To be a Commando

There were times when it felt like the training would just never end and there was no guarantee that any of us would actually complete the journey and be awarded the badge of the Orev, the winged sword with a cross hairs instead of a hilt. I had often thought about quitting, leaving it all behind and heading for the regular Paratrooper regiments. Once the first 6 months were up I knew that at any time I could simply leave the team behind and would be immediately operational. Sometimes I bumped into one of the soldiers from the regiments who had also started in August, they would always say something like “I’ve already been on 4 operations, what have you done?” What could I do but shrug? If I had known then that his four operations was the equivalent of one night in the Orev I would have felt differently. But I didn’t. What kept me going was imagining being there at the final ceremony, watching Haim and Yuval and Aviv and Asaf, Forrest, Iddo, Netanel all of them, they’d all have had what it takes and I would have been the quitter and somehow I just couldn’t stomach that.

and so the only target on the horizon of any consequence became the mesakmim. These are testing weeks and they are every soldier’s holy grail, they are the final weeks of training, both eagerly anticipated and feared above all else. Whereas War Week was a difficult experience all you had to do was endure it, there was never any personal accomplishment necessary, we started as a team and finished as one. The mesakmim were different, they were the time for personal accomplishment a time where you would face the final hurdles, survive them and then you were in, the unit we had seen only from a distance would embrace us and we would become one with it, we would be considered warriors. Real people.

The first of the mesakmim came after 10 months, it was for infantry skills, it was week in an area of land that had no name, only a number. Area 347. It was June and already so hot that the army had declared parts of the day too hot to train in. That wasn’t going to be a problem our Captain announced with glee in his eyes. He claimed to have a special permission from no less than the Chief of Staff himself to work us all day everyday regardless of the heat. That nameless area of desert we were transported to would remain emblazoned in the memory of all who were forced to endure that grueling week.

The bus stopped somewhere in the desert from the moment we were ordered off the bus were in trouble, the commanders were on us and it didn’t stop for the whole week. All of the worst parts of boot camp, advanced training and the courses that came after were squeezed together in one nightmare that just seemed to go on and on. It’s the funny thing about army time is that a week can feel like forever and like an illusion. When you’re only allowed a small amount of sleep time seems to stretch on forever with no hope of respite. And yet because of sleep deprivation you can never really be sure of when you’re awake and when you’re dreaming. You see while awake the things you only recognise from dreams and reach the point where carrying out even the simplest of tasks becomes a struggle bordering on impossible.

From the beginning we were sent to crawl through an area that the commanders had loaded with  thorns and any sharp, naturally occurring phenomenon they could find. We dived in and slithered along the ground until our arms were bleeding and then we crawled some more, the scratches given by these bushes were prized as badges of honour, look how tough we are, even when we’re cut and bleeding we continue to crawl through the filth. I can’t remember how long it went on for. It didn’t finish but morph into a series of other exercises that ended with us assaulting not one but a series of hills one after the other. Every time I thought we had reached the end I found there was another hill to attack. Then we restocked with ammunition and did it all over again and again and again until nightfall, when we did it again and again in the dark.

When the moon was high in the sky, the final hill assaulted and conquered, two stretchers were opened, two “wounded” were loaded onto them and we were on our way, where to no one knew. The ground was rocky and we moved primarily over the ridgelines of area 347, painfully aware that to the right and to the left lay nothing but a long drop down. We moved onward into the night forever forward. Over time the distance between the squads carrying each stretcher grew until we could no longer see each other. Sometimes we would reach a point where I was positive that the march was about to end but the ridge line never ended and we were hopelessly held hostage to the never ending trail at the top of the peaks. It went down and it went up but it never ended and neither did our journey.

We kept moving, the handles of the accursed stretcher burying themselves into our shoulders as we marched. Several times I was sure we were at the end, so sure that I called to the others and told them to pick up the pace, that we were at the end and if we could just find another burst of energy from somewhere, just enough to make it to the top of the nearest crescent then we had made it. But I was wrong every time. We would simply be told to keep on marching. And night became day and we were still moving through the hills of Area 347, every time we were allowed a break for water we would, as one, collapse, drink something and then pass out until kicked awake moments later. Then up we rose took the stretchers back upon our shoulders and carried on.

By late the next morning I was hallucinating the camp every 10 minutes or so. Mark the Sergeant found it hilarious, “where is it now?” he would ask, “It’s just here!” would come my increasingly agitated reply as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that the clump of rocks I was pointing at was in fact a series of tents. It was only when we were meters away that my error became clear to me and my frustration all the greater for it. Eventually one of the stretchers broke under the strain at which point we went from being 2 squads to one team again, everyone rushing to share the load. Except me. No one wanted to be under the stretcher with me anymore, I was too short, the weight would hang first into whoever was to my side making the whole thing go lopsided. In the end I carried Yuval’s bag and my own and he remained under the stretcher constantly without being switched.

By this time it was too late to talk of orderly lines of soldiers waiting behind the stretcher to take their turn under it in perfectly timed intervals of 90 seconds. There were two groups, the strong and the weak. The strong marched the stretcher relentlessly forward, switching among themselves, the weak trailed behind. Then there was me, exempt from the stretcher, carrying my own pack and Yuval’s, thankful that I didn’t have to face the test offered by that stretcher any longer as I wasn’t sure how I would have come out of it.

I can’t remember how long it went on for but eventually we were given some respite and allowed to escape from the sun. We each had half of a 2 man tent, we paired up to build the temporary shelter from the sun. I shared mine with Aviv. We filled up or water bottles from a trailer that had been towed to that desolate place by a Hummvee. The water was close to boiling point as it had sat there in that metal container in the sun. We drank the water with the necessity of those close to dehydration and then lay in our tent on the ground trying to sleep only to find that it was impossible. The closest I could get to sleep was closing my eyes only to blink them open again when the high pitched whine of a mosquito came close. We lay there in the heat that , Aviv and I in a curious state of non-sleep, with every second that passed my fear grew that we would be called out of those tents to begin it all again, the fear became so great that it was an even bigger obstacle to sleep than the various insects that buzzed around the fresh meat that was my exhausted body. I tried to sleep flat on my back, I tried lying on my side, I tried counting fucking sheep but the insects and the heat and the fear of what was to come prevented me from taking any real solace in the rest time we were given.

The sound of a stun grenade let us all know that our respite had come to a close, I must have been asleep as I remember opening my eyes. Up we got, magazines full, ammunition belts for machines guns ready and we did the whole thing all over again. It was starting to get annoying, in other armies, you know, really professional ones, they do all of this kind of stuff at the very beginning and use it to weed out the recruits who don’t have the right stuff. I was getting the feeling that our infantry testing week was more to satisfy the sadistic streak that existed within our captain. Hadn’t we proven ourselves enough? Hadn’t we carried the stretcher enough times? Hadn’t we carried enough weight on our backs? Hadn’t we conquered enough hills and shot to death enough paper targets?

Apparently not.

During the slogging we were tested. After climbing to the top of one particularly tough hill we found 6 or 7 commanders waiting there for us, each of them tested us in a different way “use the binoculars to tell me how far away that tree is”, “take the map and call in an artillery strike on this grid reference”, what’s the rate of fire of a MAG machine gun?”, “program into this GPS how to get to Tel Aviv via Be’ersheva”. We rotated around until they were done with us. then they put us all into a cave for a ‘lecture’ on how to insert an IV into a wounded man. One by one we fell asleep only to be awoken by the words GAS GAS GAS as Mark threw a gas grenade into the cave. As one we all lunged for the opening, a couple of people didn’t get out in time and were overwhelmed by the noxious fumes. It’s one thing to throw a gas grenade in an open environment but throwing it into a closed one like that cave can be lethal, the acrid stuff has nowhere to go.

Some of the guys left their weapons inside and ran back in to get them only to run back out again and fall to their knees, even the Captain later admitted that was a step too far. But he could do what he wanted for in that area, for that week, he was king. Strange things happen in the desert when you’re low on water and sleep. I remember Iddo, utterly dehydrated and falling behind screaming at Green across a ravine, “GREEEEEN! CAN WE STOP FOR A WATER BREAK????” Of course Green wasn’t even in sight but the sound of Iddo’s voice reverberated around the area for another 10 seconds or so. Nothing I could say to Iddo could stop him from shouting again while we stood there waiting for a response from an unseen presence. In the end I convinced him that we would both drink while we walked. “you think that would be okay?” he asked me, eyes wide, “Yeah, I think it would” I said trying to make sure my tone matched the seriousness of his.

By the middle of the third day we practiced camouflage and dug out places to hide, the pace slackened. It couldn’t have gotten harder than it was, we were on the verge of losing people through simple dehydration, though we didn’t lose anyone. After 5 days of it we were finished, the bus arrived and we collapsed onto the air conditioned seats, shirts off, pungent aroma from sockless feet contributing to the general aroma of the sweat of men who have been pushed to the limit and come through it. We were pushed hard and, once again, we had come through.

Sleep took me as soon as I sat down on one of those comfortable chairs they have on buses, I was rudely awaken too soon. The bus had stopped in the middle of the highway and none of us could understand why. The Captain wordlessly got off the bus, Green was already standing talking to Mark before he turned and ordered us all off. My foggy mind was having difficulty interpreting the data. We weren’t on the base and yet we were getting off the bus, it seemed absurd. Slowly, slowly the truth flickered through. Haim muttered “it’s not over yet” the baggage compartment of the bus opened and Green ordered us to take out the stretchers and put our combat vests on. Looking behind us I could see that a couple of army jeeps had blocked the road.

We loaded the stretchers up with equipment and stood in two groups huddled underneath it muttering various insults at the Captain, at the army and at the world in general. On the word “Go” we started running as fast as our bruised and broken bodies would allow, we ran until we could see another 2 army jeeps blocking off the road and we ran towards them at the urging of Green, who, for the first time in almost 12 months was under the stretcher with us sharing the pain. We made it to the jeeps and turned around to run back to the bus. We pushed on full turbo and moved onward my stretcher competing with other. We ran and we hit the bus and it was over and we felt no joy, no accomplishment, no sense of triumph.

The Captain stood just there, stopwatch in hand announcing that the Navy commandos could run it a minute faster, then he climbed on board the bus waiting for us to load the equipment and clamber back, sweating and breathless and silently cursing the day he was born.

The first mesakem was over, 2 to go.