Sunday, July 14, 2013

My basic training in the Israeli army: Part 1 - Going home at the weekend.

In 1991 I moved to Israel and took out Israeli citizenship.  In 1994, I was called up by the Israeli army to do four months military training, after which I was to join the reserves. I went through a brief selection process after which I was sent, along with about 120 other new immigrants to do 3 weeks basic training at an army base.
I moved to Israel at the same time as a million Soviet Jews, so nearly all the 120 immigrants came from the former USSR. The next biggest group (about 10-15 of us) were native English speakers divided evenly among Canadians, Americans, Australians and Brits.

We were issued with a load of gear, including one brand new uniform and shoes.  We were told that the new uniform was a special gesture to us as immigrants and that "regular" recruits weren't given them.

The showers were mostly cold, the toilets had a leak, we slept in tents and I had permanent diarrhea, probably caused by stress, but the food was good. I formed a brief friendship with a former Tajikistani hunter who now fed the Lions in the Jerusalem zoo.

At the start we were taken to a lecture hall and given a speech by the base commander who told us "the door to his room was always open". He said it in a rather languid way which did not inspire confidence and, since no one ever took us on a guided tour of the base and our every waking moment was occupied, I wouldn't have known where his "room" was anyway.

Basic training consisted of learning basic military discipline, including a bizzare time consuming system for folding our regulation three blankets, which required two people to fold together. Every morning we had to spend about 15 minutes folding blankets together. Fortunately someone at my workplace had warned me about this. He told me to keep one blanket permanently folded in the regulation method and then just fake the other two and put the "proper blanket" on top.  I did this without trouble for the next four months.

We were taught how to fire a rifle. For the rifle training they issued everyone with Colt M16 automatic rifles which caused a lot of whispering in Russian:  "bzzzzzz, bzzzzzz, bzzzz, Kalashnikov, bzzzzzz, bzzzzz, Kalashnikov". Our Israeli weapons trainer grinned and said "yes I know, the Kalshnikov is much better". That calmed the Russians down. Apparently M16s are prone to jam in dirty conditions and have to be kept clean all the time. Kalashikovs can be buried in mud, dug up and will still fire.

Our extremely basic basic training included 2 or 3 weekends. Everyone was promised at least one weekend at home.  I was one of the lucky ones who went home on the first weekend.  The Russians told me that in three years Russian military service you get 2 weekends at home and most of that is spent travelling.
I got out of the base on a Friday morning, in my lightly soiled uniform with instructions to be back very early on Sunday.  I waited unsuccessfully for a bus on the main road, and eventually hailed a taxi.  I told the driver that I didn't have enough cash but if he took me to a cashpoint I could pay.  It was a long journey from Ashdod to Tel Aviv and in Holon the driver stopped for me to get money out. I must have looked very tired. because we were only allowed six hours sleep a night and kept active all the time, and after I took the money out he told me he would drop me off near Tel Aviv and wouldn't accept any payment.

When I got home, I was greeted by my cat who was badly injured.  I lived near the Carmel market and the alley cats round there are ferocious. My cat was a semi-wild cat who came and went as he pleased and was not "done".  He occasionally got into fights and this had obviously been a bad one and he was in a state. I quickly put him in a cat box and rushed to the vet, still in my uniform.

The vet turned out to be a Major in the reserves and insisted on writing a letter to my commanders, telling them I had a wounded cat that needed constant attention.
I got back on Sunday at the appointed time and handed in my letter to my commanders who were all aged between 20 and 22.

The following weekend, most of those who had been at home the previous weekend had to stay the weekend.  I was one of very few who got sent home and it was the sick cat that clinched it. Over the next four months I never once failed to go home at the weekend.

See more about my basic training 


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