The stream of cars flocking to the IDF training base in Shivta in the early morning hours of Thursday, March 7, 2019 was the first visible difference between the basic training graduation ceremony of the recruitment class of 1988 and that of the recruitment class of November 2019. Back in 1988, I participated in that ceremony as a graduating rookie, and it was held at the IDF training base in Shavei Shomron, near Nablus – which my parents never got to visit. Thirty years later, I am the father of a graduating rookie, on the way to his son's graduation ("Beret Award") trek. The level of excitement is much higher today.
I will come to the experience awaiting us parents in Shivta later. This is an opportunity for a more comprehensive comparison, between the IDF Corps of Artillery recruitment classes of 1988 and 2018.
The Selection Process
At the bottom line, there is no comparison. In 1988 we arrived at the IDF Absorption & Selection Base (BAKUM) in Tel-HaShomer, and on the following day we attended a parade known informally as the "Slave Market". With hundreds of recruits on the parade ground, supreme concentration was required in order to hear your name being announced on the public address system. Then we formed up in threes in front of a squad leader who informed a few dozen puzzled recruits: "You have just joined the Corps of Artillery."
In 2018, the number of surprises is much smaller. Following a prolonged process of dealing with one's "Manila" (personal file) and entering one's preferences through the Internet (top priority – Corps of Artillery!), the actual recruitment date has arrived. Prior to that the future recruits attended a preparatory meeting on behalf of the Corps of Artillery – a conversation at a Café with a young commander who has come to meet future recruits from our own town of Kfar-Saba. Following that, they attended a day's seminar for future recruits on behalf of the Corps of Artillery, held at the Israeli Air Force Center in Hertzliya. Knowledge reduces anxiety. Chapeau! And all of that even before discussing the option of selecting a friend to join the Corps together. Who could even dream about those options back in 1988?
The Training Base
Well, there is no comparison here either. Back in the day, the drive to Shavei Shomron passed through the town of Tulkarem and countless Palestinian villages, and the journey included frequent barrages of stones (if we were lucky). 1988 was the peak year of the first Intifada.
All in the spirit of the times. Our accommodations at that training camp consisted of 10-man tents and we had to roll up the tent flaps every morning. The showers had diesel fuel, open-flame heaters that provided hot water in very small quantities. Later on, we had our artilleryman's training course at the base in Shivta – and still slept in tents. The sandstorms penetrated every crevice. Air conditioners? There were none.
Fast forward to 2018: the base in Shivta has just received an impressive facelift. Rookie accommodations consist of brand new buildings. The modern showers are adjacent to the dormitories, and there are quite a few lawns around the accommodations.
PS (Pre-Sleep) Hour
I do not recall anything like that back in 1988. On Friday evening, we would queue up in a long line in front of a single public telephone (with a dial!) just to say a few words to Mom and Dad, with dozens of other rookies urging you from behind to be brief: "Hurry up! We want a chance to call home, too!"
In 2018, the PS Hour is for us – the parents. This is the time when the rookies can use their cellular phones, which during the day remain locked away in some trunk. Give it time, and the PS Hour becomes a part of the biological clock of every parent. There is no way of knowing when this time will come (during treks, the rookies are allowed to get their designated hours of sleep even during the day), but every parent learns how to "sense" when the son (or daughter) is going to call, regardless of the time zone you are in, worldwide.
This is linked to the previous item. Back in 1988, GHQ standing orders prescribed six mandatory hours of sleep every night, on paper, but every Thursday night was a "White Night", namely – no sleep at all. A never-ending sequence of inspections and chores, first during the basic training period, subsequently during the artilleryman's training course, and eventually even during the commander's course. More or less a full year of Thursday nights without sleep, and then collapsing at home during the weekend leave (if we were lucky to have a leave).
In 2018, if the night is devoted to a trek or some other training activity, the rookies will have six hours of sleep (plus the PS Hour) at an early hour. There are no more "White Nights" for physical toughening.
It is doubtful whether the parents knew, back in 1988, what the rookies were going through. In 2018, technology plays an important role. The parents of the battery's rookies have their own WhatsApp group (naturally), along with the phone numbers of the battery commander and the Shivta training base. However, the lines are very clear: the telephone numbers are only for an emergency, and should not be used otherwise. There are no parental visits at the Shivta base, even during weekends when the rookies remain at the base.
One of the special moments during the basic training period occurred when Jonathan, our son's team leader, paid a visit to our home, having visited the homes of the other rookies. It was close to midnight and we greedily drank every bit of information about whatever was going on at the Shivta base, and about what the future holds for our son. Jonathan is currently a cadet at the IDF Officer Training School (BAHAD 1). Only a year older than our son, but my wife, Orit, and myself had the profound impression that he is a wonderful role model for the members of the next class. Good luck at the officer training course, Jonathan!
Back in 1988, we took the black berets issued to us for granted. In 2018, the rookies must undergo a strenuous forced march (carrying stretchers) to be entitled to their turquoise berets. The Corps of Artillery beret is a hit – just as exciting for the parents as it is for the rookies.
The only woman soldier I recall from our basic training period back in 1988 was standing at the graduation ceremony alongside the training base commander, Lieutenant Colonel Danny Kasif (currently a brigadier general [res.] and Chairman of the Artillerymen Memorial Association).
In 2018, that is the first thing you notice as a parent at the graduation ceremony: woman soldiers being trained as warfighters are a normal phenomenon. At the graduation ceremony of the class of November 2018, not less than 85 woman trainees and 15 woman commanders were present on the parade ground. Amazing!
Beret Award Graduation Trek, November 2018
In the distance, we could see the first batteries approaching the hill about two kilometers to the east of the Shivta base. The sun was just rising and excitement swelled. "Which battalion are you?" was the question that echoed with every group of rookies that passed by. "Where is the Dragon Battalion?" we asked, and when we spotted our son, we joined in for the last two kilometers of the trek. We pushed in under the stretcher, parents and rookies together. One member of the team who caught my attention was a warfighter who's a "lone soldier" from the USA – a soldier who has no immediate family relatives in Israel. He was under the stretcher, right in front of me.
On the way to the base, we could see Hill 404 in the distance, the hill we climbed up and down countless times during our years in Shivta, the same hill our children crawled over, too, under a strict timing discipline, in the freezing cold of the last winter.
As the trek ends, the warfighters raise the stretchers high, shouting "Alle, Alle!" (Up! Up!), and our eyes fill with uncontrollable tears of emotion.
Then – a "spread", breakfast organized by the training base and the society for the welfare of soldiers, with a nice DJ providing the background music. The sun still moves on toward the middle of the sky. Just before 11:00 AM they hold the beret award ceremony. Once again – very emotional.
As the ceremony ends, we are treated to a live fire demonstration. Yotam, the commander of the basic training base, tells the parents that today's artillerymen are assigned to an extensive range of occupational specialties – from UAV operators through rocket launcher operators, spotters, Moran (still classified) to self-propelled gun crewmen. In my day, there were only the self-propelled guns. Even now, the fire demonstration at the end of the ceremony only includes self-propelled gun fire by the warfighters of the Reshef Battalion – the same battalion in which I had served during my compulsory service. Four tubes, and the warfighters fail to produce a coordinated final barrage. Only to my eyes, this failure is somewhat embarrassing.
After the fire display, the parents' leave-taking interval is a total mess, with a sequence of contradicting orders as to what should be done and how to collect the rookies' equipment in anticipation of their forthcoming leave. Apparently, some measure of military disorder is inevitable even in 2019.
I watch the rookies running around from the side: even during the last moment of their basic training period, they are doing their best to comply with their commanders' instructions, under a strict and uncompromising timing discipline. To me, it is very clear: even after all of the environmental conditions have improved dramatically, and even in the year 2019, discipline is still discipline, and basic training is not a walk in the park.
The article was first published in the new issue of "Tamid Totchan" magazine (issue no. 66)