Thursday, 22 May 2014

Advanced training and War Week

Though we still have a few more weeks to go of advanced training, I thought I'd post about the last week we had, War Week, and a little about advanced training in general.

In short, advanced training deals less with discipline, and more with how to actually be a soldier. The weeks are spent out in the field, with all your gear for the week packed into your vest and incredibly heavy bag. The training is a mixture of open-field and urban combat. You learn how to take over enemy areas, first in small groups, then slightly bigger groups, then as a unit, and eventually, in War Week, as a pluga (so all the Gadsar together).

Everybody warned us about War Week and how hard it would be. On Saturday night we were given the briefing - we were to go into "Lebanon" and capture Hizbollah strongholds. We got all our gear together, carrying enough food and water for the first 18 hours. We camouflaged our faces and stood for a final check from one of the top officers. Standing alone, with all the weight on your shoulders is bad enough, let alone setting out on foot over the "border", lord knows how many kilometres, to make it to the combat zone in time.

We walked all night in formation, arrived on time, captured the areas, took out the enemy (cardboard targets with balloons), with the added backup of three tanks and a team of snipers.

We were then told that some had been "injured" and had to be taken back over the border for treatment. For kilometre after painful kilometre we rushed to carry the injured on the stretchers back to the base. This was the pattern of the week; briefing, march, combat, carrying the injured back. On and on it went. In four days I ate 3 sandwiches and 2 pieces of dried mango. Every 24 hours we slept a total of about 2 hours. 

But I learnt a lesson that one can really only learn, I believe, being a soldier. It didn't matter how hungry, thirsty or exhausted we were, the mind can overcome all that if it has the will to do so. Carrying the injured back to the base for the last time (this time we had a genuine injury), we came across our biggest challenge yet. We hadn't slept at all that night and we had just captured what felt like Mount Everest. Despite our backs doubled-over with pain, shoulders burning, for four hours we were carrying those stretchers, racing to get them back in time. If someone needed switching out from under the stretcher, it was enough to look into their eyes and see their pain to immediately forget yours. "Brothers in arms" isn't just a Hollywood cliché, it's what makes our army so strong.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Reflections on Basic Training

Well it's been a while. Not for lack of want or motivation to write, but that I simply didn't know what to write. There are all sorts of restrictions I have on what I can and cannot include that I thought I'd leave it to a general musing, post-Tironut (basic training).

I've been serving now for just over four months, and I have loved every moment of it. However, the army teaches you that love for what you do is not necessarily in the specific moments, but in the bigger picture of it all (though there are very many positive, specific moments). The sensation of your feet burning in pain on a march is not exactly enjoyable, but if you look past that and realise that all this is to make you a better soldier, all becomes easier.

So what does basic training look like? It's full of a lot of discipline, a lot of fitness, a lot of shooting, and a lot of being on your feet. There are so many stories I could share from the past four months; every day (and night) is packed with training. However, I'll share here two specific stories that highlight the contradictions and paradoxes of life in the army. The first was a march we did one night. We were, as usual, in the field. Training in the field means sleeping in tiny, two-man tents that, due to our unwashed feet, smell awful by the second night, and subsisting off combat rations of some tuna and tinned fruit. (By the way, I can't remember the last time we weren't in the field. As the saying goes, "the field is our home, the base the hotel, and home the dream"). One late afternoon we were told to drink the usual pre-march 3 bottles of water, we geared up, and set off as it got dark. The weather at this point was grim to say the least. The wind slapped our faces, the rain poured down, and the cold got into our bones. That's not some overly poetic way of describing it, it really felt like that. Carrying all our gear, keeping up with the pace whilst trekking up and down mountains and ravines got us hot and sweaty. However, the freezing cold rain on our soaking uniforms must have confused our bodies. I genuinely feared hypothermia. Every water break we had, I would start shivering, though my body was sweating profusely. My eyes kept closing from exhaustion. Still, like all these countless similar experiences we've had, we pushed each other along. As long as you keep your mind strong, your body will follow.

On the other side of the coin, I don't think I've ever quite laughed more than I did after this story. A few of us went with our Samal (the strictest commander) to the shooting-ranges. Whenever a person, an animal, or anything that could cause problems, appears within visual range of the end or the sides of the shooting range, you have to stop immediately. I've never had that until that day, when an entire herd of camels came wondering up to the edge of the range. The samal tells us that we have two minutes to shoo them away. So, as it goes with everything in basic training, we start our stopwatches and sprint to these camels. As we're having fun shooing them away, I look at my watch and see we have 40 seconds left to run back 300 metres to the range. We figured they were at a sufficient distance to start shooting again, so we start sprinting back. I look behind me just to check everyone is there, and what do I see? A line of my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend, and a mad camel that is sprinting its guts out chasing us. The look of panic on our faces was priceless.

Such are the paradoxes of army life; difficult moments mixed with the comical. However, I think that to really get the most out of it, you have to smile equally during both. Yes, there are annoying moments, like having to redo tasks over and over and over again for hours, just because you didn't complete it in time at first, but a) whinging helps no one b) it makes you a better unit. On reflection, my unit's commanders were the strictest out of the Gadsar, but it payed off. We are, I would say, the most disciplined of the lot.

So what does basic training look like? Each week is dedicated to a specific subject, meaning that by the end of it all each soldier has a good grounding in the basic skills. We spend weeks in the shooting ranges, weeks out in the field learning field survival, how to deal with chemical and biological warfare, training exercises working in small teams to capture territory, and much much more. During basic training, there is great distance between the soldiers and the commanders, and nothing is done without "opening a watch", i.e. every single little thing we do has to be done in the time given by the commander (even going to the toilet). Everything thus becomes pressurised, but this only creates a disciplined unit. Tasks that once seemed impossible to do in 2 minutes, now easily takes us 40 seconds.

As the training continues, you slowly become more of a combat-ready unit. We were each given our speciality weapons. I am my unit's Negev machine gunner. Put it this way, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of a burst of one of those.

I'm writing this post from England. Having finished basic training, and just starting advanced training, the army gave me a couple weeks' leave. It was strange at first sleeping in a warm bed, waking up when I wanted, eating very well. Now I'm going to have to get back into the swing of army living. However, I have had an amazing trip; seeing my family and friends. It's not easy to say goodbye again, but I'll be back for another trip soon I'm sure. Though I am away from my family, I am with the best unit during the weeks, and whenever I'm back on the kibbutz I have the greatest Garin to go back to. They really are like family to me. 

Having some fun with some old friends during my trip to the UK

The family together for a Shabbat

So we now go into advanced training, building it up so that in the end we're well-versed in brigade-wide exercises. That culminates in June when we receive our green berets. After that, we go on to our unit's specific training, dealing in counter-terrorism, explosives, navigation, communications etc.

At this point, I'm going to have to make a little plug. In short, the army does not supply us with absolutely everything we need. Added extras like warm clothes, camelbacks etc. are seen as surplus and not provided. However, to do our job most effectively, we need these. We have an online donations page at This is a great opportunity to play a part in Israel's defence. We genuinely need these donations to help us do our work. Thank you.

So what advice would I give to anybody starting the training? Never lose sight of the bigger picture. Running from here to there, and back again countless times as punishment is never fun. Crawling 400 metres with the 7.6kg Negev machine gun and 30kg of ammo on your back is never fun. Crawling up a hill just to eat your lunch of tuna and some peanuts is never fun. Battling your way up a mountain whilst choking on tear gas is never fun. However, all these experiences only make you stronger and only bring you together as a team. What's more, the Zionism that might have brought you to that point will take you to the end of each of these experiences too. To be training in the first Jewish army in 2000 years is a privilege. Privileges like that are enough to make you smile through it all.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Palchan Nachal

Firstly, I have to start this post with an explanation as to why it's taken me so long to publish. My mefaked had originally told me that, due to security reasons, this blog couldn't practically continue. There are so many details I can't put in apparently. However, this blog is my own little Zionist project, to try and explain my experiences in the IDF for anyone else who might be interested in joining, and so, with a green light from my commander, I'm carrying it on despite the holes in the information.

So I passed the gibbush and I am now serving in the Gadsar. My unit is a small team within Palchan Nachal, called Chapak Machat. I had no idea they were even testing for the team, as they only test for it once every two years. To explain, the Palchan specialise in counter-terrorism (during non-war time) and explosives and engineering (during war time). Our training is one year and 2 months. The Palchan are the first in and make the first impact. Chapak Machat is a small team within Palchan that also specialise in communications. We come under the direct command of the head of Nachal, and we are his eyes and ears on the ground. 

So what's been going on up until now? Due to my doubts as to whether or not I could continue the blog, there are many gaps in my memory during the past few weeks. The first little bit was taken up by lots of discipline, lots of running from here to there, sorting out equipment, and sitting in introductory talks by people like the head of the Gadsar, the doctor, the fitness instructors, the Rabbi etc. 

Photos are a little problematic, but here's my new "home" on the base

We then started on shooting, and we spent a week every day out in the shooting ranges. We were taught and practiced technique, and repeated getting from standing to lying position over and over again. My shooting has definitely improved. 

As well as lots of shooting practice, we also did a lot of Krav Maga training. Krav Maga is close-quarter combat and we were introduced to the basic principles, with a focus on the fitness. It's slowly slowly increased in difficulty, but also in practical training.

So far we have had two Masaot, or marches; the last one being our Masa Hashba'a this past week. During both masaot I carried the stretcher on my back. At the end of the last masa we were also given our shoulder tags that say we are in Nachal. 

The Hashba'a is the swearing-in ceremony that every solider has. In it, you swear your allegiance to the State and its laws. Ours was at the Kotel and my parents and one of my sisters came from England to watch me getting sworn in. It was an emotional moment singing Hatikvah at the end, in my uniform, standing at the sight so central to our people for thousands of years, across the globe. It really hit me how proud I am to serve. Never again will we be without a homeland, without independence, and I am proud to play a very small part in making sure of that.

That's me, just about to swear-in and recieve my weapon and a Tanach

Because my family are here, I have off until Tuesday. I do apologise (if anyone actually cares) for the brevity of this post. It's been difficult to remember the details, because it's been a while. But after speaking to my commander, I've been given the go-ahead to carry on the blog (minus a few details). I should have next Shabbat off so will update the blog then. Until then, I'm relaxing with my family for a bit before heading back to base :)

Friday, 29 November 2013

Gibbush Gadsar

Yesterday I finished the gibbush for the Gadsar. Just as a reminder, the Gadsar is the forward battalion of Nachal and is divided into 3 plugot - Palsar, Palchan, and Orev. This particular gibbush was for Palsar and Palchan. This is a very difficult blog post for me to write, as I don't necessarily remember all the details. It all became a four-day blur of crawling, running, and more crawling. However, I think I finished well and will find out whether I'm in or not next week.

So the gibbush started out Monday with approximately 350 people. By the end, we finished with 150 people. Monday was mostly a day of sitting around, making sure we had the correct equipment (about 5 times), doctors checks and signing forms. Right now, as I am 22 years old, I am only legally required to serve for 2 years. If I pass the gibbush I have to sign on for an extra year, and that was one of the forms I had to fill out.

Next, we were taken out to the field next to the Nachal base, where the gibbush took place, and were divided into what we thought were the teams for the gibbush. At this point, no one had their phones and watches, and it was impossible to tell the exact time (we had no idea of the time throughout the four days). Each person was given a hat with a number on it, which was to be their number for the gibbush. For the next few hours we sprinted and crawled through the dusty, rocky sand, each time with a harsh command of "tze" (go) from the commander. After each crawl or sprint we had to quickly line up in the order in which we came. Sometimes we would have time to line up and sometimes he would tell us to go as we were lining up. By this point people were already exhausted and many left and gave up. A couple of times during that night we were given short water breaks. Mentally, you would live for those breaks, however during the crawls you would swallow so much sand that it would clog up your throat. Consequently, most people started throwing up as they drank, and you were not allowed to wash the sand out of your mouth by spitting out any water. Eventually this all ended and we were put to bed in our tents. However, we were told that there were to be two people from each tent guarding at all times, which meant that sleep was little and constantly interrupted by guarding shifts. We had to do this each night. 

The next morning we were woken up well before sunrise and continued the sprints and the crawls until breakfast. Each meal was the same; field rations that consisted of bread, tuna, some vegetables, jam, chocolate spread, tinned fruit and tinned beans. Everything without exception went into a sandwich. From breakfast the first day, my memory becomes pretty hazy as to the exact details and sequence of events. I do apologise, and I kept saying to myself that I had to try and remember it all for the blog, but easier said than done. So I do apologise for leaving out any of the details. 

That first full day was the hardest I would say, and we were split up into completely different teams from the previous night and told that actually from hereon the gibbush had begun. All that hard work last night suddenly seemed in vain, but I'm sure it wasn't. I'm sure it was some kind of mind game. So we were allocated to different groups and given different numbers. That day was a mixture of running, crawling and stretcher marches. The stretcher had on it sand bags that weighted it down, and the aim was to hold the stretcher for as long as possible during the march. The commanders were constantly walking around and noting down the numbers of those carrying it. I wouldn't let go, despite the searing pain in my shoulder. 

Later on that night I think we carried on with more crawling. Because of the excessive amount of water they got us to drink during the days, I needed to wee so badly. Not wanting to stop, and not wanting my needing to wee get in the way of my performance, I decided that I just had to do it as I crawled. Though not pretty, and though embarrassing, and despite my hesitation to publicise my bodily functions, I think it's an important thing to tell. The gibbush was not a pretty sight, and you just have to keep going no matter what. To be absolutely honest, I can't remember all the details of that second day, but we ended up a lot smaller a team than we had started.

I happen to feature on the IDF website!! During one of the many exhausting exercises

A photo of one team during this week's gibbush taken by the army

The next day began again with physical exercises, but the middle of the day was taken up largely by group exercises. During one of them, we were told to dig a hole as a group, big enough to fit everybody in, as well as dig a hole individually, just for ourselves. We were given half an hour for this. At the end of the time we were told to stand in order of where we thought we had come in terms of work put into digging the group hole. Another exercise was where we had to, as a group, get a huge log from one side of a "minefield" to another, with only particular numbers allowed to speak. All these tasks posed a slight problem for my Hebrew, which, not being bad itself, becomes slightly rusty during exhaustion. So I really hope it doesn't cause a problem in the results!

Another one of those smaller tasks was on the monkey bars. At first we had to, as a group, make sure there were 8 people hanging at all times for 6 minutes. We had to work as a group to complete it, but unfortunately we didn't do it. After that, we had to hang individually from the bars as long as we could. (A word of warning; monkey bars give you many many blisters).

Another station was on the sandy hill. We had to put sand bags on our backs and go up and down this hill as many times as we could in a given time, each time shouting our number and the number of turns around the hill. By the third rotation, everybody was walking it and my legs were burning. Still, it wasn't going to last forever, and the important thing was to keep your head above it all. 

There were many of these smaller stations, but I can't remember the details of all of them. Some were group orientated and others were more individual. Afterwards came yet more crawling and sprinting, and then we all stopped to gather round to light the first light of Chanukah. It was such a special moment, and though many of the other details might be blurry, this wasn't. It was so special to see all these different people, secular and religious, gather round to light the candles. This is why I am here - the first Jewish army in 2000 years. 

Next, they played a trick on us. As we had already dropped to a total of about 150 people, the head of the gibbush announced that it was all over. Suddenly, the commanders were slightly nicer to us, and told us to follow them with all our gear towards the base. I knew it was a trick, it didn't make sense. However, as we were approaching the gates of the base there was the slightest glimmer of hope that in fact this could really be it. It wasn't. Suddenly the commander screams "10 seconds in a Chet", and we were once again off on a march, or a crawl, I can't even remember. I just remember that sinking feeling. That night we were woken up at probably about 3am for a march with the sand bags. Another word of warning about the sand bags; the bags containing the sand bags have shoulder strips that simply dig into the shoulders due to their thinness, and so you can feel it with each step.

The next morning was the final morning, and again we were taken on a march. After that, we had our personal interviews with the commanders and had to evaluate each person in the team, ranking them according to how we thought they each did. After a lot of hanging about, and doughnuts brought by a couple of Chabad families in honour of Chanukkah, we were taken back to the base where we were greeted with cheers by the rest of Nachal and given a little end-of-gibbush ceremony. We sang Hatikvah together, and genuinely all the pain that I felt seemed to disappear. It was all worth it to hear that. It was one of those moments.

So we hear whether we got in next week. Until then, I'm back on kibbutz resting up and catching up on some much needed sleep. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Yom Giyus and Trom Tironut

The last few days have seemed like a week, but I'm absolutely loving it in Nachal.

Wednesday was Yom Giyus, the day I drafted into the army. It was a long day but I did enjoy it. Firstly I was taken by Garin Tzabar to the Lishkat Giyus in Tiveria, where I had my Tzav Rishon. From there, there was a bus that took all us נחלאווים (Nachal boys) to the Bakum. The Bakum, or Tel Hashomer base, is where you officially get enlisted. There, we were told to drop our bags in a storage room and then taken to lunch (the food at the Bakum is nicer than my base). What followed was a series of stations - photo, mouth x-ray, injections (4), head x-ray, DNA sample, receiving your Choger, or army ID, giving the army your personal and bank details, a few other stations I just can't remember, and finally receiving your uniform.

From the Bakum we made our way to the base, Bach Nachal. It was an exciting feeling sitting there with my new uniform - I'd waited such a long time for it. Once we got to the base we were introduced to our Mefakdim (commanders) who are to be with us during this period called Trom Tironut, or pre-basic training. During Trom Tironut the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed than how it will be during Tironut, and whilst everything is to the clock, the Mefakdim are very nice to us (this period lasts until after the gibbush, when we are sorted into our specific units). That night we had a talk with the deputy head of the base, filled out a whole load of forms, and signed some more forms. I have to admit, half of the Hebrew I barely understood, but I figured I'd just sign where I was told to.

The next morning we had the Bar-Or fitness test. This test is to see who can and cannot try out for the Sayeret unit this coming week, and consists of sit-ups, push-ups and a 2km run. I pushed myself very hard and was happy with my result. After lunch (we didn't eat breakfast), we recieved our Bet uniform, or work uniform. I was one of the lucky few whose uniform actually fit them! 

That night we were put to bed early and woken up at 4am. We were given 5 mins to get up, dressed, brush teeth and be out in the Chet. We spent the next couple of hours cleaning the tent, putting all our equipment away, and standing in the Misdar Yetziah (leaving check). Because I live north of Hadera, I was allowed to leave slightly earlier than those living in the centre or south of the country, although not by much!

I made my way to my kibbutz and my garin, and whilst I was SO excited to see them all and be back on kibbutz, I'm also excited to return to the base on Sunday.

First Shabbat home

Next week is my gibbush for the Gadsar. It's going to be a difficult and long week, but I'm going to give it all I have. Will just have to make sure that despite my inevitable exhaustion I remember all the details for the blog...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Nachal! (And a sort-of packing list)

The results of the Manila have come through, and I got into Nachal!!! I got my first choice! Bring on the red boots and green kumta (beret)!

The Nachal tag - worn on the left shoulder of the Alef (dress) uniform

The draft date for my unit is 20th (6 days) when I have to report to the Bakum, or central drafting base. In 6 days I'll be switching my civilian clothes with army uniforms, and I'll be handing myself over to the IDF. That will be a proud moment for me; finally, finally, finally I am doing what I came here to do.

So for now I am getting the last minute things I might need for Wednesday. So what does one bring on the first day in the army? Everyone always tells you different things, and it's hard to know exactly. From the sounds of it, the army give you almost everything you need, so I'm bringing a few undershirts (white and green), underwear, army socks, toiletries, and miscellaneous items like plasters, rubber bands (for the bottom of the trousers), and blister plasters.

Because people tell you different things, and it's hard to tell right now what you might need to bring with you, I will write a definitive list of things you need after I've drafted.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Manila (preferences form)

Today I recieved and completed my Manila (preferences form). It came a little late to say the least, but better late than never. I thought I'd share details of the Manila here, because I have heard for a while about this mysterious and all-important form, but never actually knew much about it. 

Based on your profile and your kaba scores from the Tzav Rishon, the army send you a list of units you can apply for. Through Garin Tzabar however, you are given a set template, and almost everybody (boys eligible for combat) receive the exact same Manila. 

Here's the one I recieved, with my preferences filled out:

Each of the options need to be rated between 5 and 1, 5 being top and 1 being bottom (silly Israelis). The top box is asking how much you want to be a Lochem, or combat soldier (5). 

The next box asks you to individually rate each of your options, independently of the Infantry (Chir), which comes later. The options given to me were Border Police (1), Combat Engineers (2), Tanks (2), Artillery (1), Field Intelligence (1), Home Front Search and Rescue (1), Air Defence (1), Military Police in Judea and Samaria (1), and Chemical and Biological Warfare (1). 

The next box is specifically for Infantry, and I had to rate, according to my preference, each of the Brigades - Golani (2), Givati (3), Kfir (1), and Nachal (5).

The last box is a general ranking of your three top choices. Mine are Infantry (with Nachal as a clear top) as number 1, Combat Engineers as number 2, and Tanks and Armoured Corp as number 3. 

It is important to note that a) apart from the last box, you are not ranking them in relation to each other but rather as individual options and b) if you really want something, you need to think tactically about what you write. I can say now that my top choice is Nachal, and so I tactically did not put anything as 4, creating an obvious distinction between Nachal and any other place. However, I made sure that in the case of not getting Nachal, which is certainly a possibility, I have shown what I certainly do not want and also what I would be OK with. 

Usually, you receive the Manila long before I did, and so I have been slightly on edge, and will be until I get exact confirmation of where I am placed. All thoughout this period of waiting I was told ״יהיה בסדר״ (it will be OK) countless times. At the time, the phrase might make you want to strangle someone. However, as frustrating as the phrase is, it's true. 

I wrote here of the details of my Manila to clarify for others what the word means and its importance. So I might as well go on to explain a little about my exact aim. I put down Nachal because my aim is a unit within Nachal called Gadsar (Sayeret) Nachal. Nachal is an infantry brigade with the most inspiring and Zionist history. It was set up originally as a fighting brigade that would also establish agricultural settlements along the borders - working and defending the land. Now, it has become a regular infantry brigade like all the others. The Gadsar (Gdud Siyur, or Reconnaissance Battalion) is the forward unit of the brigade. All details can be found out with a quick Google search.

The draft date for Nachal is the 20th (15 days) and there is a 4-day Gibbush from the 25th to get into the Gadsar. The Gibbush consists of all sorts of running, sprinting, crawling, stretcher marches etc.

It is important to remember that you are never guaranteed anywhere, and I could possibly not recieve Nachal at all. However, I will admit that I am not accepting anything but. So now I await the results of the Manila and start buying all the things I need for my draft in a couple weeks time.