Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Sound of Sirens

I woke up suddenly to the sound of a blast.

I sprang up. My eyes shot open and darted around the room to assess the situation. I was alive that was for certain. It took an instant for me to realize were the distant blast was from. I groaned. Another rocket fired from our friends in the Strip.

This wasn't new. I had woken up twice just that night, and over a dozen times that week from the explosions. In fact, I heard a large percentage of the 2000+ rockets fired collectively from both sides. I had raced to investigate blast sites to find brush fires, damaged buildings and large projectiles protruding from the ground. Our guys were already desensitized to it. The rockets and sirens had become more of an inconvenience than a threat. And by now, it was starting to piss me off. I was exhausted from weeks of patrols, some shifts lasting more than a full day due to the conflict. My eyes were already closed when gravity started to pull me back down again. Without much of a fight I caved to her might and started to roll over back to sleep.

Then I heard it. The shuddering shrill of a siren rang out followed by the calm and robotic woman's voice from the loudspeaker.

Code. Red. Code. Red. Code. Red.

Incoming rocket.

Officially, the siren gives up to a 90 second warning of impending doom but in cities closer to the Strip it can be as little as four seconds. Was it even worth it to run?

Code. Red.

Most times the projectile plummets into some godforsaken field, far from human reach. Should I even get up? This is exactly what the enemy wants, to terrorize citizens, disrupt their relatively peaceful lives, break their spirit and fatigue them. But they're not that accurate, I reasoned silently. Should I let them win by running for my life with every loud noise I hear?

Code. Red.

Sometimes there are false alarms. Could the siren be trusted? Maybe there's no real threat.

My fellow comrades were running to shelter and causing quite a commotion. Some rapped on the doors as they sprinted past.

"Yallah, Kadima!" they shouted.

Code. Red. Code. Red. Code. Red.

Godammit, I muttered as I swung my legs over the bed and lazily wedged my callused toes into my flip-flops. I ran my hand over my bald head in frustration. This was becoming ridiculous.

The room was nearly deserted. The others were on patrol and had switched me out on the previous shift. One lone soldier, a beast of a boy, remained in the room. The beast was asleep and had slept through the previous blast as well as the siren and commotion that followed.

Code. Red. Code. Red. Code. Red.

Her monotonous chorus was obnoxious.

Code. Red. Code. R


The sound was deafening. A ripple followed the thunderous blast that shook not only the walls of our quarters but the very core of my being.

"SHIT!!" I screamed as I slapped my friend on the foot. The expletive came forth naturally and from the heart.

"Wuzzat?" He croaked. The beast was awake.

"What the fuck do you think??" I roared in English. "We got to go, man! NOW!!"

I grabbed my gun and bolted out the door in flip-flops and shorts. My friend followed closely, just on my heels and we arrived just in time before another rocket fell nearby.

The projectiles, we later learned, landed a mere 150 meters from our base. They were fired by Hamas as a show of strength and accuracy in light of the threats of retaliation made by lawmakers in response to the kidnappings of three teenagers near Jerusalem.

Inside, the shelter was packed and sweaty, adding to the already shvitzy 95 degree heat. Most of the soldiers were half-dressed and revealingly unclad with many of the girls wearing just bras and underwear. Even in basic training 15 seconds wasn't enough time to get dressed. Some were smoking cigarettes and shifting around nervously. And everybody was clutching their cellphones. The bunker was abuzz but nobody, not commander or disciplinary sergeant, said a word. The rules were destroyed the moment those rockets were fired at our base.

There was a confusing range of feelings amongst those seeking shelter from Hamas's rockets that night. First, a strong rush of anger and fear. Then, hormones and a tender sense of togetherness in face of death. Then, back to fear as yet another projectile blasted a few hundred meters from the bunker. Screams and cries echoed eerily off the walls of our shelter. One girl passed out, presumably from a mix of fear and dehydration. Many soldiers cursed their Stars while others cursed their political leaders. But most, myself included, stared with wide empty eyes at our weapons. Were we being specifically targeted? Nobody was physically harmed but this was a clear escalation. We could sense it.

Sometime later, we would learn more of this escalation after a Qassam rocket struck our base. I was just outside of the entrance, en route to a patrol, when it hit. I knew it was close because not only could I hear the blast but I could feel it. I soon learned that one of ours had been injured. A friend told me that after the blast he saw a fellow soldier stumble aimlessly with shockingly wide eyes as blood from multiple shrapnel wounds poured endlessly from his head.

He survived but his injury left scars on all of us. We learned from his example that we too are vulnerable to seemingly sporadic rocket fire. We learned that whether given 4 seconds or 90 seconds, sirens and signals should be heeded. That it was worth it, even if it's just a false alarm. We learned that although the world gives our enemies more than enough patience, we must rush. That as stagnant as the situation may turn, we must not let our guard down.

We learned that war can be unpredictable.

And we learned that it had only just begun.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Best and Worst NEW YEARS of my Life:

S.O.D. Photography

"Bright lights and soothing sounds." That's what I would respond if asked to describe my new years in 5 words. I began the year 2013 with friends in New York and with the help of the band "Phish" playing in Madison Square Garden I greeted January 1st with open arms. It was freezing cold outside but I danced and sang myself into a warm radiant bliss. I actually laughed and smiled so much that night that my jaw began to hurt. I felt an unbreakable bond with myself and my friends and along with the fabulous music I felt comfortable and confident about the new year ahead.

But that was last year.

This New Years was a little different. I had approached a milestone in army training known as "Hell Week" and my platoon spent most of the past couple days in the desert. The training was tough but the weather conditions made things harder as it rained most of the time leaving us cold, damp and uncomfortable. We ate tuna for every meal and shared bits and pieces of chocolate that one of the soldiers had stashed in his vest. We had to be in full gear 100% of the time unless there were special circumstances (i.e. to take a crap) and the downtime was minimal.

On the eve of New Years, we ran with stretchers and crawled in the sand the length of a football field - all before breakfast. It was a tough day but aside from a few testosterone-feuled episodes amongst some of the soldiers we all worked together and bonded during our shared misery. 

As the sun went down we were ordered to dig foxholes. The idea was to dig our own graves and cover them with our tent fabrics to protect us from the elements when we went to sleep. After a few more hours of drills and punishments we were allowed to rest. My vest dug deep into my lower back as I lowered myself onto the sand and rested my helmet on the wall of the foxhole and folded my hands over my weapon. It felt like being in a large bathtub minus the hot water and relaxation. It was a clear night and I volunteered to sleep near the entrance so I could look up at the stars as my tent-mate Ofir curled deep into the covered foxhole. I soon heard his loud snores.

An unknown amount of time had elapsed when the sound of a motor roused me from my semi-sleep-state. "GET UP! EVERYBODY GET UP NOW!" screamed the guard on watch. I sprang up just in time to see a white pickup truck speed up to our campsite and in an instant a dark figure hopped out of the vehicle. Bright flashes from the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle illuminated the darkness and four loud pops followed exploding into the night. We were told beforehand that there may be drills with blank rounds and not to enter magazines into our weapons and return fire. rather we should get into positions and yell "FIRE!" during the simulation. The figure, who turned out to be our logistics commander, called out to a soldier and said he had been "hit" and needed immediate medical attention. We scrambled to get him onto the stretcher as our commander pointed to the top of a large hill and told us to take the wounded to safety.

Running up the hill with the stretcher was near impossible. The sand was so deep that it went halfway up my calve . It reminded me of when I would go skiing in upstate new york and my feet would get stuck in the fresh powder snow. My muscles were sore and unresponsive. I experienced a weightlessness that prevented me from moving like I wanted to and in my wobbly vertigo-state I would stumble awkwardly. The circumstances were a shock to us but we encouraged, pushed and finally cursed each other to get the stretcher to the top. Miraculously and triumphantly, we completed the mission and returned to our foxholes to sleep albeit with one eye open.

The next day, New Years Day, we hiked with all our gear to new campsite. Following the trek I was surprised to hear my name on the army radio. My commander told me to take all my stuff and hop in the Jeep going back to our base because I had a dentist appointment. I was slightly amused at the situation. Military bureaucracy can work in one's benefit too. 

As I stumbled into the dentist's office I immediately apologized for the revolting odor emanating from my body. Both the dentist and his assistant laughed understandingly and told me to take a seat. "Okay, what we're going to do today is extract your upper wisdom teeth," the dentist said with a strong Russian accent. I had no choice but to laugh at my current life situation. I was taken from one unbelievably tough circumstance and thrown into another. The procedure was done under LOCAL anesthesia and I was awake the whole time. I did not feel very much but I heard all the sounds of tooth being removed from gum which is arguably worse than the pain.

Upon finishing the procedure I was given 3 days to rest, recover and reflect at home. Although this New Years wasn't as glorious as last years (I ate tuna fish instead of listening to Phish) It was full of life and progress. I began 2014 by pushing myself to a personal breaking point and then removing something bad from my body. Although it's just psychological symbolism, I can't help but feel that I got things off to good start.

I'm proud of myself and I hope to continue this attitude well into 2014 and the rest of my life. The attitude that I can reach previously unattainable heights and purge from life the toxic people, ideas and thoughts that tend to hinder my progress. I'm excited for a new year of life, connection, growth and fun. A year of honesty where what I think, say and do are in one in harmony. 

2014 is the year of HONESTY, PERSONAL FREEDOM, and PROGRESS!


Friday, December 20, 2013

An Eternal Kick in the Ass:

A few months ago I voluntarily participated in a free trial for a training academy that prepares future IDF soldiers for the special forces. The exercise was a grueling 4.5 hours on the Tel Aviv beach that included running, push-ups, crawling, team building exercises and hikes to strengthen the mind-body-spirit trio. They even had this thing called "Schnitzel" (breaded chicken) where you run into the sea fully-clothed and run back onto the beach, drop to the ground and roll around covering every square inch of your body with Israel's finest sand. We did drill after drill after drill. The coaches were ruthless and the guys were motivated and serious. It was tough but I kept pressing on while fighting fatigue and a strong urge to quit.

The training grounds:
S.O.D. Photography

Towards the closing of the workout we hiked along the beach and up the dunes. We carried packs on our backs as well as a heavy sandbag on our necks for the duration of the trek. I had already past what I thought was my own personal breaking point about 2 hours beforehand but I trudged along feeding on self-pride and inspiration from the guys. I was slow and clearly a notch below the physical endurance levels of the other seasoned participants. I was panting, red in the face and making unnatural sounds. My sodden clothing stuck to my broken body and my skin burned from the combination of sweat, sand and sun. I was lagging behind and had to run a few meters every now and then to keep up with the team but that didn't last for long.
"GORDON!" barked the head coach through gritted teeth. "Gordon, come here I want you in front."
The group made room for me to get to the head of the line and I jogged over still huffing and puffing and bent over from the weight of the sand-bag.

"Look at me," he said still leading the group through the sand. Despite my reluctance, I lifted my neck and shot him a wild look.
 "You better wipe that pathetic look of weakness off your face," he growled. "One day you may have to hike a few miles - in full gear - to a suspect's house. If you knock down that door looking like you do now nobody will ever take you seriously. PULL. YOURSELF. TOGETHER!!"
I was stunned. A never-ending stream of expletives streaked through my mind like a bullet train. I didn't respond but his fiery words tore through my torso and entered my rapid beating heart. I squeezed my eyes shut and put one foot in front of the other ignoring my own slow pace. I don't know if the excess energy came from his callous pep talk or simply because I was so pissed at him. It took me awhile to shake off the feeling but I continued on. I simply hated that my hard work was being ignored and after all I had done I was getting yelled at to do more. I wanted my back-breaking labor to be recognized not minimized.

Although, after the exercise I felt different. Endorphins flowed freely and feelings of wellbeing and accomplishment warmed me from underneath my damp clothing. After reflecting on all I had done in the past few hours I secretly felt grateful for his crass command. I was reminded that although I take pride in my independence I cannot self-generate motivation to the point where I can give it my best 100% of the time. I need a boost along the way, some inspiration to pick myself up when I simply cannot. I pushed myself to the brink of the cliff of capitulation and I needed a shock to shake me from my slumber. Something to rid my mind of pathetic thoughts of self-pity and drill through my head that I have what it takes to blast past the barriers that prevent me from accomplishing great things. I needed that reminder to believe in myself.

His reminder still rings in my ears to this day.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why I Left the U.S. Navy Recruitment Office to Fight for Israel:

Memorial Candles lit on the tracks in Auschwitz-Birkenau
  S.O.D. Photography

”Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses - because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened”

-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces upon visiting newly liberated Nazi death camps. April, 1945

"Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust."

- Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, April, 2000

My first experience with terror was during the 2011 Jerusalem Bus Stop Bombing that occurred while I was studying in Israel on a gap-year program. I remember the day clearly because instead of going into the city I serendipitously ditched my regular volunteer service at a food pantry in Jerusalem for a more attractive option.
I was with some friends playing cards, listening to music and smoking hookah in my dorm room when we heard the ambulance and police sirens - one after another after another. We stared at each other and silently soaked in the tense ambiance. Something wasn't right. Why were there so many sirens and for so long? Moments later, a fellow student barges into the room - cellphone in hand - and with a wild look in his eyes tells us the harsh reality: a bomb had exploded at a busy bus stop near the Central Station in Jerusalem - just two blocks from where I was supposed to be volunteering that day.
Unfortunately, a couple of my friends were standing at the stop at the time the device detonated. One suffered a light shrapnel wounds to the head and later gave me a drunken, misty-eyed account of what transpired including the enormity of the explosion and the horror of seeing bodies, limbs and blood splattered on the pavement. Six months later, Israeli authorities detained four Hamas militants with links to the attack. The bomb was a shock, more or less the first of its kind after a relieving four years of calm in Israel. It highlighted the harsh reality that the Jewish State was still very much vulnerable to assault and that peace or at least a hint of normalcy was no longer within reach.
A few months after the bombing I went on a week-long educational mission to Poland that offered a boots on the ground approach to Holocaust Studies. The trip was heavily subsidized by my gap-year program and along with over 30 others I took off from Ben Gurion Airport to Warsaw and began what would turn out to be the most emotionally draining tour of my brief history. Mass graves, remnants of Jewish towns and cemeteries, horrific museums and a half a dozen extermination camps are all we saw that week. Aside from my family's Polish roots and their unwarranted demise at the hands of Jewish hatred, I felt an unyielding magnetism towards Poland. One incident in particular resonated with me and subsequently watered the seeds of my already growing bond with the State of Israel and ultimately led to my future service in the Israel Defense Forces.
On day three of the dreaded trek, we drove to Krakow home to the Old Jewish Cemetery, ancient synagogues and the factory-turned-museum of Oskar Schindler, the unconventional humanitarian and subsequent inspiration for Spielberg's Academy Award-winning film. It was high noon on a clear day when our bus stopped at a red light only to be greeted by a storm.
Presumably because of the eager looks on our bus's Orthodox-looking passengers, a group of around 10 natives standing on the sidewalk faced us and simultaneously and ceremoniously saluted their arms in a hail to Hitler. I was stunned for only a few moments before a current of fury surged through my veins. Some passengers reciprocated with their own middle-fingered salute while others banged barbarously on the bus's window. Unable to properly express my own buildup of emotion, I slouched low in my seat and began to cry. Perhaps it was due to the overload of images from our walks through numerous Nazi death camps, gas chambers and human furnaces of a dark history or the harsh reality that I was powerless in the face of present day anti-Semitism. Here I was, a mere bus ride away from the the exact spot where the SS butchered and burned an upwards of 80 members of my extended family in the central city of Kalisz over 70 years ago and watching as modern day Poles all but urinated on their graves. Their callous act was was salt on the wound and a deplorable desecration of the memory of millions of victims.

Modern day Krakow
S.O.D. Photography 
Throughout my trip in Poland I frequently returned to the thought of those powerless Jews that perished in the Holocaust. I had read of the courageous defiance and uprising in numerous ghettos and even within the death camps but I couldn't help but wonder whether some (if not all) of the atrocities could have been thwarted had the Jewish people formed a globally united community with an army to protect against the inevitability of enemy attack.
While the Nazis lost the war, the battle had just begun. In May of 1948, precisely one year before they were admitted as a member of the United Nations, the State of Israel was declared. They were immediately met with violent opposition and just hours later Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all declared war on the newborn nation. Israel survived her first battle with those who flocked to fight in an attempt to complete an unfinished job but it didn't stop there. Since then, the State of Israel has fought a dozen wars and conflicts and today, in the 21st century, rouge elements including Hamas and Hezbollah call for and actively pursue the death and destruction of the Jewish people and their homeland.
Things were different when I returned to the United States after my gap-year program. I was living in New York with my brother, had two flexible jobs and enjoyed too much independence. My experiences in Israel could only be seen through the rear-view mirror and only felt through the thousands of amateur photographs taken over my year-long dream. I had always thought about joining the military and following in the footsteps of my veteran "Zaide" and Grandpa who served in WWII and the Korean War Effort respectively. I would frequently pass a U.S. Navy Recruitment office on the way to and from work and often though of dropping it all to enlist lest I get too old or too caught up in my responsibilities and missed the proverbial boat.
One day, on a whim, a walk inside. The walls are adorned with posters and propaganda depicting soldiers upholding the constitution and protecting freedoms with ardor and machismo. I dawdle around, asked some questions I already know the answers to and grab some brochures before promising the officer I'd be in touch. I very much intended on joining the U.S. Navy albeit on my own time. I did my research and even began an intensive exercise regime to get ready for training. I often fantasized of traveling the world an stopping at one of the 800 or so U.S. Military installations along the way.
But I also had my reservations. The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation's survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation and if they were someone would know about it long beforehand (think: Edward Snowden). Based on their military track record of global intervention, coup, promotion of the dogma of democracy and overall meddling in most international affairs, the US seems to be plowing through more of an offensive campaign than a defensive one while leaving an unfavorable trail of poor foreign relations and political blowback. Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States.
When Operation Pillar of Defense was launched in November 2012, I was in New York doing research for a feature article on security in Israel and the region as a journalist forThe Suit Magazine. My thoughts were with the Israeli people and the IDF and like many others I was infuriated by the ongoing circumstances in Israel. Coupled with my newfound understanding of the vast reach of Israel's enemies, the war opened my eyes. There is no isolated incident of terror in Jewish history. The Pogroms, the Holocaust, the Jerusalem Bus Stop Bombing, the onslaught of rocket fire leading up to Operation Pillar of Defense and countless other incidence are part of a larger enigmatic epidemic of anti-Semitism that is far outdated yet nonetheless alive and active. To claim that Israel's enemies make a distinction between Israel the Nation and Israel the People or that they are solely resisting oppressive Zionism is misguided as is apparent in Hamas's Charter. The Lebanese scholar Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Phd. quotes Hezbollah's Nasrallah describing his view of the Jews:
"If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, I do not say the Israeli".
In light of these circumstances, I enthusiastically enlisted into the IDF to do my part in protecting the Jewish State albeit fully aware of the inherent dangers and potential consequences of the conflict. Although not within the scope of this article, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is an ugly one. The Oslo Accords withered in the wind and cease-fire agreements were written in sand. While Israeli soldiers frequently respond to violent protests due to settlement expansion in Judea and Samaria, they have also removed their own friends and families from lands given in failed peace treaties. It's a foul trade off that has left both sides frustrated and unsatisfied.

I must point out that "defense force" does not mean passive force and I am in no way giving credence to those who claim that the IDF is a humane army. Granted, they are a very moral military and are often the first to respond to natural disasters globally, but to put humane and army in the same sentence is an oxymoron. There is nothing tender or benevolent or peaceful about war except, perhaps, that force is used as a means to those ends. War is violence. Ammunitions are fired and people die. Buildings collapse and critical infrastructure is destroyed. People are misplaced and lives and lands are torn to shreds. Weeks, months and years of forethought and planning occur at the highest levels to ensure that the most effective strategy to eliminate the threat is carried out. The word "humane" is thrown away along with the gloves when someone wishes to wipe your entire country off the map under the false precept of piety.
The threat of modern day supreme spiritual leaders and quasi-dictators implementing their radical ideologies and racial opposition is very much real and the IDF is present in Israel to thwart the very plausible "Holocaust 2.0" against the Jews. Thousands if not millions of of Islamic fascists want to pounce on the Jew much like the conspirators of the Final Solution did during the second World War at a much larger volume of hatred, propaganda and indoctrination than I can fathom. Their rally-calls for global dominance through Jihad and relentless pursuit of scapegoatism to pacify the troubles of their flocks echoes those of their 20th century counterparts. But Israel won't let their ominous threats become true. I won't let them become true. Because "Never Again" means never again.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Bakum: Hooray for the First Day!

My first day of the army was pretty much a hell storm of excitement and anxiety which was good because I don't think I could have gotten through it without the extra energy. We were all told to meet on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem at 7:30 am. I arrived early intending to embrace the the military stereotype of punctuality but things don't always go as planned. By the time all the recruits showed up and everything was in order it was after 9 am. Watching other recruits being sent off by their family and friends was a little discouraging but thankfully, Tziki and his team of angels from the Lone Soldier Center, were there to hand out snacks, help out, and boost moral.

After we all hopped on the bus they took us back to Lishgat Giyus recruitment office because some of the recruits didn't have all their papers in order. We sat on the bus for almost an hour as they called up specific recruits by name to fill out last-minute paperwork. To my surprise they called my name. "Where have you been??" one soldier asked as I walked off the bus. "We've been calling your name for a half hour now!" It was either a gross exaggeration or a down-right lie because I didn't hear anything but apparently I had kept everybody waiting because immediately after I signed the form (something about army insurance) the bus left to the Bakum registration base.


Bakum was a long day of waiting, filling out forms, taking tests, getting examined, and waiting some more. When I finally got my dog-tags and army issued uniforms and boots it started to kick in that I was really joining the military. After everybody was present and accounted for with all their gear we packed into busses to go up north to Michve Alon base for my language course. We were travelling on the bus for about an hour when things started to look surprisingly familiar: we were right back at Bakum! The reason? They forgot our sandwiches and returned to pick them up. There was a lot of groaning mixed with laughter from all of us. I thought for a moment that maybe they did it purposelyjust to mess with our heads but turns out someone just genuinely screwed up.

Michve Alon is a military base that is part of the Education Corps. Soldiers come from all over the country to take courses and use resources for training. From training commanders and new recruits, to housing elite combat soldiers during drills (you can see their drones flying above - very cool!) they have everything in Michve. I've even seen US Marines on the base. About 2000 people representing 30 different countries are in Michve at any given time. Because I am an immigrant and my hebrew is not up to par, I am required to take a remedial language course in the IDF. Once I arrived, I quickly learned that the course is unofficially a remedial program for behavioral issues as well. Turns out that when you bring in new recruits from different cultures who are not quite used to the military structure, things can turn sour. I'll be here for about 3 months doing basic training and learning Hebrew - wish me luck!