I feel kind of like Yon, having not written in a month. Luckily for me, I have only one really important week to tell about; War Week.
As I wrote about in previous posts, we’ve been learning about offensive operations. Starting from the most basic level, we’ve been working our way up. War week, our final obstacle in finishing advanced training, was our opportunity to learn how to operate as a company in the field.
The entire week before was spent getting our equipment ready. Split into pairs, we throw everything we need (or were ordered to take) into a large backpack – shovel, spare ammunition, camo nets, extra water, change of uniform, etc. Why no tents? There’s no point in carrying a tent when you know you won’t be sleeping. We check and double check every piece of gear. Is my gun zeroed? Are there any strings or laces hanging off my vest? Does my watch have a cover on it (sun reflecting off the face of the watch can give away your position)? During this preparation week, we spent a lot of time improving our sheef-tzurim, strings that prevent items (knee pads, watch, canteens, etc.) from falling and getting lost. Whatever wasn’t perfect, had to be fixed.
Tuesday, 1AM – Reville. Regardless of rank, everybody in the company is running, taking care of last minute items. At 1:45, we’re in formation. Faces painted, gear on our backs, organized into our four platoons (3 light infantry, 1 heavy weapons), we start moving. Walking over rocks and hills, crossing roads and wadis, not one word is heard through the line as our unit moves slowly through the darkness. Finally, at 5AM, we’re in position. We’re given 15 minutes to clean our rifles and wolf down whatever food we can.
With three tanks and over one hundred men, our mission is to take and occupy eight hills. After a week of studying the plan, every soldier knows his exact place in the exercise. After the safety briefing and a quick dry run, it’s time for the real thing; our first live fire drill as a company. The heavy weapons platoon opens fire with every type of gun they could carry; mortars, machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. My lieutenant runs forward, under cover, to blow a hole through the barbed wire. As soon as we have a path, we start to move. Sprinting through open territory, we take cover for a short time before moving on the first hill. As soon as it’s secure, we cover the two other platoons as they move in under our fire. Over the next two hours, squads and platoons leap frog one another to take more ground, not moving an inch without somebody else covering. As we’re doing our part to the west, the tanks are doing theirs to the east. During the entire exercise, there was not one second when gunfire was not heard.
Around noon, we throw our gear on our backs and start moving. Again, we stumble over unfamiliar terrain; the only difference isthat we traded darkness for heat. After our mid-day march, we take part in a defensive exercise. Without any real excitement, we return to our original positions to practice our night-time operations. As we wait for the sun to set, we prepare our sandwiches of tuna and white bread for the next 24 hours. At 9PM, the drills start – first dry, then live fire. The same plan that we’d studied for a week and executed twice that morning went as smoothly as expected. The one terrifying difference was seeing the flashes of explosions fired from the heavy weapons platoon,as we ran towards our destination. Don’t worry, mom. No injuries.
Wednesday, 1AM – We’ve been up for 24 hours. We spent that time hiking, running and shooting. Time for a short nap? Guess again. Time for a 16 kilometer march? That’s more like it. Again, we walk through the night. Tired doesn’t come close to describing how we feel. Even the squad sergeants talk to us about their exhausted hallucinations (my sergeant mumbled some bullshit about rainbows and butterflies that nobody really understood). Watching the sun rise over the mountains of the Negev was a welcomed sight. At 6AM, we repeat the same procedure that we did the morning before. Clean guns, eat, hydrate. Safety briefing. Additional briefing about the attack. We didn’t have a week to study this exercise. We didn’t even have 15 minutes. Here are the hills – here’s what you’re taking. Get in position.
Wednesday, 11AM – After our two exercises, our lieutenant tells us one word. Ga-gash. The sweetest, made-up word I’d ever heard in my life. Ga-gash is an Israeli Army acronym meaning “hour limit.” After 34 hours of non-stop activity, we’re ordered to go to sleep. The one thing that the army didn’t think about is that in the middle of the day in June in the Negev, it’s damn near impossible to sleep. Of the seven hours we were given to rest, the lucky ones slept three hours. Most of us were in the one and a half to two hour range. At 6PM, completely content with whatever rest we got, we eat, get our equipment ready and, again, start walking.
Around 11PM, we arrive at the location for our last company-wide exercise; urban warfare. With one squad firing blanks to simulate a group of terrorists, we do our best to recreate an urban battle. With our final exercise out of the way, we hydrate before our last task of War Week; an 8 kilometer march with stretchers open the whole way. At exactly 3AM on Thursday morning, we pick up the stretchers and start on our way. The company commander, figuring we were tired from the week, thought we needed four hours for this hike.
At 5:45AM, with the sun rising behind us, we triumphantly reach Tel Arad, marking the end of our advanced training. The only celebration we allow ourselves, as we wait for the historic site to open, is a brief smile to one another as we lay down for our first real rest in over 24 hours.
At 7AM, we stand in formation at the top of Tel Arad and receive our pin. We are now officially warriors in the the Nahal Infantry Brigade.