There are many things that I think are unique about the Israeli army. Chief among these things is the way that the Israeli soldier interacts with his commanding officers. Israel is a very informal country in many ways. It is not uncommon for people to wear jeans to work; for children to call their teachers by their first names (or at least Morah [teacher] First Name). I know everyone in our local bank by their first names and in discussions with friends, even refer t the mayor of our city by his first name.
During the first four months that Elie was in the army, he and his fellow soldiers called his commanding officer, "Commander." After the ceremony that gave Elie his turquoise beret (Tekes Kumta), his commanding officer, who had been with these soldiers for four months, walked into the room and said, "Hi, my name is Or."
From that moment on, Elie called Or by his first name, as he does all of his commanding officers, and as his soldiers call him. After Elie finished his Commanders Course, he returned to the battalion (g'dud) that he joined when he first entered the army. Or was assigned a different task, and Elie rose in rank to be the equivalent of what Or was when he first met Elie. His soldiers call him "Elie."
Elie is a commander of a unit - the translations escape me, but I'll try to build the structure for you. Several of these units form another unit, called a solela. Several of these solelot (plural of solela, the artillery equivalent of the pluga, if that helps), is what makes up the g'dud. Of course, this assumes that I've written this correctly. There might be, and probably is, some level in between all this.
In non-technical terms - you have a bunch of soldiers, which form a unit. A bunch of those units forms a bigger unit and a bunch of those units forms an even bigger unit. A bunch of those units forms...well, a bigger unit and a few more of these and you have the artillery division. Put the artillery and tanks and well, a whole bunch of other groups - and there you have the army. By now, those who know all this are laughing because rather than tell our enemies anything secret, I've probably completely confused them!
Never mind. The point is - when Elie returned to the g'dud - he was given a new commanding officer. This young man, who is likely only a few months older than Elie - perhaps a year or two more at most, fought in Lebanon and has now led his soldiers in battle in Gaza. I can't write his name because I only know him, according to how Elie refers to him, by his last name. All I can say, is that K. (that's how we refer to "secret" officers in Israel) wants to thank his commanders and so has planned a special day for them. Once, when K. wanted to thank all his soldiers, he suddenly had his driver stop in front of a supermarket. He went in, and bought ices for all his soldiers (we're talking dozens here). This time, he wants to thank his commanders - those who he relied on during the war as orders were sent, coordinates, information.
Last week, after Elie was given time to attend his brother's bar mitzvah, he received a call telling him the whole unit was being given a week at home. It's called regila, and they get this vacation a few times per year. So, with all the soldiers at home, K. called Elie and told him that the army was taking all the commanders to...ready...a day of PaintBall.
"Didn't you shoot enough this last month?" I joked with Elie when I heard. He just smiled.
A few days ago, he went with friends to ancient caves about half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They spent much of the day hiking and just being outside. Today, Elie spent much of the day simply doing nothing more than relaxing.
Tomorrow, he goes to have a fun day with his fellow commanders. It shows you yet another aspect of the Israeli army. In war, things are very serious and disciplined. One of the boys was upset during the war about some personal problems he was having. So a few friends went to a side field, took out some beer and sat with him drinking - trying to help him relax. They were "caught" by a commanding officer and sent to military jail. There is no fooling around in war. Even when a soldier is not on duty, he is on call.
Now the war is over...or at least we hope it is...and so the army not only allows this downtime, it encourages it and even sponsors it. Tomorrow, Elie will run, take aim, and shoot his best shots. He's an excellent marksman. Remind me never to go to a PaintBall session with a bunch of Israeli soldiers.
In addition to the PaintBall day, we received a letter in the mail from the head of Elie's g'dud. It was addressed to the families and explained how important was the role artillery played in this war, giving support to the paratroopers, the tank division, Givati and Golani ground forces, and more. The letter thanked the soldiers and their families and talked of plans for the coming weeks. Several times already, these plans have changed - north, south, center, north...
Several times in the last few days, I have seen large army trucks carrying tanks and armored personnel carriers and jeeps - all moving these massive vehicles back to where they were before the war. Israel is standing down. Except for our nerves and our fears.
"Elie, is it smart for them to move the stuff away so soon?" I asked him as we passed a tank on a large trailer.
"Ima, they moved it there once...they can move it there again."
Elie told me more about the first days of the war; how they arrived and slept outside on mattresses until the tents and cannons arrived. How they set up camp and prepared the cannons for war during the holy Sabbath. The rabbi had come before the Sabbath arrived and told the boys that they were allowed to do everything they needed to do to prepare for war, including building tents and using electricity.
I met a friend whose child is also in an artillery unit (though several rotations after Elie). She told me how Elie had spoken to her soldier before heading down to the war zone. Elie confirmed that he was probably heading down there and then said, "but don't tell my mother...or yours."
"Why didn't you want me to know?" I asked him. He didn't want me to worry. There was time enough if it really happened and until they got down there, he wasn't sure it would happen. That was why he called me, after he was there, to tell me that he wasn't where he had been - army talk to confirm he was down near Gaza.
As the days turned into weeks, Elie and almost all the soldiers received a constant stream of gifts: warm clothes, food, candies, and notes from children. Signs were hung on major intersections supporting the soldiers as they passed through cities and towns. And when they went home, restaurants gave them free food or at least discounts; people stopped them and welcomed them home. A nation has been thanking them for days now.
And tomorrow, Elie will receive a day of thanks from the army - a day where he can run around and shoot balls of paint at his "enemy". But this little war will end not in rubble, but in a barbecue and talk among friends who were there. It will give Elie a chance to relax among those who, like him, have been through a parent's nightmare and have now earned the time to just have fun.