Friday, 28 May 2010

Jump School

I am in the middle of a really fantastic weekend here in Ortal, as it is my garin's seminar and all my friends have come back from the army to be together on the kibbutz as a sort of reunion. These are the people I made aliyah with and who I spent my first three months in Israel on the kibbutz with; some of them I haven't seen since the last seminar (due to conflicting army exits) so it has been amazing to catch up with all my friends here and spend some time with them.

I'm also in quite a good mood because I've passed an interesting and fun but also physically hard and disciplined week at jump school; and am now looking towards the upcoming week, a week I've been excited for for a very long time, paratrooping week. Yes that's right, this week I will be jumping out of a Hercules aeroplane at a height of 400m (not that high, approximately one minute in the air before landing) on five separate occassions (one without any gear, and four with full combat equipment i.e. gun and vest) with two of the five jumps being done at night! Jump school this week, like I said, was fairly hard since for eight hours a day we would have to practice jumping and falling on the floor from all types of different apparatus, like this one: Now it may not look hard but I can assure you that I'm still in a bit of pain from all the exercises this week; I have rope burns on my neck, my bum is all bruised and, for boys especially, the jump training can be extremely painful in one particular place! However, the week was a good laugh with all my friends from the army and I feel prepared for Monday when we do the first jump. I am actually not scared at all and the height doesn't bother me, which is surprising since I am quite a chicken in general, instead I am more scared of making a mistake, like not being able to release the 'sak haze' (chest bag, which contains your gun and vest), which would result in a difficult landing.

It is all very exciting and I still can't believe that I'm going to be paratrooping this week as part of my IDF service. Firstly, I remember before I made aliyah thinking how cool this thing is that the Israeli paratroopers do as part of their training. Secondly, after joining tzanchanim and company 101, I remember looking at the schedule and thinking how the paratrooping course is so far advanced into training and now that I am at that stage, I realise how time has simply flown and that I am really at the final stage of my combat training, with only 4 more weeks left on the tzanchanim training base! Finally, paratrooping/parachuting, is something that many people look to do in civilian life and is considered one of the many "things to do in life". I feel privileged to have the opportunity to do this exciting activity in an army atmosphere, with all my new Israeli friends and there is definitely some sprinkle of zionism connected. I am simply so excited for this week and the big reward will be on Friday when we receive our 'wings', a silver pin to put on our uniform.

I also want to explain how doing the paratrooping course is not a regular thing a soldier, or even a combat soldier, in the IDF gets to do. The only people who paratroop in the army is us (the tzanchanim - paratroopers), elite units and anyone who might get to do the course as a reward for being an excellent soldier, like an officer who's been in the army for many years. Out of the people who get to do the paratrooping course, it is only tzanchanim who jump five times (compared to two times for everyone else, including the elite units) and we learn to do it in a 'professional' way i.e. if Israel needed to paratroop soldiers in a war situation then we have been trained to paratroop, land and be ready to fight. Nevertheless, the practicality is that paratrooping is not used anymore in modern warfare and tzanchanim continue to train for it as part of our decorated tradition and history; in the 1956 Sinai campaign, tzanchanim soldiers did actully paratroop into Egypt as part of a mission. So as you can tell, it is clearly a great honour to do this special course and to have those coveted wings on your uniform. It also shows to me why tzanchanim is easily the best combat brigade in the IDF, it's also the only one that has a 'gibush' (screening test) in order to get into it. I'm obviously bias and the friendly rivalry between the five combat brigades in the IDF; Tzanchanim, Golani (our enemy), Nachal, Givati and Kfir, is good fun but there's really no competition!!!

This is exactly what I will be doing on Monday - (just not in Iraq!)

Time to wrap up, I will hopefully be out again next weekend and will definitely have a lot of talk about in the next blog. I normally finish a blog by saying "wish me luck" for something I have the upcoming week, but this week I think it has even more meaning. It really is a big deal and I'm sure if you speak to my mum, she will say how she can't believe how her little baby is going to be jumping out of a plane as part of his military training! Anyway, got to go now, let's just hope I don't forget to open the parachute (!), only joking, it opens up automatically!!!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Starting Jump School

Just a short blog this week as I prepare to start a full week of paratrooping training at the IDF's jump school tomorrow. I am actually pretty mad at the army, as I am only able to have a one day weekend today, since I got back to Ortal late afternoon yesterday and have to leave here today (and sleep at friends in the centre of Israel) in order not to be late on Sunday. Despite explaining my circumstances of being a lone soldier and living so far north, I still have to arrive to the jump school base at 9am on Sunday morning. I'm obviously annoyed because weekends off from the army are a precious but short space of free time and anything that makes it even shorter is simply frustrating. At the moment I just feel that I have left so much back home in order to give all that I can to the army; and this is how they repay me? I do realise that this is what the army is all about (not being home, both England and Ortal, for a long time) but I'm just a bit angry right now, especially since I know that I'll be missing most of my Garin's seminar next weekend for the same reasons. The Garin seminar is when everyone comes back for the weekend from the army and we have a reunion, so to miss parts of that is going to be painful.

With the friend who I stayed at for Shavuot.

The reason for all these late leavings and early arrivals is because I have officially started jump school, where there is a tight schedule and extremely high discipline. I've already done some training and have learnt how to fall, roll and enter the plane! It's so crazy to think that this week I'm learning how to jump and then the week after...I'll be jumping out of a plane five times!!! The course is actually quite hard physically, especially since you are falling on the floor for eight hours straight a day. It's a big deal for us, since we are paratroopers, and at the end of all the 'tsnichot' (paratroops/jumps) we will be given the pin to put on our uniform, which is the famous wings and a parachute. It's all very exciting stuff and I'll be able to talk about it more next weekend after I've finished the week of training. You can see some of the stuff I'll been doing this week...

For Shavuot I stayed at one of my friend's house from the army and we had a really great couple of days. His family made me feel very welcome, I met all his friends and we went out a couple of times. Shavuot showed me that I've definitely made true friends from the army, firstly, the guy whose house I stayed at, I am now really close to, and also, another guy, who volunteered to stay on base for Shavuot instead of me, after my name was pulled out of a hat. It's a long story, but basically my other very good friend insisted on replacing me as one of the soldiers needed to stay on base, in order so I could enjoy the Shavuot at the first friend's house after we had planned it for a long time. Both these guys are strong friends and it's good to know that I've integrated with all these Israeli guys, despite having some initial worries about making friends with Israelis before I joined the army.

With the friend who stayed on base instead of me.

Next week I have a full week's training at the jump school and will hopefully be back for the weekend (at some point), in order to spend time with the people from the garin, some of whom I haven't seen in over three months. Although I started the blog in a pessimistic tone, I'm not depressed at all, it's just a temporary annoyance of not having enough free time on the weekends and I know that it is only because of the paratrooping course, which lasts two weeks and is completely worth the short weekends in the end. I still am desparately missing my parents but in a way that I'm looking forward to seeing them (when I hopefully come back to London in the summer) and, since I speak to them every day, never feel that I am far away from them. Hope everyone had a nice and filling Shavuot, I ate a ridiculous amount of cheesecake at my friend's house! Wish me luck with all the jump training this week.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Only two masaot to go now!!!

Once again I am back on my kibbutz for the weekend, after an unusual two week period in the army. I was hardly on base; instead stayed and slept in the shetach for the majority of the time. However, it was a fun couple of weeks, with some interesting and memorable moments.

Two weeks ago I was sent to course 'Banayim', where I learnt how to build certain looking points in the 'shetach' (open area) and also learnt camoflauge at a more advanced level. Some of the stuff I learnt was secretive and we had to have a security clearance before we started the course!

Me and a good friend in a 'milo'im' (reservist) truck.

I returned to my 'plooga' (company) from the course just in time for my latest masa, 35+5km, which lasted for a full seven hours! I struggled a lot during parts of the masa as the pace was ridiculously fast and it stayed like that for the whole masa. I finished strongly though and even managed to do my part of being under the stretchers, while having the water canteen on my back! It was one of the toughest physical challenges to date in the army and is the third last masa, with only the 'preparational beret march' and 'beret march' to go. We closed for the weekend on base and most of us just slept the whole time; as part of the recovery from the torturous masa. Last week, I was involved in a gigantic, nationwide 'milo'im' (reservist) excersize, with my plooga being used as the enemy for the reserve IDF soldiers. Basically, it meant that all week, the rest of my friends and I were lazing around and waiting for the call to say if there were any soldiers on the way. When that call came, we would hide in a good position, surprise the soldiers and 'shoot at them'. It was good fun and an easy week.

'mahlaka' (platoon) in the shetach. We are all holding Hizbollah flags; as part of the role as the 'enemy'

Although being a lone soldier is a hard life, I am so lucky to have a supporting network of friends and host families around me. My garin; all of whom are lone soldiers having made aliyah, are currently serving in the army in a variety of different places and often come back to Ortal on their free weekends, are my main base of support. From my garin I have made some strong friendships and that partly causes me to keep returning to Ortal each week for the weekend. On top of that, there is the organiser of the garin and the guy who generally looks after all our needs and problems. He is a top guy, one of the best, and is always there for me. Then there is my wonderful host family, the Nirons, who are always here to do my washing or feed me or send me packages in the army. I have also got lots of different contacts around the country; family friends and distant relatives, all of whom consistently invite me round for Shabbat. Recently, I also have my friends from the army, who I am getting closer and closer to as the weeks go on.

My company on a trip; with some Israeli school kids. I'm in the middle, you can make out my bald head!!!

Something that has annoyed me this week is the feeling that I am missing out on some moments where I should be with my family. Missing out on these moments, which are relevant just to me, is one of the setbacks about being in the army and shows how clueless you are to what's going on in the rest of the world, like the time when I came back from the army and my mum asked me about the Haiti thing, and I answered "what Haiti thing?". This week, the end of the football season and, specifically, Spurs' success of getting into the Champions League, is normally something which I was always excited for. However, this year, I missed out on all the excitement and anticipation; while missing out on Spurs' (well-deserved) final position, something we loyal fans have been waiting for, for a long time, was definitely a moment I would have like to have shared with my papa, whom I had a season ticket with for 12 years. Additionally, the final season finale to the television series Lost is something that I won't be able to truly share with my mum; and after we religiously followed and watched the show together for the last 6 years, makes me frustrated not to be back in London. However looking at the bigger picture, I can see that these are some of the sacrificies of being in the army, that they are not life-or-death matters (although in my opinion they are) and that I am still able to share aspect of the experience, albeit through the phone or Skype.

This week in the army we are getting let out for Shavuot (deservadly, since my company closed Hannukah, Purim and most of Pesach). I will be spending the festival at one of my friends from the army, which is a big deal for me as it's the first time I'm going to stay at one of my new Israeli friends. We go back to the army on Thursday to the Jumping base, in order to initiate 'course tznicha' (jump course) by having medical checks and signing forms. So that's it, after all the waiting, next week I'm signing on to paratrooping course. I leave next weekend as well, so I'll be able to explain all about that, so excited...

Saturday, 1 May 2010


My time in the army is really starting to fly by now; I am now almost halfway through advanced training and have been on the Paratroopers' base for three quarters of the time I will eventually be here. I can hardly believe that I've been a soldier now for a total of five months, having made aliyah nearly nine months ago (!). I feel like I've done and been through so much already as part of the training to be a combat soldier, yet the next two months (the final stage to being a fully fledged IDF fighter) is where it really gets hard. Major upcoming events that scare the living daylights out of me include: the paratrooping course (where I will jump a total of five times), 'shavua milhama' - a week in the shetach made to feel like a real war - and the dreaded 'masa kumta', the 78km hike, which we'll do in order to receive the coveted red tzanchanim beret. It's an intensive period that I have in front of me but I'm taking it one step at a time.

This last fortnight was rather relaxing, with most of my time being spent off base. It started off with Yom Hazikaron (memorial day for fallen soldiers and other people who fell in Israel's name, like victims of suicide bombings) and Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Israel's 62nd Independance Day), a unique time where one minute separates the saddest and happiest days of the year. I was in Jerusalem for both those days with my 'plooga' (which I've since found out translates as company not battalion!) and there I personally guarded at Zion gate, one of the more historically significant of the eight gates of the Old City, I was guarding there with a 'magavnik' (border policeman), the border police in general don't have a great reputation in Israeli or international eyes, but I happened to get on really well with this particular guy, who, was in fact, an Israeli-Arab called Sayid, voluntarily doing military service, just like me! It was definitely one of those uniquely Israeli moments where a Jewish-British immigrant paratrooper and a Muslim border policeman were joined together to guard one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem on Yom Hazikaron!!!

Showing off our fridge for the week - jam-
packed with food.

My day was made even crazier when I randomly saw two friends from London just passing through the gate. I could see that they were just as surprised to see me in the middle of Jerusalem, especially since I was there in full army uniform, vest and gun. It was good to catch up on some old gossip from London and has made me excited to see all my old friends when I go back home as part of my speical holiday as a lone soldier, which I hope to take in the summer, after I've finished all my training.

From last Thursday, lasting a whole week, I was on 'Avtashim' where I was situated at a small settlement in the West Bank, and guarded the religious 'yishuv' (town) there. Whereas before, when we were placed in Hebron for a weekend , we were just supporting older soldiers (who were there as their permamaent station of guarding), this time we were the main body presence and the front line of defence for the settlement. Of course, it was really quiet and there weren't any incidents, but it felt very much like I was, at first hand, defending the Jews of Israel from the surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods. I say there weren't any incidents but a couple of interesting episodes spring to mind from this week. For instance, on Shabbat, we had to warn off some left-wing 'humanitarians' who were trying to claim the Jewish-owned land or, how every morning I needed to check the IDs of the Palestinian workers, who were building more houses for the settlement, how ironic! This week I was definitely at the forefront of world politics as the settlement was, effectively, beyond the 'green line', which is the main obstacle and talking point behind the Israeli-Palestinian debate.

The three of us sitting down for dinner.

Apart from the meaningful and ideological feelings that I felt, it was also a very fun week. Two other soldiers from my class and I (no commanders!!!) were situated there and we lived, cooked and guarded together for a full week. I suddenly started to feel like my friends in university; living with other guys, preparing our own meals together and upkeeping a small place of our own, the only difference is that when my friends go off to a lecture, I, on the other hand, was leaving for a four hour patrol of the yishuv. It was maybe the first time that I have lived fully idependantly, because even here in Ortal, where I share my own apartment with two good friends, I do rely on my host family and the kibbutz dining room. The small religious settlement also made us feel very welcome and we were invited by one of the families to Friday night dinner. It was a lovely atmosphere but I will mostly remember the evening for how, even after introducing myself as Sam, the father insisted on calling me 'Shmuel' (my Hebrew name) the whole night, which, of course, got some good laughs from my friends! So, it was an extremely fun and meaningful experience; and is similiar to what my army service will be like after I've finished training and am sent to guard at different places round the country.

I've said it once before in the blog, but recently I've really noticed how Israelis really care and look after soldiers. There are countless examples of how citizens go out of their way to help a soldier, in particular, a lone soldier. Recently I was at Ammunition Hill (a famous battle site from the Six Day War) for Yom Ha'atzma'ut and, in the nearby park, there was a wonderful atmosphere with hordes of people coming to celebrate Independance Day with barbeques and picnics, which is what happens in parks all over the country. As soon as I entered the park I was bombarded with plates of meat, ice creams and cold drinks. It's just a small example of the typical Israeli mentality and the love for its soldiers, which explains why the Gilad Shalit issue is the most important thing on everyone's mind.

Breakfasts this week - cornflakes from the only bowl in the kitchen and half-dressed, ready for guard duty.

Yesterday, via my parents on the phone and the voting form through the post, I voted for the first time in the upcoming British elections. It's strange to think how my first act as a voting British citizen has come from my time as a Israeli soldier! Anyway back to the army tomorrow where I am going to a course where I will learn how to build looking-points and camoflauge in the shetach. If I sound vague about this it's not because it's something secretive but simply because I don't know what this course is, they just told me on Friday that I'm going! So it should be an interesting week ahead of me, which I hope will result in a 'hamshoosh' (Thursday weekend), as part of finishing the course. Fingers crossed.