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Robert David Jaffee

Robert David Jaffee

Posted: July 11, 2009 01:17 PM

Punting on Israeli Army Boot Camp


The heat, which topped 100 degrees earlier in the day, has subsided on this May evening as we go on our massa, or night patrol, through trails of the Negev Desert, on the outskirts of Bahalatz, a base for the Israeli Army's combat engineers.

Carrying unloaded M-16s, we march in a zig-zag formation, five feet or so diagonally behind the man in the next line and twice that distance from the man in front of us in our own line. We have been told that this is the safest way to avoid getting hit out in the open.

The mem mem, the platoon commander, now tells us to run. While a couple of people stop due to fatigue, I jog until the mem mem instructs us to get down on the side of the road, near a trench, and scan the hill above for terrorists. There are none, of course, but we scan back and forth anyway.

Along with 12 other men, I am taking part in boot camp, a "mission" devised by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, an organization based in the U.S.

In a few weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama will give a speech in Cairo, which, in its call for a freeze in settlements, will be viewed as anti-Israel by some in this country. Roughly two weeks after that, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give his own speech, accepting a two-state solution, with the notable proviso that the Palestinians must demilitarize.

But, right now, on our patrol, we are not thinking about these upcoming events.

Many of the boot campers work on Wall Street or in sports memorabilia, though there is a rabbi hailing from Joe Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pa., as well as a blogger from London.

At 43, I am in the middle of the age spectrum of the participants, who range from late teens to mid-to-late sixties. However, I am alone, not only in knowing no one but also in suffering from mental illness.

As we hike in the Negev, a half-hour bus ride from the southern port city of Eilat, I can never forget that in 1997 and 1999 I had psychotic breaks and was hospitalized at USC's psychiatric ward and the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, now known as the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital. During the relapse, I believed that I was going to be blamed for a synchronized series of murders throughout the country. I fled on foot for six hours across Los Angeles, fearful that I was going to be assassinated.

Since then, I have stabilized, married my angel, Barbara, and settled into the life of a writer.

Still, as Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote in Lincoln's Melancholy, the man whom many view as our greatest president never overcame his depression. He tamed it.

In recent days, U.S. Army Sgt. John M. Russell, a career soldier with no history of mental illness, shot up a clinic for servicemen suffering from post-traumatic stress and killed five troops.

A New York Times editorial, headlined "Intolerable Rise in Soldier Suicides," noted that the U.S. Army had twice the number of suicides in 2008 as in 2004, prior to the "slog of repeated tours" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have never been homicidal, and I am not feeling suicidal either as I stare into the night, limestone and granite ridges framing the distant sandscape.

In 1998, between my breaks, I gave myself the middle name of David and appended it to my Hebrew name as well. I did so partly to heal familial karma, since I had been named in Hebrew after my grandfather, who hanged himself in 1942; and partly because I had long identified with the shepherd boy who vanquished Goliath.

Living in the Diaspora, I have wanted to prove myself as a Jewish warrior. Though I struggled in 1990 in Marva, basic training for non-Israelis, which I quit due to a deep depression, I enjoyed Sar-El, in which I worked for two weeks in a supply depot at an Israeli army base in 2007.

Back for my third army program, I heft a portion of a stretcher. There is no one on it, just weights that simulate an injured soldier.

I keep marching and after a respite tap a colleague on the arm, but he grunts and refuses to let me take over for him. He is a very intense individual, possibly the best runner in our group. Nicknamed Rambo, he has done many boot camps before as well as a program with the Navy Seals, he says. He also has a collection of knives, which he brought to the base.

As we finish our hike, cheers erupt. Young Israeli troops, delighted at our support, beckon us to dance. I slap high-fives with them and with many in our group. But when I try to slap hands with Rambo, he walks right past me.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed a schizophrenic, then schizo-affective (I learned of the former diagnosis recently when I ordered my admission form to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute). As my diagnosis has changed to major depressive disorder with psychotic features and my prognosis has improved, I have been one of the finest runners this night on the massa, an accomplishment in that I injured my knee on a similar trek in Marva.

Given the constraints and schedule of boot camp, however, I haven't been able to take my medication when I am supposed to, since we rarely spend time at our tent, where I keep my pills.

In the past two months, my psychiatrist has tried to wean me away from perphenazine, an anti-psychotic medication that can lead to tardive dyskinesia, an involuntary movement of the facial muscles.

We have reduced my intake from 12 mg to 6 mg in the evening, while adding Abilify, an anti-depressant that I am supposed to take after eating, to my morning regimen of Zoloft.

Whether due to adrenaline or jet lag, I can't sleep on this first night at Bahalatz, which consists mostly of beige, one-story warehouses, and a few tents, where we sleep on cots, our unloaded guns tucked under our pillows.

The next morning, we get up at five.

My biggest problem is not that I haven't slept, but that I lack dexterity. Other than tying shoelaces, I have almost never tied knots, such as those used to fasten a sling around an M-16, or those we will need to tie around rubber-coated wires before setting off explosives. When I try to make loops, I often fumble the string.

When I lift a pad onto my knee, I don't understand the mechanism for tightening it, so it never stays in place and sometimes slips down to my ankles.
It doesn't help that my left thumb has lost the top part of its nail and has become raw, if not infected.

Although I completed a kibbutz ulpan (or Hebrew immersion) program years ago as well as Sar-El, many of the men in boot camp seem to look at me skeptically.

Maybe, it's because of my clumsiness.

Maybe it's because I joined boot camp late, only after convincing my wife, Barbara, that I would be alright.

Or maybe, they detect that I am different, though they can't know that I am prone to psychosis. Besides my grandfather, a paternal second-cousin took his life in 2005. Another paternal second-cousin has been diagnosed a schizophrenic.

Despite this predisposition, I head to target practice at an outdoor shooting range on the second day. Wearing sunglasses, I see double after closing my left eye. On the first round of shooting my M-16, I miss the target area on all but one shot.

Dan Haskell, the coordinator of the mission, an Israeli-American who is mature beyond his 29 years, tells me that this lack of accuracy is normal for a beginner.

Why is it that I am seeing double for the first time? Is my failed vision an indication of my psychosis? Or is it simply difficult to shoot a gun while wearing glasses, as several soldiers tell me?

One of the Israelis gives me his gun, which has a scope with a red dot. On my second set, I laser in on the dot, then fire, all four of my shots perforating the body of the enemy.

Never during boot camp do the Israelis refer to the enemy as Arabs or Muslims, Iranians or Jihadists. They simply say, terrorists.

Many have criticized Israel for the high civilian death toll in the recent war against Hamas, but the Israeli Army, like the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, is confronted by an enemy that surrounds itself with civilian shields. Though Israel tried to minimize civilian casualties by distributing leaflets and making phone calls to homes in Gaza before dropping bombs, some tragic errors occurred. Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian doctor and peace activist, lost three daughters and a niece when the IDF struck his home.

After we finish shooting, Rambo, the one who ignored me on the night hike, takes out a knife and slices an orange. Rambo says that he can't write, but he mentions that his uncle was a well-known writer. He then asks me what my favorite book is by Norman Mailer, whom I have cited earlier as one of my favorite authors. I tell him The Naked and the Dead.

When I ask him the same, he says, "The one about the killer."

"The Executioner's Song?" I say.

"No," he says with a sneer, as if he wouldn't deign to refer to that Pulitzer Prize-winner. "The one about the guy who got out of prison and knifed a guy to death." The book to which he alludes, In the Belly of the Beast, was written not by Mailer but by Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted killer, while he was in prison.

Why is it that Rambo keeps on opening his knife within close proximity to my body?

I have heard him consort with his friends and refer to someone as a liar.

It could just be my own paranoia, but I am starting to think that he hates me. And his possession of all those knives is frightening.

As the tension mounts with Rambo, I fear that I may be harmed on the second night. I remember hearing a story about a college classmate who joined the Marines, got into a fight and ended up with a metal plate in his head. A fellow, who served with me in Marva years ago, said that he and others had considered throwing a blanket over one man and beating him up because he was always late for lineup.

I have never been late, but because of my lack of dexterity, I start thinking that the guys may cover me with a blanket and pummel me. I hear one of Rambo's friends say, "If he gets through this, it's nothing but tears."

All of this saddens me because I admire the Israelis. Some of them have had to spend days, not minutes as I have, in 115 degree weather in an armored vehicle called a Puma, as claustrophobic a setting as one can imagine. They have had to use a helmet as a toilet, while careening around in quicksand-like dunes.

What makes this program different from, say, fantasy baseball camp is that our participation heartens the Israeli soldiers in a way unknown to Major League ballplayers. The Israelis know that they don't have many friends in the world, so they are thrilled at our presence on the army base.

Unfortunately, on the second night, as I rest in bed, I sense that I too don't have many friends. I feel like Tim Holt, trying to wait out Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. For a while, Rambo stalks outside our tent, then when he goes to bed, he and one of his buddies, a man who has been cordial with me earlier but is now curt, flash their flashlights, as if they are monitoring me by the number of pulses. Like one if by land, two if by sea, one pulse seems to mean that I am asleep, two that I am awake.

I remind myself of what Moses told Joshua, "Be strong and of a good courage," though I realize that my survival may be less about courage than about staying awake.

I get no sleep on the second night.

When I look in the mirror the next morning, my dark beard appears to be sprouting more gray hairs. Previously limited to my muzzle, the gray has spread to my cheeks. And my body has shut down in some respects as I have not gone to the bathroom, despite drinking voluminous amounts of water.

After a brief jog on day three, we gather in two lines on a blacktop for an exercise akin to Red Rover.

I tag one man and outrun him back to my line. When I chase another man, I trip on the pavement and land head-first like Rickey Henderson diving into second base. My hands are shredded, and my vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt is torn.

One of the guys calls it "a war wound."

Back at the tent, Haskell applies iodine to my right hand, which bleeds and bears a series of welts. He says it's going to sting, but the iodine doesn't hurt since my hand is numb. Then he wraps it with gauze like a trainer wrapping the hand of a boxer.

When the mem mem comes by, he has a smile on his face. He seems proud of me as if I have earned a hack on my helmet like Troilus.

Later in the day, as I sit in a tent drinking bottled water, Rambo's friend, who said, "If he gets through this, it's nothing but tears," says to me, "You became a writer and ruined your life." I hear Rambo say again that someone is a liar.

Inside a firing simulator, someone says that I am shaking my head. I am, not because I am afraid of shooting but because I am convinced that nearly all of the guys are against me. I tell Haskell that I need to speak to my wife, who is in L.A. He gives me his phone, and for the first time in days I speak to Barbara. My voice is unusually slow as I tell her that I am going to come home soon. Although there is only one half-day left of boot camp, I cannot risk being beaten at night.

Is it just my imagination, or are many of the men in the program, like Pandarus, trying to eavesdrop on my conversation? I inform Haskell that I need to leave, and he does not try to talk me out of it. After I mention my hospitalizations in psychiatric wards, he says that he already had respect for me, and now he has even more.

I have thought that I could get through this program, and I have nearly completed it, but it has become apparent to me that I have major limitations. It is also clear that I am not a military man. Not because I don't have the endurance, but because of my lack of dexterity.

In an army, morale is critical. When a soldier feels that he does not have the support of his colleagues, the effect is devastating, though I must admit that I am not certain how much of my fears are real and how much imagined.

Either way, I realize that I have subjected myself to too much trauma: a 15-hour plane ride, an expedited transition to new medication, a focus on my hands, the presence of weapons and men whom I don't know.

Though Haskell gets a guide to navigate me through Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I start to become unmoored and psychotic. I can't shut out the voices of other travelers, believe everyone is talking about me, and worry that a belligerent man in the next seat might be a terrorist.

Two weeks later, back on regular intervals of my meds and nurtured by Barbara and my psychiatrist, I receive a package, inside of which is a combat engineer's pin, featuring blue wings and a sword coming out of a tower of fire. Attached is a note from Haskell, which reads, "a well-deserved honor for a good man!"

I still feel that I have disappointed the Israelis, but that may just be my paranoia.