The Sergeant scared me, he wandered around the plugah with an expression that said he was looking for a fight and a swagger that told you he could win it. He knew the effect he had and relished in it. I'll never forget when he saw me sitting on the side of the parade ground, the moment we made eye contact I knew I was in trouble he skulked right up to me; "Marc" he barked, "What the hell are you doing?!!" I looked at him while trying to formulate the words I needed to say though none came to mind, in the end I feebly said "just sitting here" I eeked out. He looked me up and down before breaking out in a grin, "great have fun with that" he said before skulking away leaving me wondering what had just happened.
Those first few days were lonely. Our officer had given the team one order so far and that had been that no one was permitted to talk to me in English, which pretty much meant that no one spoke to me at all. I didn't really want to get to know anyone anyway, they hardly looked like the paratrooper soldiers I had expected, when I looked around instead of seeing tough soldiers I only saw children. I wanted to leave, I wanted to be in the Sayeret, I wanted to be left alone. My mobile phone was in my pocket but I couldn't bring myself to make a call back to London and admit it to my family. I considered asking to leave the Orev for the regular Tzanhanim battalions, perhaps trying to get out of the army entirely. My body was going through the motions still but my mind was elsewhere, somehow in some way I felt that I had been betrayed but there was no one to blame.
A small corner of the plugah had been set aside for the smokers. It was in the smoking corner that I met people, it was the only place where we could go and not be on the clock for the little missions we were always being given. The only times we were allowed to go there were meal times and in the free hour before we all had to be asleep. It was there that guys from all of the different units gathered to share their stories of torment at the hands of the army. I didn’t understand much of what was being said but people there laughed so hard when I tried to speak Hebrew that they quickly accepted me. It wasn't great fun sitting there watching people laughing at me but they didn't seem to mean anything by it. I quickly came to realise that I was the one who had to adjust. When you're the odd one out you can accept it and go with it or rebel against it and go on your own. I chose to stop trying to do everything alone, to stop sulking over the fact that I wasn't in the Sayeret and most importantly to let go of all of the preconceptions I had fostered with regards to life in the IDF. I was rewarded by having a place to go and people to talk to.
This was how I met Haim, he had been amongst those laughing in the smoking corner and sought me out while I was wandering around the plugah. “Hey Brity, you’re a funny guy, now we’re friends and you’re coming to my house for Rosh Hashannah!” It wasn’t an invitation so much as a statement. This put me in a bit of a bind, I had been looking forward to our first weekend off and was in no way certain that I wanted to spend it in the company of strangers, certainly not those who were a good 5 years younger than me. I nodded none the less figuring that I could get out of it later.
That same day we were treated to a lecture from our officer. He spoke about the meaning of the word tzevet, a term that was almost holy in the IDF. Myself and the 17 others who composed the August 2002 intake to the Orev were now part of a tzevet and as such we were expected to help one another at every possible moment. We would be spending the rest of our army service together, we would endure all that the training staff would throw at us and then we would endure everything that the enemy would throw at us. Unlike elsewhere in the IDF the members of August 2002 Orev Tzanhanim would remain as one organic unit throughout their service.
That day we were finally issued our rifles and I signed off on a distinctly battered M-16 assault rifle. Before being taken down to the rifle range we had to pass a qualification test, it was all in Hebrew of course. In the wake of a lesson on the weapon tests were distributed. I didn’t have a chance at passing it, I could neither read nor understand anything. I looked at Ran silently pleading with him for help but he ignored me and gave the order to begin. I looked down at the page, there were diagrams of the rifle with multiple choice questions around them. I felt the tension rise within me, if I couldn’t pass this then I couldn’t go to the range with the others.
I barely heard creak of the seat next to me as my Sergeant occupied it. “How’s it going?” he whispered in my ear. I tensed up, not knowing how to answer, I didn’t have to. He put his finger next to one of the answers to the first question. I turned to him and he simply nodded his head back to the page. I circled the answer and his finger instantly moved to another and then another. My Sergeant, who an hour ago had made us all run around the base, stand to attention, then run around the base again because we hadn’t swept the sand out of the tents was sitting next to me giving me the answers to the test.
When I had circled the answers he rose and without another word walked out, Ran tried and failed to suppress a grin, to my left the rest of my tzevet were staring at me. Later, once the tests had been marked the Sergeant read out the results. Everyone had passed the test and I had scored the highest with 100%, he insisted on playing out the charade to the end and started clapping, he glared at the others and they started clapping too. Ran found the whole thing hilarious and had to step out of the room to get rid of his fit of giggles. I was petrified everyone was now going to hate me, instead they were all patting my back as we left the room. We all knew what had happened but no one cared, they surprised me with their warmth, these guys didn't know me at all but they were happy to accept me. These guys I had been thrown together with were growing on me, despite myself.
The next day target practise began, naturally this being the IDF there were no fully functioning shooting ranges but simply empty areas marked out as shooting ranges. This meant that we had to bring the rifle range with us. At 0600 we were standing outside our tents staring at the mountain of equipment that had been placed in front of us. The majority of it consisted of ammunition though there were also jerrycans full of water, a radio pack, targets and steel stakes to hammer into the ground with the massive sledgehammer that we would be bringing also. To transport the equipment we had an open stretcher and, for some unfathomable reason a large, white, collapsible table.
The Sergeant took out his stopwatch and gave the usual impossible time limit within which we were to have all of the equipment either on our backs or on the stretcher and the table and to have both of those already in the air. The next 2 minutes saw a rush of movement as we clambered all over each other to try to get the job done. “How much time do you have left?” Ran asked us all, we didn’t know, we had forgotten to organise someone to keep time. Then someone piped up and said “1.46” and the collective sigh of relief was palpable as we raced back to our original 3 lines. To be late was acceptable; to go over the time limit was not, once we were reassembled one of the guys made the formal request for more time to complete the task.
We continued in this way until we were standing there with all of the equipment on our backs, the stretcher with equipment on it in the air and the white table also in the air with a corner resting on a shoulder of four soldiers. Wearing my full combat equipment and holding a rifle in my hands I felt like a soldier for the first time since beginning training. I was under the stretcher and carrying a jerrycan on my back. The Sergeant led us to a back gate which was chained closed with a padlock. He pulled the chain off with a loud clang and then led us out of the base, into the empty desert beyond.