How do I begin to explain a week that has totally eclipsed every single thing I have ever done in the army in terms of physical, mental and emotional challenges. That is what I asked myself when thinking of how to write this blog as I finished the 'targad' a little over two weeks ago now. It's going to be a long one...
'Targad' is war week for the whole battalion and is generally considered the hardest week possible in the 'shetach'. I've only done one previous 'targad', in August 2010, but I considered that my toughest week in the army, most notably for the final act where the whole 'gdud' (battalion) reached the summit of Mount Hermon after a twelve hour ascent. The 'targad' has this monstrous reputation about it and because of this almost everyone had been dreading it since the start of the 'imun' (training) period. There were even a handful of soldiers who were so adamant about not participating in the 'targad' that they managed to take out 'gimmelim' (army sick days) the weekend before we started. Whether people were genuinely injured, pretending to be medically unfit or just managed to get out of it someway or another, the 'targad' scared off about a quarter of my company alone before we had even started. Seeing as it was my last ever week of 'shetach' and due to my general enthusiasm for the army and the experiences that come with it, I was happy to be partaking in it. However, a couple of hours into the 'targad' and my eagerness had completely evaporated.
First of all it's important to note that my 'pluga' (company), the 'mivtsayit', is defined as an attacking company in times of battle, as opposed to a company whose main purpose is to provide cover fire. What does this mean for us, the actual soldiers of 'mivtsayit'? It means that we never stop moving in the 'shetach'; walking long distances or running in the actual exercises, yes, but transported by veichles and static during the combat exercises, no. So for us the soldiers the 'targad' is the week where we are never off our feet and are constantly getting "raped by the high command" as the common phrase goes!!! The outset of the 'targad' did not seem like anything too demanding or anything we hadn't done before; long distances to walk, fairly heavy bags on our backs, little sleep, combat rations no more than twice a day and long battalion-level combat exercises. Yet, as it has been with most of this 'imun', the weather played a mammoth factor and had a major role in making this week one that will be impossible to forget for a lot of soldiers in 'gdud' 101.
Those who keep up to date with Israeli news (and my blog to be frank) will know that it's been a very wet winter not only in the Golan but the whole country, which is of course a fantastic thing, except for us paratroopers who spent the whole winter doing training in the 'shetach' up North! Coincidentally, the other two battalions of tzanchanim, 202 and 890, also had their 'targad' in the weeks before and after ours respectively. Fortuitously though, for both of them, 'targad' was completed on the backdrop of a sunny and dry weeks, for 101, though, this was not the case. When I say that, for the time we were in the 'shetach' it did not stop raining, I am not exaggerating or trying to make the blog sound more exciting, no, it chucked it down continuously for five days, with the addition of some snow and hail at points as well!!! I think I've explained enough on the blog already how critical the weather is in the 'shetach' and constant rain is more or less the worse thing that could of happened during the 'targad'. Not only is one completely soaked through to the skin, depsite the supposedly "waterproof" attire, there is also the wet bag being doubly as heavy and all the mud, those mountains of mud, it still gives me nightmares even now. I lost track of how many times I fell in the mud or in puddles of water and the weather caused every path that we went along to be almost impossible to walk across, every step used up a considerable amount of energy when trying to lift one's leg out of the thick mud. The whole week was pure hell; walking in the rain, sleeping in it, my feet were never dry and I was dangerously close to getting "cold burns", which a few people did get. Physically, there have obviously been harder things I've faced but my body struggled to deal with the conditions and it was the fact that I felt so crappy the whole time because I was cold and wet, in addition to being tired, hungry and physically exhausted, that made this 'targad' so hard.
I can't remember too many times during my army service that I have felt "broken" mentally, much like when a runner hits "the wall" during a marathon, yet on the thursday of the 'targad' I had reached this point. After four days of failing to be dry, warm or rested, I was so fed up of it that I really was ready to give up and quit. I'm not ashamed to say that at one point I even shed some tears; simply having reached the end of my tolerance and the edge of my emotional threshold. Needless to say, I was, by no means, the only one who cried during the 'targad' with many pleading for mercy and for the end of what was a truly horrific week of 'shetach'. It's annoying that as I write this now, I ask myself "was it really that hard? am I not just over exaggerating here a little?" but the answer is that it really was that hard and if I could only precisely recapture how I felt two weeks ago now, then this blog's description maybe even more harrowing. The end did finally come and, in the early hours of friday morning, during the last 'nsiga' (retreat) I consumned all the chocolate I had left, used up any dry clothes, like a spare pair of gloves, and squeezed out every last ounce of energy left in my body. We were all relieved to have finished, many were in disbelief, yet, the skepticism of concluding the 'targad' soon turned out to be a dreadful reality...
Like I said, mentally this 'targad' was insanely difficult but one thing that always keeps you going is the vision of the end, which was commonly known to be friday lunchtime by the very latest. Yet, in a horrible new development to everyone in 101, including the 'magad' (battalion commander) himself, this promise was soon to be broken via the 'mahat' (brigade commander) and his seemingly undeterred desire to see us suffering in the 'shetach'. Slowly the news was filtered round that we were to be staying in the 'shetach' for shabbat and that the 'targad' was to continue until sunday. The majority of people were already psychologically "broken" as a result of the week's event but the disclosure of the 'targad's extension sent some people over the edge. There was talk of a potential rebellion from one of the platoons, but mainly people were in utter disbelief of the situation and started to contemplate how on earth they would continue for another two days. Shabbat in the 'shetach' turned out to be one of the more pleasant moments of the week and as we kept warm by sleeping in abandoned buildings and tried to keep the morale up by re-living funny moments from the week (which mainly consisted of my platoon's light-machine gunner constantly falling in puddles!), I couldn't help thinking that it was a fitting final shabbat for me in the army.
The 'targad' did end on the sunday and in the closing ceremony the 'mahat' said that those who finished (only 7 from my platoon's 11 have that honour) can be considered "outstanding and beyond regular soldiers". He also noted how it was the hardest battalion war week in the history of the IDF, due to its length, conditions and the unexpected extra two days. Today it feels good to be a part of that but I am not sure if the week of pure suffering was worth it because that is exactly what it was, seven days of pure suffering. I can say this though, if I can go through something like that then I can do almost anything and by succesfully finishing it, 101 has definitely shown itself to be an extremely strong battalion. Above all though, the 'targad' once again showed to me how ready our army is, if there ever is to be a war, and this is down to the weeks like the one we just faced, where soldiers overcame all types of physical and mental obstacles and still came out standing strong on the other side. As the 'Hatikva' played at the closing ceremony, I found myself once again with tears in my eyes but this time for totally different reasons. Fittingly, the 'targad' was pretty much my last full week as a solider and as I stood at the closing ceremony in the pouring rain, wearing my still muddy uniform, heavy vest and now drenched beret, I felt a wave of zionism come over me. I thought of everything I had been through in my 'aliyah' journey; from standing with an Israeli flag around my neck at Auschwitz to signing the combat release forms for an only child with my parents at the Israeli embassy in London and from swearing in to the army at the Kotel to addressing my soldiers in my heavy accented Hebrew for the first time. All those times had led me to that moment at the end of the 'targad', where I truly felt that I'd reached the end to my army service, not in terms of time elapsed, but in achievement and accomplishment.
It was an unforgettable week and appropriately my last one in the army. I have tried to put it across as well as I tried to in my mind and, even though only those in 101 who were there will truly know what it was like, hopefully this blog has captured even a tiny bit of it. I still shudder when thinking of those long nights during the 'targad', but now I am back to my 'chafshash' holiday and will write those few, final blogs as the release date gets closer.