sleeping under our roof. It wasn’t my boy. He didn’t dread going into miluim, but actually looked forward to it. Trust me, he didn’t imbibe that from me.
I dreaded getting that brown IDF envelope with the call-up order in the mail, and would mope for days once it came. Not The Lad. He waited for it anxiously, and was actually pleased when it arrived.
I was always a little nervous about going to the firing range and shooting half a dozen bullets; he couldn’t wait to go out and empty a couple of magazines.
With the exception of one friend from the neighborhood I served with once in a while, there was really no one I was looking forward to seeing in the army. The Lad, by contrast, viewed the experience less as military training and more as a kind of state-funded back-to-nature reunion for the guys with whom he had spent three of his most memorable years.
I hated going into the army and having to become someone I wasn’t: a back-slapping Israeli good ‘ole boy (hevreman) who could talk about Betar Jerusalem, call strangers ahi (bro), reach clear across the communal table for the last shnitzel before it got grabbed up, inject IVs without looking, soldier well, complain endlessly without really meaning it, and end every sentence with the word sababa (cool).
But The Lad? He can do all that naturally, seamlessly, effortlessly.
It’s all the difference between trying to fit in and actually doing so.
What a difference it makes being native-born.