Thursday, December 04, 2014

My army service - part four

By the end of basic training, five months in the army, I had barely ever seen an officer. For various reasons, my platoon commanders until now had been staff sergeants (although the company commander was a first lieutenant), so the prospect of having an interview with a colonel was daunting to say the least. I found the correct office, knocked on the door, entered then saluted. The colonel said that they don't bother with saluting.

This interview was in retrospect hilarious. I was telling the colonel - who was in charge of one of the departments of the Medical Corps - what I had done in university whereas the colonel was trying to think of places where he could use me. Eventually we hit upon working the laboratory which checks the quality of medicines, and I think that we agreed on a starting date. 

I don't know how this interview actually came about. I don't know whether it was the result of my signing the opt-out form six weeks previously or whether it was due to all the interviews and attempts to find something to do prior to be inducted into the army. To be honest, I didn't really care.

I had at least one week of holiday from the army; I remember that the fighting soldiers had to report to their new post a week after basic training but that some of us had two weeks' holiday. I seem to recall that I fell into the cracks. As it happens, it didn't make any difference as a few days after this tumultuous interview, I fell ill again with tonsillitis and had to be hospitalised in an army hospital. I was asked what my unit was and found it hard to answer - I had left one unit and was about to join another (the Medical Corps HQ),  although this posting was still unofficial.

When I left the hospital after about a week, I then spent another week trying to get out of the Nahal. I went one day to their HQ in Yaffo and was ignored, so I came home. The next day, I went again (each time carrying my army pack) and maybe made some headway. Possibly on the third day I was told that my medical file was with the unit where I should have been, who were stationed somewhere between Jerusalem and Hebron. I went there the following day and eventually obtained my documents. Probably I went back to Yaffo on yet another day with these in order to receive my final blessing and absolution; I then took yet another bus to the outskirts of Tel Aviv where the Medical Corps had its HQ. Let us not forget that this was in the middle of summer and I was carrying around a heavy kitbag. This period of limbo might thus have lasted five days.

Once in the MCHQ, I was shown to the Chief Petty Officer who set me up with bus tickets, told me when I had to appear for parade and other petty, army, details (there is a reason why his rank was Chief Petty Officer) and sent me to the laboratory where I was to work. This actually was outside of the army base and situated in an old hut in the grounds of Tel HaShomer hospital - more walking and shlepping my kit bag..

When I entered the laboratory, I took the people there by surprise as they had been expecting me a few weeks previously and had concluded that the delay meant that I wasn't coming. Once in, I was treated from now on as a human being. The fact that the laboratory was outside of the camp meant that there was a distinctly non-military bearing to our work, and as an academic, I was afforded a little respect.

I spent the rest of my compulsory army service - a year - in this laboratory; for several years, I also did my reserve duty here. It was a home away from home, and aside from the occasional military demands, was quite pleasant. There was a time when I was considering to stay on in the professional army - but going back to the problem with which I started my army career, the job called for a pharmacist and I had a degree in food science. So no professional career in the Medical Corps for me.

About two months before the end of my service, I spent a night on base as duty sergeant. When I was awoken for my shift at midnight, I felt rather strange, and this feeling accompanied me throughout the night. In the morning I asked to go on 'medical parade'; I sat in the doctor's office and shivered. I was diagnosed once again with tonsillitis and taken - by ambulance - to the same hospital where I had been hospitalised a year previously. As this was in the days before mobile telephones - and even normal telephones were in short supply - no one on my kibbutz actually knew where I was. I slept for at least a day as I was very feverish, but when I awoke I was lucid. Somehow I managed to find a payphone and inform whomever needed to know where I was.

I spent a few days in the military hospital until my condition improved; at this stage, it was discovered that I had blood in my urine - or to use the medical term, microhaematuria - and was transferred to a nearby public hospital. Again, no one at home knew about this. I spent another few days in this hospital, doing nothing and not being treated. On Friday morning, I asked whether I could go home for the weekend and was given permission to do so. On Sunday morning, I returned and was discharged; I was also given a week's medical 'holiday'. When this week finished, I reported to my base only to discover that I had been posted as AWOL! Apparently I should have gone there straight after leaving hospital in order to show them my authorisation to spend a week at home.

This microhaematuria problem continued for several years; I was registered at an outpatients clinic at my local hospital and used to visit once a year. One year I was about to undergo a biopsy from my kidneys, to see whether there was any damage; I was injected with iodine which would serve as a tracer so that the doctors could see where to probe. Unfortunately, I had a reaction to the iodine and the procedure was cancelled. About a year later, the consultant 'gave me an ultimatum': one more attack of tonsillitis and they would be removed. The tonsils must have listened for I haven't suffered from tonsillitis since (although I still occasionally suffer from pharyngitis and sometimes have a haematuria if my temperature is too high).

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