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I am Israeli soldier number 5481287. I’ve been assigned to Platoon Two, Company B, Battalion 71 of the 188th Armored Brigade. I’m at the Armored School, in the south, halfway between Jordan and Egypt. It’s the thirtieth of July, day one of basic training, and I’m in shock that I’m actually here, in uniform, on a military base, a soldier in a foreign country’s army.
I’m dressed like a soldier but I look like a clown. My uniform’s three sizes too big, and it’s stiff, so it looks like I’m wearing a suit of green construction paper; I’d thought I would look sexy in uniform, but I don’t. I have a new look—I’m buzz-cut and shaved—and a new name: instead of Joel, I am my Hebrew name, Yoel, and my last name, according to my dog tags, is now Shetznitz.
“You misspelled my name,” I said to the guy at the dog tag machine.
“So don’t die,” he said and shooed me out the door.
In Lebanon, Israeli soldiers die for crazy reasons. They survive for even crazier ones.
Three nights ago, a squad of Golani infantry guys is walking back to their base after an all-night ambush when they stumble upon a pair of Hezbollah guerrillas. There’s a firefight, and one of the infantry kids gets shot in the chest—except that the bullet hits him square in his cigarette lighter, and he survives. Totally crazy. The twist: for the past year, he’d been telling his mother, who’d been begging him to stop smoking, that he quit. Now, here he is, alive, because of his stainless-steel cigarette lighter, which he’d been lying about to his mom. On the front page of the paper there’s a photo of mother and son with their arms around each other, all smiles, while the kid holds up his cigarette lighter, the bullet still wedged inside. He should have died but didn’t.
Another night, a different squad of Golani infantry guys heads out to an ambush after dark. There’s no moon. The countryside is black. The soldiers walk single file behind their officer, a young second lieutenant. Before long, the officer discovers he’s lost. Only he doesn’t want to admit it, so he keeps walking. He turns left and right, then left again, leading his soldiers in a serpentine pattern until their single-file line looks more like an S. The officer stops to check his compass. As he does, he sees what he believes to be the silhouettes of armed Hezbollah guerrillas, facing him in the dark. The officer radios his first sergeant, who’s standing at the back of the line. The first sergeant confirms that he, too, sees silhouettes of armed men in the dark. The officer radios back that in ten seconds he’s going to open fire, and when he does the rest of the platoon should follow suit. Moments later, the officer opens fire, and then his soldiers open fire, and within seconds half the platoon is down, screaming and bleeding in the grass. The officer, who’s one of the few that’s not been hit, calls off the fire and races back to check on his men. It’s only then that he realizes the silhouettes were not Hezbollah guerrillas. They were his own soldiers. Without knowing it, they were facing one another in the darkness. Six of his soldiers died. The twist: Three months earlier, these same soldiers had written a letter to the battalion commander, stating that their officer was a terrible navigator and often got them lost on hikes. They included a signed petition demanding that he be replaced. The battalion commander never responded.
The soldiers shouldn’t have died but did.
One of the most common ways to die is the Sabbath Switch. A soldier’s grandfather is ill, or his sister’s getting married, so he wants to go home this Sabbath instead of next. He asks his buddy, who’s scheduled to go home this weekend, if he’d mind switching leaves. The buddy always agrees, because combat soldiers have a bond unlike any other, especially in Lebanon, and there’s literally no limit to what one will do for another. That very weekend, while the first soldier’s at home, the platoon gets hit. The soldier who stayed back dies. The one who went home spends the rest of his life tormented because he knows he’s supposed to be dead and his buddy is supposed to be alive.
The Sabbath Switch.
But of all the ways to die in this crazy house of mirrors, the most popular is the Final Tour.
In the Final Tour, a combat platoon spends two years on and off in Lebanon. In that time, they see some action, but mostly it’s quiet. Then, on their final tour—usually with a week to go before they’re out of the army altogether, at which point many of the soldiers already have their plane tickets to Thailand—Hezbollah ambushes the platoon, and the soldiers bite it. The army knows about this pattern. They warn us to be extra careful during our final tour, because that’s when a soldier’s guard is down and his head’s somewhere else, maybe on the beaches of Koh Samoi. But soldiers think it’s just dumb luck, that no matter how many tours you serve in Lebanon, it’s always one tour too many.
A 24-year old Chicago native in a jungle of Israeli teens. Conceived: Florence, Italy, March 1973, after his parents spend the day at a winery. Joined the Israeli Army against the wishes of his father, though he harbors the secret hope that doing so will make his dad proud. Smitten by his Israeli girlfriend, a Yemenite-Persian beauty who at once reinforces and challenges everything he’s ever thought about Israelis. Enjoys the camaraderie of training, but deathly afraid of combat.