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.
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.
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.