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.


  1. Sam I have such tremendous admiration for you and am very vry proud - your b logs always make me cry - have just picked up the latest one. Kol Hakavod to yu. Stay safe and love you lots Granma xxx

  2. Hey Sam, my name is Evan Lalo, I'm 16 and from the US and soon my family is making aliya. I've got to say the millitary is something I am looking forward to very much, and for a long time I was considering the paratroopers. But then I started doing some reading on some of the sayeret units. You have any ideas on how I should choose? Any advice would be much appreciated, thanks and stay strong.

    Evan Lalo

  3. What a powerful experience. I am so impressed by your devotion to people and land of Israel. I wish you success in all you do. My name is Nehama and my husband ( + 3kids) intend to make aliyah next summer with my parents. I have dreamed of this since age 9. Kol Hakavod. Stay safe and thank you for your service. I admire you.