Monday, January 23, 2012
It's hard to accurately describe a challenging situation to the point where the listener can feel the hardships that the storyteller is trying to convey. This can oftentimes be frustrating, isolating, and nerve-wracking -- like trying to describe what the color turquoise looks like to a blind person. In this entry I will do my best to pinpoint the difficulties of Shetach, or wilderness, and why it is so many soldiers' nightmare.
The tension usually starts several hours or even a day before going down to the wilderness. Last minute preparations, equipment checks, and fixing malfunctioning weapons or sights. We know the approximate hour that we are supposed to leave the comfortable confines of the base but things never seem to go according to plan. The Tiyullit, or makeshift bus that can endure the rugged terrain of the wilderness, slowly backs up into the company barracks' parking lot. Everybody remains seated but blood pressures rise and a feeling of dread overtakes you. The doors in the passenger compartment in the back slide open and emit the familiar horrid sound similar to a space shuttle getting ready to take off. The soldiers form a chain and pile up all the equipment onto the back of the bus -- green bags with lots of pockets, green vests, slick black machine guns, ammunition, worn-out stretchers and jerrycans of water, AN/PRC-77 radios from the Vietnam era, and other treasures. It's cold outside and you think how it will be significantly more frigid at night time. This doesn't comfort you. You dive further down the rabbit hole of the thought and think about the 6 km walk that awaits you starting at 23:20 (11:15 pm). You'll be carrying somewhere between 80-100 pounds of equipment and your bag will favor your right side causing you to pause every 70 or so meters to adjust the heavy pack on your back. You reach your objective and start digging a foxhole to sleep in for the night. Just minutes before during the walk you were sweating profusely and very hot and sticky. Now your bag is set down next to where you are burrowing and although you still have your combat vest and weapon on you, just below the nape of your neck you feel ice. Your whole back is freezing cold and the terrifying thought strikes you that during the night your shirt will not dry. You'll be forced to sleep with a sheet of ice (your shirt) pressed against your back. When your foxhole is finished, you spread out your paltziv, or sleeping mat, and lie down. You throw the diseased-looking scratchy blanket on top of yourself and try to figure out how to cover your entire self. If you rotate the blanket 45 degrees so that it forms a diamond shape on top of you and then crawl up into a ball you might succeed. This is difficult however because your knees knock into your magazines in the front pouch of your vest and your weapon obstructs your thigh. You reach down to move your weapon forgetting that metal is a very effective cold conductor. As you grip the barrel of your gun you're not sure if the sensation is hot or cold. Giving up on this idea you try countless of other positions before passing out. Over the course of the night you wake up several times, unable to overcome the desert's cold. You have nothing in your reach to comfort or warm you. In the morning when the last man on guard duty wakes everyone up, it is still pitch black outside. Everyone is woken up and assembled for orders. 10 minutes to shave and polish your shoes. Much to your dismay the contents (water) of your 1.5 liter Nestea bottle is freezing cold. Being faced with no other option you splash the frigid liquid onto your face and proceed to shave. You have a horrible taste in your mouth, somewhere between liver and cigarettes, from not brushing your teeth for nearly a day and a half. You've been awake for nearly a half-hour completing your morning tasks, switching to day scopes, shaving, cleaning your weapon, and it's still pitch black and freezing outside. The thought strikes you that you won't go back to sleep for at least 19 or 20 hours. Your feet are still freezing cold and you start to think that maybe you got frostbite but there's no time to take off your boots and check. Keep moving. You take off your gloves to shave and clean your weapon and you wonder if you would have more mobility in your fingers with or without the gloves. An hour and a half pass and you have already eaten and arrived at your next objective. The sun should be shining brightly by now but there is inclement weather in the area. It should be self-explanatory by now why soldiers around the world despise winter. Your company conquers a set of hills in the company drill. The first drill without shooting and the second one with live rounds. At 16:40 (4:40 pm) you are walking and it starts to drizzle. 100 people are thinking the same thing -- NO NO NO! On the third "no" to yourself you hear thunder. It starts raining harder and you look at your dirty sleeve. It has dark spots on it from the rain. A drop hits your index finger and your neck simultaneously and they are cold. You grip your gun, once again forgetting that it is comprised primarily of metal, and once again it feels very hot or cold. By the end of the walk you are quite wet and everybody sits down on the muddy ground. It is still raining and you peek around. Every body is hunched over and squinting their eyes so that the rain doesn't get in their eyes or nose. 8 people out of the platoon must guard while the rest eat so you all take turns. You open up your field rations and take out the canned preserves. As you sink the can-opener into the tuna the oil spurt onto your vest and your pants. The process does not get any neater. 30 minutes is allotted for meal time, which includes opening all the canned goods at the beginning and stomping on them at the end so that the trash takes up less room in your bag. The hour is now 18:45 (6:45 pm). It is pitch black once again and freezing. The rain has let up but it is still drizzling. Approximately 5-6 hours until sleep. You toss the bag over your head and onto your back once again and you feel the damage it's done to your spine. The way you imagine it is like crushing the can of tuna. One blow from your foot causes an indentation, another blow a deeper indentation, and so on until the can implodes on itself. You leave the thought alone and start walking once again adjusting the bag to the left every 70 meters or so. You have been in the Shetach for about 48 hours. You have 120 hours left. Welcome to War Week.
I distinctly remember during my advanced training as a new recruit thinking to myself, "Thank God I won't ever have to do wilderness training in the training base again." Little did I know that a year and a half later I would be doing the same thing (and even a little more) with my soldiers. The things I described above have a different effect on different people. Some miss their bed, some miss their girlfriend, some miss Mom's cooking, some just want to smoke a cigarette with a coke, and some just plain want to get the hell out of the wilderness. I think the best way to go about all this wilderness business is to simply maintain an attitude of indifference. I spoke about this in my blog when I was a new recruit and I'm happy to say that I agree with everything I said back then. Everything is a mission; everything is a fact. It's cold outside. I'm hungry. My legs hurt. They are all facts and nothing more. If you don't assign to them a connotation they can't hurt you. With this attitude, the rain being wet and cold has no more significance than the sky being blue or the hill being steep. There is no question that the shetach is a humbling place -- some would even say holy. It's not a place for glory or for fun, but rather a place for learning about yourself and how you stand in the face of adversity.