Saturday, 21 January 2012

Waiting for the light to go green...

Sometimes the army can throw at you two of the most contrasting weeks ever, which is what I'm experiencing right now. A mere week ago, I was braving the 'shetach' as part of the tzanchanim brigade-level exercise and partook in a rather exhilirating event, more of which to come later. While this week I am on a course in Tel Aviv learning about the transition from army to civilian life. I warn in advance of the length of this blog...

Like I said in the previous blog, my battalion is now stationed in a base in the Golan Heights, as part of the winter training that the whole brigade is undertaking in over the next two months. Initially, I was happy to be finishing my service during winter training, since it makes me feel like a combat soldier right up to the end of my service due to the extensive and challenging weeks of 'shetach' (field work). However, after experiencing two weeks of it, I am already starting to change my mind! The base is horrible, the difficulty of the 'shetach' looks set to be unlike anything we've done before and, above all and probably most significantly, the weather is dire. Like every factor that affects one's service, the weather being terrible simply has a ten times worse of an effect on things because you're in the army. Feeling hungry or tired is a lot worse in the army than when one is at home and the same is said about both extremes of the weather. Currently in the Golan Heights, it is cold, rainy and windy, and every time I enter the freezing, wet and muddy tent it's hard to stay positive. The weather plays such a crucial part in the 'shetach' as you can imagine; walking with a heavy weight on one's back is a lot less fun when it's pouring with rain and sitting down on your five minute break to drink water suddenly becomes harder than the work itself when the temperature drops to lowly figures. As much as I wanted to enjoy these last couple of months of my service, once we started the 'imun' (training), I realized that I will end up trying to survive this period than revelling in it! As always though, I try to remain upbeat and see this as a challenge and part of the overall experience.

Standing with my 'tik low' before a week of 'shetach'.

The 'tarhat' (brigade exercise) had been on everyone's minds for many months, mainly because of the well known fact that it was to begin with a bridage-wide 'tsnicha' (paratroopers' jump). One would think that anyone in 'tzanchanim' must love jumping since it's part of our brigade's tradition and that we openly volunteered to draft to 'tzanchanim' and even passed a 'gibush' in order to be accepted. Truth be told, most paratroopers hate the jumps and consider the two week jump course (that we do way back in advanced training), as one of the scariest and most unenjoyable parts of their service. Not that I'm trying to sound all macho here, but I honestly loved the jumping and saw it as an incredibly unique skill to learn, in addition to the pure thrill of the activity itself. So while everyone had been quietly hoping for the jump to be cancelled, I had been looking forward to it from the moment I found out it was happening. The reason why this particular 'tsnicha' was such a big deal is because it is the first time in 13 years that the whole brigade has jumped together in one exercise. The new commander of tzanchanim insisted that this huge operation would happen as a way of showing and reminding everyone of the paratrooper brigade's ability to enter behind enemy lines by jumping at night and with all our combat equipment. Only until the day itself and even more when looking back on it and seeing all the media reaction, did I realize the magnitude of the event that took place. Over 1000 soldiers, an entire brigade, parachuted from the air and then re-grouped on the ground to continue the 'tarhat', all this on the darkest night of the year. It's something historic to say the least and I feel lucky to be a part of it and part of this uniuqe section of the army. More than that though, I feel priveleged to be a 'tzanchan' and know that I was one of those who jumped and will jump again if needed, whether that be in training or for real.

Practising how to gear up during the day of jump training.

Now to the jump itself. A few days before the 'tarhat', we were sent to the jump school base, in order to complete a day of training and general refreshing of the whole process. Although I was extremely eager for the jump, as I arrived to the jump school base, I became aware of the fact I had forgotten a lot of things that were taught during the course, which is understandable considering my previous jumps were more than a year and a half ago. After the day's training however, it all came flooding back and I was ready for the 'tsnicha'. What made this jump different from any other jump I've done before was not the fact that it was in the night, it wasn't the fact the whole plane jumps out in one go as opposed to in groups of eight and it wasn't the fact that we jumped with our vests on under the parachute. The only factor from last week's jump that was at all new and that we did for the first time was how we jumped with all our combat equipment and when I say all, I mean everything! I don't think I have ever described this properly in a blog before, but when one does a week in the 'shetach', apart from the vest, gun and helmet, you also take a lot of other equipment; water, warm clothes, waterproofs, torch, food, extra ammunition, too name, but literally, just a few. All this stuff you carry around in a 'tik low' (combat bag is the best I can do to translate even though that's not right) but it is basically like a big rucksack that you haul around all week. For the first time ever, we jumped with the 'tik low' also squashed into the special bag that is strapped to your leg when jumping and this is what made the jump so difficult. My bag was at an average weight until my 'mem mem' (platoon commander) told me that I was his helper for the week (more on which later) and he started to give me extra, excuse my language, crap to put in my bag! From flags and batteries to big torches and smoke genades, it all just added to the weight and when I was finally done I could barely lift the thing...

I assure you, no photoshop effects have been used to increase its size!!!

The day of the 'tsnicha' arrived and my excitement had turned to nervousness; not because of the thought of jumping out the plane but the thought of lifting the anchor that was going to be strapped to my leg! The whole of last Tuesday we sat at this air force base in the south and just waited for the evening to arrive. The 'mahat' (brigade commander) spoke of our readiness for war and of the uniqueness of this brigade-wide jump, but most weren't listening and, instead, were biting their nails in anticipation of what was to come. As the sun began to set, we made our way next to the tarmac and went through the extensive saftey drills and procedures and then, geared up; vest, parachute, reserve parachute and the bag with all our equipment. After more saftey checks, we sat down and waited, in customary fashion, for a our plane to pick us up. My company was the 6th plane of the 20 used for the whole brigade and I was eighth in line of the left door from my plane. The short walk from where we were sitting down to the tarmac and then up into the plane became an almighty effort for those, including myself, who could barely lift their equipment bag. As we took off, I was more distracted by the weight of the bag and the excruciating back pains I was subjected to, than the whole experience and looking back on it now, I am annoyed that I was unable to enjoy and take it in more. The instruction to stand up and be prepared was given, but I struggled to stand straight because of the pressure the equipment bag was putting on my back and although I've been very lucky not to have had back problems so far, I really was suffering on the plane and felt like my back was going to explode. In the end, I was just desparate for my turn to come so I could just jump and not worry about the weight of the bag! Finally, the light did turn green and, as they say the rest is history. What they fail to say though is how I landed straight on my back and right into the middle of a thorn bush!!! The jump was amazing though, just how I had remembered it ( and was, by far, the best bit of the whole week.

Here is a news video - and an article - about last Tuesday's jump.

As much as the 'tsnicha' was a massive deal, it was only the start of what turned out to be a two day week of 'shetach' involving the whole brigade. It was by far the biggest army operation I have ever witnessed, the amount of soldiers and behind-the-scenes people involved was phenomenal and it is rumoured to have cost over seven million shekels. With all the manpower and equipment involved, it really felt like we were going to war, which is pretty much what the exercise is aimed at recreating. Following the jump (41 out of 1000 were injured from the jump, a relatively low figure), each person had to unpack all his gear, carry it on his back and start to navigate from wherever he landed to each company's specific meeting point. Once everyone had arrived, we then started the 'tarhat' and the initial walk, which turned out to be a 17km-sand-dune-torture that lasted all night. That first 24 hours of the 'tarhat' was one of the toughest days I've been through in the 'shetach'; the combination of the ugly landing, weighty load on my already painful back and harsh terrain all assisted in pushing me to me mental and physical limits that night. I remember thinking at the time how I once received a critical comment here on the blog for my belligerance of 'jobnikim' (non-combat soldiers), yet what I was going through that night only reitterates the verifiable truth that no one can comprehend the kind of stuff us combat soldiers go through. There was really a point that night where I had lost all sort of mental strength and was honestly ready to quit, but, like always, you continue and struggle and fight your way until the next water break or next day or next year. That is purely the way of the 'lohem' (fighter) in the IDF and shows why we are so strong together. The second half of the 'tarhat' was a lot better for me and undertaking the exercises as the 'mem mem's helper helped to make it an interesting week in the 'shetach' all in all.

The 'mahat' (far left) walking onto the plane before his jump, funny how he doesn't have an equipment bag...

I know I am going on a bit now but bare with me. Going through a week in the 'shetach' as a soldier in the IDF is only something that one who has been through himself can truly understand. There are both thought processes and actions that seem to become normal in the 'shetach' that in public life would be considered totally irregular. For example during the 'tarhat', since I was the 'mem mem's right hand man, I was close by to him throughout the whole two days and in the breaks from walking we would end up spooning together on the ground as a way of keeping warm!!! Of course, it wasn't just us, everyone was snuggling up to the guy next to him and in the harsh reality of the 'shetach' it was totally normal to hear one guy, a giant machine-gunner, saying to his 'shetach' partner "why aren't you cuddling me already?"!!! Going through these almost inhumane circumstances together is what builds the friendships between soldiers and its only with these Israeli guys from my platoon that I share these insane experiences.

Yet, after all that misery and pain, this week I am on a workshop for lone soldiers, where we learn about what we face once we are released from the army. Apart from beng very helpful, it happens to be in Ramat Gan (a fifteen minute bus ride from my house) and is 'yomiyot', meaning I am sleeping at home every night this week! So while last week I jumped out of an aeroplane and did 'tarhat', this week I am living in luxury and feel like a real 'jobnik' by doing 'yomiyot' close to my house; maybe it is better to be a 'jobnik' after all...

Some pictures from the 'tarhat'...


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