It’s something to the effect of a ferris wheel at the county fair. The military that is. You get on, and you’re trapped. The ride goes round and round for a predetermined length of time, never halting. You become the guided traveler, always waiting for the orders on what to do from external sources. Then out of nowhere, it’s over. The ride comes to an end, and you pick up right where you left off. You once again take hold of your life, once again become the master of your own domain.
It was recently proposed that I write a series of pieces about my experience in the Israeli military. The notion that anyone at all was interested in my personal life experiences seemed at the very least absurd. Who wants to hear about going to sleep at three in the morning, waking up at five, spending the whole day training in the hot sun, just to start the process all over again? Who would suffer my rants about military food, living conditions, and the all around hilarity of the military bureaucratic system? I had not thought that anyone would be interested in swollen elbows, bleeding knees, stress fractures, blister ridden feet, broken bones, or extreme fatigue. The tribulations of a combat soldier, it would seem, are a dull topic. But for the outside observer there is much to take in, much to learn, and much to understand about the true nature of military life.
The main issue when writing a piece such as this one is information. I cannot and will not discuss training methods. I refuse to name names or to divulge information that would be otherwise harmful to my brothers in the field. Times, locations, and certain activities that I myself, or any of my friends have participated in, will not be found amongst my personal account of time spent in the military. As is, this has created quite a predicament: How do I paint an accurate picture of my army experience while withholding so much detail?
The answer came to me unexpectedly. Show the journey that is the military. There is a side to the army that most people do not hear about: the emotional journey that one takes. And not without good reason. The military is not a place for emotion. It is not a place to find one’s emotional side. Activity based on emotional decision making is frowned upon. Emotions create faulty judgment, which lead to catastrophe in the field. Soldiers are not seen as emotional, and therefore that facet often remains unexplored. The military is however, a journey, and an emotional one at that.
I will venture to show the experience that is life in the military, and try to create a better understanding of the voyage taken by many young men and women in Israel. Using the experiences of a very dear friend and myself, both lone soldiers, I hope to create insight into what it is like to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. My friend, for the sake his anonymity, will be referred to in this and future articles as Eric.
For Eric and myself conclusion of the journey is close at hand. At this juncture Eric and I have attained the status of honorably discharged soldiers. (Minus 20 plus years of reserve duty, but that’s for another time). Today, here and now, we are at the finish line. In my eyes, the end is the perfect place to start. What better way for us to begin your journey through the military than with the conclusion of ours.
Frankly, it’s a little astonishing that we are done. It seems like only yesterday Eric and I were sitting in our ill-fitting, freshly-starched new uniforms, debating whether or not we had made the right choice. That first day was a shock. It was shocking to be there, shocking to don that uniform for the first time, and shocking to not be in control of our own lives anymore. That first day has been seared into my brain, and up until we were released, I never thought that I would feel it again.
Then we were slapped with release. We went though the whole process from the beginning; returned to the base where it all started. This time, however, we thought were ready. We had all of our equipment to return. That once starched uniform was now worn out at the knees and elbows. The formerly clean, new red paratrooper boots were now cut, bruised, blemished, and almost unusable. We navigated our release process like pros, snaking our way through office after office. I remember clearly how they reclaimed my military ID in the last office, and sent me on my way with a pat on the back.
As I exited the room I felt a twang of the surreal. Really? That’s it? Congratulations, a nod from the officer in charge, and on your merry way? How is this over? I had to find a seat. My brain went into overload. Thoughts about my past, present, and future all meshed to create a sensation of overwhelming bewilderment. The seemingly endless design that had engulfed my life, was now gone. And in its place an emptiness settled. Shock.
I found myself a place to sit, a cup of coffee, and a cigarette. These three things, as a side note, are considered by many to be the cornerstone of military survival. In a framework as demanding as the military, sometimes even the most basic comforts can be extremely rewarding. As I looked around, contemplating what I had just concluded, it dawned on me that I had come full circle.
Here at hand, was the end of my military journey, and yet I was sitting in the very place where it all started two years ago. I saw myself two years younger, full of inhibitions and dreams. I felt the shock that encompassed me on that first day, yet I had already crossed the threshold. As Eric exited the building, and we left the base for the last time, I realized that being drafted into the military and being discharged from the military created the same sensation.
As Eric aptly put it on the bus ride home, rarely does a person find him or herself within a framework that so totally dominates life as the Israeli army. For a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, every detail of life is already planned and defined in a complete cultural phenomenon that is the Israeli military structure. But what does a person do when suddenly, he or she is ejected from this framework, into a seemingly boundary-less world?
How do we cope? In what manner and at what rate are we to integrate ourselves back into civilian society? What time should we get up in the morning? When should we shower? How are we to decide what to do on any given day? Coming from a system that controls everything down to when you can use the bathroom, how do we once again take the reins of our lives? If the structure of the military is what pushed us to succeed, how can we now take that education and become productive civilians?
The days and weeks following my release have melted off the calendar, and still life has not become any easier. Things are static. Full days go by where I don’t even set a foot outside the house. I have been nominated as the official couch potato in our apartment. Watching movie after movie waiting for something to happen. Motivation is becoming increasingly more difficult to find. Days when I have to go food shopping (if I make it) are now my favorite times. There are weeks where I don’t even make it into the shower, and moments when I feel more alone than ever before.
In preparation for this piece I got together with a few friends who were also recently released from the military. I wanted to delve straight into the emotions that were clearly flying around the room, but I knew no one was ready to tap into their feelings. And who can blame them?
The military taught us how to be cool, calm and collected. It showed us how to be men, how to defend our borders, and if need be how to kill. The military did not, however, teach us how to feel. There was no lecture entitled: Feelings and Emotion. What they are, where do they come from, and how to use them. No field exercises depicting the proper use of emotions when combating an enemy, and there was sure as sh*t no one walking around asking us how we felt about anything at all.
No, the military is no place for emotions, but that night at the bar was. I was ready to break down walls and find out how these warriors really felt. So we did what any well trained group of combat soldiers would do: We drank. After the first round I was, once again, ready to talk. They, on the other hand, were not. So we had another, and then another, and still another. At some point I lost track of both the time and the drinking, but after we seemed to be five or six drinks deep the conversation turned to our release.
It began as any conversation between soldiers would. The words ‘I can’t believe I’m done’ seemed to have been uttered or screamed endlessly. ‘It’s over, it’s over, it’s over,’ rang though the night air. We were happy, WE WERE DONE, we were lost. One friend began telling me of his plans to travel Asia. Another of his plans to work then travel South America. Yet another was on his way to Africa. After travel, came school, and after school, work or more travel. Not one of them conveyed how they actually felt about being released. Their answers were superficial, and didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what I was looking for.
Towards the end of everyone’s declarations I began to let the hard questions fly. How do you feel? What’s it like to be out? Do you feel that you did enough? Do you feel fulfilled? HOW DO YOU FEEL? My questions, of course, were met with a deafening silence. Everyone at the table fell into a sort of hushed introspection. Then, like water gushing from a geyser, the answer arose. One word. All it took was one word: Lost.
That one word summed up all of our emotions. Freedom from the army was bittersweet. On the one hand it was over. Never again would we have to crawl through thorn bushes, sleep in the mud, or stay up for weeks on end. No more cold field rations, or suffering a twelve-hour guard shift just to find out your replacement is going to be three hours late. It was over and done with — we were free.
On the other hand it was over. Our journey that was the military had come to an end. We are officially done, but questions remained. Questions without answers. Did we do enough? Did we serve long enough? Should we have signed on more time? Will our brothers in arms be safe without us? Do we deserve to walk out of this on our own two feet, when friends of ours don’t have that luxury?
I cannot fathom these answers, or the numerous other questions that remain. Even composing this piece has caused great mental strain, as it seems reflection and introspection have become luxuries of my pre-army past. I do not know where I will be five years from now, or even tomorrow. I have no idea how we will reintegrate into society, but it will happen. Ten years from now we may be doctors, lawyers, or even teachers, I don’t know. What I do know is…