A lot of parents would love to be the flies on the window of the bus that takes their children from the Induction Center. Within eight months, these forty thunderstruck, clueless rookies will morph into tough artillery-corps fighters. As the journalist who accompanied them on the bus, I would love to write that the "tough fellows shrouded themselves in silence on their journey into the unknown," in the grand Palmach (mythological pre-State commando force) tradition. But after spending two hours in their company, I realized they are not the toughest guys in the world nor are they traveling to the unknown, but to the Israeli Army School of Artillery in the Shivta Base, deep in the Negev (south of Israel).
It's 15:00. Wearing shiny new shoes and uncomfortable-looking army uniforms, they seem a little lost in the shed minutes before they board the bus. There's no chance that they understand a word of what they are being told.
Even though I've spent a lot more time in the army than they have, even I didn't exactly understand Yellow Form 1004 (for dress-service uniforms), to whom to give the ID, where are the metal name-tags (for a moment I forgot and searched for mine), and what are "stickers."
The days are long gone when the commander called the cadet, "hey, you!" Today, just like in kindergarten, every soldier boarding the bus receives a sticker with his name on it, which he then affixes to the left pocket of his uniform. It's good for mingling with the new fellows and helpful to commanders, and also to the female journalist who always dreamed about boarding a bus with forty first-rate eighteen-year-olds.
No longer a slave market
Colonel Itzik Shahar, the commander of Shivta Base who came to keep a close eye on the induction process, is definitely satisfied. "In my time, it was a slave market," he says. "Everyone tried to trap us in the Induction Center. But now, even the parents of the solders come to tell me that the induction process today is another type of experience altogether."
"Are more fellows requesting to serve in the artillery because of the escalation in the south (the rocket fire from Gaza)?" I wonder out loud. Colonel Shahar answers, "When there is a decline in the security situation, more young fellows are inclined to prefer the fighting units. We prepare for classical warfare in which the big guns don't have to be in the heart of the enemy. But in case it isn't clear, the Artillery Corps is a combat unit, you know." So that's it; no more dreams for these fellows about a cushy noncombat job.
16:00. "Attention!" calls the commander sternly. Sergeant Yedidya Melamed announces, "Take off your marching equipment." OK, here it comes I thought — the first drill, something like "you got three seconds to circle this bus!" Instead, "You are now permitted to turn on your cell phones" was the surprising announcement. "Call Mom to say you're on the bus now. A non-stop ride to Shivta."
This business with parents and mobile phones is one of those things that we army graduates of the 1980s will never understand. Two hours later, when we land in Shivta, the ritual is repeated.
"Everyone has notified their parents that they are in Shivta?" asks the commander waiting in the base, and I'm thinking that (legendary female) Palmach fighter Netiva Ben Yehuda must be turning in her grave to hear this. In her day, who talked to their parents? The kids would slip out of their houses in the middle of the night, sometimes leaving a letter or note.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Melamed takes his seat at the front of the bus, drops some of the stiffness from his demeanor and sends text messages, maybe to his girlfriend or someone else. This is his first group of recruits and he is "a bit excited, but only a bit. After all, I'm macho." Next to him sits Second Lieutenant Sara Naor. Later on I am told that Naor is a real big shot, an outstanding instructor. "Most of these fellows," she tells me, "think that they are here for an IDF enrichment program from Monday to Friday. The penny drops only on Sunday, when they realize they have to return to the base."
"Have you prepared night drills for them?" I ask, a glint of hope in my eye. You know what it's like — you want the younger generation to suffer like you did. "No." Naor and Melamed disappoint me. "There are no night drills, but don't worry, there are other things."
A clique forms
17:00. What do these new rookies think about, on their way to the first army base of their lives, the first time they are completely on their own? Surprise. They are not thinking about Mom, nor about romance and the girlfriends waiting for them at home.
They think about their new annoying military shoes, about their inclination to grab the first bus home, but not really. They think about the era of innocence that has suddenly come to an end.
And how do they cope with it? Another surprise. It has taken less than an hour for a group of fellows — Or, Yuval, Shai, Sharon, Yuval, Daniel and Sapir — to make themselves comfortable in the back of the bus like on a high-school trip. They have formed a clique with esprit de corps, as if they have been eating together from the same mess kits for years. After a few more moments on the bus and they have shed their IDF button-down shirts and remain in their olive-green army tee-shirts. Immediately Commander Melamed comes to attention. "Get dressed immediately," he orders them with a stern face.
These are all good boys from good families, most from the center of the country — Ness Ziona, Tel Aviv and Holon, they like rock and (singer) Shlomo Artzi, of course, and worked before the draft and after their Bagrut (graduation) exams as security guards at event halls or at Superland amusement park, as guitar instructors or exercise trainers. All have been celebrating with "draft parties" since Friday, and "all of us," says Sharon Gil, "have come here by mistake, but what can you do, none of us is prepared to be upset about it."
Meet Or Freund, eighteen-and-a-half years old from Givatayim. "I am in artillery," he explains, "because I wanted to be in a combat unit but I didn't have the right profile for infantry."
"I came for the heavy equipment and for the quick promotions, and I don't want a special unit. I had different reasons for coming here: I want the Reshef battalion because my older brother was in Reshef. And besides, I'm realistic. Most of the fellows here will serve in the regular battalions and won't get into the special units, so it's best that they make peace with that now."
At 18:00, on March 15, 1989 — exactly 22 years ago — I started the basic female Officer's Course on a rainy, stormy day. If they had told me then that in the future, commanders would act like in Shivta, I think I would have waited a bit longer to enlist. They waited with their blue hats for the new recruits to descend from the buses. Then, without shouts or pressure, they instructed the new soldiers to place their bags on the side and form groups of three.
The commanders hurried to distribute blue tags to the rookies, to place in their right epaulets since the berets were in the left epaulets. Then they immediately removed one new recruit from the group, the "on-duty cadet."
Now the recruits passed through the absorption process: talks with the deputy commander of the base, the personal-affairs officer (social worker), the adjutancy officers, visits to the Atomic, Biological and Chemical (ABC) station and even the rabbinic station. Yes, the IDF dispenses khaki-colored tzitzit (ritual fringes). And finally, at the end — food.
Private Itai Shalev, last heard on the bus conducting a tearful telephone monologue ("They took my temperature, I had 38 degrees but according to the army only 39 is considered fever."), forgets all his aches and pains in the absorption tumult. Especially when his sister comes to visit. Lieutenant Shahar comes to encourage him, to find out how he's doing, but mainly to take a picture to send to Mom back home in Alfei Menashe, the first shot of her dear son in uniform.
Says Shahar, "He is my little brother, he was 18 only in December, and every day he'd call the induction center, "draft me, draft me." He was always telling me, don't play favorites with me, don't tell anyone, they shouldn't know that your brother is in the base. But I'll go visit him during the free-time hour, and we'll talk."
In the competition for the most courtly behavior of the first day in the army, the prize goes to Commander Sergeant Nofer, who kneeled down near the group of soldiers to tie their laces, one soldier after another. Yet she was careful throughout the entire process not to tell them her name. After all, protocol mandates that commanders maintain distance from their underlings.
What did they used to say? "Soldiers look for greatness in everything, My role is to serve as an example." — Napoleon