The End of the Beginning

I stood on the scales in the tent facing the Captain. He looked at me, “you’re overweight” he said. You take a maximum of 60% of your body weight only. Everyone was trying to do it. Sneak more in their pack, more weight, more to carry over the five days of the mesakem. It’s not that we didn’t think that 60% of our body weight was a heavy load it’s that we all had to prove to each other that we could carry more, that we were better. The competition between the members of the team had been ongoing for a year and now that the final test was here we were all trying to sneak more weight into the bags just to prove to each other who the strongest was.

But the captain was strict and insisted on being present when each one of us stood on the scales and making sure we didn’t take too much. I was carrying a lot of water, some camouflage equipment, ammunition, an army issue shovel and other stuff that was there simply as weight until the 40 kilos weight was met. Of course when you consider the fact that I was really light and that someone like Haim or Bull weighed a lot more than me you realise that some people were walking around with as much 60 kilos on their back.

We knew that though it was first of the two final weeks mesakem South, as it was called, was the toughest test. We were divided into pairs and were to trek through the Negev Desert for five days. We would have physical contact with the unit once a day for resupply of water and other than that we were on our own. We knew what was coming, we were scared but exhilarated by the fact that this thing, this elusive end of training had actually arrived, it was in our grasp, ours for the taking. Now all that remained was to get through this test.

I was paired up with Elisha. I hadn’t spoken to him much, I don’t think he had spoken to anyone all that much over the year. I wished I could have been with one of the other guys, with Yuval or with Haim or the Indian or Aviv but Green had assigned us to be together and that was the end of it and besides I was hardly actually going to complain he’d been with me all year after all. I just didn’t really know much about the guy and after a year of training that was really very strange indeed. Perhaps he felt the same way about me, I don’t know, I never asked him.

In any case it was Elisha and I who were the last pair left in a jeep being driven by the Captain down a dusty dirt track in the desert. We didn’t know where we were when he stopped the vehicle and said “good luck” over his shoulder. I might even have detected a smile on his face when he said it. But soon we were out and he had driven away leaving us standing there, carrying these packs on our backs, with no idea where he had dropped us, with a rendez-vous to get to in exactly 24 hours time.

I looked at Elisha “what do you think?” He asked

I shrugged, my mind entirely blank and simultaneously filled to the brim with the enormity of the fact that it was the two of us versus the desert.

“I think we should head West” he said. It seemed as good as any other direction to me so I simply nodded and we began our week together. Every 24 hours we had a rendez vous point for re-supply. If we were spotted by any of the commanders who were driving around the area in Humvees an anti tank mine would be added to our load. We ate the same rations we had been eating for the previous year though most of the time I was too tired to eat and took the opportunity to sleep rather than eat. Again Elisha was there to remind me to take something to give me energy. We walked through canyons and up hills and mountains in the middle of nowhere. We would receive random radio messages telling us to divert from our path and head to the top of a random peak and await further instructions when we got there.

At the top of one of these peaks we radioed in and were told to sit tight. It seemed so utterly ridiculous, sitting at the top of a peak we had been struggling to climb for 2 hours that I pulled out my mobile phone and proceeded to commit the most rebellious act I could think of. I called home in London. It so happened that while I sat shivering on top of a mountain in the desert my parents were at the home of friends playing Bridge. The disjointed conversation ended rather abruptly when a helicopter flew low over my head making the conversation rather difficult. It ended with a bellowed “goodbye Mum” and a prompt disconnect.

The helicopter flew away, leaving Elisha and I alone again to contemplate what on earth we were supposed to do in this place. We sat there wondering if the week had finished prematurely before the Captain’s voice crackled through on the radio. “you’re on hill 341?” He quizzed. When Elisha replied in the affirmative he was quizzed again “What do you see?” This was becoming ridiculous, he had already sent us miles off course to climb up to this bloody place, now he was keeping us here. “Elisha explained the surrounding terrain and once satisfied that we were, in fact, where we said we were he sent us back on our original course.

And so we moved, one foot after the other, always knowing that each step taken brought us closer to the end of a journey that had begun a year ago. Sometimes we had to backtrack miles after realising we had made a wrong turn and sometimes we made it just on time. The memories of that week are cloudy, I’m not sure for how much of it I was particularly conscious as we slogged through, always with another rendez-vous to make, always with another target to hit and always having to duck the commanders. But painfully, slowly and as if through a strange fog of exhaustion we could finally make out the end.

When it came, it came via a radio message from the Captain. “Get to the following point and you have reached the end.” Was all he said. We looked at the map and Elisha spotted a shortcut to get there. “It’ll be harder but we’ll end this thing more quickly” he said. It was all I needed to hear and I nodded yes. Stupidly. An hour later I was balancing precariously on the ledge of a mountain, shuffling my feet next to each other and trying my hardest not to think about the long drop that was waiting any missed step. The crumbling rocks falling down the ravine served to remind how it was that other such soldiers had actually died doing this stuff and that I might well join them. The weight at my back was being tugged down by gravity herself into the deep abyss that I dared not look at and only my precarious handgolds on the rocks served to keep me from going down. But we made it, we made it up the hill that the Captain had told us to climb and as we moved further and further towards the target other pairs came into view one after the other.

And we knew it really was the end. When we reached the summit, someone handed me a plastic bottle of icy water. I looked at them as if they had given me manna from heaven as I took a sip and handed the bottle to my brother Elisha. As I did so I remembered the first march so many months before and someone’s hand on my back pushing me up the final hill.

It was his. One mesakem down, one to go.

A few days later we were in a hanger in a restricted part of Ben Gurion International Airport where drove out humvees onto C-141 Hercules aircraft. We had no idea why or what we would be doing, when the airplanes took off we had no idea where we were headed. They landed about 40 minutes after take off and we drove down the ramp and out into desert ready for anything but we weren’t to go far. An officer from the unit called Amir followed us off the plane and ordered us to change a tire on each vehicle before ordering them both back on the plane at which point it promptly turned around and took off from the desert floor. When it landed we drove off the plane at an Air Force base in the North of the country, it was from there that we really started the week.

Driving out of the plane and straight out of the base I felt like a real commando, my M4 assault rifle in my lap and ammunition all over my combat vest I knew that the week was going to be a wilder ride than the one I was experiencing in the hummvee. We drove for a while before receiving orders to march cross country to an ‘enemy’ base to launch an attack. And so the week went from march to attack to marching with stretchers to more attacks. We fired anti tank missiles and as much ammunition in a few days as we would normally fire in a month. Entire IDF bases had been cleared for our use as we ‘attacked’ them in the dark. During the day we lay up in camouflaged hides and at night the action went on.

It wasn’t hard at all, it was the end.

The final event of my training was a forced march to the unit’s legendary place. Mount Sartabe. Every new team climbed it carrying their full equipment the rite of passage was waiting for us on a balmy night, stars in the sky provided more than enough light to see my way up the path carved out by generations of Israeli Paratroopers on their way over the final hurdle into Orev. After 45 minutes or so we were strung out on the way up the mountain, I found myself alone walking the path roughly able to make out the shape of a bunch of my brothers in arms before me. They were carrying a stretcher laden down with anti tank equipment, the four of them were carrying the stretcher all the way and the rest of us carried their equipment.

I moved onwards and upwards around the spiraling pathway to the top of the mountain laden down with equipment and with the knowledge that through all of the crawling over thorns, endless wandering around in the desert nights, stretcher runs, camouflage training, hand to hand combat, shooting round after round after round I was at the end.

From somewhere off ahead of me someone fired a flare from a grenade launcher. I saw it fly off into the twinkling night sky and then descend slowly as it burned and lit up the area below. I could hear shouting ahead of me and could make out shadows standing far off, as I climbed higher the voices became discernible through the night. The shadows, they were calling me, they were calling us all;

“Team August 2002, it’s time!”

“August 2 the unit’s waiting for you!”

A whole load of voices joined together making it hard to know what was unfolding ahead of me. The peak of Mount Sartabe is composed of a fine chalky dust, climbing it without any weight was a tough proposition, climbing it with a huge bag on my back as well as my combat vest loaded down with ammunition and water was almost impossible. The stretcher, which had been so far in front of me was struggling as one by one the people carrying it slipped and fell, sometimes the stretcher fell with them. This was the top and there was a helluva long way to fall down on every side. I ran to the stretcher as I saw Haim fall at the front and Elisha slip at the back. Every time one of them fell someone else rushed in to fill the gap. I fell more than once and struggled to get back up and keep pushing that stretcher forwards. Slowly, slowly we ascended.

We ascended to the sound of other soldiers urging us forward, they were the team that joined the army in August 2000. They were leaving as we were coming in and by being there that night they were performing their final mission. They were welcoming their replacements to the unit. They were all around us now, firing flare after flare, shouting urging us onwards and upwards to the top of the mountain. Someone shouted out “1,2,3” and we all gave one final effort, 4 guys carrying the stretcher and everyone else pushing those guys forwards or holding onto their arms and pulling them up.

And with that last effort we had done it. We had climbed the mountain to Orev Tzanhanim.

The date was August 2003.