My life as an Israeli student-soldier

In the picture: Second from left: as a Technion student in the First Lebanon War

By Gideon

Upon discharge from the army I began studying mechanical engineering at the Technion, a challenging and demanding higher education institute, which did the same thing to my brain that my military training in Golani did to my body (see: Becoming a Golani Soldier). The Technion pushed me to the edge of my abilities in order to get the best out of me. Being a reserve soldier in one of Israel’s front line units was added to the mix just to make things interesting in my constant battle to maintain an acceptable GPA.

 In the months leading to the First Lebanon War, our reserve unit was activated often for training. In fact, I spent the two weeks leading to the war in one of the army’s training bases in southern Israel, in a desert called Negev. We didn’t know at the time that we are training for war, in which our unit would be called on the first night, and that we will be sent to Lebanon the next day. I’ve been in combat in Lebanon before, as an active duty soldier just few few years before (see:  Israel – Lebanon Wars: Memories from Operation Litani). I didn’t expect to return to this terrorist infested region so soon.

While I was a away on training (and later in the war), classes at the Technion continued as usual. There were no special considerations for students on reserve duties. There were just so many of us in various reserve combat units, who were called for training on different schedule, that it was impossible for the Technion to accommodate students who were absent. As a result, the Technion just ignored the problem as if it didn’t exist.  Not everyone was in a front-line reserve combat units, so classes continued at the regular pace. We were expected to catch up when we returned. Most of my professors were not even aware when students were away from classes.  As the leading engineering university in Israel, the Technion was (and still is) a very competitive place; classes were taught in high pace. Homework assignments kept us up at night until the early hours of the morning on most weekdays. Catching up after two weeks away was difficult and had an impact on the GPA.

Technion students were allowed to take a final exam in any course three times. Students were allowed to repeat a course only one time. Failure to pass a course after three final exam attempts was a cause for an automatic termination. For that reason, most students who failed a final exam on the first attempt did not take the exam again without repeating the course first. It was too risky to retake an final exam without mastering the material first.

The first year at the Technion is the year when the Technion tests students abilities to determine if they really belonged there. During the first year, students take science classes such as physics and calculus. The Technion wants to make sure that students weren’t just lucky on the day of the entrance exam. For that reason, the final exams of the first year are very difficult and very competitive.

The First Lebanon War wasn’t the first time that I was called for military duty  during a school year. During my first semester at the Technion, three weeks into it, I was called for a two weeks training exercise in the south. This is how I found myself in a tent in a desert late at night solving calculus and linear algebra equations, while the rest of the unit was sleeping after another exhausting training day. Infantry training is mostly physical exercise of marching long distances with heavy equipment on the back, and in between, running up and down hills while shooting at cardboard targets. Regardless what the exercise is, by the end of the day every muscle in the body is sore. After a day of training, all that infantry soldiers want to do is close their eyes and sleep.

It was difficult staying awake after training and solving calculus problems, but I was certain that I was falling too far behind my class. I feared that this was my first and last semester at the Technion. The fear of failure, after working so hard to be admitted to the Technion, gave me the extra motivation to stay awake and solve problems. There were no desks in the tent, so I had to do that while I was lying in bed under the weak light of one bulb that was hung on a pole at the center of the tent. I don’t remember many details from this exercise, but I can still taste the desert dust in my mouth every time I think about it. Somehow I survived that semester.

After the war, when I returned to the Technion, I was away from school for a total of five weeks. The semester was pretty much over.  I remember going to one of my professors’ office during that period to review a quiz that I took just before I was called by the army. I failed the quiz miserably. There was more red ink of corrections on the notebook than the blue ink of my original answers. I knew I had no chance of passing the final exam, so I skipped it and studied all summer for the make-up exam. Somehow I passed the class.

One of my classmates at the prep class for the Technion, Moshe, was also a Golani reservist. He was also called for service during the Lebanon war at the same time that I was called . He was injured and lost an eye during a battle with the Syrian army in northeastern Lebanon. He missed an entire semester while in rehabilitation. He came back later to finish his degree in civil engineering. Over the years many Technion reserve soldiers lost their life in wars.

The army was somewhat sensitive to our problem and usually discharged student soldiers earlier than the rest of the unit. It didn’t happen during training exercises, but it happened several times when I served in Lebanon; I was discharged after three weeks while the rest of the unit served a full month. That one week made a big difference and helped many of us to catch up with the rest of the class.

During my four years at the Technion there was only one class that I had to repeat. It was due to military service during the First Lebanon war; the class was called Oscillations. I didn’t go to the final exam; I knew that there was no way that I was going to pass it, so I preferred investing the time studying for other final exams.

It wasn’t the Technion fault and it wasn’t the army fault that we had to do both things simultaneously. We lived in a reality that demanded that we will be able to do both things at the same time. It was always inconvenient and difficult. Somehow most of us graduated from the Technion in good standing. Many continued studying for advanced degrees. For me it was the end. After five years at the Technion I was anxious to put to use the knowledge I already gained.  

As it turned out, I ended up moving to the US shortly after graduation. Over thirty years had passed since then. Many other important things had happened in my life. The memories from the Technion and from my time in Golani are fading away. The Techinion and Golani are not  topics of discussion in the US. It never comes up in conversations, so I rarely think of these experiences. However, it is different in Israel where people know how high is the bar. Every time that I’m in Israel for a family visit, I’m being reminded by my relatives of these two accomplishments. They remember how hard I worked in those years. It brings back the memories. I don’t know how I did it. Sometimes it feels like it happened to someone else. 




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