Saturday, 30 January 2010

The joys of being a lone soldier

This week really highlighted for me how I have been rather lucky since being in the army, mainly due to the benefits of being a lone soldier. Now of course being a lone soldier in the IDF means not having parents nearby to support this massive challenge that is the army. It also means travelling long distances every week to get back to the kibbutz where you live, in addition to the constant stress of coping with the language and generally being a soldier. However, despite all this, without forgetting those hardships, I am also able to see that I get treated in a unique way and I personally feel that my army service has been made as comfortable as it can be. For instance, I have been in the army for two months now and I have still only spent one Shabbat on base (compared to some other people on my garin who have closed up to four times!).

This past week started on Sunday with a trip to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, which was the site of a famous battle for Paratroopers in the Six Day War. I do feel very honoured to be part of the same brigade that has such a colourful history of successfully defending the country that I love. Anyway, we got back to base in the evening and were subjected to a really hard 4km 'madas' (P.E.), it was hard due to that fact it was taken by our commanding officer, who runs at the speed of light. I have to say at this point that I have really noticed a step up in the difficulty of the army recently, in terms of the physical challenges. Each day is a gruelling challenge with running, carrying and punishments, and by the time the weekend comes your body is drained from the past week. Right now, my back and shoulders hurt, my heels are sore since the skin has come away and my right calf is quite tight, (however, this is simply standard soldier injuries and is just intensified by my moaning).

The majority of this week, like last week, was spent in the 'shetach' (in the open), meaning combat rations for all meals, sleeping in the cold and rain and doing lots of physical activities. We were in the shetach from early Monday morning until Wednesday evening, during which time the temperatures at night in the Judean desert plummeted to 0 degrees. Luckily for me though, I was back on base after lunch on Monday for a talk with all the lone soldiers. I took full advantage of the time I was away from the 'shetach'; eating snacks, going to the toilet in comfort and using my phone. So while the rest of my battalion were suffering in the cold I was in the heated auditorium eating pizza with the rest of the lone soldiers in Tzanchanim! I assumed that I would be going back to the shetach after the talk, but for some reason there was no space for me to go back, meaning I spent the night and following morning still on the base. I ended up sleeping for 11 hours and ate breakfast in the dining room. The time that I did spend in the shetach this week was filled with doing this 'targil' (exercise), whereby two soldiers run up a hill together in order to take down an enemy. We practised it over and over again, and it soon become quite tiring, due to the continous crawling and diving up this steep hill.

The week in the shetach was finished by a masa, but not just any masa, the dreaded 'masa samal'. This particular masa is led by the 'mefaked samal' (commanding officer) and is considered the hardest masa of basic training, the first four months. Our commanding officer, as I've mentioned before, is crazy fit and in any sort of activity that he takes with the platoon, always pushes us to the limit. So we knew that it was going to be hell and I can safely say it was by far the most difficult couple of hours of the army so far. The masa was 14km + 2 (16km in all but the last two being done with open strecthers) and it lasted around 3 hours. The reason why this particular masa is so infamous is because the 'samal' leads it at such a fast pace, in fact, practically the whole three hours were running! I'll never forget how the masa started; the samal stood in front of us, said a couple of words and then sprinted off into the distance. I took a deep breath, shifted the closed stretcher (which I voluntarily carried for the first hour) and attempted to catch up with him with everyone else. Despite this being the hardest masa so far, I actually found that I finished it better than any of the previous masaot. For the first time, I felt that I started to help my friends, whether that would be by carrying the stretcher for as long as possible or pushing people from behind, in order to help them. I have started to understand the popular army phrase "it's all in the head", as halfway through the masa even though my muscles were burning, I carried on going because I knew I had to and because I looked around and saw everyone else was killing themselves to finish this thing. The reward for finishing the masa is the beret pin that says I am an infantry soldier, which I will get when I go back to the army tomorrow and will permanently put on my beret as part of my uniform.

Each combat soldier has a special role within his class and within the battalion as a whole. This role can be something to do with a specific weapon or resposibility. For example, within each class, there is one soldier who has a grenade launcher attached to his gun, one who carries the radio and one who is the commander's right hand man. Last week, we were told our roles and, to my disbelief, I am a 'kala' (sharpshooter). I was in shock because, firstly, my shooting is pretty average and also because being a 'kala' means having a lot of responsibility and I don't see myself as one of the best or hard-working soldiers within my class. It's a massive honour to be a 'kala' as it is probably the most important role within the class, so I am really going to try and live up to the reputation by working hard. I think that they chose me to be a 'kala' (one of two within my class) because my commander really likes me and maybe due to the lone soldier status. Anyway, the coolest part of being a 'kala' is that I get to give back my current gun, a rubbish M16, and instead will receive a awesome M4. The M4 is supposedly much better than the M16 and even rivals the Tavor (the new Israeli gun). I also get a Trijicon scope and a 'Lior' night vision scope, rumoured to be worth 500,000 shekels!!! This new gun will be mine permanently from tomorrow and I will come home with it next week and will be definitely be taking lots of pictures!

Another week in the army looms, the coming five days are going to be spent in the shooting range from dusk till midnight, as I learn how to shoot with my new gun. Since I am a sharpshooter (sort of a half-sniper), I will be doing massive amounts of shooting as part of my training for my specific role. Next weekend is my garin's reunion, meaning that everyone will be coming back from the army and spending Shabbat together here at the kibbutz, which I am really excited for. It also means that we should be getting another 'hamshoosh' (leaving for the weekend on a Thursday and not Friday), ahhhh, the joys of being a lone soldier...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The week of hell

Phew! I am pleased that is over. 'Sada'oot'/'Shavua shetach' (week outside) is considered the hardest week of basic training and I can painfully confirm that to be true; both mentally and physically. Have returned to the beautiful Golan for the weekend after being in the army for a solid 10 days, having been on special holiday with my parents. I went back to the army last Wednesday and was really pleased to see that all my classmates had really missed me and were interested to hear about my time off. Within around 15 minutes of coming back, I was already in full gear and had headed off to the shooting ranges, for a full day's work of 'yiria' (shooting). In order to catch up what I missed I went through two days of intense shooting, all kinds of different positions from 25, 50 and 100m ranges; lying down, standing up, kneeling and also the dreaded running, crawling and then shooting. You can't believe how many bullets I have shot, but I guess it's part of the rigorous training that they put us through in order for it to become a second nature to us.

So then came my first ever closed weekend on base. Since the following week was 'Sada'oot', it is customary to have a 'lila lavan' (white night - no sleep) beforehand, so on Thursday my battalion was up all night preparing our gear for the next week out in the open. Eventually the weekend came, a couple of hours before Shabbat came in, and I was intrigued to see what the atmosphere is like on base on Shabbat. There is no uniform, no times, no activities and only very few rules, such as, going to Friday night dinner in the nice uniform and doing some guard duty. All in all, it was actually rather boring, we mostly caught up on the sleep from the 'lila lavan' and spoke with friends and family on the phone. Friday night dinner, however, was something very memorable indeed though. We all lined up outside the lunch hall in our nice uniform and sung 'lecha dodi' together and other Shabbat songs. My battalion commander made kiddush for everyone and we got stuck in to the tasty meal, which was served on the table, rather than the regular buffet-style meals. It's not like coming home for the weekend, but Shabbat on base was very relaxing and had a completely different atmosphere form the rest of the week. Another thing, I am now quite famous within my batallion. Since the batallion secretary put the Jerusalem Post article about me on the notice board, random soldiers (and commanders) come up to me and say "are you the famous Sam?", to which I gleefully reply "yes". Anyone who knows me will know that I love a bit of attention and this new found celebrity status is highly enjoyable!

Follwong the 'lila lavan' (night with no sleep)!

As soon as it came, however, the weekend also went and at around 6pm on Saturday, everyone was back in uniform and back on scheduled times. As I said, last week was 'shavua shetach', which started late Saturday evening, when we trecked out from base (out the back gate) and into the Judean desert, only about 5km away from base. We dressed in a different uniform (US army camoflauge!) and carried these gigantic bags (at least 25+kg), along with our usual full gear. The bags contained all the equipment that we would need for the week: matress, blanket, gas mask, spare uniform, warm clothes, waterproof gear, more camoflauge, shovel, coat and more. The first night we slept in the holes we dugged and snuggled up to each other as we braced the severe cold. We had to sleep in full uniform throughout the whole shetach (including vest, gun and helmet), despite the uncomfort, it was actually worthwhile as it kept me a little bit warmer. I realised after the first night of shetach that the week was going to be sooooo long and hard. And it was. The week lasted all the way until early Thursday morning and was filled with lots of interesting but also difficult exercises. We did a lot of walking with this massive bag, as well as learning about the conditions of the 'shetach' e.g. finding which way is North and how to move in the dark. However, it was the continous food rations and torrential rain, which really made this week so tough. I am not giving it enough justice through my description, but even from the first day I was dreaming about going back; not back to London, not to my lovely room in Ortal but simply to my wafer-thin matress on base!

My 'kita' (class) ready to leave into the

'Sada'oot' finished in the early hours of Thursday but only once we had done an 11km + 2 'masa' (hike), the extra two kilometres being with an open stretcher. At 1am on Thursday morning we set out. Cold, wet and exhausted but desparate to get this last challenge over and done with. The 'masa' was, as expected, very hard but one thing was so psychologically annoying it just makes me laugh now. After walking for around two hours, we started to see the lights of the base and, with our last bit of energy and adrenaline, we all pushed to finish the 'masa' as we arrived at the base. The commander walked us up to our building, told us to say 'goodbye' to our rooms and continued to take us back out the back gate! We couldn't believe it, we all thought we had finished the masa, but instead they had played with us and made us walk in and out again. So cruel. We carried on walking back into the shetach for a couple of kilometres, where we stopped, opened the strechers and proceeded to get back to base for real. I, personally, found the 'masa' really hard and on one of the many hills, had to really grind my teeth and keep up with the fast pace. Nevertheless, I finished it, albeit with scarred heels...

Another thing I have noticed about the army recently is the increase of talk about being prepared for war. Not in the sense that war is imminent, rather that the point of basic training and the meaning of being a 'lohem' (fighter) is because we, if called, will have to go and fight and help defend the land against our enemies. They have started to instill into us the idea of being prepared to fight e.g. when we do casualty training (picking up people on our backs who are 'injured'), our commanders are screaming, "he's been shot! carry him up that hill!". One inspirational moment of the week was when my commanding officer randomnly spoke to the platoon about his experiences in the war in Gaza and about the invaluable importance of friendship and brotherhood between soldiers. It put into perspective how pathetic our constant complaining was during the last week, when he was telling us how much he carried on his back and how much he ran during the Cast Lead operation. By the way, this guy, a machine and a war-worn soldier, is now doing my washing every week!!

Tomorrow I go back to the army as per usual, however, instead of going to base I will be travelling to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem for a trip with the platoon. This week, I am back in the shetach (!), learning how to conquer areas as a pair of soldiers and how to move around in the shetach as a group. On Thursday, all the lone soldiers have a fun day, since it is Parent's Day on base, so our social workers will take us out somewhere, not sure where yet, but I have been told to bring swimming trunks! I want to end this blog by telling you how this weekend was the first time that I was allowed to bring my gun home with me. You'd think it would be weird, but in fact it felt so normal, not only on base does everyone have a gun all the time, but even on the streets and buses of Israel it is so normal to see people holding a gun on their lap. It did however, blow my mind to think that six months ago I was in London doing nothing and now I was sleeping on a bus in Tel Aviv with an M16 round my shoulder. How things change.

Some pictures from Tekes Hashba'ah (swearing-in ceremony) and the weekend that followed...

Me with some friends from the garin, notice the kotel in the back-

My parents could hardly believe that their son was now an IDF soldier.

Getting dressed into uniform for my daddy; the shoulder tag (tzanchanim snake with wings) is what I received just before the ceremony.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

"I swear..."

Wow, what an amazing couple of days I have had. Last Thursday was the swearing-in ceremony for paratroopers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where both my parents and grandparents came all the way from London to attend. Then from Thursday all the way until today, Tuesday, I have been given special holiday as a lone soldier to be with them. So for the last five days I have had quality time with my family in Tel Aviv. At the moment, I am writing this blog to you from Ortal as I get ready to go back to the army tomorrow, in fact I will have to wake up at 3.15am tomorrow, in order to be on time after coming back from holiday. I could've gone to bed a little earlier, but instead I am up at 11.45pm writing this blog, the things I do for my readers!

The 'Tekes Hashba'ah' (swearing-in ceremony) is a big deal for paratroopers. Due to their relationship with the Kotel, every draft of tzanchanim have their 'tekes' there after about a month and a half of being in the army. Since tzanchanim is rather rich, a lot of effort is put into the ceremony, with lights, speakers, flags and all the high-ranked generals there too. We did a lot of practice for it becuase of its formality and reputation, and on the day, everything went swimmingly. On the day, all 600 paratroopers cramped into the Kotel tunnels awaiting the signal to march out onto the plaza. In the unbearable humidity of so many people in such a tight place, each battalion started to sing their own war songs and as it intensified you could not help but join in and sing, jump and curse at the other groups. Even though I only sang/hummed along because I don't really know the words or their meanings (because of the langauge), it was an adrenaline-pumping experience. It really showed the healthy aggressiveness that these young soldiers have but also, more importantly, the brotherhood that we are starting to build. It was really one of those moments, which I won't forget. The ceremony was very meaningful for me; collecting a prayer book from my commanding officer, my gun from my platoon commader and singing the 'hatikva' with my class was all fantastic.

What really made the ceremony memorable was the fact that my parents and grandparents were there to see me (in uniform - for the first time), I can't begin to understand the emotion they felt when seeing me. In fact, the moment in which I sprinted to meet them from one end of the plaza to the other was unbelievably emotional for all of us and we just stood there crying for a couple of minutes. Following the ceremony, we spent a few days in Tel Aviv; relaxing, eating (way too much) and generally just being together. We have all agreed that this week was by far the most special time our family has had together. However, all good things have to come to an end and saying goodbye to them today at the train station was probably my hardest moment since making aliyah. Anyone who knows my family's unique situation will understand why we are so close and to be separated has been extremely difficult. While all my friends are now living away from home (I was always the biggest mummy's boy and baby), I am living in a different country from my parents. Despite making aliyah and doing what I believe in, it does not change the fact that being so far away from home and in the army (the place that makes everything harder and targets your emotional weaknesses) has made me miss my parents (and grandparents) unmeasurable amounts. Just writing about saying goodbye to them gives me a lump in my throat but I think it shows just how much love we have in our family and how each time we see each other is more special than the last.

What else made this week great was my new found celebrity status. The army wanted to give one lone soldiers' story to the media as part of the swearing-in ceremony and because of some aspects of my story (dad being ill, only child and even the blog), they choose me. So after two different phone interviews with journalists, would you believe it, I was in two papers. Firstly, there is a small article on me in the Israeli paper 'Yisrael Hayom',, I am on the 12/13th page. Also, there is a much larger article about me (in english) in the Jerusalem Post, I've heard that my commander has read both and has even stuck them up in our room!!

The day before our 'tekes' we had a masa (hike) for the swearing-in ceremony. Of course it was the hardest and longest (11km) one yet and lasted for a never-ending 2 and a half hours. The whole draft did it together and we finished in a town nearby to the base. The residents of the town all came out to cheers us when we finished, and seeing those little religious boys clapping me in, gave me that zionism drug that I crave. At the ceremony for the masa, we were presented with the next part of our uniform: the shoulder tag, which for tzanchanim is a snake with wings. While everyone received a message on the back from the secretary of the battalion, my commander gave me his own personal one with a private message, which is a big honour in the army. I can now proudly wear it when I travel to and from base.

I go back to the army tomorrow and I feel that after the toughness of saying goodbye to family, I want to try and concentrate on being as best a soldier as I can. I stay on base this weekend, since the week after is 'sada'oot', which is when you sleep all week outside in the desert, eating combat rations and doing physical stuff all day. Supposedly it is the hardest week of basic training and the weekend following it, I will be back here resting and will make sure to write another blog describing it. Really do need to get some sleep (at least 3 hours) before re-uniting with my friends on base. This week was so special with my mummy, daddy, nana and papa, and I will never forget it. Until next week...