Saturday, 26 June 2010

War Week - I survived

After the week I've had I never thought that I would make it to this point; where I'm relaxing on my bed in Ortal. Last week we had 'shavua milhama' (war week), the summarising week of our advanced training and our last week in the shetach during our time on the Paratroopers' training base.

Seven full days in the shetach. One meal of food rations a day. No showers. No phones. A total of 70km of walking during the whole week, while carrying heavy weights on our backs. I'm not going to say that it was hell because it wasn't as bad as that, but it was probably the hardest week so far in the army. Before 'shavua milhama', I was actually really excited, in comparison to a lot of my friends, who were very nervous and aprehensive towards the week because it was a well known fact that it was going to be very hard. However, for me, I went into the week thinking what a great experience it will be, I mean where else would someone get the chance to take part in these sorts of life-changing events and I remember saying to myself that even if it gets hard, then I have so many things to think about and keep me going strong; family, friends, ideology etc. There was a lot of preparation for the week and before we started, we were weighed on scales with everything we would be carrying in order to keep in line with the 40% body weight limit. For the whole week I carried the 'pakal mayim' (water canteen) and all my equipment for the week, a total 42kg, which was around 55% of my body weight. What was the response form the commanders regarding my excessive weight? "Tihye hazak" (be strong)!!! - a common response to most problems in the army.

So that's the set-up, and on last Monday we set out for the week. The week consisted of company-wide combat exercises and lots and lots and lots of walking. Most of the walking was done during the night because we weren't allowed to do much in the extreme heat during the days. Despite all my enthusiasm before leaving for the shetach, naturally, after walking for about five minutes up one of the many hills with the unbearable weight pulling down on my shoulders and back, I was ready to die. It doesn't matter how much you pump yourself up for stuff like this in the army, the minute you start, you seem to forget everything and the physical suffering starts. But like it happens every time, we carry on and it's this continuous stamina, which I feel is the main physical attribute that I have gained from my time in the army so far. It was a long and hard week but we everntually reached Shabbat on Friday, which for the first time, we spent in the shetach. It was definitely one of the most memorable Shabbatot I have had up until now and, for the one of the first times since I made aliyah, I was re-united with my religious self and I ended up davening all the services. I sometimes get disappointed with myself that I am not more religious becuase seeing the soldiers and commanders of the IDF praying toghether in the shetach, halfway through war week, made me realise what an amzing thing Judaism can be. I felt very connected religiously during last Shabbat and it did help that my class, samal, platoon and company commanders were all there praying with me.

Shavua milhama continued for a few days after Shabbat as well and, by the following Monday, we were finished. It was an epic and exhausting experience, but one that I am proud to say I have finished and, in a way, finished strongly. This feeling is not universal, as many people in my company didn't leave for the shetach because of medical problems. Whether the problems were genuine or not, it doesn't matter, the soldiers who participated in the week showed to our commanders who was worth something and who was not. By the way, I am still proud to say how I have still not been ill or injured during my service and I am probably the only one in my whole company who can claim not to have missed any army activities due to medical issues. The week finished with a small ceremony on base, which included a powerful rendition of the hatikva by all those who were thankful to be back on base. By finishing this week, I have completed the necessary training to be considered a fully fledged combat paratrooper in the Israeli army and, scarily, by completing shavua milhama, we are now eligible to fight in a war from this point onwards, but let's not think about that too much.

Tomorrow I go back to the army for my last week of advanced training and my last week on the paratroopers' training base, where I have been for the last seven months. I remember arriving to the base on the first day and being scared and in awe of the place, whereas now, we are the oldest soldiers there and already relatively experienced in terms of training. This week is all about one thing and, for many, the most frightening, exciting and rewarding event of the army service... 'masa kumta' (the beret march). Throughout basic and advanced training we have been doing 'masaot' (hikes), which have been gradually increasing in time and distance, from 4km in the first week, to 60km, which we did two weeks ago. In total, we have done nine masaot and walked a total of 200km, of which 22km were done by carrying people on stretchers. All those masaot, however, were being built up for the final masa of 90km, which we have this Wednesday. After some of the other masaot we received prizes for finishing them, like the gun strap or the shoulder tag, but for this masa we will receive the biggest prize of all, the coveted red paratrooper beret. For seven months now, I have been walking around with the green beret that all soldiers receive when they enlist. This green beret is an embarrassment as it is a sign of being young in the army, however, from this week I can finally show some 'pazam' (hard-earned time in the army) by having the red beret on my shoulder.

Masa kumta is said to be the hardest thing you do in your life, we have heard such things like "grown men cry", "it begins and just never ends" and "you walk until you can't feel your feet anymore". We will begin walking 90km on Wednesday afternoon and by the following morning we will finish the masa in Jerusalem at Ammunition Hill, a site of a paratrooper victory in the Six Day War. At the ceremony afterwards, we will get our berets and my host family and garin friends will hopefully be there to see it all. Next week, I'll be able to describe properly both the immense physical and mental challenge of the masa, as well as the pride and relief of receiving the beret. As for now, I need to start resting and gathering my strength for Wednesday as I prepare to walk for 90km (more than two marathons put together) and 18 hours straight!!!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

60km - that's more than a marathon!

Surprisingly I am back home this week, after a very momentous couple of days in the army, where I finished both jump school and my 'masa mechin kumta' (last masa before the beret march).

At the start of this week, I jumped and landed safely for the fifth and final time, thus completing the paratrooping course. Once again, the thrill of jumping out of a plane was amazing and I made sure, of course, that I landed with my legs tightly closed together. Doing the last jump seemed a bit irrelevant, since we had done that type of jump already (in the day with the chest bag) and because we were expecting to finish the course the week before. Anyway, it didn't matter to me as I enjoy the paratrooping and was happy to do it again. However, the best bit of going back to the jump school base was to receive the wings for our uniform. Getting the wings is a really big honour and is definitely something to show off when I am on the bus going home every week. It is my first pin that I've received and is easily the nicest looking thing there is to put on your 'aleph' (ceremony/travel) uniform.

The wings on my uniform!!!

In a really intensive couple of days, we jumped and got our wings and immediately went back to base in order to get seven hours sleep before the masa on the next day. The masa this week was the second last one I ever do and the preparational masa for the 'masa kumta' (beret march), where will receive the coveted red tzanchanim beret. The masa took place outside the grounds of the base, which is where we normally do masaot, instead we walked from Sderot (a town very close to Gaza, which has been bombarded by rockets in the last five years) all the way back to the base. This made it much more interesting as it was a different route with things to see on the way, rather than the regular monotonous route that we normally walk through on masaot. It was supposed to be 45km+5 (if you still don't know, the second number represents an extra 5 kilometres done by carrying people on open stretchers), but we soon learnt by the end of the masa that it turned out to be 55km+5. Sixty kilometres, that's 37 miles!!! It took us 11 hours, which is a fantastic time, especially when you remember that the time includes all breaks (one every hour to drink and two big breaks where we ate snacks) and that it's not like a marathon with shorts and trainers, no, it's full uniform, boots, gun, vest and other added weights, like the water canteen.

Wings on some famous people; from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, current Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Idi Amin (!) and now, Sam Sank!!!

It was a very, very hard masa and it should be, considering it is our penaultimate masa and that it was 60km. For me personally, I managed to get through it quite well. While most people just want to die on during masaot, I am comforted by the fact that I know thousands of young Israeli guys have done it in the past and will continue to do it in the future. Although time on the masa goes ridiculously slowly, knowing the time, in general, always passes also reasssures me. Since there is a break every hour for water, you start to break down the hour, step-by-step, minute-by-minute, constantly looking at your watch and counting the time away. On this masa, I started to question what an hour is; I rememeber thinking that for me it can be the first half and half time of a football game or a ninth of the "Lord of the Rings" films or two "Friends" episodes. The time did pass eventually but it was an extremely hard night/morning and for many, the most physically tough thing in the army so far. The last five kilometres were with open stretchers and with considerably heavy people lying down on them. Due to lack of numbers and some lazy people who didn't want to help out, it ended up being 'aloonkot shorot' (black stretchers), which means that for full five kilometres it was the same people under the stretchers the whole time and I was one of those people.

As a reward for finishing the masa, we were given new gun straps, which say our battalion's name - 101, our company name - 'plugat hakrav' (fighting company) and our 'mahzor' (draft) - Nov' 09. When my platoon commander handed me my strap, he gave me a big punch on the shoulder and told me that he was proud of me! The scene the next morning was like the aftermath of some sort of war, people were limping and some couldn't even walk! Also, our 'masa mechin kumta', 60km, is the same or even longer than all the other combat brigades' beret marches, for example, Givati's masa kumta is "only" 50km. On the matter of masa kumta, my one is coming up in the end of the month and is a terrifying 90km. More on that nearer the time.

This is my company's sign on my new gun strap.

Next week I have 'war week', the summarising week of my whole training up until now, which is said to be the hardest week imaginable. It is seven full days in the shetach; little sleep, little food and a lot of walking with heavy weights on our backs. In fact, we were weighed at one point this week, in order to determine how much we are able to carry. I was shocked to find out I weigh as much as 70kg, which means this week I'm going to be walking for 18 hours a day with 28kg on my back, since we are allowed to carry up to 40% of our own body weight!

Anyway, I have had a relaxing weekend watching the World Cup (I'm annoyed that I will miss most of it) and spending time with my garin friends. This week is literally going to be hell but it is going to be one of those experiences, where, on the next blog, I'm going to be proud to say that I survived it. Enjoy the World Cup everyone, when you're watching it this week, just think of me crawling through thorn bushes while wearing a gas mask!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

First out of the plane!

This past week has definitely been my most favourite week in the army so far, having jumped out of an aeroplane four times! It is all a bit surreal and I still have one more jump to do tomorrow, in order to get my wings.

Walking into the plane.

Jumping out of an aeroplane with a parachute is an amazing experience and to do it within the spectrum of the army made it even more exciting. After writing about the 'tsnichot' (paratrooping jumps) in the last blog, I think some people failed to realise that when I jumped this week, it wasn't with someone on my back, instead, as they say in jump school, it was "just me and the parachute". My first jump was on Tuesday and, in all honesty, I loved every minute of it. The whole process takes a really long time, despite being in the air for a little under a minute, the exercise can take up to around five hours; from travelling to the air force base and a hundred million safety checks, to waiting for the aeroplane to arrive and reaching the meeting point once you've landed on the ground. My first jump, like all my jumps this week, went smoothly and is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Unbelievably, I happened to be the first one to jump out of the plane for the first jump(!). Being first to leave the plane is the most scary and also the most exciting because you wait by the open door of the plane for a full minute before the light goes green and you get the command to "kfots" (jump)...

Jumping out the plane!

That's the last thing you hear before everything goes crazy. I jumped, without hesitation, and then fell for 60m, about three seconds, which is the time it takes for the parachute to open. Those four seconds are quite undescribable; the best way to explain it is that it's like a rope is being tied round your feet and you're pulled through the air horizontally! It's a crazy period of time and it's impossible to think, I was just in shock (especially if you can consider that for those four seconds I was falling through the air without a parachute). Then, the parachute opens and everything became calm and quiet and I started to enjoy the fantastic view. As I neared the ground I got into the landing position and landed safely with my feet firmly together. After landing you have to pack up the parachute and arrive at the meeting point. Although I have summed it up in a very simple way, it was easily the most exhilirating experience I have ever done and, surprisingly, I wasn't scared at all. Unlike some of my friends, who took the 'tsnichot' as physical punishment (since we had to carry a heavy weight; parachute and chest bag - containing gun and vest - for a really long distance after the all the jumps), I think it was definitely worth it and loved every moment of last week.

I did four jumps this week:
1) In the day, without any equipment
2) In the day, with the chest bag
3) In the night, with the chest bag
4) In the night, under the conditions of a real mission.

All in all, as I keep mentioning, it was a great week and I consistently followed the jump instructors' advice of "Keep your legs together and smile". However, some people did not follow this advice and this explains the bad aspect of last week. Closing your legs when you land is the most important thing you can do because if you land on one leg before the other, then all the weight goes on that leg and it can easily break. That is what happened to too many people this week, about ten people broke their legs from all battalions of tzanchanim, including a friend of mine from 101. I understand now why the discipline of jump school is so strong because paratrooping is a dangerous exercise and the reason the instructors drilled into us the correct positions of landing is because if you don't do it right then you can break your leg. Thankfully for me, I was very disciplined in all my jumps, but seeing the people being treated with morphine and having splints in their legs was harrowing and nearly runied the whole experience. I don't want to end on a bad note; I absolutely loved the jumping and am so excited to do my fifth and final one tomorrow, which will be followed by the wings ceremony!

On our way to the ground, notice the chest bags dangling below us.

I don't want my blog to be a political forum or a stage for the Middle Eastern debate, but I feel like I have to talk about what happened this week in Israel. Now I'm not a right wing extremist, I'm quite moderate in fact, but it angers me to hear that the rest of the world, as per usual, views Israel as the bad party on what happened with the Flotilla issue. For me it is quite simple, due to the nature of Hamas' terrorist regime and its control of Gaza, we have no choice but to intercept any ship going to Gaza. The army does this because supplies, like cement, are taken by Hamas to be used to attack Israel, for example, by building tunnels, which is how Gilad Shalit was captured. That's one issue settled, as for victims of the boat, from the videos it is clear to see that those people were intent on harming our young soldiers and, consequently, initiated the violence. Of course, the anti-semitic world only shows one bias side of the story in the media and now the whole world, once again, hates Israel. If people could just see the truth.

The long walk back, carrying both 20kg parachute and 15kg chest bag.

I have a very intense period coming up in the army, including my last two masaot and 'shavua milhama' (war week), which is the summarising week of my whole training. I may be closing now for three weeks in the media, so by the next blog I may only have one more week left of training. I want to finish by saying thank you for all the comments I receive on this blog (from people all over the world). Thank you for reading and please continue to read and leave comments because it motivates me to carry on and try and make this blog as inspiring and interesting as it can be. I have a cool week coming up with one more jump, the wings ceremony and a 50km masa!!!