I belong to Battalion 96, of the Kfir Brigade, our name is Lavi. Last week was the first week of our basic training. My commander is a 21 year old, religious individual. He seems alright, but its obvious to me that he wants his group to outperform the others. So, I can expect that he’ll work us good.
The first day our commander had us get into our sport clothes and run 500 meters, then we were introduced to the obstacle course we will have to complete in under 10 minutes (including the 500 meter run) some time during our training. Of course there was the classic rows of tires you have to run through, the monkey bars, a place where you have to crawl fast, a ditch in the ground you have to jump over, a wall you have to climb over, the ropes that you have to climb up to touch a bar at the top, steps of logs that you have to run up and down, etc etc. Most of this was easy to do in our sports clothes, but it is intended to be done in full combat gear and with our weapon on us. That’s a lot of additional weight to run, climb, and jump in!
“If you don’t pass this physical test, you can’t be called a fighter” – says our sport instructor.
I did all of it ok for the first time, everything but the wall (we didn’t do the ropes that day). You get two chances to jump it, and the way it works is you need to run fast into the wall and kick against it to push yourself upwards with your leg. One arm then holds you in place, while your other arms pulls you up and over the wall. I didn’t make it both times, and each time my commander would run up to me and give me advice that I was grateful for. Then when our group moved on with the sports instructor to go do the next thing, my commander took me aside and we did the wall part together until I succeeded at it. He even spoke to me in English so I would understand.
When the group returned to the wall, I didn’t make it again the first time. While I waited in line to go again, a different commander asked me if I did the wall yet. I said “No. But I will now.” He seemed to like my answer, and with that, I did the wall again and succeeded.
I think my commander is one of the more committed ones because I didn’t see any other help his soldiers when they weren’t succeeding at any part of the course. So I’m happy to have him for a commander.
Later in the week we did our first Masa. A masa is the Hebrew word for journey, and basically it’s a long march that we will do many times during our training, each will be longer than the last. The point of a Masa is to simulate a march to battle. You see, a soldier has to know that the war he has to fight might not conveniently come to him. Sometimes, you have to march many kilometers just to get to the fight!
Thus, a Masa is conducted just like any military operation: in complete silence, in two neat lines with a wide gap in between the lines, in war paint, and in complete battle gear.
But a Masa also has other purposes. Each Masa, with increasing difficulty, is meant to test the capability of the unit. We all have to carry a great deal of weight, and then there are things like the many extra bottles of water, and the stretchers. Not everyone has to carry those, and during the march, whoever is carrying them will want to eventually give them to someone else. The ease with which a group will help each other’s burdens, and share each other’s water, etc., will determine a great deal in how close we are as a fighting unit.
Lastly, a Masa is meant to boost the morale of the unit.
The lead up to a Masa is super disorganized. For example you have to see the medic, and so does everyone in your battalion, to get permission to participate in the Masa. But my favorite part to the pre-Masa was filling up my magazines with bullets. I loaded magazines before, during tironot 02, but that was never to the limit and the magazines were not my personal ones. Now, here I was sitting on my bum on the ground outside my room with my six personal magazines on the ground and hundreds of bullets to my side. I filled my magazines to the brim with ammo, and I knew these bullets I would eventually fire sooner or later. I learned to load my magazines fast, I was even loading other guy’s magazines to speed things up.
You get attached to the things you do yourself, the things you spend a lot of time on, and the things you work hard for. The first day we learned to cover our dog tags so they wont reflect sun light, and that took hours to get right, so I’m attached to my tags. We learned to make it easier to tie our laces so we will be quicker at taking off and putting on our boots, so I’m attached to my laces, and after each grueling Masa we will receive one item to complete our uniform, so you can imagine how attached I’ll feel to the items I’ll receive having earned them through my burning feet.
Speaking of Masas, our first one was a small distance if you compare it with our upcoming ones. It was three kilometers, and our commanders looked at it like it was nothing since we will eventually be marching 70-80 kilometers. Still, let me tell you, my feet still hurt! Just before the Masa began my commander asked “Who will carry the stretcher”, and like an idiot my hand went up. He pointed at me and said “Ok, Robert, don’t forget the stretcher, also who ever carries the stretcher has to be at the front of one of the lines always.”
I had only one thought: “Wish I knew that before my hand went up”. And off we went.
We walked three kilometers in about 25 minutes. And my commander, aside from the fact that he is even taller than me and has a wider stride, walks SUPER fast. I had to jog every 5 seconds to catch up with him. And of course, that meant the lines behind me found themselves jogging every 5 seconds as well.
Not finishing a Masa isn’t an option. If someone is slowing down, the guys behind him will push him forward. If someone is unable to continue, two of our guys will take him by the arms and pull him forward. Somewhere well into the Masa, one of our guys was wheezing pretty badly, two guys took his arms around each of their necks and pushed him to the front of the line where they marched behind me until we finished.
That’s what a Masa is for, the camaraderie and the reality that you can’t NOT accomplish the task. That simply isn’t an option.
The embarrassing part to the Masa was that one of my two canteens fell out of my combat vest toward the end of the Masa. Someone didn’t secure it properly or maybe the closed stretcher on my back managed to do that. Someone else picked it up and ran up to me, showed me that he has it, and I motioned to him to put it back into my vest. But alas, the stretcher was in the way, and we can’t exactly stop. So the poor guy was carrying my canteen the rest of the way. I just didn’t want to carry it on top of having the stretcher…he understood me and didn’t even offer me to carry my own canteen.
When it was over, we shouted how awesome our specific group is, how awesome our specific Battalion is, how awesome our specific Brigade is. My favorite was when the Commander would yell “Mi Meshugas!?” (Who is crazy?) and we would answer “Lavi Meshugas” (Lavi is Crazy!). We were loud enough for the whole base to hear.
Our next Masa will be four kilometers, as my commander said to me “also nothing.” Maybe for our commanders its nothing, as they have already been through every Masa before us, but for us, its not nothing.
I really like the guys in my group. They are all Israelis, with one exception. I basically have to speak in Hebrew 100% of the time, which is new for me because I always used to have someone Russian or English speaking to talk to. Actually, the one exception in my group is a Lone Soldier from Russia, but we basically don’t get to talk to each other in Russian much. In fact, from day one my Commander told me to speak only in Hebrew, and ordered my group to speak with me only in Hebrew (they all speak a good enough level of English).
Its good for me, but I’m left feeling like there is a lot I want to say but can’t. Its hard to joke with the guys when you have the communicative ability of a child. I remember my Latin American friend from my group in Michve Alon, he didn’t speak English or Russian, so all of us had to talk to him only in Hebrew. We would joke with each other and get close while he could only watch and once in a while have a short conversation with us. Now I feel like the Latin American kid…
Still, the guys are great. They are all more motivated than the majority of the guys I was with last week before we received our permanent units. And they are all super nice to me. They know I’m a lone soldier, and that I’m from America, so they get that its hard for me here. On day one, a guy from my company (who only just met me) offered me to come to his house for the Seder. I thought that was super sweet.
They all make sure to talk to me, and notice how my Hebrew is getting better. “Slowly, slowly, and you will get it all” Is something I hear a lot from them. There are two guys I know from Michve Alon in my battalion. One is in my company, and one is in another company. We swap stories about how we mess up our Hebrew and send the squad into roars of laughter. One told me about how he was asked the name of the top handle of our weapon, which is called the “travelling handle” (ידית נסעהה) which he accidentally called “the marriage handle” (ידית נישואים).
I sent my squad into roars of laughter too on Friday when my commander said he would go home with me that morning to see where I live when I’m not on base. Its something he has to do for every soldier in his group, but Lone Soldiers are priority so I was first. He asked me how long it takes to reach my home, and I accidentally answered “two years” (שנתיים) instead of “two hours” (שעתיים) which in Hebrew are surprisingly similar. Everyone laughed, the joke is that when you have to serve for three years, it wouldn’t be terrible to waste two of them on a bus ride.
Memorable moment of the week:
We were packed into a room with our Battalion Commander, there we watched the beginning of an episode of Band of Brothers. The episode was the one where they discover a concentration camp. I looked around the room, and every single person was absolutely glued to the screen. It wasn’t the kind of stare like you have when you watch something on TV, it was an emotional connection to events. No one’s eyes were blinking, and no one’s head was turning other than mine. Soldiers to my left stood up on their feet, partly to read the subtitles when one of the survivors was speaking, but mostly out of respect.
Moments like this reconfirm for me that I made the right decision when I joined the IDF. For the first time in my life, my peers are affected in the same way as I am when watching something like this.
This week is Field Week, and I think we’ll close Shabbat as well. So I wont be able to update for a while. Till next time!