I was reading Robert's (ON2VICTORY) blog that he titled, "Happy Veterans Day, military memories..." from Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. As I read about Robert (whose blog is always inspirational to us all) reminiscing about his military memories, I did some "deep digging" into my own military memories and thought that perhaps I should begin to put down in writing some of the experiences that I encountered in my own service. It has not been easy for me to come to terms with many of those experiences and it will not be easy to put down in writing, either. I must also mention to you, the reader of this blog, that I will do my best to not to be graphic, offensive or political.
I came to Israel in January 1990 to a kibbutz near Haifa at the age of 17. I began studying Hebrew and working in the banana orchards of the kibbutz. After nine months, I began a program in the IDF for people considering immigrating to Israel, a chance to sample the Army for three months before making a "terrible mistake". Naturally, I finished the program with my tail between my legs and returned to the States, where I enrolled in college. As the first Gulf War broke out, I became "re-inspired" and dropped out of school after just two months. By February 1991, I was back in Israel, studying Hebrew and living on another kibbutz.
The kibbutz was, for me, paradise. Wide open spaces, vast green lawns, mountains all around, exquisite flora everywhere, the epitome of both nature and Zionism together in a tight, comfortable community. I began working in the almond and date orchards when I wasn't studying Hebrew. The work was hard and the harder it was, the more I liked it. I wanted to prove myself as a hard and loyal field hand and felt that I was respected and appreciated because I gave so much of myself. My spoken and written Hebrew was improving greatly as a result of my integration with the community and I began skipping classes just to be at work with "the guys". My Hebrew was improving because of my using it at work, more so than if I had been attending class. When the Hebrew course ended, I stayed on the kibbutz as a "temporary resident". I felt it was time for me to begin the immigration process and I became a citizen of Israel in December 1991, listing the kibbutz as my official address.
The IDF Draft Board got a hold of me within my first month as a new citizen. I was called in for questionnaires, background checks, health checks, psychological testing – the works! It was like right out of the movies. They called me back so many times that I became dizzy. I was able to go back to my work though, in the orchards and enjoy it now without the guilt of skipping classes or knowing that I was supposed to be doing something else. I concentrated on learning agriculture from the men that I admired and respected in the fields, sweating under a hot sun and climbing outrageously high date trees, removing large stones from the freshly plowed rows of almond trees, diagnosing tree diseases and other horticultural ailments. I loved it!
The Army drafted me in November 1992. My status on the kibbutz changed to that of "lonely soldier", a soldier with no immediate family in the country. The Draft Board assigned me to the Navy and I began a long series of testing all over again. I spent two weeks of constant testing (physical and psychological endurance testing). At the end of those two weeks, I was released from the Navy because (as they explained it) a low security rating. I had had my hopes high on making it to the glorified diving unit, and after being rejected so, searched for a viable replacement for my glory-seeking ego. The Paratrooper Brigade was recruiting volunteers and I was in need of fueling my 20 year-old, testosterone-saturated ego. The testing started all over again (why couldn't they just transfer the test information from one office to another?). I suppose it would be a lack of Army bureaucracy if I didn't have to do it all over again.
I was accepted to the elite Israeli Paratrooper unit after completing the required testing procedures. I began basic training in Sanur, the Paratrooper Headquarters in the heart of the occupied West Bank – a base that no longer exists today. Over the course of my service in the Israeli Paratroopers, I had many experiences – some of which I may share, and some of which I may not. I spent a great deal of time in the West Bank, doing things that I had moral levity about and that I would later learn to regret. I had three different tours of duty in the Security Zone in Southern Lebanon and was engaged in contact with the Hezbollah far more than one would want. I did infantry training in the Golan Heights and more professional, specific training in the Judean and Negev Deserts. I was sworn into the Army by Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin himself (his grandson, Yonatan, was a member of my unit and requested that his grandfather preside over the ceremony). The next year I watched peace be made between Israel and Jordan, at the hands of Prime Minister Rabin and King Hussein (we worked security during the peace accords). I jumped out of 17 different airplanes, marched 95 kilometers in one night and bore the shiniest jumper's wings ever on my "Class A" uniform with the unit's snake emblem, red beret and red jumper's boots.
The Paratrooper's training course was (back in the early 90s) 16 months long. At the end of that time, you were promoted to sergeant and either transferred to a mature fighting unit, relieved of your fighting status and given a staff position or sent to officer's training. The choice was not yours to make. The battalion colonel called each graduating paratrooper for a personal interview before deciding his fate. He told me that he was sending me to officer's training school and I explained, in return, that I wasn't interested – the training and service in the West Bank and Lebanon had taken a toll on my motivation and had raised a great deal of moral issues; in addition to that, I explained that I had already given so much (emotionally, physically, distanced myself from my family and so on). He said that I didn't have to become a combat officer, but that the decision to make me an officer was made long ago and not by him, that I was highly skilled in field communications and that I should become a communications officer for the unit. He asked how a new immigrant became so proficient in communications – communicating in a second language, not his own. I explained that my squad leader in basic training always complained about my rotten Hebrew and noticed that I was hesitant to use my communication equipment. He punished me by requiring me to wear a radio backpack at all times and to communicate with others in the unit by speaking radio jargon, even if we were face to face. Soon after, the platoon commander had made me his personal radio controller in the field and after that, the company captain claimed me as his own. As I was telling this story, I could see the sprockets turning in the colonel's head (is there such an expression in English?) and he began to smile. "Then you will just have to come and work for me," he said. From that day on, until I was released from the Army in 1995, I was personal assistant to Colonel A. K. of the Israeli Paratrooper Brigade. I went where he went, sat in on high-level meetings behind his chair, drove his car, handled his security and communications, and escorted him to the most intimate of situations. It was the most enlightening experience that I had in the Army, witnessing the management of a highly organized military structure from a bird's eye view.
It may all seem exciting, but – like in everything in life – there is a flip side. I denied my post-traumatic depression for years (…the stories I didn't write about here). By doing this, I spent 20 years allowing myself to mistakenly seek comfort in the act of eating and I allowed myself to become physically lazy.
In the years to come, there were few clear "Aha!" moments for me. In fact, it may be more correct to say that the "Aha!" moments have been for me an ongoing process, coming to terms with my depression and how it has affected my social skills, my marriage and my health. I have spent years denying that my post-traumatic depression existed or that it was at the root of my failed friendships, my marriage difficulties, and my obesity. Every time that I went on a diet or started to exercise, it was for the wrong reasons and that's why it never worked. I did those things in order to be thin or to be strong or to escape my feelings of shame and embarrassment for having been a victim so many times. During those years, I never had any real "WooHoo!" moments. In the challenges that I set for myself, I was mistakenly anticipating the chance to either fight or to flee, for in my darkest moments in life I didn't have that choice – I was helpless and that was the feeling that I was denying. I wanted to forcefully take control of the bad things in my life instead of coming to terms with my buried feelings of shame and honestly admit my insecurities to myself. The "Aha" moments gradually took form as I paid attention to my hidden feelings, gradually gaining enough courage to open up to other people about what I had experienced and how I had felt. It was this culmination of "Aha" moments that eventually caused me to realize ("WooHoo!") that what I was seeking in life was not control of the bad stuff in my life (stuff that I really couldn't control no matter how much I wanted to), what I was seeking was what SP calls a "Breakthrough Point" – living a healthy lifestyle and achieving overall health. My "Breakthrough Point" could only be manifested by working hard to be healthy – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. The alternative: a black hole of post-traumatic depression. It was when I realized this ("Aha!"), that I discovered the Spark ("WooHoo!") …