War Week

In the middle of the night we were woken up and ordered to get out of our jammies and into our uniforms, clean our rooms, and then put on our full battle gear. Eventually we were walking in two straight lines in our combat vests and carrying equipment. The army loaded us into redesigned army buses. They were basically like trailers, but with bus seats, pulled by a car attached at the front.

It was a tight squeeze to sit in a bus seat with our gear on us, not to mention the equipment all over the floor making standing, or moving in the aisle an impossible even for one’s imagination. I hoped desperately the field we were going to is at some far flung point of the country from where we are, then I could sleep at least for two hours even in this most uncomfortable circumstance.

Sadly, that’s not what happened, and anyway I forgot to try and sleep as I fixed my eyes on the windows in an effort to find out just where we were going to spend the week. Would it be some place cold? Some place hot? I hoped it would be cold, because at Michve Alon we spent field week some place cold and the huddling together for warmth really brought the guys in my unit together.

Sadly, the bus ride lasted all of 40 minutes, and we were some place hot. Hot and very thorny. The thorns had thorns. We exited the buses and began right away to learn the lessons of war week.

We were divided into squads, my unit has two squads. We then put into practice various squad formations that we learned on paper the night before.
How to move as a squad, how to change formations, all done in absolute silence following hand signals delivered from the commander all the way down the lines. Once we did that, off we went, in one of our formations.

And boy did we walk. The Jews are good at walking, what with 40 years in the desert under our belt. But this walk was something I’ll never forget, because it was the first time we walked a long way carrying not only the stretcher and a jerry can of water, but also three LAW bags.

A Law Bag is a bag that every soldier carries with him in a battle, it is meant for the Light Anti-Tank Weapon. We had three bags for 9 soldiers to share. Thus three soldiers would place all the clothes and items they felt they need in one bag, aside from the things our commander told us to bring.

When you go to the field, pack light. All I brought was a spare uniform and a collapsible mini-shovel (because the commander told us to), a mini-bottle of listerine, and the thing that I really wanted…toiletry. Because quality time behind a bush isn’t good quality time unless you have some baby wipes. I initially wanted to bring a lot of those, but one of the guys I was sharing the bag LAW with didn’t want to carry all that weight and thought I was crazy for wanting to bring so many wipes.

I decided I would let him learn the hard way how baby wipes are the single most important thing you could bring with you to the field, so I packed less of them. By the end of the week, he (and countless other people) found themselves stuck without toiletries and a burning desire to cultivate the soil all at the same time. My wipes came to their rescue, and even my short sighted buddy came to the light saying I had his full permission to bring as much as I want next time.

A soldier’s life is pretty mundane, so yes, you can expect to read things like this a lot on my blog.

Anyway…so we were carrying heavy items on top of our combat vests and all the things they contained. And we walked, and we walked. At some point, the soldier walking ten feet in front of me began to fall out of pace as our squads climbed a hill. I could no longer see the commander, or the people we were following.

As I approached the soldier who slowed down to a crawl, he asked me to take the jerry can from him as he had enough. This was a very motivated soldier, I’d never seen him give up before, so I quickly took the weight off of him. He is half my size, but twice my heart, and as I placed the jerry can on my back I knew I was going to hate this thing the rest of my life. The problem isn’t even so much that it was filled with liters upon liters of water, but that it never ever sat very well on our backs. Now that I mention it, not any of our equipment sat evenly on our backs, not the stretcher not the jerry can and not the bag LAWs.

We ran up the hill and reconnected with our squads, each soldier walking a good distance behind each other soldier. Essentially, one soldier can only see the next soldier in line, as everyone else is too far away to see even in the day time either because of a corner that is coming or some ground obstacle they crossed which you haven’t reached yet. Why the distance? The last thing you want is a group of soldiers moving closely together in an open field, one grenade means an entire squad put out of commission.

Which is another thing I should mention, whenever one of our NCOs or officers saw two or more soldiers close together either relaxing or doing a task, they would pick up a rock and toss it at the soldiers. This rock was a grenade, and the soldiers have to immediately rise to their feet if they were on their bums, and jolt and jump away shouting “AZA!” (the warning word for grenade). The soldier whose reaction came too late, or who remained too close to the blast radius of the grenade was considered “injured” and his comrades had to carry him to some given first aid treatment point.

The only time it was ok for us to huddle together was during meals. And meals were not pleasant. Every meal (we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner) was 15 minutes long. Doesn’t sound so bad? This time had to be divided into two parts, as my unit consists of two squads. While one squad rushes to fill its belly, the other squad of soldiers was in the dirt or the thorns or the hard ground or the mud or what have you, and diligently aimed their weapons in search for…anyone at all. At the 7 minute mark the squad that ate first switches with the squad that covered them. We rotated which squad ate first.

In these 7 minutes you not only have to successfully and quickly stuff your face (sometimes without utensils, and anyway always with your dirty hands) but also open up the cans which contain your precious food.

The food we usually ate was canned tuna, canned corn, canned pickles, canned halva, and a few times we had some cheaper version of canned Nutella.

Also there were a few times when we had a can of warm peas with tomato sauce. It was a big hit.

On occasion we had canned coconut. That was my favorite, aside from the tomato sauce peas. I remember looking at a pickle that was barely touched, fallen on the ground. I thought to myself how delicious that pickle would be, but no I didn’t eat it. This was a common fight within oneself during field week.

Now back to the long walk…eventually the soldier behind me began calling my name. He was breaking the strict silence we were all keeping, and so I slowed down to find out what was so important. As he approached me, with that bag LAW on his back, his words were coming out in an exasperated “I’m finished” whisper “please take my bag, my heart is killing me”. So we traded, I gave him what I thought was a heavy jerry can and received what I thought was a heavier bag of stuff.

I was right. It was a heavier bag of stuff. It took so long for me to put this bag on my back, even with his help, that the two soldiers whose job it is to move behind everyone caught up to us. And they too helped with putting this heavy bag on me…

By the time we finished, the squads were long gone, up or around some hill. One of the two soldiers who caught up to us casually observed something I tried to put off about out commander “our commander didn’t pay attention to the fact that soldiers in the rear are having difficulty, and just kept on moving”.

So off I went as fast as possible, which wasn’t very fast at all, in an attempt to locate our squads. After a bit of walking I still didn’t see anyone, so I decided to head up hill and find them from higher ground. We eventually reconnected with the squads that way, when we caught up with them, they were sitting on top of a distant hill resting. I was envious, and afraid that the moment I reach them, they would all stand and continue moving.

Fortunately, we stopped for a class on field reconnaissance. Plenty of time to sit on one’s ass.

The entire time we were in the field we had to have our helmets on, our knee pads on, and our combat vests on. Whenever we moved to another position we had to have the stretcher, jerry can, and bag LAWs on our backs. And in our maneuvers this was a complication. For example, the first day with the bag LAW, when we came to a stop, our commander ordered us into a laydown fire position. I found myself unable to stand up, or even turn over, once already laying down.

I felt like a pan cake.

In another moment of that same day, we were ordered to lay down. I was near a bush, so I used it for cover. However, the weight of the bag was off to my right side, and as I bent lower to the ground the bag spun me over. I was on my side, the bag was taking the thorns of the bush for me. And I was completely unable to move or even roll over.

Eventually though, we learned to deal with the weight and functioned as soldiers should. On day two or three, we were maneuvering stealthily using what we learned from field reconnaissance, and our mission was to creep up on our Company commander who was waiting on a hill in the distance. We put what we learned into practice, and successfully came up behind him from very far away.

He looked at me with the bag LAW on my shoulders, and wondered how much it weighed. He lifted it up a bit with his hands for half a nano-second and uttered in relief “oh, [it weighs] nothing”. Either the man was joking, or I can expect heavier things in the future. Probably both.

It wasn’t all physical, there were also psychological tests.

For example, after learning to camouflage ourselves and to find appropriate bushes to use for reconnaissance, we were then allowed to put what we learned into practice. But first, to earn the right to cut up the inside of a bush and hide inside looking out at the world, we first had to pass the “course on aggressiveness”.

This meant: The sergeant chooses a thorny bush to his liking, a nice big one. And we must each jump into the bush, head first, and push and swim through the thorny leaves and branches until we come out the other side.
My hesitant unit refused to jump, most silently just stared while my squad leader vocally made his arguments for refusal to the Sergeant. As he spoke, with his back to the bush, the Seargeant merely stepped forward and pushed him into it. As the thorns began to pierce his back, my squad leader’s eyes went wide with the fear of pain, and he managed to stay upright and move forward and away from the bush.

So I did what any soldier embarrassed of his unit would do…I shouted “not a problem”, ran forward into the scene and jumped into the bush. I expected it to hurt. It didn’t. I expected everyone to follow in after me. They didn’t.
The problem wasn’t the thorns in my skin, it was the thorns in my uniform. My clothes were just too stuck in too many places for me to be able to move forward more than a few tries. I was simply stuck, and eventually they pulled me out of the bush. In the end, I was bloody everywhere and my uniform still needs stitches for the holes made that day.

Course of Aggression Completed.

After that, we began looking for bushes to cut up and make use of for reconnaissance. This is much easier said than done, as we didn’t have knives available to cut the thorny branches. This is where I saw our course of aggression could be quite useful, as everyone else was too scared to cut themselves than to use their bare hands to break the branches. Everyone but me, as I lost my fear of thorns when I jumped into them and found that they really don’t hurt so much. Someone made a complaint about not having knives, I responded “nothing sharper out here than your teeth”, and set an example.

This time, everyone did their part.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see most of the run up to the finished product, as I had to cover my squad leader while he went to do his business (with my baby wipes) by a bush of our own choosing. During war week, soldiers have to cover each other for anything: prayer breaks, bathroom breaks, food breaks, sleep breaks, doesn’t matter what. It’s a war, and the enemy can show up at any time. When I returned, we found a well camouflaged soldier sitting inside a bush, practically unnoticeable from a few feet away.

The next psychological game began when our Sargent had us dig our own holes, each man his own hole. I was so happy about this considering the previous night we had to sleep in shared holes, one for each squad. And unlike the previous night, the spot he chose was perfect for digging, the soil was soft. The night before we had to dig practically through giant boulders. And we were actually digging in the day time, unlike the night before when we had to dig just minutes before sleep in the pitch blackness.
I felt there had to be a catch to this, or maybe we finally caught a break. We finished digging our grave like holes, and then we had to move out to do more things I don’t recall very well. I do recall the end of the night when we finally returned to our new holes, and were sent off to sleep.

After putting the paranoid soldiers at ease by carefully inspecting each hole with my red light, I finally laid down in my hole.

Within minutes I became more and more sleepy, my eyes became heavy, and the heat I felt soon became a cold feeling as my body temperature lowered (a natural effect of sleep). Alas, it was not to be as someone approached me and said it was my turn to be look out. I stood upright in the middle of everyone with another soldier on lookout, and together we watched 360 degrees around us. I also kept a close eye on my watch to know when my shift is over.

Once it was over I woke up the next snoozing guy, and happily returned to my hole. Within moments I fell asleep. And within moments after that, the sounds of my seargent shouting we are under attack and his fast pace footsteps shook the ground above me. When I arose from my hole, I saw him lying on the ground in a firing position and several of my unit already constructed a firing line ahead of us.

Our attackers were fast, they fought like guerrillas rather than soldiers. They moved between bushes, fired sporadically, and made no attempt to hold ground or construct their own firing line. I also noticed they were probably grossly outnumbered by us, as they were likely two of our NCOs.

Also they were armed with blanks, which is still a step above what we had which was our own shouts of “fire, fire”!
When things calmed down, the seargent spotted someone approaching us from another direction and began shooting, so we all began firing on whoever it was. As the man approached closer our seargent finished with a joke “Oh, its our Company Commander, heh.”

I hoped dearly now we could go back to sleep. But no, just like the night before, we now had to carry our wounded to some unknown first aid destination. The night before I carried a soldier on my back a distance of about 100 meters in the same situation, that was not so bad. This time, we were ordered to carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher and the trip was a very long one.

We went up and down very steep hills, we traversed through terrain filled with boulders and stones. I still don’t know how we didn’t seriously injure ourselves, how no one fell in the pitch blackness. How the stretcher, despite severely dangerous steep curves, stayed more or less straight. There should have been at least one sprained ankle that night, yet there was none, I only know of my own close calls. Yet that is all they were.
And when we finally arrived at our destination where we could finally put down the stretcher and all our equipment, we found ourselves a short distance from the holes of our first night! I thought to myself “please, please, not this again”, but yes it was indeed this again. The holes we dug for ourselves were just a ploy, the holes from the first night, they were where we slept yet again and where we slept every night of war week.

Wednesday night we did a Masa in the field. After three full days of being in our helmets, vest, knee pads, and constantly lugging around our heavy equipment, no one was in the mood. The walk to our starting point was not breezy as there were a bunch of muddy points and hills between us and where we would begin. It was to be 8 kilometers. I remember nothing of interest during the Masa itself, other than the close calls to a sprained ankle and the moment when I refused to take the water from someone because I felt the person who asked had only carried it for 5 minutes and could definitely carry it a little longer considering the previous guy carried it for an hour. The guy is lazy and will happily let others do the hard work.

I immediately felt bad about my refusal, when I saw someone else take the water from the lazy bastard. This didn’t sit well with me, I thought about it often, by the time our next Masa sprang up I came up with a strategy to have everyone carry the equipment without feeling too tired from it. The last two kilometers of the Masa were eventful as our stretcher was (to use a Hebrew description) “Dafuk”!

As in totally screwed up. It was impossible to fold and close it properly, it was missing some essential part for that. So it finally opened up at the beginning of kilometer 7. I stopped to help the person holding the stretcher, and our entire unit simply kept on walking (as there is no stopping during a Masa). The group that was a short distance behind us, passed us by. By the time we finished (more or less gave up) we had to bolt to catch up to our group, in the dark of night and in complete silence.

That was some run.

When our 8 kilometer Masa was over, I was done. I had enough of the field, and I had enough of the night. Physically I was doing everything as usual, or at least it seemed to me that way. But mentally, I was tired of the hot sun during the day and the smell of my face in my helmet. I didn’t show any of this, I was a rock, but I felt these things for the rest of the week even if I didn’t show it.

Alas, after every Masa, they feed us goodies we don’t usually get to eat. Sounds like good news? I wanted sleep, not to eat. And since we always have a crummy night of surprises, the quicker we can get started the better. Sadly, nothing about this night would be quick as the food wasn’t waiting for us at the finish line.

Instead we had to walk, what seemed like yet another Masa, probably one or two kilometers. I didn’t fall even once during the Masa, yet During this long walk, I fell no less than four times. Two of them were quite nasty spills. The food was meat, hummus, jelly. I ate my fill in a resentful munch (a munch is an Israeli term for very serious hunger craving). Finally we walked off to our squad holes, with all the usual equipment on our backs.

The next day was exactly that, another day. Routines help a soldier get through the mundane tortures of life. Mine consisted of an early morning poo. A simple pleasure that made me feel like home. Even if I wasn’t sure anymore where my home is supposed to be…NY? My military base? This awful thorny excuse for a field?

I guess by a soldier’s standards, home is simply where you have a poo. By these standards, even hell can be home too. I just didn’t realize this at the time.

We did some Krav Maga, and then we caught a break…

“Don’t Call the Medic, I’m Hurt Enough Already!”

The heat of the day exceeded the legal limit for training. So we went to a field with long straws of wheat, and there our medic ordered us to remove the helmets, vests, and knee pads. We hadn’t removed those things in five days. When I took my helmet off, I felt like how I imagined Master Chief must feel at the end of each Halo game.

But, no point in doing nothing while we wait for the heat to drop. So the medic had us practice some first aid scenarios. He put us into two lines. One would be the injured line, and the other would administer first aid. Then they would switch.

My line was the first to be the injured one. Our injury? We were bleeding from our corroded artery, this is an artery by the bone that you can feel come down from your neck. An injury like this meant we were very close to death if nothing is done immediately. The soldier to my side knew he is supposed to apply pressure to the artery, and he also knew that he wasn’t actually going to apply much pressure as this is a vital pressure point that hurts a lot, and I’m not actually wounded.

Hurt a lot, it does. By the time the Medic came up to us, he saw how the soldier was applying pressure and then shouted at him “not like that!” I wasn’t able to look around or see much, as the sun was very bright and in my eyes. I could only hear the Medic enter our situation, and shout “like this!”

The next thing I know, his fingers were jabbed into my artery. The feeling of pain was quite worse than anything I could have prepared for. I was yelling on the ground, unable to move, frozen in severe pain. Then it was the soldier’s turn to repeat what the Medic showed him…

The idea is to press hard enough to feel the person’s pulse. Well feel my pulse they did. As I stood up, switching with the soldier. I wondered who would want to call a medic in this situation, dying would be so much less painful. I shared this thought with the soldier on the ground, he thought I was being dramatic.

Then the Medic gave us a new scenario, now the femoral artery was the one bleeding. This is an artery in your thigh, by the groin area. I knew of course I’d have to apply pressure, but having just been this dude on the ground, I also knew I would fake it as best I could. The soldier on the ground attempted to help the charade, by howling in pain as I pressed down just when the medic approached us.

Sadly, he didn’t sound like he was about to die from the unnecessary force, so the medic said “Not like that!” I sighed…he shouted “Like this!” And within a moment our injured soldier was preferring death to life. Then it was my turn, I applied pressure until I could feel his pulse, but stopped there. He shouted convincingly, because it was for real.

I told him, “I still didn’t do it as hard as the Medic, bro”.

He responded: “I know. You were right about the medic thing, calling him means he’ll kill us. A lot less painful to just bleed out”

A bit later the heat subsided enough to warrant us putting everything back on. The funniest part of that day for me was when the commander all of a sudden chose one of us to be wounded. This time it was my Russian friend, he is a new immigrant with better Hebrew than mine thanks to a formal ulpan. As soon as he learned he was wounded, he took up the part. His face was full of disappointment and despair.

He would let out brief moments of crying despair as I lifted him up on my shoulders and took off running. We had a minute to reach the first aid point, sadly he is a heavy guy and half way there I stumbled. He took a spill, and the other guys in my unit all manned up to be the next to try and lift this crying wounded soldier with a taste for the dramatic. I put a stop to it right away, time was very close to nill.

I insisted everyone grab a leg or an arm, and run. We did just that. And we made it, crying soldier and all.

We also did something that took some serious determination. Basically one group of soldiers had to dig a very deep trench while a smaller group had to dig up some very big boulders to place on top of each other. I went off in search of boulders. It was quite some work leveraging there weight, digging them out of the ground with our bare hands (all shovels were committed to the trench), and delivering them for use.

My commander decided he would pull out the boulder I originally wanted to dig up, but failed to convince the others to give me a shovel for. As I returned with boulder after boulder, my commander began digging this monster out. It seemed like the deeper he’d dig, the deeper this boulder actually turned out to be. At some point I tried to help my commander, but he sent me away with the words “No Robert, this is my Mission.”

I don’t think that boulder came out of the ground.

Luckily for us, we soon went to bed at 6pm, in the bright day. We needed to be up in the middle of the night for our big test on everything we learned. As we said good night to each other in the bright field sun, I laid in my hole with the rest of my squad and looked out at the field I had come to hate.

And suddenly, I saw its beauty. Now that I was more or less on my back, resting in the day time, I could see the hills and the bushes and the country looking area for something other than a place where we were hardened by the outdoors. It was not unlike the beautiful hills I saw with my parents as we drove through Judea/Samaria when they visited. It was not unlike the views we saw when we drove to Hebron via the outskirts of Jerusalem.

It was a distinctly Israeli looking place, and it was assuredly the hills of Judea/Samaria as we had a very nice view of a resort town in Jordan across from us. I have no doubt in my mind, anyone sitting where I was sitting, would have found it breath taking provided they had been there for a picnic rather than war week.

1am, we were woken up and on our feet within moments. Then the equipment was on our backs. And thirty minutes later we began our test. First we simply walked in formation in the night a distance that wasn’t too bad. Once we arrived at our first stop, we crouched for a while then executed the maneuver for crossing a large open field between two hills.

After that, we had a short moment where our commander motioned for everyone to move to his location. Once we were all there, the lazy bastard I mentioned before (who had absolutely nothing other than his vest on his back)commented to me in front of everyone how I was moving a little slowly and should try to pick up the pace to keep up with the soldier in front of me. I responded, rather dryly, that perhaps he felt he could move quicker than I can with the bag LAW on my back. Of course, that didn’t happen.

We then moved on, in formation, until we came to a sudden stop and layed on the ground for quite a long while. At least half an hour of that. Mind you, when we are on the ground, that means we are aiming down our sights for signs of trouble on a hair’s breadth trigger alert for action. However, lazy bastard (as I will call him on this blog) fell asleep, and began snoring.

As I lay there, behind and between our commander and my squad leader, I felt I learned a lot. During the week, we did maneuvers like this so often, there were countless times when we simply put our heads down on our rifles in an effort to sleep while looking like we weren’t. But through it all, I felt I came to the point where thirty minutes of staring blankly into the darkness through my rifle was more than doable.

I could hear the reason for our stop taking so long. My commander’s radio was “dafuk” as in majorly screwed. He would call for someone, and get no answer. The unit we caught up to before we layed down on the ground had already moved on, and we could hear shouting and lots of action ahead of us.

But we were simply waiting and waiting.

A unit approached behind us, and took their places in que behind us. Then they stood up, and went passed us. It was dark, and I actually couldn’t believe the people ahead of me were not my own guys. I almost followed them off into the night until I saw my own squad still on the ground. Then I saw a person I assumed to be an NCO running, his glowing stick light the only way I could see him.

The glow must have run a kilometer from where it started to where we were. This turned out to be the commander of another company, whose job it was to oversee his part of the test. In person he relayed the instructions to our commander, and off we went. We walked in formation further, came under attack and responded.

Then we attacked forward against some good old targets, and came to a point where we had to pick up our wounded and run. Then crawl with the wounded on our back to the finish line. From there we had to put on gas masks, put one person on an opened stretcher, and carry him all the way to the final finish.

There we took a written exam on what we learned that week, each soldier would answer one question of the exam.
From there, we relaxed, and were given the best news. We were going to buses to take us out of here! We walked a bit to the bus, and I found myself standing in front of a home with an Arab male in his 20s peering at us from the balcony. He watched us, his gaze went uninterrupted, not even for blinking.

We were looking pretty disheveled after the test. I wondered what he thought of us, and found myself staring at him as much as he was at us. Maybe his cousin is a terrorist, or maybe he is a terrorist scout himself. Maybe he is just a contractor fixing up this home. In any case, where he lives, nobody likes Israeli soldiers.

As it turns out, we’d been doing our work for the whole week not too far from this man’s backyard. We hopped on the buses, and off we went in the air conditioned seats. Crowded it was, but this time we were driving away from this place.

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