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!!!