Masa Kumta

It started back in December with our first masa. The three kilometer hike lasted half an hour.  We knew that it wasn’t the biggest feat but (foolishly) we still felt as though we’d accomplished something.  Our commanders made sure to readjust our thinking immediately.  “YOU WALKED 3 KILOMETERS! My grandmother walks more than that everyday. Don’t be so damn proud of yourselves.”  As the months progressed, the distances increased and we started to carry guys on stretchers.  Whatever the distance, our sense of accomplishment was almost immediately crushed.  All of that changed about a month ago.  We hiked 30+6 kilometers (30 regular, plus 6 with stretchers open).  Following this hike, we were allowed to feel as though we’d accomplished something.  Why? This hike was the Mechin Kumta.  This was the last hike before we embarked upon our Masa Kumta; the hike for our brigade’s beret.

Last Sunday, we got back to base and were told to get our equipment ready.  Monday evening starts the Masa Kumta.  From Har Amasa (near our base) to Masada, a mountain fortress that was the last Jewish stronghold in a revolt against the Romans.  This hike of 45+6 kilometers was meaningful for so many reasons: we’ve finally advanced enough to represent our brigade in public, we’re approaching the end of our training, the symbolism of ending the masa at Masada.  Almost as important is that this hike was the culmination of these hellish marches that have occupied us for the last six months.

The mountain fortress that awaited us at the end of the hike

During the masa, we walk at a pace of 6 kilometers per hour (4 kph if the stretchers are open) and stop for 15 minutes every 6 kilometers to rest and rehydrate.  The least favorite part is that each squad has a stretcher (15 lbs) and a backpack filled with water (35 lbs) that have to be carried, in addition to each soldier’s personal equipment (another 20 lbs).  Before the hike, we organize a list of who will carry each item at what time.  Despite our best attempts, the list never really helps; mainly because we have no idea what injuries will befall what soldier at what time.

At 7:15PM sharp last Monday evening, we left Har Amasa with smiles, painted faces and all around high spirits.  As the sun set, it hit us that we’ll be marching through the night, past the time when the sun comes up.  This revelation didn’t put even the slightest damper on our motivation.  Quite the opposite in fact; we only have one opportunity to do the Masa Kumta and, damn it, we were going to do it right.

Hours past and the night fell completely dark.  We marched up mountains, past Bedouin camps, over stretches of sandy desert and, by 12:15AM made it 24 kilometers, just past our base.  At this point, we were given 45 minutes to rest, eat, stretch and pee. We pushed forward, descending into the desert next to the town of Arad.  At this point, we had ahead of us lay the most difficult incline of the march.  During the 2.5 kilometer ascent past Arad, every soldier was locked in formation, pushing the guy in front of him up the hill, all the while our platoon sergeant shouted, urging us to go faster.

Now past Arad, we began our several-hour descent toward the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.  Over sheer rock, our knees took a beating the whole time.  Stopping just before dawn, the list organizing “who carries what, when” became completely useless. Each of us was supposed to carry the water once and the stretcher once (for a total of 12k) but, due to sprained ankles, sore knees and nausea, others had to step up.  At this point, we learned the true meaning of comradery.  “Yes, it’s hard for me but it’s harder for you. Give me the damn water” or variations thereof were heard up and down the line.  Guys voluntarily made this hellish hike more difficult to help a friend.  Some ended up lugging the water an extra 12 kilometers.  I forcibly took the water from a squad-mate who literally did not realize how dehydrated he was. But then there was hope.  The sun was up, we’d made it through the night.  We filled our water, put smiles back on our faces and rushed forward.  After some time, the company commander stopped, waited for all three platoons to line up and, with pride in his voice, yelled for the stretchers to be opened.  Six kilometers from Masada. Six kilometers from finishing the march. Six kilometers from earning our berets.

At exactly 8:15AM, we stood in formation at the base of Masada, with stretchers on our shoulders.  With a birthright group watching from behind, we raised the stretchers three times, shouting our pride-filled cry, signifying the end of the hike.  We did it. We’d marched 13 hours, straight through the night. We finally earned our berets. We let this fact sink in and we climbed Masada. Still carrying our gear, we moved faster than the rested foreigners who struggled up the mountain.

In formation, awaiting our new berets

After our well-deserved rest, we had our ceremony – Tekes Kumta – on Thursday.  In front of family and friends, our commanders finally bestowed upon us the right to wear the green beret of the Nahal Infantry Battalion.

My squad watching, as my commander just presented me with my beret



I let procrastination get the best of me this weekend so pictures will have to suffice.  Over the last couple of weeks, we had another hike, learned about our APC (the Nagmash), had guard duty in Hebron and spent a week at Latrun, talking history and politics.  Below are a few pictures. As always, you can check out more on facebook: Army Pictures

Busy Couple of Weeks

Offensive operations are part of any infantry unit’s job description. As such, our commanders have been building us up to this task for months. It started in the middle of basic training, when we mastered solo and pair assault drills during our Shoot & Scoot lesson.  Several weeks later, we learned how to charge in four-man groups.  The past couple of weeks, we were faced with the next two steps: Squad Week and Platoon Week.

Squad Week

Our goals for the week were to learn the essentials of squad movements – charging, formations, hand signals, various other operations. It started with a hike into the field.  Unfortunately for us, it was pouring rain.  Carrying our gear for a week and soaking wet, we suffered the six kilometer hike.  Without complaint, we arrived at our destination and were almost immediately rewarded.  For the entirety of basic training, we were tagged with yellow stripes on our shoulders, to show anyone who didn’t already know that we were rookies (see picture below).  Our entire company was told to get in formation.  We had finally reached the next step.  Our sergeants went to each of their respective soldiers, removed the tags, offered a smile and finished with a solid punch to the chest, before moving to the next soldier.

The yellow tags indicated to all how recently we'd started in the army.

After removing our tags, we sat down for a delicious lunch of combat rations (tuna and olives).  For the first time, our squad sergeant sat down with us.  No more addressing him formally, no more calling him “commander;” he now has a name.  We still speak with respect but it’s no longer the formal environment that basic training was.  Still in our euphoria, we began with our activities for the week.  Each member of the squad learned his role in charging, hiking and covering.

Half way through the week, on the evening of April 5, my platoon and I (mostly just me, but they benefited too) were given one hell of a surprise.  Somehow, a family friend had arranged for my parents to visit and bring pizzas for us, while in the field.  For my platoon mates, they could not have been happier after two full weeks of eating tuna, three meals a day.  For me, I could not have imagined a better birthday present.

My squad, after having pizza in the field

The week ended with a hike back to base, with each soldier carrying at least 40% of his own body weight.  This six-kilometer stroll, which was supposed to take at least an hour and a half, was really more of a death march for other squads.  Somehow, my squad managed to make the hike back in exactly 62 minutes, a feat which did not go unnoticed by our commanders.

Platoon Week

At some point, the higher-ups decided it was important that we not get scared or freak out the first time we see a helicopter.  Rather than having us march into the field, like the week before, our company was picked up by blackhawks and dropped off in the field.  Unfortunately for us, helicopter pilots aren’t as particular as we would like them to be, when dropping us in the middle of nowhere (sorry, Omri. It’s true).  Despite the officers’ best efforts, we had to correct the chopper pilots’ three kilometer mishap.  After our mini-hike to our more specific middle of nowhere, we were informed that our platoon commander and platoon sergeant now have names as well.  As with our squad commanders, we still have to maintain a certain level or respect but they’re more willing to joke and relax around us, making the environment a lot more like camp than before.

Then the week progressed exactly like the week before, except for one minor detail. Now that our group is three times as large, things are three times harder for the commanders to control, which caused the week to be stressful for all involved.  Nevertheless, we managed to master these exercises without major incident (minor injuries only, meaning that some of us were not allowed to participate in the hike back to base).

A Blackhawk: Not ours, but still from the IAF and picture's are nice

For those of us who could not hike back, we were told that a truck was going to pick us up.  At the last minute, that was changed to a helicopter.  The catch: we had to put two of our “wounded” on stretchers.  For whatever reason, the six of us thought nothing of demand.  “Who should we put on the stretchers?” “Sergei and Klazmer?” “Sergei, fine. Klazmer’s too heavy. Doron instead.”  Lucky me.

The chopper came and we were on in less than a minute.  Five minute flight, chopper touches down, doors open. On the move. We start going as fast as we can.  Out of nowhere, two sergeants from a different unit run up to us and thrust notes into the hands of our “wounded.” Not knowing what it was about, I look back at Doron’s horrified face.  Without knowing it, we were volunteered for a medic’s exercise.  “Klazmer! You son of a bitch! It was supposed to be you on this stretcher, not me!”  Maybe smirking at him wasn’t the nicest thing to do…

We keep moving forward and the medics swarm.  They take the notes, establish what’s wrong with the wounded and jump into action.  A panicking Doron starts to yell.  “IF YOU ASSHOLES STAB ME WITH ANYTHING, I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU WHEN I’M OFF THIS DAMN STRETCHER!” After hearing this threat, the medics decided to exaggerate my friend’s wounds, just to mess with him.  Two extremely tight tourniquets cutting off blood flow completely, a bandage over his face so he couldn’t see what was happening and an IV in each of his arms.  What made it worse (from his perspective at least), was that all of his friends were simply standing around laughing as he continued to threaten me and the medics.

Advanced Shooting

We spent this past week not more than five minutes away from the shooting ranges. This was the official start of advanced training and the last time my unit will spend time in a controlled shooting environment, such as the ranges. The entire week was spent shooting; constructing test after test, learning new and creative shooting positions and simply mastering our rifles. Here are some pictures from the week.

Click on the pictures to see the full size and a description

If you want to check out more, here’s the link to my facebook album: Adam’s Army Pictures

Guard Duty

Eating. Drinking. Sitting. Smoking. Listening to music. Using your phone. Whatever actual activity you can imagine that would help pass the time on guard duty is forbidden.  What isn’t? Standing and guarding.

Though not the most interesting, guard duty is an integral part of every soldier’s service.  The mission and the purpose are self-explanatory- we don’t want bad things to happen so we stand armed to dissuade those who would want to do us harm.  Simple.  How does that translate for the average soldier of the IDF?  At least three consecutive hours in one post, a several hour break depending on manpower, repeat.  We’re tasked with guarding for a week at a time.  Last week, my platoon was undermanned so the rest of us had to fill in the gaps.  Rather than guarding 3/9 (3 hours on, 9 hours off) or 3/12, we pulled 3/6.  We all felt as though we were drifting through some sleepless hell.  During this week, typical punishments were sought out as prizes; being sent to the kitchen to do mindless work was a treat, gardening meant you’re not guarding.

Requirements of Guard Duty:
– Stand your post (like the tower above) until relieved
– Maintain contact with the commander
– Don’t fall asleep (you do, you’re screwed)

During this extremely simple task, seconds tick by at an unbelievably slow rate.  Those who are lucky are sent to guard with a partner.  Each one of us has his own games and strategies to pass the time

How to Pass Time on Guard Duty:
– Try to name all 50 states and their capitals
– Try to name all the countries in Europe
– Try to list all US Presidents/Israeli Prime Ministers/etc. in chronological order
– Sing songs from start to finish (make sure to memorize enough songs. Three hours is a long time and there’s nothing worse than putting yourself on repeat because you can’t remember the words)
– Graffiti the guard posts (a favorite past-time of the Israelis, especially to reference the end of their service. Ex: “If you’re Nov ’13, that’s a good sign that I’m in Thailand)
– Find ways to keep warm (including picking up disgarded pieces of wood, cloth or fiber glass to cover up any holes through which wind enters the guardhouse)

The world of guard duty can be a twisted place.  Along with many others from my squad, I once got stuck on a five-hour, day-light shift.  Luckily, I was among the few who were posted to guard with partners.  My friend and I told stories and joked around.  He requested that I tell him absolutely evert detail about what college was like, always asking “Is it like the movies?”  For us, those five hours flew by.  Other times, especially in the middle of the night, you need to keep pacing to keep yourself from falling asleep while standing.  You look at your watch, mentally breaking down your shift into segments.  “One hour down, only two more. It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” constantly reminding and reassuring ourselves.  Thus is the life of a combat soldier and, as much as we bitch and moan, it could be a lot worse.

Youtube & The IDF

For those who don’t know, the IDF has a youtube channel as part of their very necessary PR mission. There’s an e-mail going around that says that youtube wants to remove the channel “using the excuse that not enough people are logging in.”

True or not true, the IDF needs all of the positive press that it can get. Please click on the link below to check it out.

IDF YouTube Channel

Well, it’s official. I am now property of the Israeli army. The first week flew by and now I’m about to make my way off to the next one! The first two weeks in the army are called ‘Trom Tironut.’ Trom is a sort of pre-basic training get-used-to-the-army period; It’s basic training lite. We stand in formation a lot and everything we do is timed; six minutes to shave, two minutes to go to the bathroom, thirty seconds to get in formation, and so on and so on. We get one free hour a day during which time we can organize our stuff, shower, call family and friends (and girlfriends), and so forth.

While it has been a massive change from being a civilian, it’s still not quite what it will be when basic training actually starts. At the moment, I am not yet in my unit, but in a random assortment of people who have just started at the same base. Since it is the two weeks before basic training actually starts (and is with different commanders than the ones we will have), everybody takes it pretty easy. There’s a lot of joking and messing around which the commanders try and stop but, since there are a lot of rules during Trom, they can’t do much about it.

The second day on base, we were woken up at six in the morning and told we had 15 minutes to be dressed, shaved, and downstairs in formation. Most people managed to get there within the allotted time. Two young Israelis, however, decided that this was not so important and stayed in bed for just a little bit longer – about two hours longer. We march around base in formation all chanting together ‘Left, Right, Left. Left, Right, Left.’ Everybody says this in perfect time, but continues to walk however they want. On one of the funnier marches, two kids were talking to each other and one of them who wasn’t paying attention walked face first into a lamp pole and wiped out, taking about half of the group down with him.

The base I am on is beautiful. It was built for Israel by America as part of an incentive package for pulling out of the Gaza Strip and ending Operation Cast Lead. While Adam sleeps in a tent, much to his dismay, I sleep in an air-conditioned room. The whole place feels more like a college campus than a military base. The days are very long and very regimented. We wake up at six, go to sleep at midnight, and eat three meals at exactly the same time every day. The actual activities during these weeks have been largely administrative. We have had seminars on everything from elite units to how to see the doctor on base and everybody has had immunizations, teeth photographs, fingerprints taken, and so forth.

Basically (I have to wrap up and get ready to go back!), these first two weeks are very different – being constantly yelled at and timed, but they are also funny and relatively relaxed. I’ve met some really nice people and have had a good time, but am excited for the serious work to start. To wrap up before I run out, I leave you with some pictures. Click on them for the full size version and descriptions:

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