Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Looking Forward - The Last Blog (part 3 of 3)

This is it, the 89th and final blog that I'll be writing; it's been a very long road but here is where it ends. I am now no longer in the army and saying it is still quite bizarre, since being a soldier for two and a half years is definitely going to have a lasting effect on me. I still have some final thoughts to share on this post but, unfortunately, this will be the last blog that I'll be doing...

I have summarised and recounted my service enough but as I was finally released from the army, I began to realise how grateful I am for the truly terrific time I had as a soldier. In achieving most of the targets I set out for myself and beyond; experiencing (in my opinion) the most meaningful service possible, as a combat soldier, and completing almost all of what I went through with distinction, I really am lucky with the the service I had. I can break it down to two pivotal moments, which were immensely responsible for giving me the fantastic service that is now behind me. Firstly, passing the 'gibush tzanchanim' and, thus, joining the paratroopers' brigade and secondly, being picked to go to 'makim' (commanders' course). Had one of those two cardinal incidents not have happened, it would have been a totally differnet two and a half years for me, of which I would have had a completely different outlook on and probably wouldn't have been as satisfied with. This is just one of the many things that I am awfully grateful for. There are many soldiers who join the army with high and admirable expectations but, due to a whole array of potential circumstances, are miserable for the duration of their service; from failing a 'gibush' and not getting into a specific unit, to falling to injury, being with less-than-friendly people or simply, not receiving the job they wanted. This has happened and continues to happen to many soldiers (including lone soldiers, of which I know countless examples) and causes lots to be depressed, have an unpleasant service and, subsequently, hate the army. I empathise with them completely and feel indebted not to have gone through those frustrating times. What I am trying to say is that I've been priveleged to have the army experience that I did and, unlike some who draft to the IDF, I got almost everything that I wanted from my time as a soldier.

Despite me parents' insistence on making this post a highly emotional finale to the many blogs I've done over the years about my strong zionism, pride of serving in the IDF and joy of living in Israel, I think I've said all of that enough times and this last blog should instead be about you the readers. I've had quite a substantial amount of feedback from young boys (and girls) over the last three years, who are interesting in doing what I've done and want to make aliyah and join the army as a lone soldier. There may be some reading this now who feel this too and as I've said a million times over, that helping in any way for more young people to start this journey is the best return I could've dreamed of for this blog and I recommend this drastic change in one's life with undeterred confidence. However, I wanted to get across, a slight warning one may say, that everything I have talked about is my specific experience as a lone soldier in the army. Of course there are countless instances where combat soldiers can specifically relate to what I've written and will say how exactly the same thing happened to them. Yet, this is still my individual story and the things I have experienced may not happen to all of those who have read the blog and want to do what I've done. By no means am I taking away the fact that this will be the most incredible life decision that one can do, I am just saying if you're doing this (with the stories from my blog in the back of your mind) just know that you will have your own defining moments, inspirational influences and personal achievements.

Shortly after starting the blog way back when, I said that I wanted to continue it until my release and now that it's here, I'm somewhat proud of myself for actually keeping up with it during all that time. Believe me, there were those short weekends where I hadn't been out of the army in a while and I had no energy or desire to write a post, but I sat down and put my all my efforts into recapturing what had passed that week. I'm not seeking compliments for my efforts here, merely noting how I have kept up with this task through thick and thin, in order to put my story across. As much as it has been for the readers, the blog has also served almost as much for me and although it may sound kind of melodramatic, it has given me strength at certain moments. I cannot begin to count the number of times where something has happened (or I have even gone out my way to do something!!) and I think to myself "that will be great for the blog". When surviving those long weeks in the 'shetach', I would always think about how I would end up describing what I was going through in the following blog; when walking all those hundreds of kilometers at night in the pouring rain, while some were thinking of that hot shower at the end of the week, I was formulating paragraphs in my head!!! Through the various comments, feedback and individual contact that I have received from this blog, I can see that it has had an effect; whether it be to inform, entertain or, even inspire the few that are now starting this awesome journey, I am ecstatic with the final outcome of what started as a small project for family and friends nearly three years ago. The feedback and comments has often been what has caused me to continue with the blog and I am indebted and very much appreciative of anyone who has read this blog.

Some have asked me why I am not continuing with the blog and for me it's a very simple answer. As much as I enjoy the spotlight, this blog has never been about me and my personal story (although that's all I can really write about), instead this blog has been about showing the life of a lone soldier here in Israel. Several lone soldier friends of mine have even said how they simply tell their parents to read my blog, as it saves them time on explaining everything they are doing and feeling! The blog is not my public journal, it's a window into the life of thousands of lone soldiers like me and although it's me who is writing it, this blog was never supposed to be about Sam Sank. As my service came to a close so must the blog and I also feel that the life of an 'oleh' (immigrant) post-army would be a less interesting read. As for my future, after all my blogging and continuous zionist preaching, I hope no one suspects that I would go back to England after finishing my army service! I am now settled here in Tel Aviv and plan to do the real Israeli route of working somewhere by the beach for half a year, before traveling to the far reaches of the world with a fellow 'tzanchan' and then next year, I will be studying a degree in "Government and Politics" at university. It's a solid plan and I am now excited about entering a new stage in my life here in Israel having finished my time as a soldier. So that's it and I thank once again to anyone who has read the blog.

How do I end the blog, my two year and seven month year old baby that I've raised and cared for (!), I had a couple of ideas about how to finish it but, luckily, the perfect ending came to me just over a week ago. On a night out in Tel Aviv over Pesach, I happened to see none other than Gilad Shalit walking around. While some may be apprehensive about approaching him and wary of his resentment to being a "celebrity", I thought otherwise and went up to him. Face to face, I said to him how happy we are that he's back and then I gave him a parting hug. That is what it is all about; having drafted to the army while he was still in captivity, I finished the army to physically see him a free man. I couldn't think of a better way to end this blog.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Last Day as a Soldier - The Last Blog (part 2 of 3)

Today was my last official day as a soldier. That's a sentance that I thought I would never say and, frankly, one I never really wanted to say due to my fantastic two and a half years in the army. Of course, there were hard and frustrating times and my positive outlook that I normally show on the blog may not have been a totally accurate reflection of how I felt at times, yet it really has been a wonderful period and to think that I'm now done with it all brings up a whole mix of emotions.

As much as I have revelled in being a soldier, there are certain things that I certainly won't miss and it's a very long list. Living in Israel and being in the army especially, means I had no choice but to embrace the crazy mentality that Israelis possess and as a soldier I even developed some "Israeliness" into my own personality. Yet, in the army there is one thing I will definitely not miss about Israelis and that is there constant need to take, sometimes without asking, other people's stuff. This is a common complaint I hear from lone soldiers, who are not used to the notion of another soldier going through your bag without asking, finding that bar of chocolate and eating it while you are on border patrol. There is an essence of sharing within the brotherhood of being in a 'mahlaka', however, I'm happy about not being asked anymore every five minutes for a spray of my deodorant or a bit of shampoo or a sip of drink or to use my flip flops or my towel or for a lick of my ice cream!!! The list of things that I am grateful not to be doing anymore could really go on forever; whether it's packing a bag for three weeks on a saturday night knowing I'm back to the army early the next morning or being woken up in the middle of the night for the second time to do guard duty because once wasn't enough. From eating a tuna sandwich as part of 'manot krav' (combat rations) for the sixth day in a row to adjusting my helmet every five minutes since it just doesn't sit right to carrying the stretcher for half an hour without a break because no one else is prepared to switch me, the list goes on and on.

Only at the end of a 'masa', did everyone suddenly help with lifting the stretcher!!!

On the other hand, there are those things that I will sorely miss about not being in the army anymore. Many of these are feelings of pride and achievement, none more so than finishing a hard exercise in the 'shetach' or my personal favourite, walking home (always a great feeling whatever happens) with uniform and gun on show and noticing the impressive looks of those I walk past. Being part of the 'mahlaka' and the genreal banter and jokes that come with it is also something that I'll yearn for even after I've been released. When explaining this to friends back home, I normally say how it's like being in a sports team; a lot of guys living, training, showering, sleeping and joking around together. The only difference is that we are doing all this within the spectrum of the army, with deadly weapons in our hands and, mainly, in dangerous and operational situations. I think though I will generally just miss being a soldier, or at least saying that I am in 'tzanchanim' and the ideological feeelings that come with it. Being in the army has given me a sense of purpose, as well as a clear routine, and getting released is a scary development. Going from a strictly structured lifestyle to the complete opposite is normally what soldiers embrace upon their release, but I am slightly more apprehensive about it. As much as I'll miss the organized routine though, finally deciding for myself when to eat, sleep and what to wear is an interesting new addition!!!

With my 'mahlaka' before a stake-out on the Lebanon border. Good times...

I tried throughout this blog to explain, as best as I could within the appropriate timeframe and space, my account in the army as a combat and lone soldier and everything that it entailed. However, the whole experience is such a massive ordeal with so many complexities and side stories that you, the readers, only saw a glimpse of what it is like to be a 'lohem' (fighter), let alone a soldier in the IDF. I could literally go on for days and write for pages on end about the smallest of subjects, like 'vatikut' (the culture of veteranship within a combat company), which I barely went into on the blog, hardly touching in its history, rules and customs. I could lecture for hours on the intricacies of 'tofes tiyulim' (exiting form, don't ask!) and my personal experiences of it. There are things that were pointless even explaining because there simply wasn't enough time to write it all down; from 'wassach' (army bling) and 'ptichat einayim' (jealousy), to hatred of the 'maflag' (logistical platoon within the company) and 'mem tzadikim' (military police). These are all matters that are all too familiar to soldiers but to those on the outside it's hard to understand and I apologise that I can't explain each and every part of this army experience. Sometimes only those who have been a combat soldier can truly know why hearing 'thilat tnua' (starting movement) can be so disponding or knowing why putting a helmet under you back in the 'shetach' makes sitting down so much more comfortable. I tried to make this blog a universal read for those who are thousands of miles away from the IDF but parts of it are impossible to describe.

Our gowns proudly hanging in our rooms in the West Bank, one of the many luxuries of being a veteran!

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I've always been completely honest about everything I've done and totally open with all my thoughts. Yet there have been some events that I have not shared on this blog and even though I may mention them now, I still will never be willing to go into detail of what exactly happened. When thinking of particularly scary moments within my service, a few specific incidents come to mind, which affected me in different ways and which I've never really talked about on the blog. At one point during my time on the 'Bach', I almost lost an extremely important piece of equipment that could have led to some very serious repurcussions for me. Another moment, from a recent week in the 'shetaach', I found myself alone at night and started to panic about my survival due to the horrendous conditions. The other two times, which easily stand out for me as the points where I genuinely worried for myself (I don't want to say "feared for my life", as I don't know what would've been the ultimate outcome and I don't want to unneccessarily dramatise) came from times when I was in operational deployment. A foggy morning on the border with Gaza and a pitch black night on the Lebanon border are the respective backgrounds for two memories that will ultimately stay with me for a very long time.

A hard day's work in Hebron...

Today I found myself at the 'Bakkum', a central base in Tel Aviv, where I proceeded to be released from the army. The 'Bakkum' will always have special significance for a soldier as it is the base where one first drafts and receives their uniform and is also the place where one returns his uniform after three years and is released from his compulsory service. Apart from this obvious 'sgirat ma'agal' (closing of the circle), as they say, the 'Bakkum' also has a specific implication for me personally, as it was there that I first did the 'gibush' for 'tzanchanim' and where I received my soldiers in my first ever role as a commander. After giving back both my uniform and 'hoger' (army ID card), I was presented with my very flattering release certificate, which I can use afterwads to reference my army service. Coincidentally, a 'tzanchanim gibush' was taking place today at the 'Bakkum' today and seeing all those 17 year olds desparately trying out to get into the paratroopers, moments after I had just finished my time as a 'tzanchan', was a nice touch too. I passed on advice to the would-be paratroopers and joked around with the commanders, some of whom had been soldiers of mine in 'achana l'makim' (preparation for commanders' course). The whole day was a slight anti-climax, as I pretty much went in as a soldier, attended to the bureaucracy and came out fifteen minutes later as a citizen, without any sort of ceremonial celebration. Today was more about the confirmation of finally finishing two and a half wonderful years in the army and moving on to the next step.

As of today, I have been assigned to a 'miluim' (reservists) battalion, 'gdud' 7063, to be precise, which is a reservist unit specific to 'tzanchanim'. From the moment I was released, 11am this morning, I became a citizen subject to all the laws of the state, as opposed to the army, whether it's regarding health, crime or social security. Time has both been slow and fast, but incredibly, I'm now done with the army. As I repeat a million times, I've had the best service and will now wrap up everything in one final blog...

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Looking Back - The Last Blog (part 1 of 3)

Thirty months is the time I was issued to serve to the Israeli Defence Forces as a new immigrant to the country and I am now enjoying the last few days of those thirty long but incredible months. With my official release date only a week away, I thought I would take this, one of the last blogs that I'll write, to look back at my wonderful two and a half years as a soldier in the army. Here it goes...

I've been preparing these last three blogs for a couple of weeks now and to review my entire service caused me to think back on two and a half years of unforgettable experiences, which came up with some remarkable statistics for me to share. As a soldier, I completed the years' worth of training to be a certified 'lohem' (combat fighter level '07'), as well as additional qualifications such as a spearhead sharpshooter, GPS navigator and camoflauge expert. I served a substantial amount of time on three different 'kavs' (deployments); Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank, and performed important and directly contributive steps in ensuring the prevention of terror and safeguarding of Israel's citizens through border patrols, guard duties and stake-outs. Two 'imun' (training) periods have passed during my service; both of which took place in the Golan Heights, one in the summer and one in winter, the latter of which, only now the nightmares are slowly wearing off. I parachuted a total of six times (!), three times in the day and three at night, two of which were operational jumps, including the more recent 'tarhat' jump where the whole brigade jumped together for the first time in 15 years. I have done countless amounts of class, platoon and company combat exercises in the 'shetach' (field); running up a hill and "killing terrorists" is almost like second nature to me now. Also have been part of tens of the never-ending battalion and brigade combat exercises, as well as being an "enemy" during an almighty regiment exercise. I have completed extensive combat training a number of times; from guerilla warfare in the north to urban combat in the south. At certain times I have spearheaded the whole 'gdud' (battalion) as its sharpshooter, which is effectively one of a pair of soldiers who lead a battalion of over 450 'lohemim'. On top of all this, I have partaken and finished two 'gibushim' (entrance trials for specific units), initially to get into 'tzanchanim' and then also for its elite units.

Way back in the day with my class from basic training. Here we are before our first ever 'masa'.

Looking back at the extreme physical and mental challenges I've personally faced, I am able to break it down to two terrifying lists (in order of difficulty):

Hardest weeks:-
1) 'Sada'ut' - first ever week of 'shetach', memorable for the heavy bag and horrible weather.
2) 'Targad kayits' - battalion war week from the summer of last year.
3) 'Kita mitkadem' - advanced class training, simply never stopped walking.
4) 'Shavua milhama horef' - the recent company war week of winter training.
5) 'Shavua milhama' - company war week from the 'Bach', which lasted eight days.

Hardest acts:-
1) Ascent of Mount Hermon - the last act of 'targad kayits', a 12 hour ordeal that I fnished by carrying the MAG, a machine gun normally reserved for giants.
2) 'Tsnicha tarhat' - the battalion jump, walking from where I landed to the company meeting point; a 1km sand dune nightmare where I was carrying at least 100% body weight due to the parachute.
3) 'Matsav kriya' - staying in the kneeled shooting position for over an hour, pure agony.
4) 'Nsiga shavua milhama' - the final act of this recent company war week where we walked 17km back to base in extremely bad weather.
5) 'Har sansan' - the two and a half hour uphill pathway in the middle of the 78km 'masa kumta'.

Yet, all these bone-chilling moments and memories are all nothing compared to last month's 'targad', which I explained in the previous blog. I would even go as far as saying that I would do each and every single one of these things I have listed here, in order not to go through with 'targad horef,' and all the insufferable days that came with it. 'Targad horef', undoubtedly the hardest week I've endured in my whole life.

Smiling before 'sada'ut', yet the smiles soon wore off in what was to be my hardest week of basic training.

As a 'hapash' (simple soldier), I did so much guard duty that if I added up all those hours it would surely total up to a number of months worth of guarding. It's beyond contemplation as to the amount of times I was in a guard post and sometimes I think to myself how at all points; from a friday night during Shabbat dinner to 4 o'clock in the morning, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of soldiers manning the guard towers all over the country, and how I have served my share of those guard shifts. In addition to all the relentless, never-ending and mindblowingly boring guard duties I have done during my service, I am also not so proud to claim that I must have washed thousands of dishes, cleaned hundreds of toilets and scrubbed down tens of walls as part of 'toranot' (duties) that I performed as a 'hapash' before we became veterans. Unfortunately aside from training in the 'shetach', guarding and 'toranot,' a 'hapash' cannot show much else for himself, yet due to the most pivotal point of my whole army service, being a commander gives me something more to show from my two and a half years. From 'makim' (commanders' course), I managed to diverse myself with soldiers from all the combat units in the army and upon finishing the course, I received a good grade of 87. After three roles as a 'mefaked' on the 'tzanchanim Bach' (paratroopers' basic training base), I served as a commander to a total of 119 soldiers, to whom I hope to have made an impact on in some way. To many of those 'tzanchanim', I was their first ever 'mefaked' and those early days of discipline and learning about the army always have a high impact for the rest of one's service. I, myself, had both good and bad commanders and was under the command of those who may go on to lead the army in years to come. Throughout my whole time in the army, I've encountered many people, both combat and non-combat soldiers, from every single demographic and ethnicity, from each city and kibbutz in Israel and in lone soldiers, from countries all around the world. The army is not only a lifetime experience but a diverese way of networking Jews from Israel and all over the world.

With my guys from 'makim' at the closing ceremony, one of the best periods of my whole service.

My amount of 'oketzing' throughout my service has been none other than impressive (!), complying of a record-breaking number of 'hamshushim' (Thursday weekends) from the 'Bach', endless amount of lone soldier holidays and generally "being in the right place at the right time", which has let to me to close a number of Shabbats that a 'jobnik' (non-combat soldier) would be proud of. Yet, despite all this, my attendance record in the 'shetach' and in important exercises is none other than exemplary. This is down to the fact that in all my two and a half years as a soldier, I've yet to receive an hour, yet alone a day, of 'betim' (sick day on base), 'gimmelim' (sick day at home) or an 'haphnaya' (doctor's appointment). Partly due to luck that I've been a combat soldier for a long time and haven't ever been injured or ill, but also because, unlike a lot of other Israeli 'kravi' soldiers, I was always determined not to miss anything and carried on with the show even if I was under any sort of pain. In addition to this achievement, I never started smoking whilst in the smoke-galore bubble that is the army (!), as well as never being punished by staying on base for a number of hours whilst everyone goes home or even by closing a Shabbat as punishment. That's not saying that I never did anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing (although in the scheme of things I was rather 'tsahov' - yellow, followed the rules), I just was clever enough not to ever get caught!!!

I thought I would share all these memories and statistics as part of my nostalgic looking back on my service. What a fantastic time I have had in the army, yet whenever someone asks me what my best moment was, one moment stands above everything else. My parents suprising me at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem for my 'tekes kumta' (beret ceremony), after I'd finished the 78km 'masa' will forever remain the highlight of my service...

Monday, 12 March 2012

Utterly Broken

How do I begin to explain a week that has totally eclipsed every single thing I have ever done in the army in terms of physical, mental and emotional challenges. That is what I asked myself when thinking of how to write this blog as I finished the 'targad' a little over two weeks ago now. It's going to be a long one...

'Targad' is war week for the whole battalion and is generally considered the hardest week possible in the 'shetach'. I've only done one previous 'targad', in August 2010, but I considered that my toughest week in the army, most notably for the final act where the whole 'gdud' (battalion) reached the summit of Mount Hermon after a twelve hour ascent. The 'targad' has this monstrous reputation about it and because of this almost everyone had been dreading it since the start of the 'imun' (training) period. There were even a handful of soldiers who were so adamant about not participating in the 'targad' that they managed to take out 'gimmelim' (army sick days) the weekend before we started. Whether people were genuinely injured, pretending to be medically unfit or just managed to get out of it someway or another, the 'targad' scared off about a quarter of my company alone before we had even started. Seeing as it was my last ever week of 'shetach' and due to my general enthusiasm for the army and the experiences that come with it, I was happy to be partaking in it. However, a couple of hours into the 'targad' and my eagerness had completely evaporated.

First of all it's important to note that my 'pluga' (company), the 'mivtsayit', is defined as an attacking company in times of battle, as opposed to a company whose main purpose is to provide cover fire. What does this mean for us, the actual soldiers of 'mivtsayit'? It means that we never stop moving in the 'shetach'; walking long distances or running in the actual exercises, yes, but transported by veichles and static during the combat exercises, no. So for us the soldiers the 'targad' is the week where we are never off our feet and are constantly getting "raped by the high command" as the common phrase goes!!! The outset of the 'targad' did not seem like anything too demanding or anything we hadn't done before; long distances to walk, fairly heavy bags on our backs, little sleep, combat rations no more than twice a day and long battalion-level combat exercises. Yet, as it has been with most of this 'imun', the weather played a mammoth factor and had a major role in making this week one that will be impossible to forget for a lot of soldiers in 'gdud' 101.

Those who keep up to date with Israeli news (and my blog to be frank) will know that it's been a very wet winter not only in the Golan but the whole country, which is of course a fantastic thing, except for us paratroopers who spent the whole winter doing training in the 'shetach' up North! Coincidentally, the other two battalions of tzanchanim, 202 and 890, also had their 'targad' in the weeks before and after ours respectively. Fortuitously though, for both of them, 'targad' was completed on the backdrop of a sunny and dry weeks, for 101, though, this was not the case. When I say that, for the time we were in the 'shetach' it did not stop raining, I am not exaggerating or trying to make the blog sound more exciting, no, it chucked it down continuously for five days, with the addition of some snow and hail at points as well!!! I think I've explained enough on the blog already how critical the weather is in the 'shetach' and constant rain is more or less the worse thing that could of happened during the 'targad'. Not only is one completely soaked through to the skin, depsite the supposedly "waterproof" attire, there is also the wet bag being doubly as heavy and all the mud, those mountains of mud, it still gives me nightmares even now. I lost track of how many times I fell in the mud or in puddles of water and the weather caused every path that we went along to be almost impossible to walk across, every step used up a considerable amount of energy when trying to lift one's leg out of the thick mud. The whole week was pure hell; walking in the rain, sleeping in it, my feet were never dry and I was dangerously close to getting "cold burns", which a few people did get. Physically, there have obviously been harder things I've faced but my body struggled to deal with the conditions and it was the fact that I felt so crappy the whole time because I was cold and wet, in addition to being tired, hungry and physically exhausted, that made this 'targad' so hard.

I can't remember too many times during my army service that I have felt "broken" mentally, much like when a runner hits "the wall" during a marathon, yet on the thursday of the 'targad' I had reached this point. After four days of failing to be dry, warm or rested, I was so fed up of it that I really was ready to give up and quit. I'm not ashamed to say that at one point I even shed some tears; simply having reached the end of my tolerance and the edge of my emotional threshold. Needless to say, I was, by no means, the only one who cried during the 'targad' with many pleading for mercy and for the end of what was a truly horrific week of 'shetach'. It's annoying that as I write this now, I ask myself "was it really that hard? am I not just over exaggerating here a little?" but the answer is that it really was that hard and if I could only precisely recapture how I felt two weeks ago now, then this blog's description maybe even more harrowing. The end did finally come and, in the early hours of friday morning, during the last 'nsiga' (retreat) I consumned all the chocolate I had left, used up any dry clothes, like a spare pair of gloves, and squeezed out every last ounce of energy left in my body. We were all relieved to have finished, many were in disbelief, yet, the skepticism of concluding the 'targad' soon turned out to be a dreadful reality...

Like I said, mentally this 'targad' was insanely difficult but one thing that always keeps you going is the vision of the end, which was commonly known to be friday lunchtime by the very latest. Yet, in a horrible new development to everyone in 101, including the 'magad' (battalion commander) himself, this promise was soon to be broken via the 'mahat' (brigade commander) and his seemingly undeterred desire to see us suffering in the 'shetach'. Slowly the news was filtered round that we were to be staying in the 'shetach' for shabbat and that the 'targad' was to continue until sunday. The majority of people were already psychologically "broken" as a result of the week's event but the disclosure of the 'targad's extension sent some people over the edge. There was talk of a potential rebellion from one of the platoons, but mainly people were in utter disbelief of the situation and started to contemplate how on earth they would continue for another two days. Shabbat in the 'shetach' turned out to be one of the more pleasant moments of the week and as we kept warm by sleeping in abandoned buildings and tried to keep the morale up by re-living funny moments from the week (which mainly consisted of my platoon's light-machine gunner constantly falling in puddles!), I couldn't help thinking that it was a fitting final shabbat for me in the army.

The 'targad' did end on the sunday and in the closing ceremony the 'mahat' said that those who finished (only 7 from my platoon's 11 have that honour) can be considered "outstanding and beyond regular soldiers". He also noted how it was the hardest battalion war week in the history of the IDF, due to its length, conditions and the unexpected extra two days. Today it feels good to be a part of that but I am not sure if the week of pure suffering was worth it because that is exactly what it was, seven days of pure suffering. I can say this though, if I can go through something like that then I can do almost anything and by succesfully finishing it, 101 has definitely shown itself to be an extremely strong battalion. Above all though, the 'targad' once again showed to me how ready our army is, if there ever is to be a war, and this is down to the weeks like the one we just faced, where soldiers overcame all types of physical and mental obstacles and still came out standing strong on the other side. As the 'Hatikva' played at the closing ceremony, I found myself once again with tears in my eyes but this time for totally different reasons. Fittingly, the 'targad' was pretty much my last full week as a solider and as I stood at the closing ceremony in the pouring rain, wearing my still muddy uniform, heavy vest and now drenched beret, I felt a wave of zionism come over me. I thought of everything I had been through in my 'aliyah' journey; from standing with an Israeli flag around my neck at Auschwitz to signing the combat release forms for an only child with my parents at the Israeli embassy in London and from swearing in to the army at the Kotel to addressing my soldiers in my heavy accented Hebrew for the first time. All those times had led me to that moment at the end of the 'targad', where I truly felt that I'd reached the end to my army service, not in terms of time elapsed, but in achievement and accomplishment.

It was an unforgettable week and appropriately my last one in the army. I have tried to put it across as well as I tried to in my mind and, even though only those in 101 who were there will truly know what it was like, hopefully this blog has captured even a tiny bit of it. I still shudder when thinking of those long nights during the 'targad', but now I am back to my 'chafshash' holiday and will write those few, final blogs as the release date gets closer.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

"Ad Matay?"

Another three weeks of 'imun' (training) have passed since the last blog and some very significant events have come about within that period. Firstly, the dreaded 'targad' is now just a memory, albeit a terrifyingly vivid one and due to the fact that I'm sitting here writing the blog, I somehow survived it. Yet, I will go into the details of the 'targad' in the next blog, as its ferocity deserves a post in itself.

The past month and a half in the army has very much been a transitional month, as Marchs, Augusts and Novembers usually are within the combat world of the army. Primarily, a new 'mahzor' (draft), Match '12, enlisted, of which I have nothing to do with, apart from the fact that every new 'mahzor' pushes my one, Nov '09, closer to the finish line. Maybe if I still had more time left in the army then I could have been a 'mefaked' during the 'trom tironut' period for the March '12 draft, just as I have been for the previous two drafts! This month of transition also means a lot of people are released from the army, like the March '09 'mahzor', as well as soldiers moving around, getting new jobs or just leaving the army in general. One of these to be released from the army was my 'mem mem' (platoon commander), Asaf, who was my officer over the last six months. Asaf was the first 'mem mem' who has felt like a friend more than a commander to me and over the past six months I got on really well with him, partly due to our similar interests and sense of humour. We had a good relationship and it showed through the fact he appointed me his 'rats' (runner); meaning I was always close to him in the 'shetach'. His departure meant a new 'mem mem' came in and although I was with him only for a couple of weeks, he also had me as his 'rats' in the short time that I had left in the army. The new 'mem mem' is also a great guy and I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to have him for a longer period of time.

While the youngsters are manually grounding the coffee for us, the veterans, I am on my knees shouting "ad matay?" (until when?), a phrase only those at the end of their service are allowed to say. Combat army culture at its best!

One of the acts of 'shetach' from the past month was the 'bohen pluga' (company examination), which only lasted one night but was memorable for being the coldest night I've ever experienced. The actualy examination was just something that the commanders of the paratroopers do for each company within the brigade and it's simply a test of the company's capability in the 'shetach'. So, expecting a not too strenuous night of some walking, a combat exercise and some target shooting, we left for the 'shetach' in relatively good moods. This quickly changed once we arrived at our destination in the northern part of the Golan, where high altitude and powerful winds plummeted the temperature. Normally when walking with full combat gear on, it's strongly advised not to wear anything apart from your uniform; in fear of getting heatstroke due to the sweat caused by the physical workout. During the 'imun horef', most, including myself, have been wearing a breathable shirt or even a thermal below the uniform simply because of the weather and that had been a good balance. However, the night of the 'bohen pluga' every single soldier was wearing at least one thermal below the unifrom and a fleece (!) on top, which is an almighty thick piece of clothing that one wears during guard duty, when on base or any other static state. Doing exercise i.e. walking around in full combat attire, with a fleece on is almost tempting death but during the 'bohen pluga' it was a neccesity and with eveything I had on I was still completely freezing throughout the whole night. It was said that tempereatures reached -3 degrees and it really should have been stopped but somehow we survived until the morning!!!

The morning of the 'bohen pluga' when it was slightly warmer. Yes, I look very warm indeed.

Following the 'targad', we pretty much recovered for a week and celebrated the 'hag pluga' (company festival), which is basically a day off from the regular routine of the army. For this year's 'hag pluga', we went to a country club in the Golan, where we relaxed in saunas and jacuzzis all day! In the evening we had a big meal and received a t-shirt (my collection of t shirts from the army has become ridiculous now) as a present from the company. Seeing as it was my last week in the army, it was a nice way to part with everyone from my company of which I have been a part of on-off for the last year and a half. When my 'mahzor' finished its first year in the army way back in September 2010, we joined the veteran companies within the battalion and I was assigned to the 'mivtsayit' (operational) company. I have been with the 'mivtsayit' since then; going through the 'kav's in Gaza, Lebanon and in the West Bank, as well as this recent 'imun'. Of course, I have come and gone quite a few times in that period, what with commanders' course, the three roles as a 'meaked' and let's not forget all the family holidays too! However, I still feel very attached to the company and there's always this feeling of loyalty to the 'mivtsayit' when coming up against the other two veteran companies in the battalion or in commanders' course where I would still use the 'mivtsayit' gun strap and dogtag cover. It has been a good home for me and is the best company within 101 and the 'hag pluga' was a pleasant way for me to say goodbye to everyone involved.

The glass plaque I was presented with at the 'hag pluga' for my service to the 'mivtsayit' company.

I write this blog to you from my home in Tel Aviv as always, yet the difference now is that I don't need to go back to the army as I am currently on my 'chafshash' (release holiday). I am still officially a soldier in every sense i.e. have all soldier rights and could be called back in an emergency, yet I have had my last day on base and in uniform. I am not going to delve into my thoughts just yet, I still feel I have a couple more blogs left in me to express the whole "being released" feeling, however, as of yesterday, I am on a three week holiday before I am officially released on the 2nd of April. Only combat soldiers are entitled to 'chafshash' and before leaving yesterday, I had to give back all the equipment that I am signed on to within the army. That meant giving back my gun, all my combat gear (vest, helmet, water canteens, waterproof clothing etc) and all my work uniforms. Any spares I had I gave away, to lone soldiers mainly (!) but now I am left with just my 'aleph' (dress) uniform, which I will return on my release date. It's very strange to give back all the stuff, I felt both a relief and a sense of sadness during the whole process. Mainly though, leaving for 'chafshash' meant saying goodbye to all my good friends in the army and it was extremely difficult to part ways with guys in my 'mahlaka' (platoon) who I have been with since day one of basic training.

So my last day in the army has more or less passed and I'm now on holiday not knowing what to do with myself. I am planning to write a blog in the next few days describing the 'targad' and then after that, I will write a couple more regarding my release from the army, which will effectively be my last blogs...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The night that didn't end

It seems that as my release from the army becomes closer and closer, my time in the army is only becoming harder each week. After a very enjoyable two week break from the 'imun' (training), I'm back to being in the 'shetach' every week and back to the harsh winter of the Golan.

My two week break from the 'imun' was made up of a workshop for soon-to-be released soldiers and then a week's holiday, 'regila' that everyone in the battalion received. The workshop was quite interesting and has given me some useful information for post-army life, but mainly it was fun experiencing army like a 'jobnik' as I finished each day around 3 in the afternoon and went home each night! That week led straight into our 'regila', which I decided to spend, without anyone knowing, in London. Partly as revenge for their surprise at my 'tekes kumta' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7lyMNGcUhg), this time I surprised my parents by showing up at my house completely unexpected!!! I had managed to keep my week's visit back home a secret from the majority of my family and friends and was lovely to see everyone again and engross myself in the luxuries of being in London. As you can imagine, turning up out of the blue at my parents' home one evening caused a surprised and shocked reaction to say the least and for at least five minutes they both couldn't physically function! Even though I see them a lot and in fact, only a few weeks before this last visit, each moment kept apart is difficult and going back home was as much for them and my grandparents as it was for me. Since I didn't take off any time from the army and simply spent my 'regila' in England rathern than in Israel, I was therefore only home for a week. This was kind of strange for me as the previous two times that I've been home since making 'aliyah' have been full month visits, as part of special holidays reserved for lone soldiers. In this visit I didn't have a long list of things-to-do as I previously had, instead I saw my close family and friends, went to my favorite restaurants and drove around in my mum's car. Sometimes a short visit, which was a complete bonus, can be more satisfactory than the month I normally had spent back home. I had a wonderful, albeit it a freezing, week back in London.

On a night out with my friends back home at their university.

Stepping onto a plane a mere ten days after the 'tarhat' did give me the crazy thought that "the last time I flew in an aeroplane, I jumped out of it"! When the flight attendants then started to give the safety procedures, I did feel somewhat more equipped and experienced than them at exiting a plane. Fortunately, this time I chose to stay in my seat for the duration of the whole flight! Every time I go back to London, I always seem to get a massive rush of Zionism and become so much more passionate about Israel that what I'm like here on a day-to-day basis. This is most likely due to the fact that it's hard to keep up the focus and ideology all the time, especially when times can be rough but generally when one needs to just get on with his life. Also, in London I am reminded, not only why I moved to Israel but also why I left England; gazing at the nature of the demographics upon my arrival at the airport always has this effect on me. Mainly, however, I think it is because when in London, I start to miss Israel and being part of the Zionist dream. I, thus, found myself expressively exhorting my beliefs when talking to family and friends of my latest adventures or of my experience in general. In fact, even in the short amount of time that I was back home, on several occasions, I almost resembled a preacher when talking about Israel and the army. It's not that I feel the need to convince myself or others of my decision to move to Israel. Rather, when back home, I appear to have this drive and passion when talking of things back at my real home, Israel. Apart from visiting loved ones, taking a trip back to London also seems to give me reassurance every time of why I'm here and what I'm doing. More importantly however, when I'm in England, Tottenham never seem to lose and this is perpetually one of the more scarier reasons to return to Israel!!!

Standing behind my 'mem mem' in last month's 'tarhat'.

With my service coming to an end and my happy life in Tel Aviv a fixed formality now, I'll never feel depressed about coming back like I did after that first summer. Yet, I still felt the sadness of separating from my parents and the "can't be bothered" attitude of returning to independent life, after being pampered and cared for by my mummy for a week. All in all though, I felt fine leaving London and coming back here. Nevertheless, going back to the army after a weekend, let alone a 'regila', is always a struggle and the thought of 'imun horef' (winter training) is hardly enticing and it doesn't matter whether you've got two months or two years left of the army. I don't think I can express enough how dire this last period of my service is and will continue to be until I am released. The deadly combination of what we're doing and where we are means every single soldier is more or less miserable on a daily basis. I don't think there are many things possible within the spectrum of the army that are harder than doing winter training of tzanchanim in the godforsaken base that we are on during the winter in the Golan. Even when we are not in the 'shetach' we are given no recreation; what with the torrential wind and rain attacking our flimsy tents. More than the general conditions and physical hardships of the training (which I am able to deal with for a little bit longer), it's the fact that I am somewhat bored of the army that makes me more than ready for my release. There were times where I have been excited to be on base and intrigued to learn new skills; whether that be during basic training, commanders' course or as my time as a 'mefaked'. But now, I feel that I have already completed time and time again what we're doing and the thought of doing another 'kav' or another 'imun' is very unappealing. So it probably works out well then, that these couple of months are, in fact, my last stretch of the army and, with this in my mind, I am still trying to enjoy and relish in my last few weeks as a soldier.

Before last week's worth of 'shetach', notice the sunshine...

The week just past consisted of company-wide exercises in the 'shetach', which is commonly known as 'shavua milhama' (war week). By finishing 'shavua milhama', I've now completed two thirds of the really tough weeks within the training period; having done the 'tarhat', in addition to this week with only the 'targad' to go, which is going to be the hardest of them all!!! This week was no picnic to say the least and my, now permanent, role as 'rats mem mem' (platoon commanders' runner) always gives an added slice of work load to the already hard enough week that it was. It's hard to keep saying in the blog that it was a really hard week because most weeks in the 'shetach' are indeed difficult due to a combination of all the physical aspects, like walking long distances and carrying heavy weights, in addition to the lack of sleep and food. However, as I've said on a few occasions now, the introduction of the weather as a component increases the harship of a week in the 'shetach' twofold. For 'shavua milhama', we were greeted with dangerously low temperatures, gale force winds and some torrential rain (of which I will delve into later on). This past week will have to go down as one of the hardest weeks I've ever faced. Lasting for four days and for over 60km, we were taken to our limits as our company "toured" the Golan Heights in the freezing cold, performing a range of combat exercises. The terrain was unplesant, for long periods of time we walked through swamps and any wrong step could be a potential disaster. Several moments stand out in particular from this week and one of them has to be the evacuation exercise of wounded soldiers using helicopters. Following a regular company combat attack, a few soldiers were "wounded" and, thus, the medics within the company treated them, which is a regular drill in the army. I was declared "wounded", had my vein opened up and a drip attached (for real!!!) and was then taken to the landing strip where helicopters were to pick us up. After a quick five minute flight, the helicopter dropped us down and I took out the drip in preparation for the return flight. However, two helicopters arrived to take us back and I found myself with four other regular soldiers as we entered the helicopter. Since I ran in first, the pilot assumed I was in command of the soldiers and, thus, placed in me in a seat adjacent to his (as opposed to sitting on the floor) and handed me a headset. Suddenly, I had a role within the helicopter and was being told what to do by the two pilots!!! Definitely an experience to remember, but was only one of the few more positive highlights, which, overall was a miserable and extremely challenging week. It was a tough week but mainly due to the weather; the combat exercises, weight of my bag and lengths of the walks were nothing too extraordinary, until it came to the final night of the week, this Wednesday night just past, a night that no one in my companay will ever forget.

The "wounded" entering a helicopter during the 'tarhat'.

When going through some of these experiences in the army, I sometimes think to myself "how can now explain and properly describe this in the blog?" as I aim to show you, as best as I can, what goes on every week. Last Wednesday night was one of those times, it simply was one of the hardest, if not, the hardest night psychologically that I've ever faced in the army. As we prepared for our 16km 'nsiga' (retreat) back to our base from the hills of the Golan Heights, we were fairly happy to get it over with already and finish the hard week of 'shetach' and we started to take off fleeces and warm clothes, in preparation for exerting walk that was to come. No longer than three minutes after we started walking, BOOM, torrential rain and howling winds (and I think I even felt some hail!) seemed to attack us and within a quarter of an hour, every single person was soaked to the skin. Soon, heavy fog began to fall upon area and we simply stood around for a while shivering, as the commanders tried to navigate where we were. At first, we all laughed as it simply couldn't get worse than it was, it was literally like a scene from a movie (the best I can think of is Forrest Gump) where, comically, as soon as we had started to walk, it started to pour with rain. With the the danger of someone getting hypothermia or, due to the fog, someone injuring themselves, we were all fairly sure that the 'nsiga' would be cancelled and we would have a coach waiting for us when made our way to the side of a road. After an hour of walking, we slowly began to realise the horrible truth; nothing was being cancelled, we were going to have to finish the 'nsiga'. Psychologically, that was extremely difficult to take, to know that you've got 16km of unbearable trudging through mountains of mud, while you're completely soaked to the skin. That night just didn't seem to end and I am failing to truly give you the essence of how hard it was. Seven hours through the night, imagine suffering constantly for seven hours. Each 10m was like a personal battle to try and finish, yet why was it so unbelievably hard. Firstly, one needs to remember that we were on the back of three ruthless days in the 'shetach' and now we had this almighty finale that we were convinced wasn't going to happen. The paths we walked on were tank trails and full of mud, so on each step my weary boots collected mud, making the simple action of putting one foot in front of the other a labouring stretch. My bag was now twice as heavy because of the rain and, in general, every person felt terrible as we were completely drenched, trust me, there is nothing fun in walking for seven hours when not one part of your entire body is dry. That's the best I can do in terms of a harrowing description, but the reality was a whole lot worse. It simply did not end and I am still in disbelief that we made it back to base with everyone in one piece. To end this little story I am handing over to my 'mem pey' (company commnader), who gave a post-week speech as we entered the base in the early hours of Thursday morning... "I am ten years in the army, I've done a lot of 'shetach' and a lot of walking. I've been through the Second Lebanon war and Cast Lead, but that was probably the hardest night of my service". I kid you not, he said that. What an unforgettable night, yet it's just one more of these crazy experiences that I can say to have finished.

A company combat exercise during the 'tarhat'.

As a reward for the week, we got out 'hamshoosh' (Thursday weekend, if anyone has forgotten!), so it's been a relaxing three day recovery. The 'imun' continues next week, but it's the 'targad' in two weeks that everyone is dreading. On paper, it's supposed to be the hardest of them all and after what we've been through so far, one can understand our anxiety over the 'targad' and I hope to aptly recount whatever happens in the next blog. I've barely mentioned it in this blog, but the end is almost in touching distance now and the countdown has begun, as of today 32 days to go. Scary...

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Waiting for the light to go green...

Sometimes the army can throw at you two of the most contrasting weeks ever, which is what I'm experiencing right now. A mere week ago, I was braving the 'shetach' as part of the tzanchanim brigade-level exercise and partook in a rather exhilirating event, more of which to come later. While this week I am on a course in Tel Aviv learning about the transition from army to civilian life. I warn in advance of the length of this blog...

Like I said in the previous blog, my battalion is now stationed in a base in the Golan Heights, as part of the winter training that the whole brigade is undertaking in over the next two months. Initially, I was happy to be finishing my service during winter training, since it makes me feel like a combat soldier right up to the end of my service due to the extensive and challenging weeks of 'shetach' (field work). However, after experiencing two weeks of it, I am already starting to change my mind! The base is horrible, the difficulty of the 'shetach' looks set to be unlike anything we've done before and, above all and probably most significantly, the weather is dire. Like every factor that affects one's service, the weather being terrible simply has a ten times worse of an effect on things because you're in the army. Feeling hungry or tired is a lot worse in the army than when one is at home and the same is said about both extremes of the weather. Currently in the Golan Heights, it is cold, rainy and windy, and every time I enter the freezing, wet and muddy tent it's hard to stay positive. The weather plays such a crucial part in the 'shetach' as you can imagine; walking with a heavy weight on one's back is a lot less fun when it's pouring with rain and sitting down on your five minute break to drink water suddenly becomes harder than the work itself when the temperature drops to lowly figures. As much as I wanted to enjoy these last couple of months of my service, once we started the 'imun' (training), I realized that I will end up trying to survive this period than revelling in it! As always though, I try to remain upbeat and see this as a challenge and part of the overall experience.

Standing with my 'tik low' before a week of 'shetach'.

The 'tarhat' (brigade exercise) had been on everyone's minds for many months, mainly because of the well known fact that it was to begin with a bridage-wide 'tsnicha' (paratroopers' jump). One would think that anyone in 'tzanchanim' must love jumping since it's part of our brigade's tradition and that we openly volunteered to draft to 'tzanchanim' and even passed a 'gibush' in order to be accepted. Truth be told, most paratroopers hate the jumps and consider the two week jump course (that we do way back in advanced training), as one of the scariest and most unenjoyable parts of their service. Not that I'm trying to sound all macho here, but I honestly loved the jumping and saw it as an incredibly unique skill to learn, in addition to the pure thrill of the activity itself. So while everyone had been quietly hoping for the jump to be cancelled, I had been looking forward to it from the moment I found out it was happening. The reason why this particular 'tsnicha' was such a big deal is because it is the first time in 13 years that the whole brigade has jumped together in one exercise. The new commander of tzanchanim insisted that this huge operation would happen as a way of showing and reminding everyone of the paratrooper brigade's ability to enter behind enemy lines by jumping at night and with all our combat equipment. Only until the day itself and even more when looking back on it and seeing all the media reaction, did I realize the magnitude of the event that took place. Over 1000 soldiers, an entire brigade, parachuted from the air and then re-grouped on the ground to continue the 'tarhat', all this on the darkest night of the year. It's something historic to say the least and I feel lucky to be a part of it and part of this uniuqe section of the army. More than that though, I feel priveleged to be a 'tzanchan' and know that I was one of those who jumped and will jump again if needed, whether that be in training or for real.

Practising how to gear up during the day of jump training.

Now to the jump itself. A few days before the 'tarhat', we were sent to the jump school base, in order to complete a day of training and general refreshing of the whole process. Although I was extremely eager for the jump, as I arrived to the jump school base, I became aware of the fact I had forgotten a lot of things that were taught during the course, which is understandable considering my previous jumps were more than a year and a half ago. After the day's training however, it all came flooding back and I was ready for the 'tsnicha'. What made this jump different from any other jump I've done before was not the fact that it was in the night, it wasn't the fact the whole plane jumps out in one go as opposed to in groups of eight and it wasn't the fact that we jumped with our vests on under the parachute. The only factor from last week's jump that was at all new and that we did for the first time was how we jumped with all our combat equipment and when I say all, I mean everything! I don't think I have ever described this properly in a blog before, but when one does a week in the 'shetach', apart from the vest, gun and helmet, you also take a lot of other equipment; water, warm clothes, waterproofs, torch, food, extra ammunition, too name, but literally, just a few. All this stuff you carry around in a 'tik low' (combat bag is the best I can do to translate even though that's not right) but it is basically like a big rucksack that you haul around all week. For the first time ever, we jumped with the 'tik low' also squashed into the special bag that is strapped to your leg when jumping and this is what made the jump so difficult. My bag was at an average weight until my 'mem mem' (platoon commander) told me that I was his helper for the week (more on which later) and he started to give me extra, excuse my language, crap to put in my bag! From flags and batteries to big torches and smoke genades, it all just added to the weight and when I was finally done I could barely lift the thing...

I assure you, no photoshop effects have been used to increase its size!!!

The day of the 'tsnicha' arrived and my excitement had turned to nervousness; not because of the thought of jumping out the plane but the thought of lifting the anchor that was going to be strapped to my leg! The whole of last Tuesday we sat at this air force base in the south and just waited for the evening to arrive. The 'mahat' (brigade commander) spoke of our readiness for war and of the uniqueness of this brigade-wide jump, but most weren't listening and, instead, were biting their nails in anticipation of what was to come. As the sun began to set, we made our way next to the tarmac and went through the extensive saftey drills and procedures and then, geared up; vest, parachute, reserve parachute and the bag with all our equipment. After more saftey checks, we sat down and waited, in customary fashion, for a our plane to pick us up. My company was the 6th plane of the 20 used for the whole brigade and I was eighth in line of the left door from my plane. The short walk from where we were sitting down to the tarmac and then up into the plane became an almighty effort for those, including myself, who could barely lift their equipment bag. As we took off, I was more distracted by the weight of the bag and the excruciating back pains I was subjected to, than the whole experience and looking back on it now, I am annoyed that I was unable to enjoy and take it in more. The instruction to stand up and be prepared was given, but I struggled to stand straight because of the pressure the equipment bag was putting on my back and although I've been very lucky not to have had back problems so far, I really was suffering on the plane and felt like my back was going to explode. In the end, I was just desparate for my turn to come so I could just jump and not worry about the weight of the bag! Finally, the light did turn green and, as they say the rest is history. What they fail to say though is how I landed straight on my back and right into the middle of a thorn bush!!! The jump was amazing though, just how I had remembered it (http://samsank.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-out-of-plane.html) and was, by far, the best bit of the whole week.

Here is a news video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=johchNldcT4&sns=fb and an article - http://www.jpost.com/Defense/Article.aspx?id=254181 about last Tuesday's jump.

As much as the 'tsnicha' was a massive deal, it was only the start of what turned out to be a two day week of 'shetach' involving the whole brigade. It was by far the biggest army operation I have ever witnessed, the amount of soldiers and behind-the-scenes people involved was phenomenal and it is rumoured to have cost over seven million shekels. With all the manpower and equipment involved, it really felt like we were going to war, which is pretty much what the exercise is aimed at recreating. Following the jump (41 out of 1000 were injured from the jump, a relatively low figure), each person had to unpack all his gear, carry it on his back and start to navigate from wherever he landed to each company's specific meeting point. Once everyone had arrived, we then started the 'tarhat' and the initial walk, which turned out to be a 17km-sand-dune-torture that lasted all night. That first 24 hours of the 'tarhat' was one of the toughest days I've been through in the 'shetach'; the combination of the ugly landing, weighty load on my already painful back and harsh terrain all assisted in pushing me to me mental and physical limits that night. I remember thinking at the time how I once received a critical comment here on the blog for my belligerance of 'jobnikim' (non-combat soldiers), yet what I was going through that night only reitterates the verifiable truth that no one can comprehend the kind of stuff us combat soldiers go through. There was really a point that night where I had lost all sort of mental strength and was honestly ready to quit, but, like always, you continue and struggle and fight your way until the next water break or next day or next year. That is purely the way of the 'lohem' (fighter) in the IDF and shows why we are so strong together. The second half of the 'tarhat' was a lot better for me and undertaking the exercises as the 'mem mem's helper helped to make it an interesting week in the 'shetach' all in all.

The 'mahat' (far left) walking onto the plane before his jump, funny how he doesn't have an equipment bag...

I know I am going on a bit now but bare with me. Going through a week in the 'shetach' as a soldier in the IDF is only something that one who has been through himself can truly understand. There are both thought processes and actions that seem to become normal in the 'shetach' that in public life would be considered totally irregular. For example during the 'tarhat', since I was the 'mem mem's right hand man, I was close by to him throughout the whole two days and in the breaks from walking we would end up spooning together on the ground as a way of keeping warm!!! Of course, it wasn't just us, everyone was snuggling up to the guy next to him and in the harsh reality of the 'shetach' it was totally normal to hear one guy, a giant machine-gunner, saying to his 'shetach' partner "why aren't you cuddling me already?"!!! Going through these almost inhumane circumstances together is what builds the friendships between soldiers and its only with these Israeli guys from my platoon that I share these insane experiences.

Yet, after all that misery and pain, this week I am on a workshop for lone soldiers, where we learn about what we face once we are released from the army. Apart from beng very helpful, it happens to be in Ramat Gan (a fifteen minute bus ride from my house) and is 'yomiyot', meaning I am sleeping at home every night this week! So while last week I jumped out of an aeroplane and did 'tarhat', this week I am living in luxury and feel like a real 'jobnik' by doing 'yomiyot' close to my house; maybe it is better to be a 'jobnik' after all...

Some pictures from the 'tarhat'...