At a ceremony outside the town of Mitzpe Ramon in the heart of the Negev desert, 363 soldiers last week completed the IDF’s rigorous combat officer training course.
Twelve of the graduates, however, already held the rank of officer — and indeed were not IDF soldiers.
In a new program, seven militaries from around the world, including those of the United States and Brazil, sent young first lieutenants to complete the IDF course, seeking to build personal connections between the allied armies, solidify their bonds, and both learn from and teach one another.
The course, which was conducted in English, included navigation training, educational trips to historic sites around the country, and intensive conversations about leadership, such as how to relate to and “love” the soldiers under your command. The 12 foreign soldiers were in their own separate company, but Israeli cadets and officers joined them through every stage of the course in “Bahad 1” — the Hebrew name for the IDF’s officer training base.
Despite the differences in cultures and ages (the average IDF lieutenant is 21 years old, while the foreign officers were on average aged 27), the experiment was a success, Lt. Col. Yossi Koren, the chief instructor of the course, told The Times of Israel.
The Israeli soldiers learned from the older and more mature foreign officers, while the visiting soldiers learned from the “hot tempered” IDF officers’ ability to improvise, Koren said.
‘The commanders would start to get mad because we kept calling them sir’
An American participant, 1st Lt. Mauricio Jesus Izaguirre from Texas, noted that one main difference between the militaries was the way soldiers interacted with one another, specifically the way IDF soldiers refer even to their superior officers by their first names.
“It was difficult [to get used to the informality]. In the United States Army it’s just ingrained in you. After a while [the Israeli commanders] would start to get mad because we kept calling them sir,” Izaguirre said.
“From the level of NCOs and even higher-up officers, everyone asks, ‘How’s it going?’ But they are asking them legitimately — ‘How’s your family? Do you need anything?’ — they really care for each other,” he said.
However, unlike some of the other lessons learned in the nine-week course, referring to a commander by first name will not be adopted upon their return to their armies. “We’d get in so much trouble” if we did that in the US Army, Izaguirre said with a laugh.
In addition to the US and Brazil, soldiers from Germany, Greece, The Netherlands and Italy also took part in the trial program. The seventh country involved refused to publicly acknowledge its participation in the course.
In addition to the myriad differences between the seven armies represented, Koren was also surprised by the similarities between them.
“The level at which parents are involved — we thought that was an Israeli invention,” the lieutenant colonel added, referring to the all too common phenomenon of Israeli parents calling their child’s commander to complain or offer unsolicited advice on how to better manage the unit.
“But it turns out that’s how it is all over the world,” he said.
Commiseration — or as Izaguirre put it “embracing the suck” — was key to the group coming together.
“We were up in the mountains, so tired, hungry and we still have 12 more klicks (seven miles) to go. It’s awesome because everyone was so miserable but they’re picking each other up,” he related.
‘Love your people’
One of the major aspects of the course was leadership training, and the US Army first lieutenant noted that those lessons on command left a lasting impression on him. “They taught us to always be a professional, to lead by example –”
Koren interrupted, “Love your people.”
“Yeah, love your people,” Izaguirre echoed.
“A lot of that stuff is common sense, but you have to do it,” he went on. “Your soldiers will see if your uniform is jacked up or you’re late or you don’t meet the standard. How can you expect somebody to do those things, if you are unable to do that?”
Besides the more abstract concepts of leadership and command, the course also dealt with specific infantry tactics, how to safely enter a room or fight in an urban environment.
Here, too, the differences between the militaries’ approaches and styles became clear, but embracing those differences was one of the central reasons behind the program in the first place.
The way the IDF breaks down the topography, for instance, is different from the way other armies do, and the tactics used to take over a hilltop are different, Koren said.
“One major difference would be land navigation,” Izaguirre added. “The IDF doesn’t use maps. They go off memory mostly. We got used to that.”
The soldiers spent part of their time training in the IDF’s Urban Warfare Training Center, on the Tzeelim army base south of Beersheba, which is modeled after Arab cities to give soldiers a better understanding of how to fight in those settings.
“In urban fighting, you see differences. In Israel, the platoon commander goes first. In other armies, the platoon commander is farther back, with a separate squad at the front leading the way,” Koren said.
“I’m not saying for bad or for good, but you see the differences in styles,” he said.
The course was intentionally demanding and intensive, with far more missions and tests and requirements than average.
“We wanted them to experience difficulty,” Koren explained.
For example, he said, over the course of two days, the soldiers had an overnight land navigation exercise. The next morning, they went through an obstacle course, ran 2,000 meters, and then got to a shooting range where they had to put six rounds into a target. But that was not all.
“You finish that practical examination and you are sure that you’re going straight to bed,” Koren said. “But no, you go straight into the classroom where you have an exam on theory.”
In addition to the training exercises, Koren and his team took the foreign soldiers around the country, including to Jerusalem and the area around the Gaza Strip.
“We tried to show them Israel as it is. This wasn’t Birthright, where we only show them the pretty things. We encouraged open conversation,” Koren said.
‘We tried to show them Israel as it is’
“We took them to a checkpoint in the West Bank so that they could see what an Israeli checkpoint looks like and how it operates,” he said. (They were not allowed to bring the officers into the West Bank itself, though they did fly them over it in a helicopter to get a sense of the geography.)
Izaguirre and the other foreign officers told The Times of Israel they were surprised by the complexity of the problems here and by the unique geographic and demographic features of Jerusalem, with wildly different populations living so close to one another, yet almost entirely separate.
“All I knew about Israel is what I saw on CNN or the news,” he said. “A lot of people wouldn’t get it if they didn’t come here and see Israel from the inside.”