20 life & Career Lessons From My Time as a Soldier

Israel Defense Force Insignia

On July 23, 1990, exactly 30 years ago, today I became a solider. I wanted to be a fighter pilot but didn’t make the cut and going into service I had no idea where I’d end up. The first day was overwhelming. It was a blur. I remember being issued a kit bag, my uniform, getting shots, being shuffled around from one area to the next, setting up tents, and generally just trying to keep up and not get in trouble and wondering where I’d end up. Over the next couple of days, we were shuffled around and given various presentations on various units where one had to volunteer and pass tests and assessments to get into those units. Different units had different requirements – if you wanted to be a Naval officer you had to go through X, if you wanted to be a paratrooper you had to go through Y etc.

I went through rigorous testing over several days to try and get into an elite Naval unit that specialized in underwater operations. We started as a group of 50 or candidates (I believe there were 3 or 4 groups and only a handful of candidates made it). I was determined to make it. 4 or 5 days later, on the final day of exhausting, physically and mentally challenging days, there were only 3 of us. When we were given our next grueling assignment that morning, one quit, and it was just 2 of us. It was one of the toughest days of my life. Sadly, I sprained my ankle a few hours in while running on the beach in ankle deep water while carrying heavy gear and that was the end of it for me. I was pulled out; I didn’t make it. I was devastated.

I was sent back to the recruitment base and most of the other volunteer units were no longer recruiting, they had all the recruits they needed, and my options were limited. It was a huge disappointment. But there was still one unit that was recruiting volunteers – it was a ranger unit under the military intelligence branch. It was either that, or I would be randomly assigned to one of the “regular” units, so I volunteered and was accepted. Basic training was 3 months. It was hard. But I think all of us 18-year-old boys grew up and matured way beyond the 3 months that had passed.

Following basic training was advanced training. I think it was another 3 or 4 months of specialized training to learn the specifics of our jobs. There was a lot of classroom work, and we were now treated as soldiers rather than as recruits, it was a huge improvement over basic training. Those who would graduate top of class would get to choose which in which post they wish to serve; the rest would be sent wherever they were needed. We would be sent either to outposts along the border, or to the West Bank or the Gaza strip. In the outposts we would basically be looking across the border into neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt and collecting intelligence – literally securing our borders. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip we would be participating in various operations to try to identify and apprehend terrorists. There was one outpost that was considered the top post, only the best graduates were stationed there, and they only had room for one new ranger at the time. I was determined that I would be that one.

When training was over, I had achieved my goal of finishing at the top of my class and I requested I be stationed there. My request was granted and I spent the next several months at one of the most remote outposts in the country, at the highest elevation in the nation with a view stretching from the Lebanon border to a huge swath of Syria, Northern Jordan and about half of my own country of Israel.

I was there when the gulf war broke out. I remember helplessly watching SCUD missiles rain down on my own country. I remember watching Patriot anti-missile systems trying to intercept them and the excitement of watching that yellow streak shoot up towards the yellow streak falling down followed by the heartbreaking disappointment when it missed its target and the missiles continued down to earth. I remember watching the news on TV after the missiles fell and one directly hit a building less than a mile away from my house. Luckily nobody was killed, though the building was all but demolished and people were injured (many years later while in LA I met a fellow Israeli musician who was a very accomplished and well known musician and found out he lived an that building and was one of the people who was rescued from the rubble of what used to be his home, small world). I remember a few weeks later going home on leave and seeing a large crack in on of the walls of the house – it was from the shock of the missile that exploded not that far.

I remember being snowed in by an unusually strong and long-lasting storm and we couldn’t be resupplied as we would normally be every week, so we had to eat rations that we had in case of emergency. They were supposed to be replaced every 5 years, but the dates on the boxes revealed these rations were older than we were. The canned meats were uneatable, but the chocolate and crackers were still good, so that’s what we ate, crackers and chocolate that were made and boxed up 2-3 years before we were born!

A few months later our outpost was attacked, and I got my first experience with combat. It was terrifying, confusing, and overwhelming. I lost a friend that night. He was a reservist who was due to end his month-long stint at the outpost and was supposed to head home the next morning. He left behind a pregnant wife who would give birth to a girl that would never know her farther, his parents, a brother, and a sister not to mention his extended family and friends. He was only 26.

Shortly after that experience I had left my outpost to train as an airborne ranger. About 400 of my fellow rangers applied, only 8 were accepted to training, only 3 of us graduated. The army only needed 2 at the time. Because of my combat experience and other considerations, it was decided I would be temporarily stationed in Gaza for a couple of months to serve as an operations officer for our Gaza unit. I forget why they didn’t have an officer in place, but I remember there was an officer in training who was due to graduate in a couple of months and so even though I was not an officer I was temporarily assigned the rights and responsibilities of an officer and given the job until it could be filled by the officer in training.

During my time in Gaza I witnessed first hand what it’s like to be a Palestinian living under Israeli rule. I was attacked, yelled at, cussed at, had rocks thrown at me, generally we were not welcome there. This was years before Israel pulled out of Gaza. Shortly before I was due to finish my temporary assignment I was injured and had a bad concussion. I spent about 3 weeks in hospital before being sent back to my unit. My spot at the outpost had been filled so I wasn’t going back there. Instead I was sent to the West Bank to serve with my fellow rangers there for a few months and I would then be sent to replace an airborne ranger that was going to be retired a little early. That was the plan.

But life often has a way of interfering with plans, and while in the West Bank I experienced combat again. This time, thankfully none of my comrades were killed, but the experience shook me none-the-less. I was also struggling with injuries I sustained previously and had been trying to downplay, and doctors realized I had torn tendons and ligaments in my ankles. As soon as this diagnosis was found, I was deemed unfit for combat duties and sent back to the recruitment base where I had begun my service to be reassigned in a non-combat position.

I was devastated. This was not at all how I imagined things would be. I was supposed to be an airborne ranger in just a couple of months. I planned to apply for officer training and to go on to be an officer and who knows how far I would take it. I was very depressed but decided to apply for officer training anyway – I might not be a combat soldier anymore, but I could still be an officer in a non-combat position. I took the required assessment and the results came back – try again later. I wasn’t flat out rejected, but it was determined I’m not ready for officer training at that time (in retrospect, I was in such a low place I bet they saw how despondent I was in the psychological testing) so they told me I can try again in a few months. Another setback. It was tough.

Because of my experience thus far, the officer in charge of placing soldiers didn’t want to just give me any menial job that happened to be available. So, he kept me around for a while, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to open up. I hated it. I was bored out of my mind, I was depressed, and I was struggling to come to terms with my reality that I was no longer a combat soldier.

After a while I befriended some of the solders who were serving as clerks in various logistics positions. I would hang out with them in their air-conditioned offices and watch them work. I realized they were printing out huge weekly reports, and then manually going through them to narrow them down to only certain information that was then manually summarized and presented to their superiors. I thought it seemed very inefficient and being bored and also having a bit of a background with computers I started asking questions. It wasn’t long before I figured out how to streamline the process and make it significantly more efficient.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and I was called in to the commander’s office. He chewed me up a bit for sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong. But then he also told me how impressed he was and that he’s going to keep me around until he can find a good fit for me where I can be useful. Even though I wasn’t officially part of his unit, I was in a holding pattern waiting to be assigned somewhere, he did put me to work and having stuff to do helped make the days go by faster.

I don’t remember how many weeks I was there, but eventually he called me in and told me he had found an assignment for me. I was to become the driver for a colonel who was head of logistics for central command. A driver! A chauffeur! Seriously? After I’ll I’ve been through and have done, I was going to drive around some guy and then just sit around and wait? I was furious. But he had made his decision and that was that. This was the army after all, and unless one is given an illegal order, one must follow orders.

So off I went to central command in Jerusalem to meet my new commander. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I hated being there and hated being reduced to “just a driver.” I felt like I was worth more. As we drove around the country from one meeting to the next, we would chat, and we really liked each other. Ika, my commander, would tell me about his wife and kids, he’d ask me how I was doing, about my background and experiences, and that made things more tolerable. But I was still very frustrated and bored out of my mind. So, as I did when I was waiting to be reassigned, I started snooping around and looking for things to do.

I noticed we had been given a computer for the office that was supposed to help with our filing system, but filing was still being done manually. Retrieving anything was a pain in the butt, and too often the secretaries couldn’t find materials that were filed. It was a mess. So, I started looking into it and learned that the army had a very specific (and surprisingly efficient) filing system that wasn’t being followed in our office. I learned the system, got the computer up and running and started re-filing years of paperwork and entering the necessary info in the computer. I trained the secretaries in how to do it and before long things were well organized and efficient.

I also noticed that every day the colonel would be given a large folder with all of the day’s mail. He’d often go through it in the car while we were driving and he would get frustrated as he went through and find correspondence that was important hiding behind pages of correspondence that he was just cc’d on and wasn’t pressing or important at all (this was before email). One day while he was in a meeting, he left his folder in the car, as he usually would, knowing I’m there watching things. I grabbed the folder and looked through it. I realized there were basically 3 categories of correspondence – letters from the general’s office, actionable letters directed at him, and letters he was cc’d on so he’s in the loop but weren’t directed at him. So, I sorted the correspondence with all the general’s correspondence on top, followed by the actionable stuff and then the cc stuff, and put the folder back on his seat.

When he came back as we drove back to base, I watched him go through the correspondence and there was a lot less moaning and groaning. So, I started doing this every day and noticed it was a more efficient way of getting through things than before. A week or two after starting to do this, I bought dividers and added them to the folder. It was then that he noticed, and it suddenly dawned on him that I had been sorting his mail for a while. I remember him asking me, “have you been sorting my mail?” and I responded that I had been. He then asked if I was responsible for the filing system improvements because he had noticed things were smoother there, too. Again, I responded in the affirmative. He smiled and just got back to doing what he was doing.

Not long after that I was scheduled to have surgery to repair my torn ligaments and tendons, which meant I would be absent for a few weeks and he would need a new driver. He had me interview 3 candidates to replace me, I made my recommendation and he agreed with my choice. My expectation was that after surgery and a recovery period I’d got back to the recruitment base to be reassigned. But that’s not what happened.

Just before I was going to have surgery, he called me into his office and informed me that I was being promoted to become his personal aid, his personal adjunct. As soon as I was back up on my feet I was to report back and manage his office, including the 3 secretaries and the new driver. He visited me at the hospital the day after my surgery, he called weekly to check on my progress. I was in a cast confined to a wheelchair with my leg elevated for 6 weeks, then I had to be on crutches for 6 more weeks. During this time, I was on sick leave and if a solider was on sick leave for 60 days they would automatically be pulled out of their unit and reassigned whenever they were back. I realized I was this was going to happen to me unless we did something, so I requested I be allowed to come back to work as soon as I was on crutches.

I figured as his personal adjunct; I was no longer driving him around. I could hitch a ride with him every day to the base and back since he had a new driver, and I could do my job instead of sitting at home. He agreed and put in a request to have me reinstated, but there was a problem. Because of the location of the base and travelling through the West Bank, I always had to carry a weapon with me. I couldn’t manage a rifle while on crutches, and handguns were only issued to officers and non-commissioned officers. I was a sergeant at the time. My commander reached out to the base commander and asked him to check the armory to see if there were any handguns available for me. He then promoted me to staff-sergeant, which made me eligible to carry a handgun. Now the questions were was there a gun available and could I manage to safely and accurately shoot it while on crutches. There was one handgun in the armory, an old Russian made model that was spoils of war, not standard issues. They had the gun but no ammo for it since it wasn’t standard issue. It was also pretty rusty.

I got the gun, disassembled it, cleaned it, purchased ammo using my own money and hobbled off to the range to see if I could shoot it while on crutches. It wasn’t easy, but after a few attempts (and falling on my ass a few times) I figured out how to position myself and be able to accurately shoot the gun while on crutches. And with that sorted I was back. I spent the rest of my service as his personal adjunct.

My service was scheduled to be complete in July of 1993. Typically, soldiers, especially non-combat soldiers, would be released a little early, so I was expecting to be done around April or May. But there was a huge military exercise coming up in September and that meant a lot of logistics were involved and I was asked if I’d agree to sign on to stay a few months longer. I really didn’t want to. I was ready to move on with my life. I had another ankle surgery scheduled so I politely declined. Shortly after that I was summoned to the general’s office.

You have to understand that in the military generals are more or less gods on earth. This general was a very kind man. I had worked closely with him and mostly his office staff for over a year as the colonel’s aid, so he wasn’t quite as intimidating as he was when we first met, but still he was the general!

I walked into his office to be told he’s waiting for me and to step right in. I had been to his office many times (I was there at least 2-3 times a week) but had never been in his personal chambers – only outside dealing with his secretaries and his personal adjunct. Being ushered into his personal chambers and being told he’s waiting for me was intimidating, to say the least. I walked in, and he looked up from his desk, smiled and simply said “I hear you’re staying with us until after the exercise is finished. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I just wanted to say thank you in person. That’ll be all.”

I went back to my office and there was the colonel with a fiendish smile on his face and the paperwork for me to extend my service by a couple of months. I signed and stayed on until September. My next surgery was postponed to just over a week after I was to end my service. I concluded my service on a Friday. As a gift my uncle arranged for me to fly to Frankfurt on Tuesday to meet him, my aunt and my cousin where we would watch Paul McCartney in concert the following day. I went back home on Thursday and was hospitalized on Sunday for a Monday morning surgery.

During my time in service, and the years since looking back I learned a few things in the military that have helped shape who I am and serve me to this day:

  1. There’s no such thing as “can’t” only “won’t.” This is basically the military version of Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.” I don’t think I’d be where I am today without having learned that lessons all those years ago. I’ll say it again, there’s no such thing is “can’t” only “won’t.”
  2. You can’t do it all alone. You have to have a unit around you. You have to trust your unit, watch their backs and have them watch yours.
  3. You’re only as strong as the weakest link in your unit. Make sure you’re as strong a link as you can possibly be. And try to surround yourself by even stronger links.
  4. There are no bad soldiers, only bad commanders. Leadership is about taking responsibility; it’s about leading by example. If your subordinates are doing a bad job, you’re not doing a good enough job leading them, supporting them, pushing them to excel…
  5. Good leaders lead from the front. They are right there with their unit; they don’t demand anything that they themselves aren’t wiling or able to do.
  6. Good leaders have high standards, high demands and inspire, push and support their subordinates to meet those standards and goals.
  7. You can’t do everything at once. Assess the situation and identify the most immediate and important issue. If you’re in combat, the most important thing is not getting killed, followed by disabling your enemy. Then you can turn your attention elsewhere. The same is true in life things can get overwhelming with lots going on all at once. Identify the most immediate issue at hand and solve that first. Then identify the next most pressing issue and address that. Before you know it you’ll get through it all
  8. Get help. When I was in basic training our commander said there’s no such thing as can’t, nothing is impossible. Someone said, “but sir, what if a task takes 50 hours and we only have an hour to get it done?” Without skipping a beat, the commander responded, “Get 50 people on it.”
  9. I can push myself far beyond what I ever imagined humanly possible. You can, too. We all can. It’s all in your head. If you’re determined enough, you’ll find a way to push through anything, physically and mentally.
  10. There will be obstacles, there will be setbacks, there will be disappointments. The only difference between success and failure is perseverance and perspective. Sometimes this requires redefining our goals or changing our perspective on how we define success. We have to be flexible enough to recognize when plans need to change, or goals need to be adjusted. Making changes isn’t failure, it isn’t defeat, it’s adaptive. Adapt or die.
  11. Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told.
  12. Know your place. Understand where you fit in the hierarchy of any given situation. To use a chess analogy, you may be a king in one instance and a pawn in another, learn the difference and how to recognize it. Don’t act like a king when you’re a pawn and vice-versa.
  13. Even the toughest men are vulnerable. Often those with the roughest exterior have the softest interior. Don’t judge.
  14. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. No amount of complaining, procrastinating or avoiding will change that. Just get it done and move on.
  15. You can’t be everyone’s friend, you’re not going to be liked by everybody, especially as a leader. Your job is to lead, not to be liked. That doesn’t mean you can’t be both, but never forget your priorities. Better to be effective and respected than ineffective and liked.
  16. If something is wroth doing, it’s worth doing well. Always do your best. Always.
  17. You rarely have enough time or resources to do the job the way you wish you could. Do the very best you can with what you’ve got under the circumstances. Nobody can expect anything more, you should never accept anything less of yourself.
  18. It’s OK to be scared sometimes. The trick is not to let fear paralyze you.
  19. No matter how bad tings get, be grateful for what you have.
  20. Every day that nobody’s shooting at you is a good day.