Becoming a Golani Soldier

By Gideon

As the news about the growing number of casualties among Israeli soldiers in Operation Protective Edge continued to arrive, the name “Golani” was mentioned disproportionately to the size of this infantry brigade. The unit had suffered painful casualties in the bitter battle with Hamas terrorists. A person not familiar with the unit might think that this was just a coincidence. It was not.

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the Golani brigade was always at the forefront of the Israeli army. Together with the Paratroopers brigade and the Givati brigade, Golani is leading the Israeli army into the most difficult places in order to secure Israeli victory.

Whether it is fighting Hamas in Gaza’s narrow streets, fighting Hezbollah deep in Lebanon, or chasing ISIS away from the Israel-Syrian border, Golani soldiers are committed to defend Israel at all cost.

In the most recent confrontation, the Gaza war, Golani units  forced their ways deep into the hornet nest; the heavily fortified nerve center of Hamas. This was neither the first time nor the last time that Golani spearheaded the IDF into battle.  

Over the years Golani produced some of the best soldiers and commanders that the Israeli army ever had. Two of the last three IDF’s chiefs of staff, including the current IDF’s chief of staff, Major-General Gadi Eisenkot, began their military career as soldiers and officers in the Golani brigade. 

I once read the memoirs of an Israeli general who fought in the Yom Kippur War in the defense of the Golan Heights. In his memoir, the general described how the Israeli army was running away in panic on the first day of the war when the Syrian army launched its surprise attack. Everyone was fleeing the Golan Heights to take shelter in Israel. The general tried to stop them and set up a defense line, but confusion and panic took over. Then he saw two Golani soldiers with a machine gun; the soldiers set up their machine gun on the narrow asphalt road, pointing it toward the advancing Syrian army. They were ready to face the entire Syrian army themselves if needed. Two soldiers, one machine, and a Golani attitude; this was how the Israeli general begun setting up his defense line. Stories like this one made the Golani brigade one of Israel’s most admired units. Unfortunately more wars followed the Yom Kippur war and in each one of them Golani wrote another heroic chapter in Israel’s defense.

I went through Golani’s basic training and its non-commissioned officers’ school in the mid 70th, shortly after the Yom Kippur war was over. I’m sharing my story here in honor and support of the Golani brigade. This story is not about battles; it is about my experience as a trainee. How I was transformed from a teenager to a Golani fighter (Lochem in Hebrew).

In the 1970s the Israeli army had two regular front line infantry units, the all-volunteer Paratrooper Brigade and the Golani Brigade. Golani was not an all-volunteer unit, but because of the heroic accomplishments of its soldiers in the Yom Kippur war, it was considered an elite unit and many young recruits volunteered. In my unit half of the recruits volunteered and half was soldiers who were assigned to Golani. It didn’t matter; once training begun we were all one highly motivated team.

I wish I could say that I volunteered to Golani because of strong ideological reasons, or because I wanted to serve my country on the front line, but to be honest, I did it because two of my best friends were in Golani, so when I was asked on my second day in the army where I wanted to serve, I said “Golani”. A day later I was on a bus with thirty other soldiers, all volunteers like me. We were on our way to Bezek, the Golani basic training center on the outskirt of Nablus in Samaria.

We weren’t given much time to adjust; that evening we went on a short road march, carrying a stretcher on our shoulders. It was the thirty of us, one stretcher to carry, and only a five kilometer road march. We didn’t have guns or battle gear so in perspective, it was the easiest and shortest road march I ever had in Golani, but I’ll never forget it; I was exhausted when we were done. I remember that when I was in my bed that evening, I kicked myself for volunteering, Basic training was six months long. On that night, six months of basic training seemed like an eternity. Luckily, it was too late for me to change my mind. Whether I wanted it or not, I began a journey that will eventually transform me from a boy to a man, and will give me the tools to be successful for the rest of my life.

Many times during those challenging six months I questioned the wisdom of volunteering to the unit. Training was grueling; we spent the last three months living in small tents in the desert; tents that could barely fit us. My tent mate was a guy named Chalphon. Unlike me who saw the military service as something that I had to do, Chalphon was the kind of soldier that took his military service very seriously. When he was upset, he had a look that said “beware, you are about to enter the danger zone.” His look was enough to keep the biggest troublemakers away. He never hurt anyone, but nobody messed with him, not even the drill sergeants.

We were in competition with the paratroopers. Our platoon commander was a paratrooper officer who was assigned to Golani after officers’ school. He always compared our accomplishments to his old paratrooper unit and challenged us to do better. His method worked; we would run faster and longer than any record he’d come up with. Beating the paratroopers was a matter of unit pride.

We marched a lot; days and nights. From time to time the drill sergeants ordered us to open a stretcher and carry one of us on the stretcher. It was a way of simulating carrying a wounded soldier away from the battle field. The worst thing we could do was to drop the simulated wounded soldier to the ground. Each team had 6 or 8 people; four carrying the stretcher and the rest were relievers. The job of the person on the stretcher was to count until a certain number and then signal for the relievers to rotate. I’ve been on good teams when people rotated like clockwork and I was on bad teams where no one came to relive me for several rotations.

When we were ordered to open a stretcher, we used to pick the lightest guy we had on the team. It wasn’t easy carrying ourselves, our combat gear, and a stretcher uphill, sometimes over rocky terrain. What we hated the most was for the person on the stretcher to fall asleep, something that happened quite often since it was quite boring to be on a stretcher at night, for hours, watching nothing but the dark sky above. We hated it for two reasons; first, it wasn’t fair that one of our teammates was sleeping while we were sweating carrying him around for many hours. The second reason was that if the person on the stretcher didn’t signal, none of the relievers came to relieve us. On occasions, teams dropped their simulated wounded person to the ground on purpose, or shoved their gun barrels, into his back, just to wake him up.

Our drill sergeants weren’t much older than us; they themselves were trainees a year or less earlier. One of them was Moshe Kaplinsky, who later became a famous General and the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces during the Second Lebanon war. When we failed a training mission Moshe Kaplinsky did not make us run. He did not wake us up in the middle of the night for an extra training session like other drill sergeants did. Instead, he would assemble us in a formation, right there and then in the middle of the training exercise. He would stretch his arms to the sides, ordering us to do the same. He challenged us to  keep up with him, which we never could. He could keep his arms level, parallel to the ground longer than anyone else I knew. Moshe Kaplisky wasn’t mean; when he saw that we couldn’t keep up with him, a slight smile would creep up to his face and he would let us off the hook.  To his credit I must say that he didn’t order us to do something he didn’t do himself.

Another drill sergeant we had was Zak; a Russian immigrant. Zak wasn’t mean either, but he was more enthusiastic about late night extra training opportunities. Perhaps, this was how he himself was trained in basic training. At first he lectured us repeatedly about how miserable bunch of soldiers we were, and how we didn’t deserve to be called Golani soldiers. For the first three months he kept his distance, but eventually the tough front that he put up was gone and he joked around with us as one of the team.

Our third drill sergeant forgot one day to maintain a professional distance and got into a fist fight with a trainee. He was sent to a military jail for two weeks for it and then he came back as if nothing happened. Later he went to officers’ school. We were all eighteen and nineteen years old kids that from time to time the kids in us took over and the line between commanders and trainees became blurred.

Kids or not, we were being trained for the real thing. Shoshani, one of my teammates, was one of the nicest guys and the hardest working soldier in our platoon. He was the one that always carried the extra water jug on his back, or ran the extra mile. He was the one that carried the stretcher when everyone else was exhausted. He was good spirited and always had a smile on his face. He knew he wanted to be an officer since the first day in basic training; his brother was an officer. As competitive as Shoshani was, he didn’t want to be any less. After graduation from Golani’s non-commissioned officers’ school we were assigned to different units. Shoshani became an officer. He was the platoon leader of one of my hometown friends. Through him I learned that as an officer, Shoshani was admired by his team. During the service he was seriously injured in a battle with terrorists in Southern Lebanon and was released from the service.

Since we were in training all the time, it didn’t take long before all of us twisted our ankles. We marched and ran all the time, so the ankles could never heal. We wrapped rags around our boots to hold the ankles in place, so we could continue with our training. Chalphon dislocated both ankles. He also tied rags around his boots, but since he never let his pain get in the way of doing the absolute best that he could, his ankles got worsen with time until the black and purple marks around his ankles were as big as peaches. He was told several times by our medics to see the unit’s doctors, but he refused to do so in fear that he’ll be reassigned to a non-combat unit. His job in the unit was carrying a backpack full of mortar shells. It was a heavy backpack that I could barely lift. Chalphon never complained about it.

During one of the night exercises, when we climbed a steep rocky hill, Chalphon slipped under the heavy load that he carried (and because of the condition of his ankles). Our drill sergeant told us to open up a stretcher and instructed Chalphon to get on it. Chalphon saw it as an unmanly act and refused to do so. The drill sergeant threatened him with a court martial but Chalphon did not budge. Even in the dark night we could see the threatening look on Chalphon’s face. We tried to convince Chalphon to get on the stretcher but he refused. We were at a standstill; finally the drill sergeant ordered me to get on the stretcher instead of Chalphon. It wasn’t the time to argue, so I did as instructed. The strangest thing happen to me; while I was lying on top of the stretcher, carried by my teammates, who were still climbing steep rocky hills, my teammates encouraged me to stay awake. Instead of the usual gun barrels in the back, they gave me encouragements as if I was doing the hard work carried them up. I never experienced anything like that. The tough training  made us a unit where we cared about each other like brothers.

We were young soldiers on our way to become Israel’s next generation of front line defenders. We were trained in all possible  combat situations; all of them were tough and challenging. Slowly, but surly, we were transformed from high school kids to skillful soldiers. Nothing was more evident to me that I was changing than what I experienced in one exercise in the Golan Heights, when I was trained on how to enter a room where simulated hostages were held by simulated terrorists (all cardboard targets). Just like in the movies, while the smoke from the hand grenade I just through into the room was still in the air and blocking the view, I entered the room and fired my weapon, hitting only the simulated terrorists’ targets. Somewhere along that long and difficult training, the weapon became part of me. I could hit any target, under any condition, wherever I wanted, and whenever I wanted.

Golani is a reflection of the Israeli society. People from all backgrounds are represented in the unit. Some were from very rich families, other from very poor neighborhoods. Every Israeli community was represented in the unit. Some were new immigrants, many were secular Jews, but we also had religious soldiers. One of them was a volunteer from an ultra-orthodox family (this was log time before the mandatory service was imposed on Yeshiva students). There were quite few soldiers in our platoon that really liked Arabic music. They listened to it and sang it for hours. There was one song that was a hit and they sang it again and again. I never listened to Arabic music before, it wasn’t the music I grew up on, but after listening to it for so long it stuck in my head. One day I found myself singing in Arabic. Golani is as diverse as the Israeli society. 

Golani’s basic training ended in a road march of 120 kilometers in the upper Galilee.  It was a rainy winter day. We started the road march late in the afternoon and it didn’t take long before it was completely dark outside. For some reason, our platoon commander did not think that 120 kilometers of a fast paced road march was enough and he ordered us to open up few stretchers. To make things even more interesting, we did not follow a paved road, but crossed farmland where the ground was saturated with water. The heavy mountain mud stuck to our boots. We had to shake the dirt off the boot’s soles every few steps in order to be able to walk. The continuously shaking off the mud was additional strain on our legs’ muscles and we paid the price for it in the later part of the march. It was a very long walk; most of it was done in the rain. We hit the fifty kilometer mark before we were allowed to close the stretchers. By that time our column was not as organized as it was when we first started. When the sun came up I looked around and saw our unit starched as far as the eye could see in front of me and behind me. We no longer marched as a cohesive unit; every soldier was on his own, doing his best to finish the road march on his own power. The many kilometers in the mud took a toll on me; my leg muscles were stiff and I could no longer lift my legs by commanding them to do so. I had to use my hands to grab my pants to pull my legs up. I did it for the final ten kilometers. When I reached the finish line I was exhausted; there was no muscle in my body that did not hurt. I sat down on the ground and fell asleep immediately. A teammate woke me up for the graduation ceremony. Apparently they had been looking for me for a while. I couldn’t stand straight during the ceremony so I used my weapon to keep my body from falling down. Then the big moment arrived; I received the Golani insignia and it was all worth it; I became a Golani soldier.

Golani gave me a lot more than teaching me survival skills and how to shoot a rifle. More than anything it gave me confidence in myself. It taught me that I could do anything that I wanted to if I worked hard at it and didn’t give up. Even today, as a civilian, when there is a difficult task in front of me I reflect on the training I received in Golani and know that I can do it. The mental toughness that was instilled in me during those demanding days as a young adult is the best gift the State of Israel could have given me and I’m grateful for that.

It has been almost 40 years since my Golani basic training, but deep inside I’m still a Golani and my prayers are with the IDF soldiers on the front line.

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My Golani Basic training teammates

 

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Chalphon (Right) , I (Left), and our “home” for three month

 

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Shoshani (Right). and Chalphon (Left) – our tents in the background

 

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Front Right: In the Non Commissioned Officers’ school graduation ceremony  practice.

 

To read more about Golani click on this link: The battle on the Hermon

To read about my service in the US Army click on this link: The American Soldier and The Israeli  Soldier: Social Differences.

 

Various videos showing different aspects of Golani soldiers in combat exercises

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4nO6ZYNtDQ&t=57

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOHlyqBxQ4c

Golani’s song

 

 

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