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Old soldier: Israeli reflects on two decades of civilian and military life

Michael Ripstein on patrol along the Egyptian border (courtesy Michael Ripstein)

MAZKERET BATYA, Israel (Tablet) — In 20 years of military service, I thought I’d seen all the crappy training camps the Israeli army had to offer. But there I was, early one morning last spring, walking from the glorified gravel pit that passed for a parking lot at the Southern Command training base, under the unforgiving Negev sun, beginning another reserve deployment in the Israel Defense Forces. And since I’d just passed my 40th birthday, the tour I was starting was quite possibly my last.

If it had been a normal Monday morning for me, I would have been checking e-mails, attending sales meetings, writing proposals or doing any number of the activities associated with my job at a software company in the high-tech industrial park of Ranaana, north of Tel Aviv. On this day, however, I was clad in green, wiping the oil off my rifle, squaring away gear and trudging off to some range to make sure that both man and machine were in functioning order. The smells of cordite, grease and diesel fumes accompanied the switch — from citizen to soldier — which, despite having made it some dozen times in the last two decades, never ceased to amaze me.

As I arrived, I saw Matanya, the religious kibbutznik with whom I’d done basic training in 1990.

“Mah itcha, gever,” he greeted me — “What’s up?” in Hebrew slang — and we exchanged hugs. I asked about his kids (he has seven) and his work, then we headed off to sign out the various kits we’d carry for the following two weeks.

On the way to the supply hut, I met the long-haired guy I know only as Chuck, because in the army you get to know people by their nicknames. Chuck had just gotten back from a five-month trek across India and Nepal, which is par for the course for the under-25 Israeli soldier. There followed another round of salutations and general inquiries.

When I first volunteered to join the IDF as an idealistic 19-year-old, more than 20 years ago, I quickly realized that I was entering a different world with different rules than civilian life and that this new order governing daily existence would last until the day service ended. The reserves, or miluim, aren’t much different, except that the citizen-to-soldier transition is so sudden and shocking, it’s nearly violent. The eight weeks’ notice you get before arriving in camp never seems to be enough time to prepare. Work, family, holidays, unfinished business or errands — everything gets put on hold. There’s never a “good time” for a call-up.

The day before this last deployment, my 9-year-old daughter asked me, “Abba, why do you have to go the army?”

I’m sure my response was similar to that of the husbands and fathers who were joining me in the Negev. I told her we went so that our kids could feel safe when they went to school or soccer practice, so that our friends and families could sit around their Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, and so that the nation could throw itself into the mundane. We went, I said, because, sadly, the state of affairs in our little corner of the world made it necessary for there to be people who were willing and able to do what we do. My daughter and two sons nodded their heads and said, “We’ll miss you, Abba,” with a stoicism that surprised me.

In my reserve company — “A” Platoon, or Pelugah Alef, of the 360th Battalion, 10th Brigade — there are software engineers, students, cab drivers, teachers, tour guides, accountants, construction workers, plumbers, factory workers, lawyers and just about every other vocation. There are religious soldiers who wear kippot and daven three times a day, soldiers who see their religion as a tradition and secular soldiers. They come from the cities, the kibbutzim and anywhere in between. They are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemenite, Ethiopian and Russian. They voted across the political spectrum: Likud, National Union and Meretz.

But among the soldiers here, I am the only one who grew up on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y. When I first entered the IDF, I was one of just a handful of American-born soldiers. I was also the first on my block of suburban Long Island to postpone college to do what I saw as my part for Israel. I was a brash 19-year-old and, in the days before cell phones, I remember fully disconnecting from home to immerse myself in the new reality of the army. I remember thinking at the time that as a Jew I should live in Israel. And if I was going to live in Israel, then I was supposed to do my part.

Many of my Long Island friends had graduated from yeshiva high schools in the United States, and like them I had decided to take a year off to go learn things in Israel. In truth, most of us were more interested in happy hour than Tosafot, the medieval commentaries on the Talmud. But somewhere along the way, an idea began to take form: that I was walking in the ancient homeland of my forefathers and that I had an opportunity to physically contribute to the defense of the modern state of Israel. Basically, I viewed my physical contribution to my people as part of my religious responsibilities. From that ideological crossroad, it was a short walk down Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street to the enlistment office. My great-uncles, World War II U.S. Army veterans, consoled my grandmother and parents over what they saw as their loss.

“It’s a good thing for the boy,” one of the uncles said. “So long as there’s no war.”

That summer Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

I was soon sitting on a cold, wind-swept mountain deep inside what was then Israel’s security zone in Southern Lebanon. Using my tank’s night-vision equipment, I watched the thermal streaks of Scud and Patriot missiles over Israel’s northern skies.

“What the f— did you expect,” I remember asking myself, “intercamp hockey games? Little League?”

After my service finished, I returned to Long Island and heard stories of frat parties from childhood friends who had gone off to college instead of the IDF. I found it hard to relate. I went on to Yeshiva University in New York, bounced around a couple of jobs, got married and ended up a day trader in Miami.

In late 2000, taking an offer to set up a day-trading office in Jerusalem, my wife and I moved from Miami to Israel with our year-old son. The first reserve call-up came about a year-and-a-half later, for Operation Defensive Shield, in spring 2002. Following that deployment, which I spent mostly in the Kalkilyah-Nablus area of the West Bank doing checkpoint work, the call-ups continued to come roughly once a year. They brought me to engage in activities that are as far from the civilian day-to-day as possible. I went on late-night raids into Arab towns outside Ramallah to nab wanted terrorists. I searched cars at checkpoints throughout the West Bank. I rode shotgun during border patrols along electrified fences and participated in armored maneuvers in the sand dunes of the South and the mountains of the North.

In 1990, I imagined myself an unburdened lone soldier living the bachelor life off base. But as a reservist, I was a husband and father, and call-ups demanded a different kind of collateral. My family grew to five since my first reserve tour. Every once in a while my platoon would throw a barbecue and invite the soldiers’ families — the wives and kids who have to endure the homefront side of this disruption to life’s daily routine. But each time I was called to make the switch from father and worker to gun-toting soldier, I was taken back to a simpler time, when the clarity — or naivete — of youth made the world seem less complicated. And, to be honest, the more knotty home and family life became, the more welcome the call from the miluim became.

As a Jew, I felt it was a privilege to have had opportunities to serve the Jewish state. But on some sort of psychological level, each call-up preceded a cathartic experience that allowed some perspective on the everyday noise and nonsense that can deafen and blind us to what’s really important in life. And, of course, there was the closet redneck in me, that kid from Long Island, the only one from my high school who got to tear ass around the desert in a 60-ton tank or fire off hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons.

In the army, what’s fun and what’s not fun is measured differently from in everyday life. There’s no denying that there’s something primordially exhilarating in blowing up s—, especially when compared to filling out Excel spreadsheets.

Still, my military service, like that of all soldiers, saw its share of aborted operations, anal-retentive colonels and idiot corporals. A lieutenant in Lebanon once failed to fire back at a Hezbollah anti-tank crew because he forgot the rules of engagement. (To me, the rules were clear: They were shooting at us; we should shoot back.) A private brought his penchant for unsafe driving to the miluim and crashed an armored jeep on a slippery road outside Hebron. No true soldier’s experience is complete without a few snafus. Thankfully, in my experience, there weren’t that many.

But it was always the sense of duty — to both country and friends in uniform — that kept me coming back. Although reserve duty is technically applicable to all Israeli men until they are 45, only about 20 percent of eligible citizens actually serve. There are many ways to shirk the duty, from fabricated medical reasons to simply being so much of a pain in the ass that no officer wants you in their command. Employers continue to pay salaries during a soldier’s absence, and then they file for reimbursement from the government. (Independent workers get an average of recent income.)

Once I was called up for maneuvers, which are designed to drill and practice military tactics, during the last week of summer vacation. Before we started, there was a cacophony of complaints from us about the inconvenient timing. I remember that the battalion commander stood before us, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Fellas, you know how you read in the papers that if Hezbollah attacks in the North Israel will know how to respond? Who do you think they’re talking about? You either realize that it’s you who’ll be facing them and that you need to be prepared, or you can blow off showing up for maneuvers and you’ll still be there on the front lines, just a whole lot less prepared.”

Each deployment brings its own political and moral discussions. And true to the diverse makeup of the average miluim company, the discussions are heated and from the heart. I heard soldiers debating the Oslo accords, the Gaza withdrawal and conversion laws. In a platoon of reservists, the company commander is more of a manager; he won’t tell people what to think, and the debates sometimes end in stalemate.

I’ve always felt that as long as I am physically able, I will report to service. But I do it, I admit, for what may seem an old-fashioned notion: national duty. I once asked my friend Gadi, a lanky tank driver who went through basic training with me, why he always responded to the call-up. He answered, “I’m here because you’re here.”

In the Negev, at 40, I realized I was one of the elder statesmen in the company. What could be my final deployment turned out to be patrolling the Egyptian border (with its new geopolitical significance), a few hours from the Red Sea port of Eilat, in a wild no-man’s land. We dealt with the complicated reality of illegal Sudanese and Eritrean immigrants crossing the Sinai frontier to sneak into Israel. We stopped Bedouin smugglers. And we knew we weren’t far from Hamas and al-Qaida cells.

I did basic training not too far away from where our platoon’s Humvees patrolled on this last deployment. One moonless night of that tour, I sat in a dried-out riverbed a few hundred yards from an Egyptian watchtower and scanned the distance with my night vision equipment. I know that barring the outbreak of a war, for which I would return to service immediately, those may have been some of my final acts as a soldier.

Either way, no one can say that I never did my part. And there will always be a part of me that would long for the oases of simplicity that the IDF presented for me. That and blowing up s—.

(Michael Ripstein lives in Mazkeret Batya, Israel.)

This article originally appeared in Tablet Magazine,