Unlike my Israeli friends, I didn't grow up accustomed to the sight of my father coming back home, in a dusty uniform, and a riffle to his shoulder, after a month of army reserve service. As a New Immigrant, I wasn't drafted for the typical three years military service that native born Israelis undergo at age eighteen. When, in winter 1997, I was summoned to Tseelim, the large Negev army base, to partake in my first training period in the military reserve, I was already twenty seven years old, married and father of two, leaving behind a full time job and interrupting the classes I was taking to earn my master's degree in engineering. I arrived to the base at the prescribed time, a bit surprised to precede by two hours the recruiting officer, and by four the most punctual soldiers in the battalion. I followed the induction process for the rest of the day, to finally find myself assigned to the infantry company.
The size of the misunderstanding still baffles me. Until that day, I had hardly shot twenty rounds. Apart from my training as a combat medic, I had no idea whatsoever what soldiering entailed. I hastily tried to prepare my equipment by mimicking others, but in a moment of lucidity, just before boarding the armored track vehicle I saw there for the first time, I realized that of such misunderstandings are made catastrophes. I forced my way through the company, presented myself to the commanding officer, declared that it was my first ride in these vehicles, and that instructions would be welcomed. I was half expecting to be sent back to the medical unit and replaced by a "real soldier". I would certainly have been annoyed, but deep inside reassured that, at the last moment, the misunderstanding had been avoided. The officer looked at me strangely for a second, before howling over the rumble of the engines to brace myself if the carrier rolled over. Equipped with these precise instructions, I joined my transport, and we embarked through the desert.
First, came two hours of travel, the fine desert powder filling our lungs, eyes, mouth and every last fold in our equipment, two hours of bumping each other on the crowded steel banks, deafened by the engine roaring. Later in the evening began the exercise. The whole tank battalion shooting at distant truck carcasses. Fifty meters behind the shooting line, until the wee hours of morning, each tank firing felt like a punch in the chest. The most puzzling thing was to see everybody around me chatting, smoking or joking, failing to understand the madness around. Ten years late to basic combat training, and already a reserve soldier, I was experiencing induction shock.
Two days later, I was on the verge of collapse. Dehydrated, exhausted and covered with allergic rash, an ambulance took me back to the base infirmary, where the battalion doc paid me a visit. He too was an immigrant, the doctor with the heavy American accent, and he was the only one who understood. He questioned me at length with a suspicious look, to finally declare that he didn't want me in his battalion, and that he would ask for the next medical committee to declare me unfit for service.
I hated him with all my heart, but, in the army like in the army, nothing happened that was meant to happen. Having reached the age of military discharge, the doc was replaced, and I kept on being called, year after year, to military interludes punctuating my civilian life. With time, camera in hand, I began documenting the experience of the Israeli reserve that is, to my eyes, so peculiar. My role as a battalion medic consists to "be there just in case", right beside one of the battalions commanding officer during their never-ending routine tours between positions, or reacting to emergency calls. This is how I was lucky enough, with a small camera always with me, to see and document most of the various reserve soldiers missions during almost two decades.
As it turns out, misunderstandings come in all shapes and sizes. Today, I have long ago reached the age of discharge, but being a reserve soldier remains somehow unnatural to me. I wear my worn uniform with a mixed feeling of apprehension and silly pride. I don't usually share this. It's already difficult to explain why I am still serving to friends and family. If on top of that, people knew that, having been raised as a Jewish boy in the diaspora, I will probably never completely get over the emotion to serve in the army of a Jewish state, they could conclude, rightly so, that I'm not completely sane.
Michael Hassoun, 2016.