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!

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