Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the Israeli army it's okay to play -- sometimes

Working in a warehouse holding hundreds of boxes of medical supplies for IDF troops in Israel can be a difficult process. The mission, all part of a unique volunteer program, Sar-El, can be painfully slow and tedious. That’s why the young soldiers working with volunteers sorting through the mess of stuff decided to go to war.

Their base, and for the moment mine, is a massive facility near Tel Aviv that houses one of the spiffier Sar-El facilities for volunteers. It spreads out over several acres and includes a weathered but sturdy campus of warehouses, meeting rooms, barracks, dining area and offices. It’s also a perfect place to stage a battle!

For volunteers, the work of carefully examining serial numbers and checking out plastic bags holding a wide-variety of medical equipment can be mindlessly boring. But it’s all for a good cause and the proverbial light at the end of the warehouses’ tunnel – to twist an old phrase – is always just around the bend. For the young soldiers the light is often years away and the tedium can become overwhelming.

To cope, at least during my most recent volunteer encampment in early May this year, Eran, Uri, Itamar, Tova and dozens of their comrades took up arms – well, at least water balloons – and turned the asphalt area in front of the warehouses into both a battlefield and water park! I’d have a tough time detailing the rules of the game. From where I stood, it seemed like the goal was to stay dry while drenching anyone in striking distance.
The real madness and general appeal of the, ah, maneuvers, became clear when I managed to ask one of the young warriors what was happening. In English that was much better than my Hebrew, yet still difficult to decipher, Uri explained that, well, the commander – and her assistant – were off the base. So it would seem that what I was being told was that universal truth, “When the cats away the mice will play!”

Another universal truth, at least in Israel, is universal conscription. Boy and girls, in their late teens, are called into national service. You spot them across the country, dressed in army khakis, an automatic weapon draped across their shoulders. At first blush, it’s all a little daunting, youngsters playing at war who should still be in school or playing at the mall. After a short time, the young soldiers become part of the euphonic blend – the sounds, noises and color – that make up this very special country. Given the aggressive politics of the region, it all makes sense in a sad and melancholy sort of way.
That said, young soldiers are still young people, needing to let off a little steam now and again. It’s nice to know, despite the burden they carry, that they remain playful souls who can laugh and joke and, when their commander is away, toss a few water balloons at their friends.

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