Thursday, November 17, 2016

Next Stop: Unknown

I waved a final goodbye to the bus packed with my former-soldiers of Battalion 402.

As they headed to a trip that my replacement planned, I couldn’t help but remember that exactly one year prior, I was in that same spot as her, biting my nails over the 4-day Battalion trip that’s weight felt entirely on my shoulders.

Suddenly, all weights lifted, my ID card cut, and my dragged-out goodbye from the Battalion behind me, I felt an uneasy freedom.

That auspicious day had arrived – Nov 9, 2016.

My release from the IDF.

The big day that most soldiers look forward to from the very day they shimmy into their stiff, awkward-fitting green uniform for the first time.

With so much anticipation, nobody said it would be so...anticlimactic.

I suppose nobody actually expects fireworks, but everyone wants it to be special. Everyone wants to feel free.

After all, it’s the day you are no longer property of some big institution that played Mommy-and-Daddy, Evil Boss, Psychotic Girlfriend all at the same time for two or three years of your short life.

You would expect a big freaking sigh of relief, no?

I’m sure many people do feel a special high when their scissors cut through the plastic of their ID card and see their na├»ve, 18-year-old awkward selves staring back at them.

It’s amazing, the meaning attached to this little card—a card that if lost not only means an army-court hearing, but also a means a little loss of identity—a little loss of belonging.

Only in retrospect do I appreciate how this tiny piece of plastic allowed me free bus and train rides, quick passes through security, discounts in stores and the frequent smiles of brotherly pride, camaraderie, and sympathy when I would (accidentally) try to pay with it instead of my debit card.

Indeed, as much as this system confines, it also provides. On a personal level, the army gave me a deep sense of belonging. And for a new immigrant, this sense of belonging is of utmost importance. Belonging means feeling a part of a community, feeling supported, feeling needed. Even "ordinary" soldiers benefit from this belonging, though most of the time, only really appreciate it once it's gone.

Only afterwards, once they are totally “free” do they understand what chaos is. People don’t talk about the chaos. About the loss of routine, of commanders who care, of having your basic needs met. We are (informally) taught in army to appreciate freedom so badly—to savor every ounce as if it were gold—that when we are handed the whole treasure chest we are overwhelmed and don’t know where to put it all. Our pockets don’t feel big enough.

Only recently has the country began addressing the issue of recently released lone soldiers—how to help them transition, integrate, and mitigate the feeling of loneliness upon their release. Because these lone soldiers are often the most motivated of Israeli society, it is in Israel’s interest to invest in them, too.

So I guess I’m a part of the statistic now—the lone soldiers who choose to stay in Israel, despite the plethora of material and emotional incentives to move back. Though honestly, I don’t understand how people move back to the states after the army. How do they leave Israel after investing so much time, sweat, and tears to the country? 

In many ways, this experience gave me a takeoff platform for entering Israeli civilian society.

In many ways, the army gave me wings.

Of course, looking back, it is more comforting to remember the positive moments; to color the experience brightly, in order to justify to myself and to the world that I made a “good” life choice. Admittedly, I will miss the complexity of the experience—the parts that made me shine along with the parts that broke me down and made room for growth.

I will miss Sunday mornings at the train station, when I would get a little excited to see soldiers with the turquoise beret, my battalion’s tag, and everyone looking a little hungover yet excited to see one another.

I will miss Shabbat in Ramat haGolan, when quiet would suddenly descend upon the artillery base.

I will miss lending my beret to a fellow soldier during Shabbat dinner, when they realized they needed a Kippa (yarmulke) for Kiddush.

I will miss staying up late working on something, and while locking the office at 1:00 am, hearing all the officers tell me: “you’re crazy” and “go to sleep.”

I will miss chatting with nearly every person on the line for food, and getting special treatment to enter because of my popularity amongst the cooks. (Due entirely to the excessive amount of kitchen duty I did).

I will miss the satisfaction of hearing soldiers say, after finishing Taglit or an education course (my work), that it was the best time in their service.

I will miss walks and little adventures around the base, looking out into the “real outside world” like happy prisoners.

I will miss eating pizza with my roommates at ungodly hours of night, laughing at the fact that we have guard duty just a few hours later, understanding that sleep is just not part of the picture.

I will miss spontaneous dance attacks in the office, and how upon hearing a knock on the office door we’d buckle down for serious work.

I will miss how everyone called me “savta” (grandma) for being a few years older, and the ludicrous questions that would follow—mainly about college and whether it’s really like it is portrayed in American Pie.

I will miss following the sound of a guitar strumming at night on base and instantly walking toward it, to what usually would result in a 4-hour jam session that only 4 cups of coffee the next day could remedy.

I will miss visiting people on guard duty with snacks and stories.

I will miss feeling goosebumps every time I’d sing Hatikvah in uniform, and for a brief moment wanting to be an officer while they saluted to the flag. (Good thing the feeling would pass…)

I will miss little kids on the street pointing to me and saying “chayelet!” (soldier) while in uniform.

A part of me will miss the simplicity of wearing the same clothes every day for a week, or two.

I will even miss (yes, everyone in 402 has the right to quote me and make fun of me for eternity) washing dishes next to a complete stranger, and by the end of the tiring day, feeling like we’re childhood friends. 

*            *            *   

The other day, while driving through Ramat Hagolan (where my base used to be) I saw soldiers at the local restaurant and felt so a part of them yet a bit removed. This bit of “removed” feeling is growing with each day, as I become more and more habituated to life outside of the army.

Admittedly, I still hesitate a bit when I open my phone case and intuitively check for my ID card to see that it’s not there. Though with each day the tightness of my gut-reaction lessens, there are still some things that will stay with me, like getting ready in 3 minutes, fearlessly speaking in public in Hebrew, turning any expression into an acronym, faking it until I make it, and laughing at myself when everything seems to be going wrong.  

Now, as I straddle the known and unknown, the adrenaline is in full gear. I have a few hours to pack an oversized backpack for the next three months in Spain, Portugal, all over America and my last stop: India for a yoga-teacher training.

I am returning to Israel in March to no home; just a plan to hike the country for 64 straight days on the Israel National Trail.

I am excited, nervous, and totally overwhelmed. I have no idea what I have signed up for, but I somehow feel held and protected.

I thank G-d that I have made it this far in my Aliyah-adventures, and am grateful for everyone who has been there to teach me, inspire me, and lift me up along the way.

Cutting my Choger! (ID card)

It's official...

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