Sunday, April 23, 2006

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, M16's, and a New Respect for Veterans

Four years ago, during the intermediate days of Passover, a terrorist broke into the Gavish home in Elon Moreh and killed four members of the family. After analyzing the details of the incident, the army came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to train women to use the weapons that were issued to their husbands. Soon after Passover the first training session was on offer in our yishuv.

I grew up in a liberal Jewish household in America, and one of the ingrained messages that I received was that GUNS WERE BAD. As children we weren't even allowed a squirt gun (pity my poor brother). Consequently I developed an aversion to the M16 that my husband uses when he performs guard duty on our settlement. If I needed to handle it at all, I would touch it gingerly - as if I was holding a dirty dead thing that I wanted as little physical contact with as possible. So westbankpappa thought that he would have a hard time convincing me to agree to a training session. Imagine his surprise when I told him that I was one of the first women to sign up.

Not long after the terrorist attack some of the details of what happened came out. One particularly harrowing fact was that the wife and daughter-in-law of those killed saved her life and that of her child by hiding under the kitchen table with her hand over her baby's mouth, as she watched the terrorist walk through the kitchen stalking his prey. This searing image was enough to trump whatever aversion I had to guns many times over, so on the appointed day I took the M16 and showed up to learn how to use it.

The day chosen for our first round of training was Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The symbolic significance of the day, commemorating another group of Jewish civilians who were forced to take up arms in order to defend themselves, was not lost on any of the twenty women gathered a bit nervously in an empty classroom.

One of the members of our yishuv, whose job it is to train young men for the IDF, was chosen to teach us, and became our "drill sergeant". The first thing we learned that day was how to take apart and put together the weapon in our possession. The only thing I remember from this lesson is that there is a small part of an M16 called in Hebrew a "pin Shabbat". This tiny piece, about the size of my thumb, is called that because, "if you lose it, you have to stay on the base for Shabbat". The next, and probably most important thing we learned, was the concept of "neshek shishim maalot" - "weapons at a 60 degree angle". This injunction meant that we had to place our weapons facing 60 degrees upwards, except when given express permission otherwise. At first this was a polite request, but when one or more of us made the mistake of pointing the M16 at another person it became a shouted order, and we quickly learned the correct Pavlovian response. We then learned how to check the chamber to make sure it was clear, how to cock the rifle, and how to set and unlock the safety. At one point we were told to line up outside in a row, with our weapons at a 60 degree angle of course, and our instructor for the day went down the line, checking us one by one to see if we had mastered these simple skills.

I am usually a calm person, but for some reason as our instructor made his way closer to me I became suddenly nervous that I wouldn't know where the safety was. I gave a quick look on the side of the gun, and was both delighted and relieved to see S-A-F-E-T-Y etched into the black metal. With a heartfelt "G-d Bless America!" uttered under my breath, I passed this small test with flying colors. We then learned the different positions for shooting (lying on our stomachs, kneeling on one knee, and standing upright). We then had to practice shooting (without bullets of course) for a little while, and our first day of training was over.

The second day of our training was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in a wadi (dry river bed) not far from our settlement. The army was notified, of course, and this time a number of men accompanied us, in addition to our instructor. The atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, with the inevitable jokes bandied back and forth. One man quipped that "You have no idea how much this new skill will improve your marriage, ladies!" - which was greatly appreciated by the few men who had gathered to see how their wives did on the improvised firing range.

Receiving a set of ear plugs and a clip with ten bullets for each round of practice firing, we then proceeded to fire at targets from the three positions that we had learned. A last drill consisted of firing from an upright position "b'lachatz" - "under stress." This stress consisted of our drill sergeant screaming near our ears while we were firing. I supressed a smile at this - I am a mother of boys, and trying to concentrate on a task while someone screams nearby is not exactly a new experience! All in all I did much better than I thought I would, and went back home sweaty but satisfied - to my boys' wide-eyed admiration.

If I stopped the post here it could be seen as just a cute "private mamma" post, but there is a more serious denouement to the story that I want to share. It seems that after learning this new skill, I found a strange weight settle on my shoulders. I started looking at my home differently - doors and windows took on an additional dimension, and became entry points for intruders. I found myself imagining all kinds of frightening scenarios and how I would react to them, which basically boiled down to various ways that I could get myself and the gun between the terrorist and my children.

After about a week of this strange experience, something dawned on me - "this is how combat troops think".

I know, I know, the veterans out there are probably thinking, "who the hell does she think she is! She learns to shoot a gun, spends a few "Walter Mitty-like" hours fantasizing about being a heroine, and she thinks that she knows what it is like!"

I fully realize that what I was imagining was only a faint glimmer compared to the reality of what combat troops go through in the line of duty, but this tiny peek into their experience enabled me to perceive something from a completely different perspective - and to change some mistaken impressions that I had picked up in the liberal environment in which I had grown up.

I cringe to admit it now, but when I was young, I thought that most conservatives were just unbelievably paranoid - seeing boogeymen under every bed, and much too eager to go to war. I'm embarrassed to say that I also picked up the arrogant belief (not from my parents, though, who had great respect for the armed forces) that those Americans who volunteered to enlist in the army were macho show-offs who just needed to prove how tough they were.

I didn't need to learn to shoot an M16 twenty years later in order to know that the young liberal I was was wrong and incredibly naive. I had learned on my own that there really were people who wanted to murder my children in their beds (and blow up people on line for pizza and fly planes into office buildings, for that matter). But learning how to shoot the gun, and imagining myself actually using it do defend my loved ones, did teach me something new. I learned that there is absolutely nothing wrong, and in fact everything right, about using your strength, and skills, and courage to protect others who are weaker than you are - and that whatever pride you may feel at this is completely justified. I can now say thank G-d for those "macho show-offs" who became veterans - because without them I may not have had the priveledge to grow up in safety in America and become that naive and ungrateful liberal. I thank G-d for the IDF soldiers who protect the woman I am now - less naive, proud to be a conservative, and profoundly grateful to the veterans of both of the countries that I love.

My "obsessive" thoughts about terrorist intruders gradually faded, and I am happy to report that the doors and windows of my home have reverted to being just doors and windows.

One thing has changed permanently, though. I don't touch the M16 as if it is a dead and dirty thing anymore. I handle it with the respect it deserves - as a very dangerous, but unfortunately necessary, tool.


Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

WBM: Great post! I love my mekutzar M16 as well :)

9:49 PM, April 23, 2006  
Blogger bec said...

i love this post.

8:10 AM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Author "B" said...

Mazel tov on your new skills. Walk softly and always carry a full magazine.

9:28 AM, April 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and it HAS improved our marriage!

Great post, sweetie!

12:36 PM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger carpundit said...

May you and your children, and your children's children, never need to use it in anger or in fear.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

10:52 PM, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Regina said...

Wow- thanks, westbankmama. I also hope that you will never have to use your new skills, but I am thankful that you have that skill to protect your family and yourself. It is easy for one to criticize if one is never faced with a situation like yours, but I say all power to you and all the women who want to raise their children and feel safe at the same time. Thanks for sharing this story...

1:07 AM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Jameel - thanks

bec - I'm glad you like it!

fastac_6 - welcome to my blog. Thank G-d I don't have to carry it, there are others to do that for me here, but it is good advice all the same

carpundit - welcome also! I hope never to use it either, but it is good to know just the same

regina - yes, new experiences teach you new things - or at least it should!

7:17 AM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger cruisin-mom said...

Hi Westbankmama: I was sent to read this by Jeremayakovka through Seraphic Secret. The reason being, that I had my first experience shooting a gun just a few months ago (I blogged about my experience too). Still don't know if I could have a gun in my house. But I understand your point of view and enjoyed reading your post.

10:44 PM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger Paul D. Boyer said...

That was a great story. Seems so unreal to us living in the States to imagine having our wives and sisters learn how to shoot an M-16 just to protect the kids. Our biggest concerns are getting enough vacation time off from work and which school to send the kids to. G-d bless you for all you do.

11:31 PM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

Very interesting story.

11:33 PM, April 25, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

cruisin-mom -welcome to my blog. It seems counterintuitive to women to shoot guns, but unfortunately there are times where it is necessary.

lewis aquinas - yes, living in Israel has exposed me to things that I never would have guessed!

jack - thanks

8:45 AM, April 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and thought-provoking. Ironically, I discussed just this subject with a trempist (who also happens to be a friend and a colleague) on the way home from teaching yesterday.

As someone who grew up with guns I have not had to overcome any mental obstacles to get used to their visual prevelence here (my grandfather was a marksmanship instructor). It would seem that safety would dictate that all adults in a home with weapons should understand how to operate them. I hope that more yishuvim take the same initiative that yours took upon itself!

Also, I agree with carpundit, though I'd like to simply truncate his/her thought as:
May your only necessary usage be practise!

8:04 PM, April 26, 2006  
Blogger YMedad said...

Way back when we were young and recent immigrants, we lived in our first year in the Old City of Jerusalem so the best that I could do was a pistol. But my wife Batya also learned that and somewhere, there's a picture we took of her shooting at Dikla (long surrendered to Egypt) with the bullet coming out of the barrel. I don't think she ever did a rifle but I do recall that when I was on Amatziya on my Hachashara year (via the Machon) in 1967 and the war broke out, the women and children at one point were sent into the bunkers anmd they demanded Uzi's for the ladies who had been in the Army and a few grenades in case the Arabs broke through. Us men were given instructions on how to stop a tank by improvised Molotv cocktails and sticking a burning blanket in the treads. That was very encouraging.

10:02 PM, April 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You remind me of those great women who served with the partisans during World War II. But what a horrible thing that we still have to do this! But because of you I am sitting safely in my apartment in Bat Yam. Thank you and G-d bless you!! May you and your family stay out of harm's way.

11:19 PM, April 26, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

zahava - welcome to my blog. Amen to your last thought!

ymedad - I've heard stories about how scary it was before the Six Day War. It is very hard for us to imagine it.

chaya - welcome to my blog and thank you very much for your good wishes. I don't think I am as brave as the partisans - they really fought in terrible conditions!

8:22 AM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger Doctor Bean said...

Wow. Good for you.

Be well, and stay safe.

9:26 AM, April 27, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

doctor bean - welcome to my blog! Thank you for your good wishes.

7:34 AM, April 30, 2006  
Blogger Kevin said...

Bless you. Would you mind if I quoted you in a post of my own?

12:53 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Kevin - welcome to my blog! Of course I wouldn't mind, go right ahead...

7:39 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger Batya said...

I sure shot m16's, though not very well. And going on 25 years ago when we were trained, there were no ear plugs. Who ever heard of such a thing then? what did you say?

We didn't learn how to take them apart then either. I was never a good shot, but found the rifle better than the gun.

wbm, hope you never need to use those skills

8:59 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

muse - no ear plugs! ouch!

7:51 AM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

I grew up in liberal California with no weapons experience, and then went to work in a law enforcement-related field, dealing with cops all the time. They taught me to shoot, to not fear guns, to become comfortable with my skills....and I could then walk across a dark parking lot at night in a crime infested city with confidence. Like you, it changed my outlook and I saw doors, windows and hallways differently, as well as those parking lots. But it also made me stronger, less dependent, more confident of my ability not just to protect myself but to protect the public I am/was sworn to protect if need be. I ended up marrying a Jewish cop who also served in the US Army and later in the IDF when he lived in Israel, and we're both crack shots. Never handled an M-16 myself though--I'd love to learn.

The current president of the NRA is a Jewish woman from a liberal background whose epiphany about guns came one night when an intruder tried to break into her apartment in NYC. She called the police. Dispatch told her the police would be there in about 20 minutes---this while the intruder is kicking her door down. Dispatch advised her to hide in her bedroom and blockade her bedroom door with furniture. As she huddled in her bedroom, listening to her front door splinter, she vowed she would never be victimized again---and went out and bought a gun the next day and learned to use it.

I firmly believe that all women and all Jews should know how to use weapons. Hope you never have to draw a weapon in self-defense, but better to be armed than helpless; better to defend your family than watch them murdered.

8:48 PM, May 07, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

aliyah06 - it is nice to see others have had similar experiences.

9:12 AM, May 08, 2006  
Blogger the sabra said...

dont know if you'll see this but ill take the chance-

i wanna let you know how much i appreciated this post. nah appreciate is the wrong word. i cant express myself properly.

i really enjoyed reading your post-your account, your thoughts and your conclusion. I hated every word which reeked of having to defend ourselves to a foreign nation, and i hope and pray that you NEVER have to use that gun.
may hashem protect you and your family. always.

12:00 PM, July 04, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

sabra - due to the fact that I get an automatic e-mail whenever I get a comment, I did see this. Thank you very much for your good wishes.

2:18 PM, July 04, 2006  
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