Friday, January 9, 2015

Pre-Army Program Field Week

Field/Survival Week

Throughout the first four weeks of the program we had heard rumors about field week; what physical training it would entail, where we would be “sleeping”, and which thorn bushes we would be crawling through. By the time we had gotten on the bus taking us to the settlement in Judea where we would be staying, “shetach week” had reached epic, mythical proportions in our minds. As I tried to catch some shuteye on the bus, I mentally prepared myself for the ensuing onslaught by reminding myself that, no matter what happens, I would be home Friday afternoon for Shabbat. I can endure anything for 4 days.

I briefly reflected…on what almost was, and what will someday be; wearing a suit, Starbucks coffee in hand, gearing up for a big meeting in New York City and I could only chuckle at the fact that within minutes I would be running, crawling, and dirtying myself in the hills of Judea preparing for the physical and mental rigors of life in the field. The choices we make…

We arrived, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and told we had two minutes to get ready for a Masah (a long army hike/run/march with all of our belongings on our backs). With a commander we had never met, (who spoke no English), we set off for the darkness at 12:30 AM. For the next three hours we hiked, marched and ran through bushes, rocks, mountains, fields and an endless supply of mud and dirt. Every so often we would have to get low to the ground, as we were near hostile Arab villages and we didn’t want to be seen, and periodically we would have to hop barbed wired fences, always using each other as launching pads to catapult us and our bags over the fence.

We eventually made our way to a huge barn, where we were told we could take our bags off and prepare for bed in the haystacks in the corner of the barn. There were about 200 sheep in the stable inside the barn, with chickens and goats everywhere, and a few dogs playing the role of Barn Patrol. It was probably the most inhospitable environment I could ever imagine falling asleep in, but at 4:00 am, after an all-night hike, I couldn’t reach the hay fast enough! We rotated guard duty all night, but unlike in our apartment in Jerusalem where we largely do it for practice, here guard duty was of the utmost importance because every few nights Arabs from the town over try to steal the sheep and wreck havoc on the place.

Welcome to Field Week.

Field week continued with that same intensity for 4 days. We were sleep deprived, ate the same canned tuna and bread at every meal, shit in the woods, and pushed our bodies and minds as far they could go. The toughest part for me was the mental anguish of never knowing what would come next; whether we would be hiking, eating, running, sleeping crawling, doing drills or working in the field. We never knew. This constant mind fuck and the feeling of always being “on edge”, was, to me, the worst part of the week.

Like I mentioned, we stayed in a settlement in Judea (West Bank) for 4-5 days and we “slept” either on the aforementioned pile of hay in the barn, overcrowded with sheep, and chickens, or we stayed in a freezing cold abandoned army base (with wide open windows) on the top of a neighboring mountain. I put sleep in quotations because at no point throughout the week did we sleep for more than 3-4 hours at a time, as we were constantly woken up at random hours to hike and train. They took our watches the first night, to disorient us, so we never had any real idea of what time it was during the night, except for when we were on guard duty. For 4 days, we ate nothing but bread and jelly for breakfast- and then bread, canned tuna, and canned beans for lunch and dinner every night, with no snacks in between. We went to bed one night at 8:00 pm and were woken up at midnight for a four hour hike, and then slept again for a few hours the next day. We were always on the move and always disoriented.

We spent one morning doing manual labor in the fields, carrying and using heavy metal rods to jam sticks into the ground to help prepare the vineyards for the Spring. It was fucking brutal; dehydrating, exhausting, and repetitive. While they told us it was to get used to the idea of doing mundane and tedious work for (seemingly) no reason, (which happens all the time in the army) I think they just relished the opportunity to have 20 pledges (essentially), working their fields for free.  Regardless, it was a cool experience, and for 4 hours, I got to imagine that I was one of my Zionist pioneer heroes, who built this country with nothing but hard work, ingenuity, and the desperation of knowing that for our people, this was it. Our only hope of a better future for our children. There was no going back to Europe or Arabia.

During a Masah, the first 15 minutes are always the worst. At the beginning, I’m cold, my muscles are sore and not warmed up, and I struggle to wake up. It’s amazing though…after a half hour, once I have a nice sweat going, I actually get into a comfortable rhythm and feel like I could continue on forever. There is no talking on a Masa, and, a lot of times, I put my mind somewhere else as I climb through the hills. I would reminisce about the summer, of fun college experiences, I would imagine what I would do with my parents when they visited in 2 weeks, I would think of anything and everything. As I breathed in the fresh mountain air of the Judean hills, feeling my lungs hard at work, these awesome memories would energize me as I felt the love and support from family and friends flow through my veins.

On Wednesday (I think) we stayed at an abandoned army base about a 3-hour hike (my new form of measurement) away from the barn. In the morning, after yet another hearty breakfast of bread, chocolate sauce and jelly, we practiced shooting positions and infantry strategies using paintball guns (they were actually real guns just adapted for paintball) and getting used to the sort of training formations we will learn in the army. During the afternoon we actually played paintball, but a more focused and structured paintball than is typical, as we emulated wartime situations. We split into two teams and rotated playing terrorists and soldiers: we recreated situations where soldiers would confront an ambush, clear a hostile village, search house to house for a kidnapped soldier etc. I had been nervous for the paintball because I was worried I would be too nervous of getting shot to truly be effective, but as I’ve continually found out over the past 5 weeks, fears are meant to be conquered and I am tougher than I give myself credit for. It was the only part of the week that was inherently fun. Actually, it was more than fun. It was fucking awesome.

One night while we were hiking up a mountain, our commander noticed that some guys kept trying to avoid the thorn bushes. So he stopped us and told us to lie down, flat on the ground, on top of the thorn bushes. He then told us, as we were lying face down in a thorn bush, about Yoni Netanyahu, coincidentally one of my heroes (he was the commander, and the only soldier who died, during the incredible raid on Entebbe that rescued hundreds of kidnapped Jews from Palestinian and Nazi terrorists in Uganda). He then recited Yoni’s quote, something to the effect of, “I feel the thorns at my sides and grimace, but then I realize that these are the land of Israel’s thorns, our thorns, and I feel no pain, for I am home.” Here I was, laying down in the hills of Judea, thorns all over my body, listening to my commander speak the words of my hero about the beauty of the land of Israel. The sentiment lifted my spirits, I breathed in the fresh Israeli mountain air, satisfied and awestruck that I would get to fight for my people the way that Yoni Netanyahu and thousands of proud young Jewish men and women had before me.

Merely lying in thorns was just a precursor though.

On the final day, after more trekking through the Judean hills, we completed a 100-yard dash (holding a weapon) where we ran, crawled, and then, for the grand finale, dove into a huge mud pile. Thinking that this awesome relay must be the final event of field week, we were all ecstatic, cracking jokes, thinking that we had reached the end. Instead, once everyone had completed the dash, our commander yelled at us to pick up our rucksacks, as we would be continuing our hike in our soaking, mud stained clothing. 20 minutes later, at a field with huge thorn bushes, he told us to drop and crawl through the thorns as fast as we could, as if he saw no reason why we would be hesitant. Like I discussed in my last post, once you internalize the fact that pain is temporary and that fear and hesitancy are mere mental blocks, we free our bodies to move with reckless abandon. The faster I would crawl, the less it would hurt, and the quicker I would complete the trek.

Later that night, they told us that we were heading out for another Masa (long hike).  My heart dropped; my knees ached, my feet were torn up, and we hadn’t slept more than 4 hours in the past four days. As we stood in formation, and as I mentally prepared myself for the ensuing hike, our commander yelled at us to drop into pushup position on our fists (we were standing on a rocky field) close our eyes, and endure for as long as we could to find out who was mentally toughest. When it was just myself and 1 other guy left, our commander told us there were 5 of us left (our eyes were still shut) and by the time he said that there were 2 left, I was the only one still in position. Unknowingly, I had stayed in the position for about 7 minutes after everyone else had given up and stood around watching me. My body was shaking uncontrollably, my fists were on fire, but I refused to lose: I kept thinking, 10 more seconds, you got this. When I finally opened my eyes and realized what had happened, our commander gave me a handshake and a nod, and told us to close our eyes and put our hands on our head. After enduring our after-workout-ritual absorbing tough punches to the gut, he told us we were done and we could get on the bus to Jerusalem, and enjoy Shabbat.

I was ecstatic.

My feet are busted, my shoulders are exhausted, my back aches, I’ve never walked more in my life, and my arms are all cut up from the thorns, rocks, and dirt...but I feel stronger, mentally tougher, and like I have accumulated, over the past 5 weeks, an assortment of experiences that will help me immeasurably as I move on to the beginning of my service in the Israel Defense Forces.

One More Week!

Get Used to Feeling Like Crap

Our Krav Maga instructor, a former counter-terrorism special forces operator in the IDF, in a speech about how to succeed in the army, imbibed us with, what I feel, is the most important piece of advice I have ever received, “Get used to feeling like shit. Learn to embrace suffering.”

As I have learned from every one of our instructors, and really every soldier I’ve met thus far, the army is all about learning to become capable in uncomfortable situations. Always being tired. Always being injured. Being dirty, nervous, scared, on edge all the time. The sooner we, as individuals, learn to embrace this state of being, to familiarize ourselves with pain enough to recognize suffering for what it is, temporary, the better soldiers we will become and the easier and more enjoyable our experience will become. The best soldiers are not necessarily the strongest, fastest, or most in shape guys, but rather they are the guys able to suffer and to constantly feel like shit, without quitting, mentally succumbing, or letting it affect their disposition or how they go about their duties.

This is what our pre-army program is all about. We crawl and run in the middle of the night; we do full contact Krav Maga, we rotate guard duty all night, we close our eyes and absorb body blows every workout, and we are never told a schedule so we never know what’s coming. We are constantly on edge, wondering when our mefaked will wake us up and tell us to get into “matav shteim” (pushup position).

This is the most valuable lesson I will take with me from this pre-army program. It’s not the workouts themselves; I have always been a runner, an athlete, and I would have been fine physically in the army, as I have been during our workouts. Rather, it’s learning to cope with being tired, sore, and on edge, to deal with new situations, and to still be mentally present and alert. It’s all about having the right mindset and becoming mentally tough enough to know that you can keep pushing past your breaking point. A lot of our workouts have made me realize that exhaustion and doing well in an army environment are more a function of mental fortitude than actual physical ability.

Crawling is the best example of this. Crawling is purely a function of mental toughness: are you able to let go of that fear, that voice in your head telling you to take it easy, and just say fuck it, and then crawl with reckless abandon? To go as hard as you can? One day we were crawling on really tough terrain (rocks, dirt, and concrete) and I was struggling because each step was too painful. I watched another kid crawl and he was killing it, he was just going so much faster and harder than I was. It was like he was crawling on a mattress. Something in my mind snapped at that moment. I realized that this pain, however uncomfortable, would be fleeting. If I could, like my friend, be mentally tough enough to put my mind elsewhere and just put one foot in front of the other, I would crush it. This awakening allowed me to crawl with a newfound intensity at a higher gear, as I broke free of that voice in my head telling me to stop, slow down and take a break. I have never finished lower than second (out of 25) in any crawling training since. In fact, while at an army base practicing the IDF obstacle course  (we need to complete it in a certain time to graduate basic training), I completed the course with the fastest time in the 6 year history of this pre-army training program, and a time eligible for special forces.

This is why crawling is such a large component of all the “gibushim” (tryouts) for the IDF special forces: they want to see if we can block out the noise and push ourselves as far as we can possibly go; to block out the pain and exhaustion, and do what we need to. How bad do we want to be here?

During a workout when we were in “matav shteim” (pushup position) and our arms started to shake, our commander told us that our bodies shaking just means our mind is trying to trick our bodies into thinking that we can’t go any further, that we have reached our limit because it doesn’t want to have to suffer. As he said “that’s bullshit. You can do this all day once you realize that the pain is all in your mind. There’s nothing about this that will injure you.” Sometimes, our mefaked makes us do pushups on our fists on the cement. At first, this was unbearably painful; I couldn’t do it. My mind told my body it was too painful. After doing it a little longer each time though, I realized that I could endure the pain more and more each time, until it started to feel natural. After our toughest workout to date, we had a competition (with our eyes shut) to see who could stay in fist pushup position on rocks longest without succumbing to the pain. I held out the longest, but as my eyes were shut, I was unaware that I had won…I ended up enduring the pain, body shaking convulsively, for 10 minutes after everyone else had quit.

I still hate doing this, but I know that I can.
And that is a huge difference.

Pushing past those artificial barriers becomes euphoric. You realize that you are capable of enduring so much more than you thought and you realize that each time you do so, mental barriers start falling down one by one.

What a wonderful lesson, not just for my IDF service, but to have with me the rest of my life.

3 Weeks Until I am a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

Why Are You Here?

We’re sitting in a circle, covered in mud, dirt, and dust. We’ve just run, crawled, carried each other on our backs, done pushups, squats and the works. Our knees are scratched, our elbows are bruised, and we’re gazing at the crisp dark sky trying to catch our breath.  Our mefaked (commander) picks up some dirt and speaks confidently, yet quietly, from his heart.

 “You guys understand how unbelievable this is right? This moment. This land. Our ancestors, our grandparents only 70 years ago, would have bled for this; they would have died 100 times over for this opportunity to fight. To do what you are doing.  To get dirty, to crawl, to claw, to fight, to have a FUCKING CHANCE. Because let me be clear guys…. its either this or the chambers. It’s either this or the pogroms. Look at the world around you; you see what’s happening… “Death to the Jews” is back… Either we stand here; wanting to fight, suffer, and sacrifice for what we have or it’s back to that. Helpless. And guys, I WILL NOT let that happen. We are not going back to that. Ever. Every time you’re in pain, you’re tired, you’re dirty and you’re suffering remember that you’re living out and protecting a dream that hasn’t been possible to our people in 2000 years. To live and fight as Jews protecting the Jewish nation. This is beautiful.”

It’s Thursday night, 2:30 a.m. when we’re woken up and told we have 3 minutes to be outside and standing in formation, ready for an all night Masa (long army hike). We walk/run at a brisk pace until we reach the outside walls of the old city of Yerusahlim.

We’re introduced to the “aluncar” (stretcher), and told that the entire hike would be done carrying one of our heaviest (injured) guys on the stretcher. Throughout the hike, we ran with the stretcher, crawled with the stretcher, marched with it, and not once, over the 5-hour ordeal, could we let it touch the ground. Walking crazy-long distances with someone on a stretcher is a huge part of basic training for infantry, and unfortunately an essential skill to have during times of war. Every 30 seconds or so we would rotate positions, carrying the stretcher, always staying in our two line formation, moving as quickly as possible. It was physically exhausting and my shoulders constantly felt like they were cracking under the weight. But this wasn’t what made our Masa such an exhilarating experience...

At the onset of the hike, our commander and the accompanying soldiers told us that we would be hiking through Arab East Jerusalem; a very dangerous area right now. Since the 3 boys were kidnapped this summer, there has largely been a silent intifada in Jerusalem that the media chooses to ignore, but in the last few weeks, the PA’s incitement and the resulting murderous terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) have intensified to a terrifying degree. The night we ventured into East Jerusalem was the day after civil rights activist (I’m baffled as to how preaching that Jews and Muslims should share the Temple Mount and pray peacefully together makes someone a “radical right winger”) Rabbi Glick was shot by Arab terrorists. Our commanders told us that when we walk through the Arab section, "People are going be yelling at you, spitting at you, and eying you guys down. You guys are Hebrew warriors. You have to show no fear. This is our capital. Walk how a Jew should walk in Jerusalem. Stand up straight, proud, and professional. Nothing fazes you. They’re going to know that you’re training to be soldiers and they want to see what you are all made of for the next round. If any fighting breaks out, stay low and let the soldiers on patrol take care of it, Let’s Go."

So we begin our foray into East Jerusalem, walking along the street behind (and outside) the Old City, on the Temple Mount side, when we come across 100 Arabs standing outside the Temple Mount (it had been blocked that night because of the terrorist attack on Rabbi Glick the day before). My heart is thumping, my adrenaline has energized me, and a steely gaze masks, and slowly disintegrates, the knot of fear in my stomach. The Arabs see us, a bunch of soon-to-be-soldiers carrying someone on a stretcher, with strapped IDF soldiers surrounding us, and they start chanting, in an eerie unison, “Allahu Akbar” until we march past them. (Free political commentary because I can’t help myself: they weren’t chanting anything about statehood, “occupation” etc. they were echoing Hamas, Al Qaeda, ISIS and their ilk, though I digress). Their chanting made us more resolute to stand up straight and emanate strength.

As we walked through the street, Arabs would slow their cars and people on the street would just stand still and glare at us. Most had beards and a few had the terrorist kahila scarf, in admiration of Palestinian terrorist leader Yasser Arafat and the “resistance”. It was scary, and yet it wasn’t because we were so focused on moving forward, staying alert and protecting our friend on the stretcher that the fear didn’t really enter my mind.

After hiking through a mountainous village overlooking the old city (yes with the stretcher) we saw how and in what manner the Paratroopers in ’67 liberated the old city. We were standing at the spot from which, during their 19-year illegal occupation, the Jordanians fired rockets at the Jewish Israelis below, and it became patently obvious how suicidal it would be for Israel to give up land that would be used, once again, to terrorize Jewish Jerusalem.

After pushing us to our breaking point in lifting and holding the stretcher above our heads, our commanders led us back down through the village. Without even noticing, it had suddenly become light out. Only after enduring hours of the dark bleariness of the night can we truly appreciate the miracle of a crisp blue sky and a radiating Sun.

On the way back down, we got a few rocks thrown at us, and so we ran with the stretcher, looking for safer ground as the soldiers surveyed the area to no avail. We eventually finished our hike at around 7:30 am, gazing dreamily at the Western Wall, and feeling proud that we were so close to do doing our part in protecting this dream.  Tired, sore, and sweaty we stood in the heart of Yerushalim, the very place, where the Jewish people last enjoyed freedom, dignity, and sovereignty in our eternal capital. After such a tense evening, it was euphoric to be standing at the place that, for 2000 years, has served as the physical and spiritual backbone of the Jewish nation. Jerusalem is an epic; it is a vestige of the history that has binded us to this land since time immortal. And I am honored that I get do my part in protecting it.

“A new generation grew up which turned its back on fear. It began to fight instead of to plead. Out of blood and fire and tears and ashes a new specimen of human being was born, a specimen completely unknown to the world for over eighteen hundred years, ‘The Fighting Jew.’” That Jew whom the world considered dead and buried never to rise again, has arisen. For he has learned that "simple truth" of life and death, and he will never again go down to the sides of the pit and vanish from the off the Earth."  Menachem Begin, The Revolt