Twice a year, every brigade has to go through a period of military exercises called “imun”. The Kfir brigade has been in imun since the end of January, and it is now essentially ending. It begins with a week in which every platoon does a field week, then every company, then every battalion, then finally the whole brigade.
As I wrote in a previous post, our brigade wide field week already passed. Hence, we finished with the imun’s requirements. However, there was still time left in our imun period, so our battalion commander decided why not do another targil.
So we did. I called it “Targil Stam” as in “random, just because, no reason or meaning”.
It was last week, and I would say of all my field weeks I’ve done, it was the second toughest. Mainly because of the cold in the Golan Heights. In our other targils, we would walk a bunch of kilometers during the night time hours, and it benefited us because we felt warm from the movement despite the cold. However, this time, we didn’t walk quite so much at night.
Basically, everyone was in some stage of hypothermia. On the second to last night of the targil, before our night time operation, one soldier’s body temperature was measured and found to be 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 Fahrenheit). He was taken to a vehicle that came from base, sat inside the heated car, and as we all walked by the vehicle on our way to the operation we tapped the glass and waved thinking we wouldn’t see him until we were all back on base again after we finish everything. But for him, he’s done already.
The funny thing is, if everyone’s got it, it doesn’t get you out of the targil. At the end of the operation, in the freezing cold, we laid down to sleep. And he was back, the same car that took him away brought him back. Just in time to freeze himself to death while sleeping, in the night, on the grass, with the rest of us.
I laid down to see that above my head was my commander, to my left was another commander in my platoon, and to my right was an officer of one of our platoons. The officer was awake, messing with the GPS on his phone. I fell asleep, and woke up in the night a few times. One of those times I saw that the guy who left on account of hyperthermia was returned to us with five wool blankets, meant for the entire platoon. A platoon is about 30 people, how are 30 people going to share 5 wool blankets?
In any case, everyone was already asleep, some of the guys that woke up in the night saw the blankets and took them. I used one to cover me, and the two people to my left and right. I still remember waking up in the night shaking. Once it woke up the officer who asked me “is everything alright, you are shaking very badly.”
I ignored it, I’d long known what it means to be cold, so I just slept on. Eventually morning came. The sun was warm, and sleep was more pleasant. The wind never gave up.
As a machine gunner, I can love or hate the targil. Carrying the weapon, and its ammunition in my vest, can be a challenge especially while going up steep hills (and down them) or navigating the Israeli rocky terrain found nearly anywhere civilization isn’t. But when I finally get to where I’m supposed to be, then I get to shoot the thing.
Shooting the thing almost went very wrong during one such targil. It was a night time operation, and I’d just brought myself to the hill where all the Negevists (light machine gunners) were lined up ready to fire on an enemy hard point on a few hills across from us. They were there before me, of course, because the light machine gun is far smaller and weighs far less than my machine gun. As I approached I could hear an officer ask “where is the Mag?” and as I climbed the steep hill I yelled “here”, to which he looked and responded with the respect a MAG commands “come, Gever (man)”.
I arrived, put my gun in position, and readied it to fire. My senior Seargent began pointing and explaining where I was allowed to fire, my maximum left and my maximum right as it were. If I go beyond those two points, I could hit someone. Thus, its very important to understand this.
I decided to fire in the half way between those two points, figuring it to be the safest way to go, since we would be shooting until the very last moment before our troops take those hills.
We begin fire. And very quickly, an officer comes in on the radio saying he is being fired upon. We are ordered to hold our fire. Confusion sets in.
A check is done to make sure everyone shot where they were supposed to. Everyone did.
Someone shoots into the hills, using his marker bullets to demonstrate the maximum left and maximum right. Then we are allowed to fire again. So we begin again.
More messages come through the radio, and specifically on the machine gun (me) a hold is placed.
It’s a small thing, and happens all the time in the army. I didn’t think much of it. Reasons for things can be many, especially when the direction is from the higher ups.
The next day, we were doing another operation. My platoon had taken what looked like the ruins of a very old home. Stones for walls that may have been someone’s large back yard. The doorway into the house with four walls but no roof. And doorway into the back yard.
There was at least one other house like this I passed through, that another platoon had taken. Maybe the army built it, or maybe it only looks old. Maybe the Druze of the Golan Heights built it and then left it. The structure I’d passed through that the other platoon captured had the bones of an entire cow.
Maybe it was a wolves’ den.
In any case, our structure didn’t have bones. And we sat inside that non-roofed back yard. Our commander on the radio, some guys relaxing on the stones. I was placed as look out to our flank. One of the guys from my team was being used as a flag between groups, so that people know where not to shoot. A friend mentioned to me how I almost killed him the night before…
Then I remembered the hold they placed on me. It turns out I did everything right, but he was moving too far to the right of where he was supposed to be, and so he wandered into my area of fire. Maybe the bullets were nowhere near him, or maybe they were near him. In any case, he never said anything to me about it.
That’s the thing about live fire practice, people can be seriously hurt or killed, it requires everyone knowing exactly what they are doing. And this is what imun is, several months of this.
After a long time, the fight moved beyond us, and orders we were waiting to receive never came. So we stayed where we were. The weather was bad, very windy. And as the darkness fell on us, lightening was blinding us from very far away. It was beautiful.
It was pitch blackness, so that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Then, a sudden burst of light, everywhere, and going through everything. Each time it happened, our conversations would stop frozen as we were so mesmerized. Only words like “wow, woah” escaped our mouths.
This went on for a while. At some point our commander talked about what a military course he underwent to become a very special kind of sergeant. Then somehow it became about my age, as my commanders thought I’m 27 when I’m actually 25. From there, my guys wanted to know what I would do after the army, as my service time is almost finished.
I answered I’d probably go back to NY and go to Law School. My commander (the special sergeant I meantioned) asked “aren’t there too many lawyers in NY?” The point being it can’t be a good career move. To which I answered how much the median starting salary is for a lawyer in NY, insuring as a career move it should be better than fine.
The rest of the night was highlighted by two Ethiopian soldiers in shock from the salary quote I gave, as they tried to convert that into shekels.
It began to rain on us that night. And we laid down to rest for an hour or so before our last operation of the targil.
It was a comfortable rest under a tree in the middle of a field with no trees. Our company commander brought his three dogs with him. As we walked in two disciplined lines to our destinations, they walked with us in those same lines. It was very funny to see.
They are big dogs too, the kind I like. Not some small thing you need to worry about someone accidentally sitting on and crushing to death. Big dogs, the kind that you settle for when you learn how expensive a lion for a pet might be.
I remember during that last rest we had, I found a tree mostly to myself. I slept there with my head inside my rain coat, feeling the warmth from my breath. When it was time to go, I took the machine gun and put it around my neck and tried navigating through the impossible collection of rocks around the tree. I came to three, large white stones. I had no idea what they were, they seemed like soft stones. I tried moving them with my foot, they didn’t budge, but felt squishy.
Its an animal? This is where I should have realized it’s the dogs. They decided to rest and fall asleep on the other side of my tree. I stepped over whatever it was, and accidentally stepped on one of them, the unmistakable sound of a dog whimper was heard, and I knew it was them.
If it’d have been a poodle, it’d be dead. I went on my way.
Before we began the many kilometers, each company found itself in a circle around its company commander. My company commander spoke to his company, I don’t remember what it was word for word, but it was something along the lines of:
“The weather sucks, you’re tired, and this whole thing is happening at the beginning of holocaust remembrance day. What you are doing now is giving meaning to the words “Never Again.” We are surrounded by extremists who, once finished fighting eachother, will return to their promises of completing a horrible tragedy worse than the holocaust against us. And the reason it hasn’t happened in all these decades is because of what you are doing now. Not something that I do, it is what you are doing now.”
It reminds me of the night before, when people realized they would still be here even through holocaust remembrance day, and were feeling very down because they wouldn’t be with their friends or families. The company commander’s executive officer said to them:
“You think you want to be home for Holocaust Remembrance, but what those people you will be remembering wanted was to be where you are now. Doing what you are doing now. So honor their memory.”
After a lot of walking, through the back roads of the country, we were close to the Syrian border. We could hear artillery, machine guns, and all sorts of blasts that to us was nothing new…except they weren’t ours. This was the sound of war, on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, between the government of Basher Al Assad, and the various rebel groups. Every bullet we could hear fired, and every blast we could hear explode, we knew is aimed at someone. Dying, living, killing, every second was a moment in which this could be happening.
And just a few kilometers away, we are moving in our disciplined lines, to carry out a mission on our side of the border.
Eventually we come to a town, and begin our work of taking it house by house. After my platoon entered an already captured house, we sprinted out the back to capture a house 500 meters away. In a lined order of combat of course, this put me with my machine gun somewhere in the rear. Only those people whose job is to cover me behind me.
Then a burst of gun fire from the window of the house we were approaching, aimed right at us. The line immediately stopped and everyone took to the ground to return fire.
I yelled at everyone within ear shot who stopped to get up and move forward, I waved them on with my hand and then used it to hold my machine gun as I fired into the windows to cover the movement. The last thing to happen in this situation is to stop in the open, movement should never stop until the cover of the house. They quickly reached the house, and once they did I stopped firing (as I was moving forward mind you).
By the time I reached the walls, the fluidity had completely returned. My first sight was our company commander threw a grenade into the window, as every soldier took a corner of the house. While another group prepared to enter the house, another grenade was thrown inside. After the explosion, they entered the house.
When the exercise was over, we found we needed to walk about three more kilometers to our buses. However, that turned into yet another three kilometers of climbing a mountain with stretchers open and people on them the entire way.
They were steep as f**k. Once we reached the top, we were at an excellent observation point for the whole Golan Heights.
From there it was back to base.
We had the best breakfast I’ve ever had in the army. There was everything, at once. Shakshouka, Pancakes (with maple syrup), Salads, Cheeses, Tuna Fish, Cookies, tea, coffee, tables upon tables covered with food.
I grabbed, I ate.
Then I grabbed more, then I ate more.
This went on for a while.
We did a ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance day. Our aches and limp walking lasted a long while. I stood there, at front of my row of three, with my machine gun to my side as we stood through the speeches, the poetry reading, and the minute of silence initiated by the base wide siren.