During his first weeks of basic training, Uriah Maimoni had a problem: Whenever he stood together with the other recruits in Platoon 1, he could not stop smiling.
"The commanders were always telling me to stop laughing. Even the company commander got angry at me. But I couldn't stop. It took me a month to get used to being serious and orderly when we stood in rows opposite the commander. But in the end, I understood: We came here to live the lives of soldiers."
The transition from civilian life to the Israel Defense Forces, from being a carefree high-school senior to being a combat soldier, is not easy for anyone, though not always for the same reasons. And the Golani Brigade is a microcosm of Israel - moshavniks, Tel Avivians, yeshiva students and new immigrants. In a series of articles, Haaretz will follow five of the brigade's soldiers. Each had to deal with different challenges, both expected and unexpected, during the first weeks of boot camp.
Slaves to time
From Maimoni's build, one can see that the physical effort demanded at Golani's training base in Wadi Ara was not the hard part for this recruit to Company B. He is the son of farmers from Moshav Zohar in the Lachish region and he worked in the fields in the months after completing high school.
"I was ready both physically and mentally," he said. "I knew that my real challenge would be the discipline."
Something else that demands adjustment from new recruits is their new relationship with the clock. Elad Chelouche, a resident of Netanya who studies at the hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Shmona, termed this his biggest challenge. Like all the other recruits in Platoon 2, the yeshiva students' platoon, Chelouche had to learn to set his watch by those of his commanders. "All of a sudden, your whole life revolves around time. You don't have a free moment; you become a slave of time."
"The first thing I do when I get home, before anything else, is take off my watch," agreed Raz Better, a resident of the north Tel Aviv suburb of Zahala.
Better is aware of - but rejects - the stereotype that north Tel Avivians are not combat soldiers. "It's just a stigma," he said. "Most of my class from Lady Davis [high school] went to combat units."
Be that as it may, the only reason Better has not been nicknamed "Yellow" is because he already has another nickname in Platoon 1 - "Spiderman," due to a spider bite that led to him getting a week off training.
That enforced vacation was what made Raz confront his own personal challenge in boot camp: life alongside another few dozen people, 24 hours a day. "It takes me time to open up to people," he admitted. "I didn't make friends immediately, and the separation from home was also difficult for me. I was surprised to see how much I appreciated home - the food, the Sabbath, the fact that I read a newspaper every morning and knew what was going on. Being a combat soldier means being cut off to a great extent."
One for all
Lior Dahan, another sturdy moshavnik, from Eliphelet in the Upper Galilee, feared the encounter with other soldiers in Platoon 3 for a slightly different reason. "I trained before my induction and I knew what was waiting for me, but I still thought that no matter how fit I was when I arrived, it would nevertheless be difficult for me. I thought there would be people here whose pace I wouldn't be able to keep up with."
But the very first short forced march made it clear that Dahan need not fear being left behind his comrades; quite the contrary. And this created an entirely new problem.
"When the gaps started to grow, I suddenly understood that it was necessary to go back and help those in the rear. In the beginning, the commanders explained to us that nothing is over until the last one arrives, and now, that is already taken for granted. When we see someone who is having trouble, we help him."
There are some for whom just being accepted into Golani was an achievement, and not necessarily from the physical point of view. Yonatan Salomon, for example, immigrated from Belgium five months ago and does not really know Hebrew well yet. "I could have gone to the Mahal [foreign volunteers] Brigade for 15 months, like my friends did," he said. "But I wanted to give 100 percent of myself."
Salomon has no family in Israel, so he rented an apartment with a friend in Bat Yam - because, like all Israelis, "we couldn't find one in Tel Aviv."
The riflemen of 2009
In 1990, Israel Television broadcast a documentary film, "Rova'im" ("Riflemen"), which followed a platoon of new recruits to Golani for six months. The scenes of the recruits collapsing, crying and trying to flee the base left viewers who were not familiar with combat units in the military in shock. But today, basic training in Golani looks completely different - and not merely because the brigade has moved from the Bezek base in the northern West Bank to a large, well-kept base near Moshav Regavim.
For most of its existence, Golani - the first brigade to be set up in the IDF - had the image of a wild and undisciplined unit. It was seen as having an inferiority complex toward the paratroops, and most of the brigade's members, who largely came from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds, were viewed as having been placed there against their will.
"When I commanded a new recruits' platoon at the end of the 1970s, I spent the whole day running to the guard at the gate of the Bezek [base] to stop soldiers who were trying to flee," recalled a veteran reservist battalion officer. "Most of them simply didn't want to be there."
More than two decades of hard work, which included giving the brigade high-quality recruits and a string of charismatic commanding officers, changed not only Golani's reality, but also its image. Today, four recruits compete for every place in the brigade.
The changed atmosphere also accords with the latest training doctrines. Once upon a time, the IDF believed that new recruits must first be broken and then built up, on the theory that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "difficulties during training make things easier in battle." Today, however, the officers' motto is "positive motivation."
"Today, there is a different understanding of what it means to command," said Lt. Uriah Ziv-On, Company B's commander. The 24-year-old officer has the task of training 100 fighters.
"The idea is not to scare or punish a soldier; in any case, the training is hard enough," he said. "There are several sources of strength that can be used to motivate soldiers - setting a professional example, caring about them and what is happening in their homes, showing them that you are a moral and authoritative person. We receive civilians in uniform, and it takes each of them a different amount of time to adjust. If you don't spend all your energy on punishment, there are fewer disciplinary problems."
On Holocaust Memorial Day, for example, the soldiers at the base heard a lecture by a survivor - and when new recruits are left sitting for more than five minutes in the evening, they usually fall asleep. Once, that would have led to an exhausting series of runs around the base. But in Golani of 2009, the new recruits were instead instructed to write an essay about their connection to Holocaust Day.
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