The Army Way

It’s about time:

Men who immigrate to Israel between the ages of 24 and 29 are often drafted by the IDF for an abbreviated and – many complain – purposeless service as truck drivers or guards. Now, with the focus of aliya shifting to the affluent nations of the West, the government is launching a program to offer these young men, who often have valuable skills, a more meaningful military service. — Jerusalem Post

I was in my 30’s when I moved to Israel. I rather enjoyed my four weeks of basic training. My fellow recruits were of a similar age and of diverse backgrounds. Many were from Soviet Georgia, and they enjoyed singing songs in Russian as we marched around (the only words I could catch were “Comrade Stalin”). They insisted on calling me ‘Steve’, pronounced Styiv, because “all Americans are named Styiv“. I had learned to shoot while working on the Riflery Merit Badge in the Boy Scouts, but the Georgians insisted that I must have served in Vietnam (“you shoot good Styiv, Vietnam”), and would greet me by saying “Styiv blat, Vietnam!”

When the fun was over, I went to the officer who was deciding what we would do in our future careers as reservists. I explained to him that I made my living as a computer programmer capable of working in many languages, that I had worked my way through college as a broadcast transmitter engineer, and was well versed in electronics. I was even expert in Morse code! “Tzahal has a place for you”, he said. “You will go to the Air Force.”

When I went home that weekend I told my wife excitedly that I was going to have a secret job in the Air Force — maybe I would work on electronic countermeasures! I wouldn’t have minded fixing radios or working on radar equipment either, I admitted to myself.

My reserve unit was composed mostly of mature guys like me. Every year we trained for two weeks, much like basic, and we spent the remaining four weeks (in those days, reserve duty was still reserve duty, 6 weeks a year to age 55) guarding Air Force installations of various types. Sometimes we stood outside the door to a bunker, sometimes we sat in a little shelter, sometimes we drove our jeep around the base in circles. One base had a kennel where they trained guard dogs; I remember their eyes flashing bright red in the lights of the jeep each time I drove past. Seeing the dogs’ eyes was the most exciting part of my day (well, night, actually).

I got to guard lots of sophisticated electronics, aircraft, radars, antennas, etc., although I was often not supposed to know what I was guarding. A couple of times I unofficially fixed a frayed wire to our jeep’s radio, but that is as close as I came to using my electronic skills. I used to enjoy looking at the antennas and trying to guess (from their size and configuration) what they were used for.

So I’m pleased to see that the Army is going to do things a little differently. Meanwhile, the abilities I developed to keep from going nuts during long shifts of guard duty in the middle of the desert, for example, serve me well when I’m required to sit through a boring meeting or presentation.

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One Response to “The Army Way”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    It was through many periods of Miluim or reserve service that I came to know Israeli society in a way I never have would otherwise. There were lots of memorable people I met during this time, including some I am still in contact with. The whole experience gave me a far more realistic sense of what Israel is.
    It also though I did mostly boring guarding of the kind mentioned above gave me a certain sense of contributing to Israel even though I was at the lowest level of the pyramid.