I’ve been trying to get a little more creative with how I stay connected. I tried video blogging with WordPress but the videos weren’t posting. Hence, another prolonged absence.
Don’t worry though, you haven’t missed much. Not in the army anyway. Our new base is located near Katzrin in the Golan Heights; a nice five or six hour come from Sa’ad. There are a handful of mayanot (streams) nearby where soldiers like to go to cool off from the oppressive heat. The whole 202 battalion is back together for another four month operational training period.
I got back from America in July just in time for a shavua milchama (war week). At the last minute I was tapped to be on my company commander’s command team carrying the navigation equipment. The guy who normally carries this 25 kilogram masterpiece is permanently disabled with a bad back (guess why). The shobe, as it’s called, is a very durable iPad-like device wired to a computer, an encrypting device, and two batteries that last 24 hours.
It was a fun week altogether. Our brilliant logistics team did manage to forget our existence for a day though, and we had to just suck it up and ration our food water as effectively as possible. I gracefully dehydrated one humid morning less than a kilometer from our target at the end of an eighteen kilometer night. When we got back to base, I painfully removed my boots to discover three huge chunks of flesh missing from my heels. Twelve days of flip flops followed.
After an inspection by our new brigade commander, I nailed a thorough inspection by one of his deputies. Called me “the most professional Negev machine gunner I’ve inspected.”
I flew back to America in August for my brother Mark’s wedding. Emily flew in from Texas, a bunch of my cousins from New York drove down, and it was, truly, the most beautiful wedding I can remember attending. It was at my parents’ house with two massive tents shading the tables and a dance floor. Mark and his wife, Brie, looked as handsome a couple as I’ve ever seen. The ceremony in our backyard (we lucked out with perfect weather) was so tastefully coordinated. I gave a really eloquent toast…sort of. I give big props to Mark and Brie. I hope and I’m confident that their marriage will be as beautiful as their wedding.
And just like that…BAM! I’m back on a hot, stinky base counting down the days until a) Emily makes aliyah (only 3 more days!!!), and b) my release from the army, a slightly more sigh-envoking 106 days.
Wishing everyone a happy new year, an easy fast, and a meaningful holiday season. Next year in Jerusalem!
I noticed that I had not posted in a while.
I did not notice that it has been over two months.
The reality is that everything that has gone on in my life since my platoon resumed Gaza border duty has fallen into one of several categories that kept me from blogging about them. In order of importance: 1) How boring it is, aka. the soda, candy, books, pranks that we occupy ourselves with to keep sane; 2) Operational stuff. Not necessarily exciting, sometimes hilarious, but nonetheless it’s stuff that’s more appropriate to tell in person than posting on the internet; 3) How zomped out and glued to the couch I am when I am released. I had a free week in June and it took me three days to get off the couch…even to go sleep in my bed; 4) Complaining about my commanders and platoon. Nobody wants me to turn this blog into an outlet for my whining and ranting.
Other than that, the only thing worth writing about is the occasional moment of one soldier demonstrating commitment to his friends. My good friend, Ben from Cincinnati, shocked the whole platoon by declining to release from the army in June and instead signing on another year and a half of service. For his commitment, Ben has been sent to squad commander course (Course Makim). We are all very proud of Ben, while simultaneously shaking our heads. I would never have signed that much additional time.
One way I kept myself busy was overseeing the fundraising and purchasing of our platoon t-shirts, hoodies, and tanktops. I collected 4500 shekels to buy over 250 articles of clothing, including a hat for every soldier with his name on the back. This brings my total fundraising total in the army over 80,000 shekels (roughly $22,000 US). Not too shabby for an enlisted guy.
The really exciting news in my life is that I was just home in Baltimore for three weeks. I got home just in time for my 25th birthday and the 4th of July. These two days were awesome, but they weren’t even the really exciting news I promised at the top of this paragraph. Sunday, July 7th we had nearly 100 guests at our home to witness my father and mother stand under the chuppah and commit themselves to one another in accordance with all the laws and customs of the Jewish people. In addition to all our friends and family, we hosted five guests in our home. Udi’s brother, Omer, who researches mathematics at Duke University, drove up with a friend for the weekend. Also, my roommates from Sa’ad, Lior and Rachel, stayed with us for five nights. And of course, Emily flew in from Texas for our simcha.
The rest of my couple weeks at home were almost just as busy. I went to a couple of Orioles games with my dad, my brother and some friends. My second weekend home I flew to Texas to be with Emily and meet her family and friends for the first time. It was really cool and special meeting all of these people who love and care about her. I met the parents and I really like them. I think they trust me just fine with their daughter.
When I got back to Baltimore, my dad and I drove my sister, Frankie, to JFK and sent her off to a semester abroad in Israel at Tel Aviv University. After Shabbat on July 20th, I joined the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) Youth Leadership to promote their outstanding work at a Masquerade Ball. All my friends and family came to show their support and send me off. The next morning, I very groggily boarded a plane to Miami to celebrate the wedding of my good friend, Jonathan Kalish to his new wife Meryl.
After two nights of partying, it was finally time to return to Israel. Almost thirty hours later, I landed in Tel Aviv and hurried uptown to check on Frankie and her friend Helaine. They just spent an awesome Shabbat at Sa’ad, meeting all my friends and my host family here. And tomorrow I get to wake up to a seven hour commute to my new base in the Golan Heights.
Three or four weeks ago, my platoon finished its explosives course and returned to the Gaza border to join our Pluga Vatica. What this means is the real deal. Finally. Sort of. We are still the new guys. Again.
Each infantry brigade is broken into battalions and then companies. Four companies comprise 202; three plugot vaticot and plugat maslul, the rookie company. My new home is Plugat Chod (pronounced with a Hebrew ‘ch’), which roughly translates to the “Point Company”. Hypothetically speaking, in war the Pal’Chod would be the point of the spear, the first strike team. Hypothetically. I can say that is all hypothetical because in Pillar of Defense, there were more ‘first strike teams’ than I will ever know about. More than anything it is a division of responsibility, a name, and a tradition.
My platoon immediately picked up its assigned routine missions: guard duty, patrols, ambushes, and an unlucky duo on kitchen duty every day (I’ve been on kitchen duty thrice in three weeks so far). Most of the time it is really quite boring. We eat a lot, try to catch up on sleep whenever we can, and sometimes we even find time to work out or clean our weapons (but not too often).
I read a lot. In the past few months I’ve covered Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, the first three Games of Thrones books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and finally the first Harry Potter book. I just bought a GMAT prep book. Some dry reading for the approaching equally dry weather.
I don’t think I can quite get into online exactly where our base is or any of the especially interesting events that have occurred in our time there. Our first duty is to protect civilians, and the first part of that is to defend the fence. It’s not particularly imposing everywhere and it’s certainly not an electric cattle fence. We use state-of-the-art technology to monitor movement inside Gaza and deter people from approaching the fence. Our men are working around the clock at every single hour of every single day to monitor the fence, and to deter or apprehend those who violate the border.
After our first two weeks in the Pal’Chod, we had our first masa since October: Masa Aliyah L’pluga. Seventeen kilometers in full gear to welcome ourselves to the new company. We have new dog tag covers and new straps for our weapons with the pluga symbol. I’m not super gung-ho about our pluga like some people, but I’m proud to be working in a strategic role. I’ve said this before: that we are literally defending my neighborhood. I get unfortunate reminders of this on a weekly basis during briefings or in the news. So far nothing too exciting has happened and I hope it will stay that way.
Though I wish I could close on that, I want to let anybody still reading this to know that I am expecting to be home for the month of July. The FIDF is helping bring me home for a party at Woodholme Country Club on Saturday, July 20, after Shabbat. Mark it down on your calendars and tell your friends. It should be an awesome party that anybody would enjoy, it will help raise money and awareness for an important cause (the wellbeing of our soldiers), and most importantly: I’ll be there! FIDF on July 20. See you there!
Wow, I knew I had lazy tendencies but I never thought I would take so long between posts. The truth is, I’ve been spending all of my computer time over the last two months working on the fleece, sleeping bag, and flashlight fundraisers. On top of that, we’ve switched to a new, not-so-fun schedule that we call 17-4. That means 17 days on base, 4 days off. I still have plenty of work to go to finish up the fundraising project, but I felt that I needed to take a few minutes to update my blog and refresh with my readers and myself what has transpired since the new year.
My pluga spent a few weeks in January at the Ground Forces Training Base in the south as part of the Company/Battalion Commander course. Various candidates in these two courses took their turns planning and executing the same exercise over and over again, while we took our turns freezing our butts off in armored personnel carriers (APCs) for hours and hours on end. Then, we would perform unrealistic and very unexciting ground exercises for about twenty minutes before piling back in the APCs and returning to 12 hours of sitting around. It was pretty boring for us, and we ate a lot of sand, but at least it wasn’t hard work.
February was a special months for two reasons. First of all, the Ravens won the Super Bowl. I managed to catch all the playoff games and I even finagled my way out of the army for two days to watch the Super Bowl with Louis at Mike’s Place in Jerusalem. I cheered, I cried, and I crawled home around 6:30 AM.
Second, and possibly more importantly for me (maybe not), we finally started Gaza border patrol. My pluga was responsible for guarding a large chunk of the northern border inland from the Mediterranean. Though the work wasn’t grueling, the hours were exhausting. We would spend all night on patrol in jeeps and then come back to base and guard the base for hours on end. Even if you weren’t on duty, you would usually be expected to stay dressed (even while sleeping with your boots on) to be ready in the case of an emergency.
Our number one concern was people trying to cross the fence undetected. We had a couple of minor incidents, but thankfully, everything has been relatively quiet since Operation Pillar of Defense. Hopefully, it will stay that way. We got called on every once in a while to deal with protests at the fence, but I think hooliganism would be a more appropriate word. Mostly stupid young people trying to test the limits of the IDF’s patience and to learn the parameters of our responses. And even more importantly, to video everything for the BBC.
My aunts Phyllis and Nadine came to visit just in time for Valentine’s Day. I didn’t think I’d get a chance to see them, but my schedule worked out and I got to have dinner with them and their tour group from Sinai Hospital. Big props to my former Jewish History teacher, Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson for leading a packed t got out of the army for Purim weekend with my whole garin. We had an amazing couple of parties; karaoke and costume. I received a huge sack of candy and treats from my high school, Beth Tfiloh, which I promptly delivered to my base (only 20 minutes away from home!) much to everyone’s delight.
Just a couple of weeks ago we finished maslul, our first full year as combat soldiers, and earned our warrior pins. Everyone from my pluga (company) who hasn’t left us to become a commander or for another job is now part of our new large machlaka (platoon) in the PalChod, Point Company. Our platoon is the explosive specialist platoon so we are all way down south near Eilat for a four week explosives course. Unfortunately, I am unable to do the course because of an administrative mistake, so I am the happy camper pulling a month on kitchen duty. It’s the kind of boredom that makes you miss high school physics class. Unless you were that kid in class.
The night before our Tekes Sof Maslul (End of Maslul Ceremony), we handed out brand new backpacks filled with all of the donated by generous supporters from around the world. In addition to the fleeces, sleeping bags, and flashlights we were able to provide, everyone received fitness clothes, hats, gloves, Leatherman multi-tools, backpacks, and a book filled with pictures from the past year. It was really rewarding to see everyone receive all of their presents and continues to be rewarding seeing soldiers using our equipment on a daily basis. Thank you to all who contributed and helped us reach our goal! I am still working on getting every donor their perks, but my time is very limited. Hopefully it will all be finished by the end of April.
On a more personal note, back in early January, I met an incredible girl named Emily. She was visiting a friend on the kibbutz one night and the next morning we sat next to each other on a long bus ride to Jerusalem. Emily is from Austin, TX, she’s finishing her degree in geology at UT and is making Aliyah in October. To say we spend a lot of time on the phone and on Skype is an understatement, and she has already come back to Israel to visit me during her spring break. I feel kind of funny writing about her in a public way, but I’m pretty confident I’ll get used to writing about her and about us.
I volunteered to spend Pesach seder in the army so my friends could be with their families. Should be a unique experience. Chag Pesach Sameach L’Kulam!
Before I write about this past month, I need to take a moment to plug a project I’m working on. It gets really cold at night in the desert where our base is, so I’m raising funds to purchase winter fleeces for my whole pluga. Please click here to see more. I’ll mention it again a little later.
Just two days after the ceasefire was signed, my whole pluga was–much to our surprise and relief–released for Shabbat. We had been sleeping outside for over a week and nobody had more than one change of clothes. Most of us didn’t even have our travel uniforms but the army was kind enough to grant us permission to travel in our work uniforms. Never been so happy to see Sa’ad.
Once we got back to the army that Sunday it was right back to work. The Gaza operation pushed back a huge battalion exercise by a week, so once we returned to our base it was right to work. We had inspections by our Magad, the battalion commander, and our Machat, the brigade commander and head of Tzanchanim. My equipment was fully prepared and I answered all of their questions without a problem. The Machat gave all the lone soldiers lots of praise and commended us for leaving everything behind to volunteer.
Meanwhile, a handful of us were on edge trying to ensure that we would receive our scheduled leave. I was scheduled to fly home on December 6, but once the Gaza operation began the army cancelled all leaves. My social worker assured me that they would do everything possible to get us home (on time if possible), but the exercise (scheduled for twelve days in the shetach) began on December 2 and we still didn’t have confirmation. Just hours before leaving for the exercise, we got the confirmation and assurances that we’d get pulled out of the exercise in time to arrange everything.
So we set out for the exercise on foot, just after dark. We hiked for a few hours before reaching our first target: a series of hills to conquer in a dry run and then with live fire. I actually found it pretty fun, but the first of a handful of soldiers quit on us. Several soldiers got out of taking part in the exercise claiming they were injured or sick. I’m sure some of them were serious, but I’m also sure that some of the guys just didn’t have it in them to deal with the insane amount of effort demanded of everyone over the next two weeks.
After that first exercise, we hiked for a few more hours. Suddenly, there were gunshots coming at us from the hill to our left. It was a simulation exercise we were anticipating so we quickly got into formation and “returned fire”, taking the hill and the bunker dug in on top. We hiked to a designated camp and told to go to sleep.
One I removed my vest, the cold finally struck me. It was 4:00 AM in the desert and my whole shirt was soaked with sweat. Before leaving we received last minute instructions to leave our packs and just bring our vests. Some guys were able to squeeze their jackets into their vests, but my vest was filled with about 800 rounds of ammunition so I only had room for a thin winter thermal shirt. I changed quickly, ate a roll of bread, and curled up into a ball on the dirt and tried to sleep. Never in my life have I been so thoroughly cold. Around 6 AM the sun was out but I was still freezing. You can help keep us warm next time around by clicking here and helping my pluga purchase winter fleeces. Luckily, I found a cooler filled with hot tea and began defrosting.
We spent most of the day lounging around while waiting for the whole battalion to assemble and begin the real exercise (apparently last night was just a warm-up). The whole battalion, about 600 men in total, assembled before the Magad explained to us just how hard this exercise would be. He described hikes up the steepest hills, marching all night in full gear for endless hours without rest. Don’t worry, he said, just look to the man on your right or left and you’ll see someone having it harder than you.
At 9 PM, my platoon boarded a helicopter and half an hour later we were dropped off at the top of a mountain in Samaria. My lieutenant navigated our way down the mountain for two hours to the rendezvous point. This climb down was the first time in my army service that I experienced immediate fear. I fell down several times while climbing down rocks the height of my chest, once taking a huge shot to the head (thank G-d for my helmet). With a handful of bumps and bruises I continued along.
We got to the rendezvous point around 11 PM and began a seven hour hike up one of the steepest and longest mountain ranges in Israel. You talk to former soldiers about this place and they just smile and nod because there’s no argument: it’s just about the toughest hike there is and we do it in full gear. I was carrying about 50-55 kilo on my back (110-120 lbs) all night long up this never ending hill. This was another first for me: it was the first time I really wanted to quit. Honestly. But what are you going to do? Just sit on the side of this mountain? Give your pack to someone else to carry? No choice but to just keep moving.
At 6 AM, we reached the summit and divided into companies. We had 15 minutes to take off our packs and repack our vests for battle gear. Then, we went straight into a dry fire exercise, the whole battalion taking the bunker that was our target. We finished, davened, ate breakfast, and headed to a new location to regroup. After lunch we had another crazy exercise; the whole battalion taking a series of insanely steep hills. I saw guys climbing this thing on all fours.
We had some free time to eat and sleep before another round of brutality. The wind picked up pretty strongly. Then, it started to pour horrendous rain. Guys were still trying to sleep because in just another hour or so we would begin 20 kilometers of nighttime hiking. Suddenly, a commander calls out, “The four soldiers going to America, form a line over here. We’re sending you back to base tonight.” I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a death row pardon. It didn’t take long, though, for me to feel horrible about leaving my friends to face this punishing night.
Forty-eight hours later, I was on a plane heading home. I got to see all my family and friends for the first time in about six months. I spent time with my brother and sister and grandparents and my close friends. I had a great homecoming at my shul, MMAE, with tons of people offering me their prayers and encouragement. I went to New York City to visit a couple friends and spent a few hours alone walking around Greenwich Village dipping in and out of cafes, wine bars, and used book stores. I went to two Ravens games while I was home; the Broncos game was horrible, but the Giants game clinched us a divisional championship! I attended an FIDF gala and met Aly Reisman, the olympic gold medalist who dedicated her performance to the Israeli victims at Munich. I got to spend Chanukah and Christmas with my family. I think what I may have enjoyed the most were the couple of days where I just stayed in my pajamas, ate cereal and watched TV all day. Long overdue.
On Christmas Day, I celebrated my Pazamuledet, my one year anniversary since drafting into the army. Only one year to go! After spending Christmas in New York with my dad’s family, I returned to Israel for last Shabbat. Now I’m just sitting around and waiting for my pluga to finish an exercise up north so I can rejoin them and get back in the swing of things.
Again, please take a look at my fundraiser page. We are really hoping to purchase these fleeces within the next couple weeks when the weather is at its coldest. A happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year to all my friends, family and readers around the world!
It was a pretty boring Wednesday. I arrived at my new base, Nebi Musa in the Judean Desert, only two days ago. Every 8 months the whole brigade takes a break from guard duty for refresher training. We are in that training period. This morning, Yitzi and I drew logistics duty. We spent the day organizing the battalion’s logistic shed…the exciting kind of action I anticipated in the army.
Suddenly, a kid from our pluga goes running by. He doesn’t have time to talk. He’s running to get his tefillin from the synagogue because we just got hakbatzad. The air force just took out the Military Commander of Hamas. Today just got serious.
The news on my phone confirms the news. Our first reaction: we are definitely not going home this Shabbat. We are stuck on logistics duty for a few more hours and are dismissed to the pluga. Our Captain, Salim, is not here because he just underwent back surgery a week ago. Our First Lieutenant addresses everybody and explains that we are heading to the Gaza border to be briefed on our objectives. No one has any reason to fear or be tense or call mom saying, “I love you”. We have to get to work.
We spend hours organizing our equipment. They try giving out as much extra equipment as possible including bulletproof armor. We get a couple hours of sleep while the commanders stay up all night packing and checking everything. We head south at 6 AM.
The next day it seems as if every single Tzanchan under 60 is on the same base calibrating their rifles. Everybody is shooting all day. Never seen such mayhem at a shooting range. There must have been several thousand men shooting in about a dozen ranges.
That night we get our briefing. Our platoon was separated from the company and reserved to the brigade extraction team: we will be searching for and rescuing wounded soldiers. The next day we all move to the front and begin preparing APCs. We’re close to the border and every once in a while there is a Tzeva Adom, a code red signal that a rocket has been launched in our direction. Every time the siren sounds, every single soldier dives on the ground and covers his head. The first time this happens I get down, but after 20-30 seconds I stand up. “Alex, what the hell are you doing!” shouts my Samal. But this is my neighborhood. We are just 5-10 minutes from Saad. “If you haven’t heard the boom yet, ” I holler back, “you won’t.” Then he remembers I live here and gives the okay for everyone to return to their feet.
Just hours before go-time we are briefed again. Our mission has been delayed and expanded. The army just called up double the amount of reserves and three more combat brigades. This whole operation just got a lot more serious.
When they explain our mission to us, I literally become sick. I spent hours throwing up and couldn’t keep anything down. The next morning I read a headline, “Rocket hits school in Ashkelon”. Old feelings of anger that I haven’t felt since living in America; the outrage that these monsters are allowed to exist. I snap right out of this funk and get ready to fight. I requisition a new vest and a new backpack. I shoot and clean and shoot and clean my negev. I request another 300 rounds of ammo. I even had an RPG for a few hours but ultimately had to give it up to a soldier with more training on it.
Suddenly, the commanders are hollering. Everybody on the bus, it’s go-time! Our Mem Pay, our captain, gives us an uplifting pep talk. Reminds us how badass we are and how scared our enemies are and how proud he is to lead us into this operation. We load up onto the bus amid songs and dancing. My commander, Etan, is filming us and eating candy. Everybody is in high spirits and ready for victory.
Once the bus sets off, the exhaustion hits us. We’ve been up all day working and getting ready so everybody is asleep pretty quickly. I remember waking up for moments just long enough to glance at about where we were. I remember seeing that we were close to Gaza, then suddenly we are on a road to Beer Sheva. All we really remember is being told to wake up. I look outside to see Gaza but all I see are the same shooting ranges we’ve been at all day. We’ve been driving and sleeping for four full hours and ended up back at the base. They tell us our mission was tipped off and then delayed. We unpack our gear, organize it all, shower for the first time in five days and go to sleep.
By the next day, soldiers’ families know where we’ve been posting up and begin sending packages full of snacks and candy. The Lone Soldier Center sends all the lone soldiers a small backpack full of socks, thermal shirts, towels, flashlights, and hamsavars (an Israel hat/scarf). I give out all the extras to my friends. They haven’t changed their socks in five days either. One commander doesn’t even have a thermal shirt. One kind organization brought in sweets yesterday. Today they return with boxes and boxes of chocolates and high quality Leatherman multi-tools.
Again, the commanders order us onto a bus. We are really excited. This is it! We’re going in! We get to the gate of the base and wait a couple minutes. My heart sinks. Before they even say it, I already knew they were calling off the assault again.
I know my disappointment at these mission abortions must make me sound naively war-hungry or ruthless or something, but the truth is that this is what we train for, why we do what we do. It’s the reason for all of the exertion and tolerance of crappy conditions, it’s why guys like me spend years away from home. To give Israel’s enemies a big boot in the ass when the time comes. And now we’re just going to sit here waiting again…
Now everybody is talking about a ceasefire. The IAF continues to pound Gaza, striking over 1000 targets in a week. We can see the Iron Dome over Beer Sheva constantly shooting down missiles through the night. Everyone oohs and ahs at the fireworks display. The army sends over a band to sing for us and all the guys thoroughly enjoy the break from war talk and prep. The Americans talk about how we’re supposed to be preparing for invasion and every soldier is singing kumbaya. I think there is going to be a ceasefire.
The Magad, our battalion commander, the head of 202 calls a battalion meeting. We arrive in full battle gear (62 kilo on my 75 kilo frame) for him to address us. He talks briefly about how disorderly the whole brigade has been over the last six days and how that disorder ends now. We are going to do a Battalion Exercise and then tomorrow everybody will cut their hair, shave their faces, and polish their shoes. We haven’t been focusing on those details until now.
This exercise involves hiking about the double the distance we will need to hike during the operation and it’s pretty painful in the body armor. No big deal. The next day we are finishing up a morning training for our mission, when I get a text that a bus in Tel Aviv has been blown up. Everybody insists that we are going in finally–the commanders quickly wrap up the exercise and return to get ready–but I have a sick feeling in my stomach, because I don’t think so. I think the government will agree to a cease-fire and we will look weak. I was right.
They tell us about the cease-fire and how we will remain on alert for a short period of time. The Israelis tell me it’s all politics, and they are right, but I’m still so pissed that we blew this chance to end the rockets once and for all. The people of the south deserve better than election politics, but the situation is what it is.
The whole week was a roller coaster emotionally. Sometimes you think about if you will get shot or injured. You think about how you have to be ready to shoot. You think about your family. And your friends. And how much you just want to see them before you have to do this. Sometimes I just wanted a coffee or a shower. Luckily, we are a great group[ of soldiers; my platoon, my company, my battalion. There was even one time when four of us from Saad were able to meet up and just sit around talking about the op. We were all so ready and disappointed and hungover from this high level of readiness we had kept ourselves in for the last week. Some of my friends are just relieved and thankful. They don’t want anything to do with a war. After seeing our mission plan, I can’t say I blame them.
I’m sure anyone reading is more anxious to learn more about the operation in Gaza, but I have to get these words written down before details get too blurry in my head. For now it will have to suffice to say that, yes, I almost went into Gaza, but no, I didn’t. I’m good and well and safe and I even made it home for Shabbat.
We are now way back at the end of October. The week following Shavua Milchama featured the Masa Kumta; the longest masa of our service followed by our Tekes Kumta. I cleaned my negev spotless and returned it, only to receive another one hours later. My new negev features a charge handle designed to make the gun easier to hold, but so far I don’t really like it. It always pokes me when I carry it over my shoulder.When everyone finished gathering their gear, we packed it all into a truck and sent it ahead to our next base outside of Jerusalem. We loaded onto buses which took us to the park where we would start the masa, just outside of Bet Shemesh. The whole masa would be 50 kilometers and we would finish tomorrow morning in Jerusalem.
People have told me that the Masa Kumta is generally easier than the shorter masa before it. Maybe it has something do with motivation. Either way, the rumors weren’t true at all. Without feeding us dinner, we set out around 7:30 PM, climbing up and down a never ending series of serious hills. You’d push and chug full out to get to the top of a hill and there would be the valley and an even bigger hill waiting for you. Three hours of dealing with this terrain on an empty stomach. Everybody brought snacks and candy with us to deal with the lengths without food and the necessity of an inevitable energy lag, but we had just gotten started.
Around 6:00 AM, the sun began peeking out and we were all but done with hiking through the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. After a light breakfast, we crossed over the highway leading into the city and began marching the last 12 kilometers through the Jerusalem Park. By 7:00 it was time to open the stretchers. We never blinked. We just matched up with our partners by height and carried them off at a brisk pace. I found my old buddy Yitz and we just got in line.
With only maybe five kilometers left to go (all of the final ten were uphill), the stretchers just took off and left all the heavy weapons guys huffing and puffing. Not that the negev is that heavy, but I was among those who had to slow down the pace. After a couple minutes though, we caught up with another platoon’s stretcher and I relieved them. We began seeing families, my friends’ families and I just had to get to the end already. The last two kilometers to the finish I didn’t let go. I was so excited and eager to see my parents and for them to see me finish strong and proud. But when I finally reached “the end”, they told us that we had to wait for the whole brigade to finish the masa so that we could march the final three kilometers through Jerusalem and arrive at Ammunition Hill together.
Finally, finally, finally, everyone arrived and we slowly begin climbing the sidewalks of urban Jerusalem. Two by two huddling away from traffic, our line of some 500 must have stretched on for kilometers. We were tired and dirty as anything, but we all kept our heads raised proudly as car after car honked or shrieked some words of encouragement. “Keep going! Just a little bit further!” I think the only thing keeping my head up was my search for my parents.
The final test of our training. Putting all the pieces together into a week long test of endurance, strength, knowledge and will power. Before leaving, all soldiers are subjected to an inspection by the base commander to ensure that our equipment is clean and ready and that everyone is competent in the use of their weapons. I cleaned my negev spotless and answered the commander’s questions easily. It was over relatively quickly. Though he threatened to hold a few of our guys back from war week, he passed every one of us and we braced ourselves to leave on foot at midnight.
We hiked out of the base two by two, each man carrying about half his body weight. Each soldier has a partner with whom he shares a backpack and responsibility for the other guy. They can take turns carrying the bag, but it’s common for one soldier to be stuck carrying the backpack all week. Since I have to carry the negev and at least 600 rounds of ammunition, my partner, Jon, is one of those unlucky guys.
For Shavua Milchama, our company brought along every weapon we trained on, including the Maklar, a 35 kilo automatic grenade launcher. My friend Elie is our maklarist and he carried about 60 kilo on his back throughout the week. Elie is also a lone soldier. You can read his blog too at http://www.klein36.blogspot.com.
After marching slowly through the night to avoid “detection by the enemy” we arrived at our target around 6 AM. Our first company exercise was the conquest of the lashabya, the fake village where we practice urban combat. After a barrage of fire from the Retek squad, the heavy weapons team, Platoons 1 and 2 moved in to take the surrounding hills, and my platoon entered the village to occupy the tallest building. Mission completed.
Once the mission ended around noon, our Lieutenant announced that two of our soldiers had been wounded by enemy fire. We loaded them onto stretchers and carried them a few kilometers to the makeshift camp our staff sergeants built. Just a few shaded tents and enough water for us to sleep and recharge for another tough night on the go.
We moved out at dark. First was a six kilometer hike to our next tarpa”l, the Hebrew abbreviation for a company exercise. This tarpal was the conquest of five adjacent hills after heavy fire from the Retek squad. Platoon 1 took hill 1, Platoon 2 took hill 2, and Platoon 3 took hills 3 and 4 and then unloaded heavy fire on hill 5 without moving in.
It sounds easy to read “the platoon took hill so and so” but these charges are painfully difficult to coordinate and execute. First we have to sprint to the hill in pairs or mini squads, sometimes as much as a kilometer. Then, we have to sprint straight up the hill while providing each other cover fire. Once we finish running up the hill and shooting at our targets, we then have to continue onto the next hill or targets. All in all, each tarpal entails a few kilometers of sprinting; one dry run and one using live fire.
After the tarpal began one of the hardest days of my life. We marched all night long with little rest from about 1 AM until about 5 AM. Then my Lieutenant instructed everyone to set their bags down for a platoon drill. But he wasn’t talking to me. As usual, I was expected to carry full gear and keep up with everyone’s pace. Marching in line, my lieutenant turned off the path and began leading us through wadis and hills; the toughest terrain we encountered all week. My legs burned from overexertion. My back ached under the weight of my ammo and rifle. Sweat attacked and stung my eyes. The exertion slowed and drew out my breathing and made me lightheaded. After a couple hours of such marching, the lieutenant tells us that we should have spotted the enemy by now but they must have gotten lost. Oh well. Back to the bags.
What was meant to be about an hour for prayer and breakfast was in fact for me “pass out on the dirt” time. I awoke with my tefillin still in my hands and rushed to refill my water and eat a few pieces of bread before we moved out.
Open the stretchers. We marched quickly for the next two hours, carrying two of our friends in the air. Everyone struggling under the weight of their equipment, the stretcher and the battle against dehydration. Just about everyone threw up at one point or another, including myself and one of our commanders. No bother. Have to keep going.
After about two hours they let us close the stretchers and we began dragging ourselves to the lashabya for Shabbat. It was a three hour uphill ordeal and a complete misery for everyone involved. When we arrived, I saw that our whole draft class was there; some 350 soldiers in all. I’d try to find my friends but first I found some shade next to a wall and passed out in the dirt for about an hour. This time when I awoke, Cooper, Gedalya and several other lone soldiers were sitting by me. Everybody just looked broken.
Eventually I got up and exchanged my nasty, sweat drenched uniform for a clean one. I drank two liters of water and waited for Shabbat to enter.
Nobody had any cellphones or cigarettes. No TV. No civilian clothes to wear. Nowhere special to go. We had a huge minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat. For dinner we ate ice cold schnitzel, bread, and red peppers. My platoon snagged all the tables and chairs we could find and ate together in a lit room of one of the buildings. Unlike most Shabbat dinners in the army where everyone eats and splits up within 45 minutes, we sat together for hours talking, toasting and even a little singing. It was a special moment for our platoon and we felt stronger than ever.
We had a really nice relaxing Shabbat together and then loaded up our gear and headed out. We advanced slowly toward our target, a hill some eight kilometers away. At dawn we attacked and beat our cardboard targets.
Sunday night we began a tarpal at midnight which lasted until 3 AM. It would be the only tarpal in which my squad led the charge. After a half hour of quietly running and ducking in the shadows of a mountain, we made our charge and I unleashed a shower of automatic fire. Then, just as we were making our final charge, my ammo belt got caught in its drum. I pulled with all my strength to free it, but not in time to cover our final thrust. My squad charged without cover fire.
I was heartbroken and completely disappointed but I had no time to dwell on it. We immediately marched through sunrise to our next target some ten kilometers away. Everyone was thoroughly exhausted. One guy in my platoon fell asleep during a break and we accidentally left him behind. We realized about half an hour later and had to backtrack to find him.
Another day, another tarpal, and we were on the move again. Maybe four hours of sleep during the day’s hottest hours coupled with the bits and pieces during breaks and I had begun having the weirdest dreams and imagining things in the dark. Either it was the lack of sleep or too much time to think during these endless marches.
On Monday, we had a tarpal and I was on a cover team. I put over 300 rounds into this mountain in under 90 seconds. Pure awesomeness.
Our last exercise was against a real enemy, the company next door to us, 890. We hiked to a hill we were to defend and waited till dark. Since I’m the one with night vision, I was on the lookout for all four hours until they arrived. First the sound of blanks rang through the air but they still hadn’t come our way. Finally I spotted a squad heading in our direction and motioned for my squad to shut up and get ready. But the 890 squad just wandered around for a while and never approached our wadi. They gave up and we won.
After six whole days in the shetach, it was time to hike back to base. By now, we were all so adjusted to the heavy weight and the lack of sleep that we had no trouble when our lieutenant made us carry three men on the stretchers. Our pluga arrived at the rendezvous point first and waited patiently for 890 and 101 to arrive. At 5 AM we began the last few kilometers to the approach to base.
A thick fog had set in during our wait, allowing us maybe fifteen feet of visibility at most. On the final hill we began to see bright lights poking through the fog, illuminating its movement with the wind. Then we heard music, our anthem playing. Kol hazman Tzanchan, Always a Paratrooper.
A wave of emotion hit me as I realized we finally finished and the Rasar motioned all 300-something soldiers into formation. With a big smile on his face, our Magad congratulated everyone on completing war week and told us how proud he was both to be our commander and to send every one of us to our respective battalions as warriors.
When we returned to our barracks and showered, we returned to our rooms to the most horrifying stench we ever encountered: our clothes. Most of us had not changed clothes the entire week. I found a new shirt so I’d switch them out to dry during the daytime and I changed my socks only once. The Hebrew word for ‘eww’ is ‘ichs’.
We were on alert the entire next day for a surprise hakbatza back to the shetach but when we began cleaning and returning equipment everyone was sure that we were in the clear.
That night we all wore our nice uniforms and gathered for Erev Magama. Guys did hilarious skits mocking their commanders, each company presented a video of their soldiers, and the senior officers presented awards of excellence. My squad commander, Etan, received the award for Outstanding Squad Commander in 202, and my Samal (Drill Sergeant) earned Outstanding Samal for the entire base. Our platoon was very proud.
At last, the Magad spoke, repeating most of his praises from this morning. Then his tone changed a bit and he said something like this, “Our motto is ‘Always a Paratrooper, Always Ready.’ Always. Ready.”
Our hearts all stopped.
“Although you all look so nice in your dress uniforms, everybody in the room look at your watches. You have four hours to be in the shetach. Helicopters will be waiting for you at locations to be determined at 7:00 AM.”
The whole room, minus the three captains, sat there in shock. So he added, “What are you all waiting for? Get to work.”
So we loaded up and marched back out into the wilderness. Around 2 AM my lieutenant veered off the path and picked a clearing of rocks, dirt and thorns and told us to lay down and go to sleep. The next morning helicopters picked us up and whisked us away to a final tarpal. In the air, I remembered the last time we were aboard helicopters at the end of our first field week six months ago. To be quite cliche, it felt like we had come full circle.
The tarpal was nothing special other than that it was in the day’s full heat. Afterwards we ate and waited for evening so we could begin the eight kilometer hike back to base. To our amazement, a bus came and drove us back. I found myself surprisingly disappointed.
7 days. 80 kilometers of marching. Probably another 15-20 of sprinting through tarpals. Thousands of bullets fired. We are now fully trained combat soldiers ready for war.
Despite the plethora of down time we had in September, I didn’t succeed in updating my blog because most of the down time was spent on Shabbat and the holidays in the army. Here’s what I’ve done over the last month.
Immediately following parachuting course, we began our introduction to urban combat. The IDF has a few fake Arab villages set up for training purposes where we learned the basics of how to open doors, search houses, move through streets and alleys, and cover each other. I think we still have a long way to go before feeling any sense of real confidence in these actions, but we also learned that after training ends and we join our battalion (202), we’re going to begin a new, harder round of training.
We spent another week fine tuning our shooting. I worked with the negevists and learned some new tactics like shooting at moving targets, moving while shooting, clearing jams even quicker, and even reloading while advancing (much harder than it sounds). At the week’s end we prepared for our second-to-last masa of training, the Mechin Kumta.
Thirty-six kilometers plus six more under the stretcher. All three training companies loaded our gear onto buses and began heading towards Gaza. We passed Sderot and turned onto my street! Just a kilometer before we would have passed Sa’ad, we turned off the road into a memorial park called Chetz Shachor, the Black Arrow. Once we assembled and quieted down–all 300 something of us–an old man with a megaphone introduced himself as a Tzanchanim Battalion Commander from the 1940s and 50s. Under his command, Tzanchanim launched dozens of small-scale reprisal raids against Egyptian forces in Gaza. He explained how these raids helped build IDF training doctrines and set a standard for Tzanchanim capabilities that continues to be at a highly level even after changing from the leader in special forces units to the leader in infantry brigades (more on that later).
After the Magad’s history lecture and pep talk, they drove us all a few minutes to the other side of Sderot and dropped us off for an all-night masa back to our base. Our early struggle was not even exhaustion but pure sleepiness. Although we slept seven full hours the night before, we’d been busy all day and started the masa around 9:30 PM. About eight or ten kilometers into it, I began dozing off while hiking. My feet kept going and I had no trouble keeping up…just walking straight. My buddies had a few laughs at my expense but a handful of guys in line followed suit and the early challenge was to wake everybody up.
I got the wrong kind of wake up call, when around the halfway mark at 24 kilometers I twisted my ankle pretty badly. The extra weight I took on my back didn’t bother me. I was no longer sleepy, but boy was my ankle on fire for the rest of the night. I had trouble keeping up with my machlaka a few times. My friends were all really supportive, offering to pull me forward or carry my negev, but I kindly pushed them off and just pushed myself forward until we finished around 6:30 AM. I was bummed that it was another not-so-pretty performance, but I never once considered giving up and for that I was proud. Waiting for us at the pluga was a nice breakfast and brand new straps for our rifles boasting a cool patch with our pluga and March 2012 stitched into it. The cherry on top: my squad was promptly and surprisingly awarded the weekend off…which we all spent sleeping and recovering from the masa.
We were due back on base for Rosh Hashana to relax and serve as “koach koninut”. If there is an emergency somewhere, the IDF can alert us onto duty…which they did in the middle of the night after the chag ended. Rosh Hashana on base felt a bit strange. Definitely didn’t feel the judgment of the world hovering over me and missed my family a lot. My squad closed the Shabbat after the chag. We managed to get off for Yom Kippur, but I returned to base to close Shabbat and the first days of Sukkot. Needless to say, I read a ridiculous amount over the holidays, finishingfour books and nearing completion on three others.
This week we completed all of our testing for Advanced Training. All that remains is War Week and our Masa Kumta. They gave us an extra long weekend to relax and enjoy before War Week, a whole week in the shetach chock full of endless hikes through the night and training exercises. It’s been a tough 6+ months, but we’re almost finished. Then, the real work begins.
UPDATE* In my last blog entry about Shavua Machlaka, I failed to mention how our commanders tear gassed us. Five times. Sometimes we had our gas masks with us. Sometimes we just had to run. What fun.
Two weeks ago we started Course Tznicha, Parachuting Course. It’s something extra special for us in Tzanchanim. Although the IDF hasn’t parachuted an infantry battalion in battle since the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the course is a source of pride and the reason why we can call ourselves Paratroopers. The other four infantry brigades do not get this opportunity.
After arriving at the training base at Tel Nof, the course commander gave us a briefing and divided us into our training squads. My friends and I shuffled around in the line, and ultimately we had 7 Americans out of 10 soldiers in our jump squad. The three remaining Israelis (and our commanders on the sidelines) couldn’t help but laugh.
Our jumpmaster (as they call themselves), Omer, wasted no time. He gave us a lecture on our parachutes and the different terms we would encounter over the next two weeks. The next morning we went into the sandbox (no joke) and began learning how to fall and roll upon impact. Arms locked over your head, elbows to ears, knees bent, chest forward…fall onto your calf, then thigh, then shoulder, rolling your legs out. Over the next week we would learn how to fall forward, sideways and backwards depending on where the wind takes you.
We began climbing the various machines built around the base designed to teach you to board the plane, jump, and hit the ground. Some were ziplines, some were harnessed to teach jumping technique, and one (the megama) training for dropping onto the ground. I enjoyed them all, but most guys dreaded being dropped from the megama. Additionally, we learned how to pack our rifles, vests, and other equipment into a bag that we would clip to our harnesses and parachute with them.
The discipline in the course had been a bit annoying. Although technically anyone taking the course is stripped of rank and subject to their jumpmaster’s orders, they were especially strict with us being on time and having our shoes shined repeatedly throughout the day.
Although we’ve been working outside all summer, I don’t think I’ve experienced heat like this yet. We were out working by 7:00 every morning until 9:00 every night. It was legally too hot to train from about noon until 4:00 PM so we would generally have that time to sleep in our burning hot, fly infested tents. However, we would occasionally get called upon during that “free time” to do kitchen or guard duty, or any other physical labor they saw a need for.
But back to the training. At first, the falling and rolling was hard. My friends who have jumped all told me the same thing: just make sure you close your knees and legs. Even that proved to be harder than I thought. It sounds easy enough, right? But instinctively, every time my legs hit the ground my knees and feet would part. After a few days, though, I began to get a feel for it and drew praise from Jumpmaster Omer. Until he dropped me on my butt from the Megama.
My pluga went to Hebron for Shabbat guard duty, but I drew the job of staying at Tel Nof for Shabbat to guard the base and our equipment. Could have been worse. Could have been better. The flies wouldn’t let me sleep during the day, but the floor in the base shul was quite comfortable.
We had two more days of practicing before the big day. Tuesday morning at 3:30 AM we stood waiting for Omer with our helmets under our armpits. We each collected a parachute and reserve chute, and boarded a bus for the air force base next door. After a quick briefing and a light breakfast, we all strapped on our parachutes, harnesses, reserve chutes and helmets.
Six soldiers in my company stood proudly next to their dads; senior reserve commanders who all managed to arrange parachuting with their sons. Suddenly, a soldier in a jumpsuit approached us smiling and embraced me. It was Keren’s brother-in-law, Nitzan. He was performing his reserve duty as a load inspector and arranged to be on my plane. Once we were suited up and checked, we all sat down and awaited the planes. As would happen prior to each of our five jumps, a soldier reached into his pocket and retrieved a copy of “Tefilat HaTznicha” the Parachute Prayer, and a pun on Tefilat HaDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer. When he finished reciting the nearly identical prayer, dozens of us simultaneously shouted, “Amen!”
When the plane finally arrived, we marched two by two and boarded squeezing in as much as possible. There were about sixty of us in all, plus another ten or so instructors and crew on board. We began chanting and singing to pump ourselves up as the plane taxied and eventually took flight. Nitzan took some pictures and with a wink he shoved some candy bars into my pockets. (I can’t upload the pictures due to security concerns, but if you leave me your email address I can send it to you) Once we reached 400 meters in the air and entered the jump zone, my dvuka (jump squad) stood and lined up next to the door. The doors opened, filling the whole cargo with wind. Looking out the door, I could see the Mediterranean and the beach below, but it all still looked just like a movie. Nobody in their right mind would actually jump out that door, right?
A bell rang and the light changed from red to green. “Kfotz!” (Jump) shouted the instructor and out went the first soldier! Within less than a second, the next shoulder chucked his yellow cord, took position in the doorway, and again, “Kfotz!” These guys are out of their minds,” I thought. But there wasn’t really any time to think about it. Before I knew it, it was me standing in the doorway awaiting the command. “Kfotz!” And just like that I threw myself out the door into thin air. My body lost all its weight until it jerked against my parachute opening. My voice cracked as I counted out loud to three-one thousand and I looked above to see the parachute’s chupa (canopy) open into a perfect circle.
In less than a second, all of the noise, stress, excitement, anxiety, nervousness and the deafening howl of the plane’s engines fell silent. I was floating 400 meters above the beach dunes. The silence was at once serene and then a bit scary as I realized that after weeks of preparing and planning as a unit and under my instructor’s command I was completely alone out there. As the course commander cautioned us, “Once you jump, it’s just you and G-d…and a parachute.” I saw the dunes growing bigger and approaching. I was coming into the ground sideways much faster than I anticipated. After about a minute in the air, I entered into the ready position, clenching every muscle in my body to keep my feet and knees together. Though I felt like I could have hit the ground and just stood there, I hit the ground and made a perfect textbook roll onto my right side.
After a bit of howling and celebrating, I hollered congratulations to my friends who had all landed about a hundred meters apart and then began packing up my parachute for the hike back to the road. All three battalions organized on the road and after an hour or so of comparing our jumps and slapping each other on the back, we began our march from the shetach back to the main road in columns of three. As we approached the gates, dozens of our soldiers’ families were waiting with cheers and signs, and more importantly, food.
As we passed through I shouted in Hebrew, “Who wants to adopt me!” prompting a couple motherly cries of “Ani!” (Me) These parents made sure to feed and give drinks to every single soldier, commander and instructor there before our buses arrived and we headed back to the base to prepare jumping just four short hours later.
We ate, prayed, slept for a bit, and reassembled to jump again just before dusk. This time, however, we all carried the sack containing our rifle and loaded vests. Everything proceeded exactly the same as before, except that the extra weight made us hit the ground just a little faster and a little harder. We spent the next day training again and learning how to pack larger equipment into our jump sacks. Heavy guns, stretchers, backpacks, etc.
On Thursday morning we jumped again, then drove down south for a nighttime jump in the Negev. The winds were blowing violently, worrying many of the soldiers about hitting the ground too hard. Although the wind died down, their worries were justified when several guys in my platoon injured themselves landing. Thank G-d, they are okay but they had a miserable night and weekend. As we stood in the plane ready to jump, I peered out the door trying to figure out what was the white expanse I was looking at. We were way too low to be over the clouds. Once I jumped and my parachute opened I learned what it was: a vast, clean desert catching the light from a full moon.
I landed hard, but safely and quickly unpacked my vest and rifle before packing up my parachute. Once we had all assembled and loaded our parachutes into a truck, we began a brutal 8 kilometer hike back to the air force base through the sand dunes. I kept pace fine, but many of the soldiers in my platoon foolishly didn’t fill their water canteens before the jump. “It was heavy.” “I thought there would be water at the meeting point.” Really, I thought, you expected there to be water waiting for you in the middle of the desert? I was pretty angry at how irresponsible they were because me and other guys then had to share our water with them and pretty quickly everyone was out of water. Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the base just in time to catch a 3:00 AM bus back to Tel Nof.
Friday morning I returned to Sa’ad for a nice, quiet weekend with my garin, my kibbutz family, and Louis even joined us for Shabbat. Monday was the final day of jumping. My last jump was to be an evening jump at Palmachim. I was supposed to be the last man jumping in the first jump squad, but while adjusting my helmet at the last minute it popped open and I didn’t jump with them. “It’s okay,” they said as they secured my helmet, “You’ll go first with the next squad.” Once we entered the proper airspace, they motioned me to the door and I stood there with my hands at the sides for a full minute taking in the view. The sun was preparing to set over the Mediterranean. All the orange, blue, and pink getting ready to crash into the water. I was completely mesmerized.
I felt a hard slap on my back and jumped with my eyes open. Once my parachute opened and I released the sack, I sped to pull out my camera (against the rules) and began videotaping my jump. I’m having trouble posting the pictures and videos I took, but I’ll be sure to post them when I’m able. Once we assembled and returned to base, we returned all our equipment, changed to our ceremony uniforms and received the Confatz, Confei Tznichot, Parachute Wings. It’s the most beautiful pin in the IDF and we are all so proud to finally have them.