Sunday, October 3, 2010

End of Training -- From Soldiers to Warriors

I never thought the day would come when I would say, "I'm finished with my training phase of the army." Low and behold, it has arrived. It arrived about 6 weeks ago on a Thursday morning when we finished our Masa Kumta, or Beret March. I don't want to delve too much into the details of the march since I hope to at some point write a blog about it, but I will say that 77 Kilometers (nearly 2 marathons) with full gear on is an experience that nobody forgets. The focus of this entry is to summarize advanced training and more importantly the importance of our training.

We came into advanced training with a sort of relieved sigh. At the end of Tironut (basic training) we were all so sick of our commanders coming down on us and treating us like babies that the idea that there existed another kind of treatment sort of enthralled and excited us. Indeed they sat us down the first day back and set us straight as to what would change, what would not change, and what would change with time. The best way to summarize the differences between Tironut and Imun Mitkadem (Advanced Training) is that Tironut achieves its goal of turning out soldiers by brute discipline and a heavy focus on fitness and Imun Mitkadem produces warriors by focusing less on discipline and more on wilderness training and combat-ready fitness. Combat fitness is storming up a 2 km strip on a steep hill or walking 12 km with 43 kg (about 100 lbs) on your back. It's funny looking back now at how afraid we were of the intense wilderness weeks and the infamous war week that our commanders would frighten us about toward the beginning of our training because at this point we have finished all of it and we're still walking and talking just like before. Well, I think we may talk a little softer now but nonetheless still talking. One of the big highlights of Imun Mitkadem was earning our wings by parachuting 5 times. The course was a grueling 2 weeks of constant yelling and sand in your shirt and ears and underwear. Personally, the 3rd jump that we did (a night jump with our equipment) was the scariest for me. I managed to keep my cool pretty well on the first jump but there were those who definitely needed an extra knock on the back to remind them to jump when they got to the door of the plane. One thing I have enjoyed most about my experience in the army is how much symbolism and how many metaphors you can find in day-to-day life; there is one from jump course that always comes to mind. The hardest part about anything in life is waiting in anticipation of something. Once you get to the door and you have the opportunity, it's pretty simple to just jump. Once you jump, you experience the rush of a lifetime that makes you see things in a new light.

War week was probably the most difficult week of our entire training and it was ultimately the culmination of everything we had learned. I hope to blog about this individually so I will not waste too many words about it as well. We went out on a Monday night and started with a 9 km hike with all of our gear at 2/3 height on a hill. The point of walking at 2/3 height is to disguise yourself more -- when scanning an area you will notice the extremities, such as the top or the bottom of the hill, much quicker than the 2/3 point. Also, 2/3 is disastrous for your knees and ankles as your left foot has a longer journey to the ground than your right foot. Although the first walk was painful, there was another one later in the week that would become infamous in my memories. The routine of war week was Company-level ground exercise, retreat with stretchers, break (due to extreme summer heat), hike toward next exercise, ground exercise, retreat, night hike. We averaged about 1.5 hours of sleep nightly and during the day if you could overcome the intense heat and manage to sleep then by all means. We ate about twice-a-day which was not a lot but it was most definitely enough. Although we were all exhausted, hungry, and disgusting, I learned from war week that you really don't need that much to survive when you are in "combat" mode. And this was just a simulation.

My parents made it to my Beret ceremony and it was great to see them and Arielle and all of our family friends at the end. We were so dead after the march but it was so satisfying to get my red beret finally. It was the goal that we had been waiting for for 7 months. One of the things I love about the army is that in order to reach your goals you have to go through hell, but you do always manage to reach the end and finish. While the red beret was a glorious prize that only somebody whose endured IDF Paratrooper training can enjoy the David Citadel Hotel was also greatly appreciated. I was in desperate need of some rest and luckily I got it. After 77 km with a poorly-set ankle brace my right foot had essentially lost blood circulation. After only about 2 or 3 hours into the beret march I was in agony and felt excruciating pain surging in my ankle and foot every time I put weight on it. After the march I could barely walk on my right ankle and even now, 6 weeks later, I still have some numbness in my right foot.

Since the beret march, we have moved on and are now officially part of Battalion 202. We are in what is called "Plugat Maslul" which is a sort of "residency" for the battalion. We are considered battle-ready, just not as battle-ready as the older soldiers so we have 4 months of this. We are on the Gaza border and while it is not like it was in 2008 it is by no means quiet. Many people seem to be Shavu'z (Shavur Zayeen) or bummed out by the fact that all we're doing is patrols, guard duty, and kitchen duty but these seem to be the people that every step of the way in our training also had a negative outlook. I can imagine that after the army these people will also be complaining about their studies, their roommates, their mortgage, their blah blah blah. My trip home has been approved by the army and I'm thrilled that I'll have a few weeks at home in a little bit. While I know the changes I've undergone are gargantuan I still just feel like Ben and don't quite know what to expect when I go home. We'll see what's changed more, Potomac or me. I'll end this entry on something simple yet inspiring that my host dad told me a couple days ago on the phone. Daniel (my host dad on kibbutz) called my on Friday to see how everything is going and if I would be coming to dinner in the kibbutz dining hall that evening. I told him yes and that everything was fine and that I was just tired from not sleeping right for several weeks because of guard duty and patrols and the wretched sand flies that terrorize the soldiers at night time. He responded with the simple yet wise, "That's okay, that means you're doing your job. Because you don't sleep well at night, my family and I do."

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