By Sunday I was back on the base preparing to spend another week in the field. We wouldn't be seeing the base again for five days when we would get back in time for Shabbat with the knowledge that on Saturday evening as soon as Shabbat left us behind for another week we would be heading back out into the world beyond and whatever misery awaited us. That evening I stood with a pack on my back and the handle of a stretcher resting on my shoulder along with three others in my team. The stretcher was laden with ammunition and rations all a growing soldier needs for a week in the mud. We stood there not moving and barely talking all of us sensing each other's fear in front of the back gate of the base.
Adrenaline was coursing through my veins, that evening and every single other evening before our descent into the wilderness I felt that same fear. I only knew that the week to come would be harder than the week before and since the week before had invariably been the hardest of my life the thought of the road not yet trodden was enough to get the adrenaline flowing. It's funny how I never realised what luxuries I had in the army until they were taken away from me. During boot camp we had two big tents for the 18 of us, with nice lockers in between each bunk and an entire hour at the end of each day of free time, not to mention the rule that we would each get at least 6 hours of sleep every night. That was completely forgotten on advanced infantry training, we lived in the field, our lives were cut down into constant infantry exercises at the end of which two of our number would be told that they had been wounded in the assault and now needed to be carried by stretcher. That was my life, 15 minutes for food and if we were lucky sleeping bags would be brought out to us by jeep at the end of the night so that we could sleep warm for a couple of hours, that was if let us sleep at all. Towards the end of the advanced training even that luxury was denied us and we had to make do with one blanket between two in the Winter Cold.
The shift in the training regimen meant that marches were now fewer and each was much longer than the one before. There was one march per month the first was 45km, the second 60km and the third and final march was from The sea to Jerusalem and was the 90km march where we would be awarded the red beret of the Paratroopers at the end. That was still a long way off, it was November and my fourth month in the army and the 45km march loomed large. The cold had set in and the fields around us had turned into mud, in the mornings mist and fog clung to the ground until what little sun there still was burned it away.
One morning I opened my eyes to the sight of the back of a pair of boots in front of me. It was Green and he was standing in the middle of the team. I instantly knew we had screwed up, whoever was last on watch was supposed to have us all awake and ready at a preset time and yet there Green was and we were still asleep. I did the only thing I could think of and closed my eyes, trying to go back to sleep, pretending it was all a nightmare, that Green wasn't there and that I still had hours to keep my eyes closed and my body still.
When his voice came it was a mere whisper, "within 30 seconds you have packed everything up and the stretcher is in the air with Oran on it." I can't have been the only one feigning sleep because as one we all leapt up, stuffed the sleeping bags away, pulled our packs on and had the stretcher in the air. We had screwed up and now we were going to be punished. Off we went, Green led us up one hill and then back down and then back up and then back down. We struggled on and on, by this time we all were carrying bags on our backs, this was advanced training and we were in the field for a week, everything we would need we carried from the base into the field.
We walked and we walked and we walked until the strain had me, until the pain in my shoulder was the only thing on my mind and all I yearned for was a couple of minutes to rest and a sip or two of water. We slept in our uniforms, we slept in our boots and with our weapons and we ate food that had been sealed in cans before we were born, this was life on advanced infantry training. I got through it by imagining what everyone back in London would say when I told them about the things I had done, I imagined how their faces would both light up and darken as I told them my various stories, my lips would silently move as I constructed my day dreams and my fairy tales while carrying that god awful stretcher. In all that time I never once considered quitting, my new mantra was "if the red beret was easy to get, I wouldn't want it!"
As the training worsened the atmosphere lightened, the bond between us grew and magnified as we witnessed each other under the greatest of stress. Those of us who could handle helping the others were in turn helped by the others, those who couldn't were left by the wayside. And so of the original 18 of us, two were lost by the end of boot camp, one at the start of advanced training and more would be gone by the end.
When the 45km first march of advanced training came around and that awkward moment where we all looked down at the equipment arrived I figured my time had come. I reached down and picked up the stretcher, admittedly the lightest piece of equipment there but I had some serious fears to overcome. More pieces of equipment had been added since boot camp. There was now another jerrycan weighing in at 20 litres and another radio to be taken.
We had 45 km to go and the next day they would be letting us home again, we had survived our first month of advanced training and our reward was this march and then two weeks of jump school. Everyone knew that jump school was easy, that there was a dining room there with a kitchen which would serve us hot food every day and that we could take a shower there every day too and of course that we would be jumping out of an aeroplane five times!
The march began at dusk and at first everything was fine, I was at the front of the group with Green marching merrily along. He didn't stop or deviate from his route for anything, there was the occasional animal carcass on the ground and he would happily step on it and continue his mission to get us to some unknown place that was an ever diminishing number of kilometers away, though he would never tell us how many. And so we moved for 55 minutes of the hour and drank for the other five. It was around a third of the way in that we started to march up, and up and up. The incline was getting consistently greater and the straps of the stretcher were biting consistently deeper into my skin. It didn't matter how I adjusted them it was always problematic, too loose and the whole thing swung to the side pulling me off balance, too tight and I cut of the circulation around my shoulders, I was fading fast.
After twenty kilometers I had Omer pulling me by one arm and Elisha by the other, it was standard on a march for this to happen but it hadn't happened to me and it was what I had always dreaded. All feelings of self respect and dignity left me, I would cry out and shout at the people around me, Elad just laughed, Elisha ignored me while pulling my left hand and Omer constantly told me to give him the stretcher only to hear me shout back "NO!" To which he would shout something unintelligible back at me. Omer had passed the test for the Navy SEALS and they had wanted him badly but although he had passed the test it had also destroyed his motivation to serve with them. He had been so cold that the thought of spending the rest of his military service wet and shivering had sent him in the direction of the Paratroopers. He was tall, thin and bespectacled and an utter nerd more importantly he was half of the reason I was still able to move. The other half of the reason was Elisha, who was also tall, also a nerd and had found the strength to put his hand on my back on the very first march and propel me forwards, now, when I needed him once again he was there to pull me forwards.
So we continued, I sought out Haim at one point only to find him moving forward one foot after the other slogging the machine gun with him and I could hear Yuval jabbering away to Yoni at the back of the group as he tugged him forward. I had long since fallen towards the back of the team but I could still see the long antenna extending from Yaar's radio at the front of the group as he marched alongside Green as his radioman.
We were a team now and we were all in this together.
I finished that march in a dead man's state, exactly the state that I remembered Yuval being in when he had carried the radio. I was groaning and my eyes were wandering around in my head but I still had the presence of mind to answer the questions put to me and to respond when someone spoke to me. I could feel an iron inside me, steel in my soul, I reached a point where the body demanded that I quit but my mind refused and ordered the flesh to continue.
Everything was at stake, giving the stretcher up was out of the question, not because I couldn't do it, Omer would have taken it without saying a word, but everyone would have known. I would have broken the code, it would have been the same as the guys who chose to do push ups instead of run the sprints during the gibush my number would have been marked and the group would forsake me for those of our number, like Yuval, who could carry their load from start to finish even though they thought it might kill them. I didn't give up the stretcher and at 35kms in I somehow found my strength returning. I had gotten past the point of no return and made it to the other side.
The march had taken us in a massive circle around the base, five kms from the end the evil stretcher came off my back, we put Oran on it and ran the rest of the way carrying him. The pillboxes were soon in view as we ran towards them in the black of night. Cheers came from the soldiers manning those pillboxes, the soldiers within them knowing that their turn at the 45km was the next day, they opened the gates for us while shouting encouragement as we ran through them stretcher still in the air, we ran all the way in and lifted the stretcher three times up and down while cheering our own achievement, month one was over, parachute course was coming and the next step on the path to becoming a paratrooper was upon us!