It’s 3:32 in the morning and I’m cursing myself for having to pee. My body has yet to adjust to sleeping five-and-a-half hours per night, and at this stage in the game, every second of shut-eye feels crucial. After some internal debating about whether or not to get up, I muster the courage to take the covers off, find my flip-flops and head for the door of this cluttered room without waking up any of my seven roommates. As I reach for the handle, I check my shoulder to find that my gun’s strap is missing, and run back to bed to pull it out from underneath the mattress — my newly acquired “pillow,” the M16. As I finally sit down, rifle and all, to relieve my bladder, I ask myself for the thousandth time “How did I get here?”
They used to call me Pocahontas in middle school. It was the nickname the boys on the blacktop had chosen for the peace-loving hippy who made everyone reuse, then recycle. As I break apart my gun in the freezing cold to clean its interior, I think about that girl and wonder if I’ve lost myself in this system, this military.
I enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces on the 11th of January 2016, and have since gone through the most formative two-and-a-half months of my life. Through discipline, responsibility, mental and emotional exhaustion, and a complete whirlwind of experiences, I’ve found myself to be more mature — more prepared — than I could have ever imagined. As a soldier, you grow; there is no other option.
There have been hardships, no doubt. Whether it be my accent, misunderstood cultural nuisances, lack of sleep, or the exploding headache caused by constant translation that puts me to bed most nights, my first few months in the army have not been easy. The 120 minutes of guarding I do between two and four in the morning feel more like 240, and the 60 minutes I’m given to take tests written in literary Hebrew seem to last only half of what they’re worth. Thursday nights are damp with tears, as my friends detail the Friday plans that they’ve made with their mom, dad, sibling, and high school boyfriend, as I smile and nod, knowing no one will be waiting for me at the bus stop, and Saturday evenings are tainted with the reminder that Sunday mornings mean back to base. The childhood cheers my peers shriek at the top of their lungs as we leave base after yet another long week are still unknown to me, and the amount of times I’ve whispered “ani ezrom” — “I’ll go with the flow” — during unfamiliar songs and jokes is far too high to count.
Yes, there have been hardships. But there have also been incredible achievements.
Maturity. Motivation. Courage. Responsibility. Service. Profound friendship. Teamwork. Belief in one’s self. Belief in one’s mission.
These values have come to define the seams of the uniform I put on each morning. Whether it be via my commanders — young women, at times younger than me — who have molded my identity as a soldier through their undying dedication, maturity, and ability to rise to the occasion, or my friends whose shared experiences have bonded us for life in two short months, I’ve grown. Whether it be through the glances exchanged with the elderly when I’ve gotten up so they can have a seat on the train, or the silent understanding of my local grocer on a Friday as I lug my laundry-filled backpack and heavy eyes through the aisles of a closing supermarket, I’ve changed.
It’s the silent whisper — the collection of tattered memories that expands with each new wave of enlistees — that weaves this nation together. The olive green that unites us; the silver pins, ropes and berets that define us; the early hours and late nights spent working, commanding, guarding, dreaming about the future; the responsibility that transforms 18-year-old kids into capable adults — all of these things change us, they make us grow up, they challenge us to place our own desires aside for the benefit of something larger.
Something so large it takes the top and bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, forces them to be roommates, causes them to be friends, and ultimately transforms them into brothers. Something so large it replaces maturity with age, and empowers the rising generation to flourish. Something so large, it looks past color, gender, and religion to give each soldier a fair chance.
This silent current of understanding — of worn stories told anew, of crinkled pictures and faded histories — runs deep through the character of a country where service is and always has been mandatory, and weaves the threads of old and new, past and present, civilian and soldier.
This silent language of mutuality — of “I was there once, too” — entwines the garbage collector, the bus driver, the school teacher, the medical doctor, and the president of this nation in a melting pot of identification, of experience.
So listen for it, and listen closely. Not with your ears, but with your soul.