Saturday, 21 August 2010

Back home?

Today I am writing the blog from very unfamiliar surroundings; the living room of my parents' new home, where I have been comfortably staying, for the last two weeks. After flying to London two Sundays ago, I have now spent half of the time that I will eventually be here for.

Re-uniting with my friends and family has been amazing, and falling back into my old life of comfortable civilisation has been a refreshing change from what I've been doing in the past eight months. Seeing my parents' new home and living with them again has been the best part of my trip back home; after all my maturing and growing up in the last year, it has been nice to be treated like a little boy again and have my mum clean up after me! After a year of army and kibbutz life, there is nothing like waking up in the afternoon and spending the whole day on the couch watching television. Although nearly every day has been filled up with something to do, this visit is also a nice relaxing rest after eight exhausting months. I have spent my time up until now doing all the things that I love; seeing friends, eating pizza and playing football (as well as watching my team Spurs qualify for the Champions League), while I've also had some more moving moments, like, when I was asked to hold the Sefer Torah in Shul for the reading of the prayer 'for the safety of the state of Israel and its defence forces', or seeing two people who greatly contributed to my aliyah journey who are now moving back to Israel.

Being back with friends has been great, but also has left me with some interesting thoughts about my current life in Israel, the life I left behind in London and life I could have led if I went to university like the rest of my mates. My friends' reaction to see me, after a full year of not seeing each other, was somewhat disappointing. They were of course excited to see me but, as per usual, my expectations were of something more and I seemed to forget that life obviously carried on without me and people moved on. I know that seems like I'm very full of myself, but I just expected something that wasn't realistic. Also, since my friends are at a number of different universities around the country, some of them hadn't seen each other for a number of months and because it is summer and everyone is back home, it was a reunion for a lot of them and not just for me. Don't get me wrong, my friends were very excited to see me and were simply in awe by the stories I had for them; stories of jumping out of an aeroplane, stories of carrying half my body weight for four days and stories of throwing grenades, flying in helicopters and running behind tanks! The boys had many typical boyish questions about what it's like having a gun and some of my friends pressed me to tell them about secrets I've learnt since being in the army, but my mouth stayed shut!!!

People had told me what it was going to be like when going home for the first time; I was warned that I would be disappointed by my expectations and how I will feel very different to the rest of my friends. Well, after being here a fortnight, I can see that things have both changed and stayed the same. After around five minutes of being with either friends or family, everything feels back to normal and like I haven't even been away, and living in North London again is pretty much exactly the same. With friends, after the initial stories and catching up, things sort of carried on like normal and the banter is exactly how it used to be (except now, any comment towards me is now related to the army!). In that sense, nothing really changes, but I can definitely notice some aspects where something is not quite how it used to be. In some ways, I have matured more than them, especially in terms of things I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, such as, the responsibility of having a gun, trying to cope with a new language or just simply living in a foreign country without parents. As much as I try to explain the hardships of my life in Israel to my friends, whether that be the physical difficulties of the 'shetach' or the psychological difficulties of not being home (i.e. my kibbutz, Ortal) for three weeks in a row, they simply do not experience this in their relatively luxurious student lifestlyes, in comparison to mine. This is not me complaining about how hard my life is (because I love what I do and don't regret aliyah and the army for a second) or even a way to evoke sympathy, instead I am just trying to explain how my friends back here can never understand what I have been going through this year and this causes an unavoidable separation between us, which I sense is noticeable just to me. (This also makes me think that however well I describe my life to you guys, you will never truly understand how hard, or how amazingly rewarding, my journey has been. Only once you've experienced it yourself...)

This brings me to my next point about how my friends from the garin (the people who I live with on the kibbutz and who are also lone soldiers in the army) do share with me that understanding of what I'm going through because they are doing the exact same thing. Since being here in England, I've learnt to appreciate my life in Israel and the people who I am close to a lot more. This may sound obvious, but my trip back here to London has made me realise that my life is now definitely in Israel and I now feel even stronger about living in Israel permamently after the army. Although I definitely don't miss the realities of the army, I do miss my friends from the army and, in some way, I miss being a soldier and, at points, feel naked without my gun and uniform. Coming back to London is definitely just a holiday as opposed to a visit back home but this doesn't change the fact that making it just an annual visit is extrememly hard and I don't remember ever looking forward to something as much as I did for this visit, I would obviously love to be able to come back more often, but that is the cost of being in the army.!/video/video.php?v=418161533870&ref=mf
(This is a video I made for my friends in the army who are in my class. In a couple of weeks we finish our first year in the army, resulting in the partial breaking up of our company, meaning some of them may leave to other directions. So, I made this video for them; a reminder of our first year in the army together, which was most definitely a memorable, hilarious and action-packed year).

I still have another two long weeks here, which I will definitely take advantage as I have done up until now. I think being here for a full month is perfect as it gives me enough time to do all the things that I want to and I see all the people I want to see, but at the same time, by the end of the month I will be ready to go back home and restart my normal life. I will probably write another blog before I fly back to Israel. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ain't no mountain high enough...

Well I've finally reached my last blog before I make that long-anticipated trip back home! I really want to describe the insane week I had, in terms of physical difficulty, I know I seem to say this every week, but it was probably my hardest week in the army so far!!!

This week was the 'Targad', which means a week of shetach doing exercises on a batallion level (i.e. the whole of gdud 101), basically, it was another (!) war week, my third in total. While the first two 'war weeks' have been extremely difficult, what I experienced this week was on another level. This is because while the first two were just for our company, the war week for the gdud is much harder because it involves a lot more people and it has higher status, since it is for a full IDF combat batallion (and Tzanchanim also pulls higher credibility), meaning it is constructed by high-ranking officers, like the commander of the whole Tzanchanim brigade. In short, it was a very important exercise for the army and, thus, they made the conditions as close to a real war, as possible. So, for three full days, my batallion (around 400 soldiers) walked through the Golan Heights doing all sorts of combat exercises, urban and anti-guerilla warfare etc. Since the Paratroopers are arguably the most prestigious brigade in IDF, the week was made as hard as possible, in order to test my gdud's ability to be ready for a war, meaning we had no sleep, very little food, exceedingly heavy weights on our backs and many, many kilometres to walk.

As I mentioned, Tzanchanim's reknown reputation meant that a lot of money and resources were put into this week, which made it feel like a real war (by seeing the full spectrum of the army) and also gave us 'simple' soldiers some great experiences. We started the week by going in helicopters and although it was the fourth time I've flown in a Black Hawk since being in the army, it's an experience that doesn't get old, especially when you have to try and sprint 100m towards the helicopters through the hurricane that is caused by them, while in full combat gear with the rest of your friends from the platoon. In addition to helicopters, there were also a range of weapons being used last week, some of which I never even knew about. Seeing a group of tanks moving over hills and ridges and then firing their cannons 20m from where your 'plooga' (company) is running up a hill to 'kill' an enemy, is something quite breathtaking. Due to a lack of personnel in my platoon recently, half the platoon went to a specific company and what remained were myself, three other soldiers (all of who are good friends of mine) and three commanders; my old class commander (by the way I'm on to my fourth commander already), the 'samal' and the platoon commander. I get on really well with all three of them, which meant the week was full of interesting conversations and funny moments.

Who said I wasn't famous? My collection of articles about me on my wall in my room in Ortal!!!

We walked around 60km in total during the three days of 'war', which is massive when you think of the type of weights we were carrying on our backs. Walking with weight on your back is definitely something that has been drilled into me since I joined the army and this is an intended by the army, after the relatively disastrous Second Lebanon War in 2006, where post-reports showed the soldiers were uncapable of carrying the heavy weights and, in fact, weren't even carrying enough as they lacked extra food and ammunition. Consequently, the army now spends a lot of time trying to train us combat soldiers how to deal with walking for long periods while carrying heavy bags on our backs. Rather than feeling more muscular in the arms or a faster runner, being capable of carrying is what I've gained since being in the army and I assure you that most soldiers in the IDF will agree to that. This little side-point about carrying weight is relevant to the next thing I'm going to speak about: that hardest point of the whole week, something that even compares to the masa kumta in terms of difficulty! As the final exercise of war week, my gdud was subject to climb the Hermon (!), in order to 'kill the terrorsits there'. When us soldiers heard about this final challenge for the week, a lot of people cursed the army, seeing it as an unecessary exercise, as per usual I saw it as one of those incredible experiences that I've been through since being in the army. However, I wasn't thinking like that for long.

Mount Hermon is 2,814m (9,232ft) high at its peak, and, of course, we were told to reach the peak! The 'aliyah' (ascent) of the Hermon took 13 hours and this was after 3 days of 'war'!!! It was simply one of those crazy hard challenges, so hard that there were some people who had to stop because of dehydration or blackouts. They told us "don't look down" because of the height, but I though "don't look up", to see what was left to climb. was more appropriate. The Hermon, Israel's biggest mountain, is gigantic and it's like a visual allusion, because you see this mountain, you reach the top of it and then you see that there's something else to climb that's even bigger. Climbing the Hermon wasn't a random torturous exercise, in fact, the Hermon has important significance in terms of military and strategic history, and climbing it to capture the peak is something that IDF soldiers have achieved in the past. It was a very hard night/morning but in the end, very worthwhile and one of those experiences I'll never forget, especially since I carried the MAG (the 15kg machine) for the last 5km, since our MAGist blacked out from exhaustion!

It is true that pictures say a thousand words and I'm annoyed that I wasn't able to use my camera this week as I saw some truly memorable sights. Whether it was the view at the peak of the Hermon where we were above the clouds, or the silouhette of the whole gdud walking through the Golan Heights at dusk or even the shocked faces of a bus full of Muslim clerics who we passed while in military formation!!!

Mount Hermon; beautiful, but very hard to climb!!!

That's it! I'm now sitting in my room in Ortal with my suitcase packed, ready to go home and visit my family and friends for a whole month. I'm so excited just to live in civilisation again and do all the things I've missed doing, like eating at Pizza Express, or going to the cinema, or going to watch Spurs with my papa (I'll hopefully be going to the game where we qualify for the Champions League)!! I will try at some point to write a blog from London, my last blog from England was on the night I made aliyah, so it will be very fitting. Wish me a safe flight....

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sweat in the Tsvach

I've just had the most physically difficult two weeks in the army; jam-packed with memorable stories and frightening moments, all of which I'll talk about in these next two blogs. I never thought I would make it to this moment (not just because of the last fortnight but, also in general), I am currently in my kibbutz for my final weekend before flying back home for a month, there are simply no words to describe my excitement to go back home for a month!

Firstly, however, I want to tell you all about these crazy couple of weeks I've had, where I finally understood and realised that all those hard weeks of shetach on the training base are nothing compared to the shetach training in the gdud (battalion). Last week, I had 'imon tsvach', which is basically the training for guerilla and anti-guerilla warfare. There are many things from this week that I can't really talk about on this public blog, but I can talk about some stuff, which will hopefully explain why last week was so hard. For around four days my gdud, battalion 101 of the tzanchanim brigade, trained in the 'tsvach' and we learnt all about anti-guerilla warfare; this extends my repetoire as a soldier, having mastered both rural and urban warfare (wow, I never thought I would end up talking like some sort of military general but this is what I do as day-to-day life). We learnt how to move and conquer enemies in 'shetach' (terrain) that is very difficult; tall trees, wide bushes, thorns on every corner and all in a tight, compact space. To get us warmed up, our commanders gave us 'aggressive training', where we were made to run through thorn bushes! This actually turned out to be one of those hilarious moments, where seeing each other tangled up in trees and bushes seemed to block out the pain of thousands of thorns pressing into our bodies. Of course, the 'mefakdim' (commanders) were in hysterics themselves!

This is the
'tsvach'. Imagine running through that big bush in the foreground... that's what I did all last week!

On a more serious note, we learnt a lot about the practicalities of anti-guerilla warfare and, therefore, about the terrorist group Hizbullah. Hizbullah are probably Israel's most dangerous active enemy, due to their style of fighting and expert knowledge of their terrain (guerilla), organised army (there are even elite units) and their arsenal of weapons (including some scary types of rockets). As a result, we learnt about the IDF's response to this serious danger i.e. our ways of how to defeat these terrorists and combat tactics in the tsvach. This is obviously the more confidential part of last week, but was incredibly interesting and the exercises themsleves, despite being tiring, were very enjoyable. For most of the week, it felt very much like we were in Vietnam; walking slowly through forested areas and carefully listening to every movement and sound. Why it really felt like Vietnam, however, was the unbearbale heat. I simply can't explain how hot it was in the 'tsvach' (Israel's hottest week of the year) and I didn't think my body was capable of releasing so much sweat, at one point our eyes were stinging so much from the salt of the sweat pouring off our foreheads that we had to stop momentarily. All in all, it was an exhausting couple of days but very rewarding in terms of knowledge and exercises.

This was me last week in the 'tsvach'. Try and ignore the terrible haircut and notice the colour of my shirt. The dark green indicates the ridiculous amount of sweat!!!

Halfway through 'tsvach' week, we heard news of an attack on the Israeli border with Lebanon. As we all know now, luckily it was just a one-time thing that seems to have been a mistake, however, news like that travels fast and, like in all Jewish communities, news is exaggerated, and Israel is no different. We got the news that there had been some sort of attack on our northern border and that war with Hizbullah was imminent; remember, at the time we were learning about anti-guerilla warfare and how to combat in the 'tsvach' of Southern Lebanon. What we were doing suddenly went from standard combat training to last-minute preparations before war, and to be honest I was a little bit scared. I wasn't scared of the enemy or scared of getting hurt, instead, I felt very unprepared psychologically. Coming into the army, the dangers of terrorism and war are obvious, but I've never felt like I am going to be involved in something like that. However, after that incident (that was thankfully just a scare), I feel more ready mentally that if something were to happen in the future that I need to step up to the plate and do what, as an IDF combat soldier, I've been trained to do. I know that sounds like some sort of line from an action movie, but in all seriousness, as my 'samal' said "if something were to happen, we (the current soldiers in the army) have the responsibility to deal with it; as it is simply our time". I understand more, now, the importance of being a 'lohem' (fighter) and the responsibility that comes with that role.

עד עכשיו, אף פעם לא כתבתי בעברית אבל חשבתי שהזמן הגיע. לכל מי שמבין רציתי להיראות לכם איך העברית שלי השתפרה בזמן שעליתי לארץ. הרוב זה מהצבא כי שם אני רק מדבר עם החברים והמפקדים בעברית ופשות אין עוד דרך להסביר את אצמי. יותר נוח לי עכשיו לדבר בעברית במקום ציבורי, או שזה לנהג באוטובוס או למלצר במסעדה. אם הבנתם אז אני מקווה שלא עשיתי כל כך הרבה שגיעות!!!!! י
(if you didn't get any of that, I was just trying to show off my improved Hebrew!!!!).

Being back on base this weekend didn't change the heat. On Shabbat, practically the whole
'plooga' (company) decided to sleep in the common room becuase of the air conditioning!

That was just last week; I will write another blog tomorrow about this week, which was even harder physically and more challenging mentally...