A Mile In Combat Boots


Ten seconds to accept the commander. … Accept the commander. Stand at ease.

When I was in Israel this summer with Ramah Seminar, I chose to participate in the program’s Gadna elective. Short for gdudei no'ar (youth battalions), Gadna is a weeklong program for Israeli and foreign teens which simulates Israeli army life.

On the first day of the program, I was assigned to be the assistant commander of my group. This came as a complete surprise to me since physically I am not in any shape at all. I am 4’10’’ and have not gone to the gym since I was a fetus and my mom dragged me along. Whenever my group saw the shadow of our commander, we went into panic mode and hustled into a chet (a stance formation that looks like the Hebrew letter chet). Then I would recite the phrase above in Hebrew, ““Ten seconds to accept the commander…” 

I was selected to be in Group Five which consisted of 16 people. We were assigned a commander—a mifakedet. Our work varied from serving meals and picking up trash to the crowd favorite—cleaning bathrooms. In the afternoons, we had lessons with topics that varied from the history of Israel’s wars to how to use an M16 gun. We also learned how to camouflage ourselves using mud, leaves, and branches.

But our last activity of that week was the most influential. We had all been looking forward to the revered activity of shooting M16s. However our mifakedet informed us there were not enough bullets. She gave us two options: either no one shoots or two people volunteer not to shoot. Two girls volunteered not to partake so that the rest of us would have the opportunity.

Our mifakedet informed us that she was testing us. Everyone would have the opportunity to shoot; however, she wanted to show us that if we wanted to be good soldiers we have to stop thinking about the individual. We need to think about our unit as a group. “Everyone should have raised their hands,” she announced, “because you all are a family and you have to care and look out for each other.

After Gadna, during our remaining week in Israel, whenever any of the members from Group Five saw each other we would always greet one another with a smile and enthusiastically catch up. Even though we had just met the previous week, Gadna was  not an individual experience, but a collective one. Members of our group differed in strength, in height, and in personality, but together we were one unit.   

Throughout those six weeks in Israel, every time our bus passed by an army base that one of my counselors had previously trained in, that counselor would announce it on the speaker and share his or her experiences with pride. They regarded their old bases, even though they suffered tremendously there, as home. That is where they formed bonds with fellow soldiers and that is where they challenged themselves to new levels.

I never fully appreciated those announcements until my bus was traveling in the south and suddenly I saw a sign for the Sde Boker Gadna base. The participants of Gadna who were on my bus started shouting; we wanted to show our friends our home. I felt such pride that day. Like our counselors, we regarded our base with yes, some dread, but above all, we shared sentimental feelings for our communal home.

To this day, when I think about my experience on Gadna I think of my Israeli cousin with whom I stayed with a week before I was “drafted.” He is 18 and is entering the army this month. He will have to deal with army life for three years while I was just participating for one week.

Coming from America, it is very hard to conceptualize Israeli army life. It is physically and mentally draining. You feel belittled because everyone wears the same uniform and is addressed by the same name. Whatever your superior commands, you have to be eager and ready to do. A soldier gives his or her complete body and soul. The physical and mental strength that is needed, even just for basic training, is enormous. I now have much greater awe and admiration for the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The hard work of an individual soldier can go unnoticed, because when people think about life in the army, they think about soldiers as a collective entity. But this experience allows you to recognize and appreciate the hard work and the sacrifice that each individual soldier gives for this amazing land. You form connection

s with individual members of the IDF with whom you sympathize. After this experience, you cannot help but have the utmost respect and reverence for a soldier in the IDF. After all, we have everything because of them.

As the saying goes: Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in his or her combat boots.