Friday, November 13, 2009

Gibush Matkal: Sweat, Sand & Tears

If you are looking for the straight dope on Gibush Matkal, see the last part of this note. For the full story, read on!

Blinded by sweat and tears. Weighed down by a 20-kilo sandbag and two cement blocks that were supposed to be fancy sneakers. Faced with an insanely steep sand-dune some thirty meters high, little-to-zero traction in the meter deep sand. And looming at the crest of the dune is a most intimidating figure straight out of Hollywood lore, with the disheveled mug of Eastwood and the glare and attitude of Bardem's baddie in No Country for Old Men. His eyes bear down on me as I desperately try to ascend the dune, once, twice, fifteen heaven-help-me times, my calves having long since given up, the rest of my body begging to do the same.

In the pale evening glare south of Ashdod, the thirty odd minutes I spent trudging up and down the steepest sand-dune on Netzanim beach was as bad as it got, the peak of pain and punishment during Gibush Matkal, my week-long tryout for three of the most selective units in the IDF. Or maybe the toughest moment was repeating the same exact crippling exercise only ten minutes after the first go around!

To be fair, there were no shortage of insufferable moments during the gibush. Waking up to a siren and the predawn chill of a four AM morning; throwing on a cold and sweaty uniform during the mad dash to grab the cake and hot tea offered for breakfast; questioning why I am even here as I again fail to grab the morning miracle tea; grasping at straws with my all too limited grasp of Hebrew ("wait, what are we supposed to be doing" I soon got down pat!); sitting around for hours on the final day, staving off hunger and waiting for the results; overhearing another guy confess that he is afraid to emerge from his tent in the morning knowing he will have to confront our intimidating instructor--when the IDF preaches that combat soldiers need to develop retzach bi'anigh [murder in your eye], this grizzled Matkal veteran is no doubt whom they have in mind!

Darkness only descends with an appreciation of light, of course, and so the tough streches were well balanced with moments of empowering beauty. Witnessing the rise and retreat of the sun three days in a row inspired me every time I turned heavenward. Meals were another pleasure, despite and perhaps even because we ate nothing but chocolate sandwiches and manot krav (field rations) all week. Manot krav came in cans and consisted of tuna, olives, corn, grape leaves, diced pineapples, halva and a loaf of bread. The guys in my group were nonplussed when I dramatically announced at our first dinner that I would be eating fish for the first time in five years. By the end of the week, having eaten tuna with every condiment available (mustard tuna, ketchup tuna, coffee tuna, chocolate tuna and, yes, sand tuna!), I was very ready to return to my vegetarian ways.

I also found inspiration, or at least a reason to smile, in some of the drills. The one drill I can honestly say I enjoyed was our masa, an hour long jog with jerrycans and weighted stretchers up and around steep sand-dunes. Struggling up the sandy hills as a team, with guys grabbing the hands of those under the stretcher and all of us pulling as one, imbued me with the same surge of inexhaustible energy I have dancing at weddings. Crawling drills were nowhere near as enjoyable. But my uncanny ability at crawling longer and faster than anybody else never ceased to amaze everyone, myself included.

The best part of all the thankless drills is that they reinforced the necessity of always giving my all. Easy advice during an all out sprint. Harder to follow when digging a trench, with my rifle slapping the side of my head and few incentives not to take a rest. My digging impressed at least one guy, who told me after our last trench exercise that I must have worked as an undertaker because he had never seen someone dig with such determination! I have my imagination to thank for my digging ability. After our instructor mentioned in passing that we should keep digging till we reach China, my memories turned to a ditch in western China where I helped Chinese peasants rebuild their homes after the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. During another trench drill, I imagined I was digging for buried treasure, with screeching parrots, one-legged pirates and a three masted schooner beached on the nearby coast.

The guys with me were easily my main source of strength. Religious and secular. Black, white and every shade in between. No doubt the Israelis at the gibush are some of the most motivated, intelligent and physically fit nineteen year old guys in the country. Witnessing their dedication over five intense days not only inspired me. It also left me--and can leave you--assured that with such youth, Israel's future is assured. (The irony is that as a result of my age and background, I was a source of conversation and even admiration for the other guys. "You are my favorite person in this whole country," one guy even told me towards the end of the gibush!)

How did I do? Over 400 guys began the gibush. Close to 250 were left on Thursday evening, when they read the names of the 70 guys getting invites to Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag and Unit 669. Matkal is the top draw and of the eight guys from Garin Tzabar who finished the gibush, three got into Matkal! Twenty guys went to Matkal altogether, with ten more in Shaldag, thirty for Unit 669 and the remaining twenty split between the waiting lists for either Matkal or Shaldag. And me? Check a future update and what can be shared, will be.

The Straight Dope -- Advice Below!

Some of you would no doubt like to know what happens at the gibush, the schedule, the drills, etc. Read on, with the caveat that Gibush Matkal does tend to change some every year so this report is by no means conclusive!

The gibush is really two separate day-and-a-half-long tryouts, with some eighty guys getting sent home in the middle and the remaining folks forming new squads for the second half. In the morning and evening, probably four to nine AM and PM, all the drills take place. The rest of the time it is too hot to drill so depending on the day, ten AM through three PM is filled with a range of non-physical misimot (literally 'missions,' yet at the gibush just the name for non-physical drills). When the evening drills wrap up, there is time for dinner (and a discreet shower!) and everyone is put to sleep by squads in hastily assembled two-man tents.

After arriving at the Netzanim army base on Sunday morning, hours are spent doling out uniforms, M16s and a kit-bag full of decommissioned Vietnam era US Army goods-- canteens, vests, pegs and tent flaps to build half a two-man tent. Those who knew how to assemble the vests quickly got themselves set-up. Those who had no idea, like myself, flapped around a bit and eventually were all suited up. We ate, we waited and by three o'clock we were separated into the twenty-man squads we would be with for the next two days.

Sunday night was the first four hour drill session. Monday brought two more. And the final one with my first squadron (tzevet 16, kavod!) came on Tuesday morning. The rest of Tuesday was a wash. After each guy in my squad completed a sociometry, a form where we rank each other, I sat for an interview with my squad's six instructors and then spent hours waiting to be assigned to a new squad and begin the second half of the gibush.

My goal during the first two days was not to be sent home on Tuesday. Since only five guys are dropped from each squad, my goal was easily achieved and suddenly I was with fifteen new guys, with eight news instructors (including the scary dude) ready to make our final day at the gibush harder than ever. The drills on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and evening were indeed harder and longer. With the slackers having been sent home on Tuesday, the instructors had us race up much steeper sand-dunes, repeating only the hardest drills we faced at the start of the gibush. Late Wednesday night, after the hardest drill session yet, came a sociometry and interview for my second squad and just like that, the tryout was essentially over. Thursday was devoted to cleaning up the base and then waiting around for six hours to hear results and get bused back to Ashdod.

No two squads did exactly the same drills, since exactly what we did was based on the whim of our particular instructors. That said, everyone did something like the following: sprints, with or without a hill, where instructors would point to some bush or object and say "there and back, line up in order of finishing- Go!"; stretcher sprints where everyone races twice around the path, with the first guys back from the first time around shouldering a stretcher or jerrycan for the second go around; sandbag circuits, circling a path as many times as possible with a heavy sandbag on your shoulders; crawling on all fours, butt down!; digging trenches, a meter long and wide; and a mixture of all of the above, including one gem of a drill where we crawled up and down a steep sand-dune, filled a sandbag and then ran the bag up a hill and emptied the sand in an ever growing row--the goal, of course, to have the most piles of sand at the top of the hill by the end of the exercise.

Some squads were tested on pull-up bars, where the goal was to be the last one to hold on. The strangest physical drills were the fights. The instructors scratched a circle into the sand, told everyone to be careful and not try any fancy judo moves and then said the winner would be the last guy standing in the circle. Sumo wrestling, in short. A variation had everyone stuff an empty sandbag in the back of their pants and, while staying in the circle, try to grab as many bags while preventing anyone from grabbing their own. Kind of like flag football except...flag wrestling? Next comes turkey fighting, same as above except now you must stand on one leg and keep your arms on your chest. No points for squawking like a chicken--wouldn't want to look sissy, right?

Many instructors threw a few geography type trivia questions ("what is the capital of Bangladesh?") at their guys over the course of the physical drills. We also were given articles everyday, covering political or social issues, and hours later would be asked to provide a verbal summary. Another common exercise was asking us to respond, privately and then in a group discussion, to a fictional mission that had gone awry ("a mission to rescue a downed pilot in enemy territory met with resistance, one pilot is missing, one injured and several members of the rescue team are wounded as well...what do you do?"). In the midst of sprints my squad was once stopped and asked to choose three topics and then speak briefly about one of them before the group. Another time we were instructed to individually design a machine of our choosing with the garbage we find in the area (I used bits of string, a candy wrapper and my gun to create a "self-hunting device"). Most squads were asked to sketch a map, of the base or Israel or, in my case, of the Middle East. And then there is the infamous drill where the instructors first demonstrate how to break apart a weapon--usually an Uzi, M16 or AK-47--and then time how quickly we can do so.

Then there are the more complex "team challenges." Many of these involve a log that has to be moved or avoided with various restrictions. Once we were split into two teams, given a limited amount of time and told we needed to get everyone plus a weighted stretcher to the opposite side of a log without walking over or touching the wood. Clearly we had to dig a trench under the log. The tricky part was that whenever anyone touched the log, everyone had to run a punishment sprint and then the exercise would start again from scratch. Plus only one person, chosen by the instructors, was allowed to speak. Another log exercise asked us to use the log as a bridge and get all the guys across an imaginary minefield to some cement blocks ten meters distance. Later we were given a box of random construction equipment--a massive drill, some ropes, planks and some wheels--and told we had to use the stuff to move a log across a nearby dune.

The log exercises were tricky. But the most demanding challenge came late one night when we were told to drag the materials for a massive tent across the base and then set it up. The only thing we did right was avoid smashing anyone with the cumbersome metal poles we dragged around while aimlessly trying to figure out how to set the damn tent up. In the second half of the gibush, my squad even repeated a drill we had all seen earlier. Despite our experience, no one succeeded the second time around in figuring out how to move the entire squad plus a heavy stretcher under a metal frame without touching the frame or, in the case of the stretcher, even the ground.

No one ever completes any of these challenges--the time limitations make it impossible even if one of the guys knows exactly what to do. The point of the exercises is for the instructors to see how you respond to the challenge. Who in the group makes a novel suggestion, who demonstrates leadership, who acts like an ass, etc.

Now for some ADVICE, first mental then practical.

Instructors, from my limited experience, are looking for two things at any gibush: consistent excellence in the physical drills and, in everything, an air of professionalism. That means never getting disappointed, keeping success and failures in perspective and, as soon as a sprint or drill concludes, immediately prepping your mind and body for the next challenge.

During most drills it is impossible to think about anything beyond "keep moving forward." But there are times when it pays to sharpen your focus, be it via imagining one legged pirates or your loved ones cheering you on from the top of the nearest sand-dune.
There are not many times to demonstrate intelligence and creativity. So when they come, by all means grab 'em! If asked to draw a map, add some character. When told that your trench is being attached by rocket fire, add a small fire circle around the trench and explain your reasoning to the instructors. And during an interview, look everyone in the eye, control the conversation and remember that the same tips you use in a job or grad school interview work here as well.
Finally, give your maximum, all the time. Unless the instructors say the first run of the morning is a light run, assume that everything--whether they write it down or not--is being observed and will count toward the impression you leave with them. For the same reason, do not make a habit of grabbing the lightest group equipment when the squad moves around. While the instructors do not always seem to care, they do notice someone who always shoulders something heavy like a jerrycan.

If you can wear shoes that do not flood with sand the second they plunge across a sanddune, then go for it. Nearly everyone wears standard running shoes, few of which do a good job preventing the cement-block like pain that comes from moving in a shoe full of sand.
The more hill-work you can work into your training, the better. And the sandier and steeper those hills are, the more prepared you will be--physically and mentally--for what is waiting at the gibush. Endurance is nice but the capability to sprint up a sandy dune separates the good from the best.
Stretch whenever you can during the gibush. Every break! Before you go to sleep and as soon as you wake up. Beyond the obvious physical help, stretching assists you mentally, keeping you focused even during the breaks from physical activity.
At the start of a sandbag circuit, instructors always say that taking a break to rest or for water is fine. No it is not! Never stop! Ever!
There are few secrets to crawling. Most people burst out quickly and then slow down to snail pace. So the obvious advice is to not slow down. Stick to your pace and on a long crawl you will likely overtake everyone. That said, it is critical to burst out in the beginning because getting stuck behind someone makes it hard to pass them on a narrow path and can lead to their legs or gun accidentally smacking you as you try and pass them.
If given a chance to improve your position in a race/exercise, i.e. the instructors may ask who thinks they can do better in the exercise, always volunteer unless circumstance makes it nearly impossible to keep or improve your position. And even then, consider volunteering. The instructors want to see people who believe in themselves.
The shovels are about half a meter long, a good metric for ensuring your trench is the right size.
Bring a knife, electric tape, linkers, flashlight, socks, underwear, warm clothes to sleep-in, and snack food. All of these items will stay in your pack/tent the whole day so you need not worry about having to drag them around. There is some rule against eating private food. But if the morning cake does not do it for you and a CliffBar is close to hand? Choose wisely and good luck!


  1. Sammy, I've been waiting for this update to post in my Google Reader for a while, thanks for taking the time for such a comprehensive post. Couldn't be prouder or more impressed.

  2. Chammy Sester! dude i knew that you were going to the army, but gibush sayarot, good work bro! mta dorm represent! i hope you get in. many of my army friends know ppl in sayarot, but since im not from israel, i know very few. right now i only one guy, he's in shaldag. so i hope you get it!


  3. First off, you write beautifully. Second, how are you able to take part in debates, interviews, and discussions when you were not even born in Israel, and your Hebrew is probably sub-par especially compared to those born in Israel? Does it not put you at a huge disadvantage? Although I've been told that I speak quite well in English, I can't imagine forming any sophisticated sentences in Hebrew, even after the amount of time you have spent there.

  4. DVPPP,

    Thanks for the kind words. As to language issues, where one is born is not the issue as much as how good your hebrew level is. Language, broadly speaking, has two effects: communication and confidence.

    Communication (i.e. understanding and speaking the language) is a challenge in tryouts (gibushim) where instructions are shouted out in Hebrew and if you have trouble grasping the meaning, you are a step slow in knowing what to do. That said, most instructions are pretty straightforward ("sprint there and back") and most cases you can ask to confirm you understood correctly. Speaking is less of a concern since you dont actually talk very much during a gibush and when you do (interview, the rare extemp exercise), everyone makes allowances for your hebrew level. That said, no question the better your hebrew speaking, the more impressed people will be.

    Hebrew level is more of a concern in the way it affects your confidence. How well we speak/understand a language impacts how we feel, how much we can express ourselves as opposed to being passive. I found my confidence level and ability to express myself took a big hit from my lack of hebrew during basic training (my hebrew was much better and less of an issue once basic was over). But this was less of an issue in tryouts since my focus/testosterone were high and so confidence stayed at a high level.

  5. They dident make you sign a form stating you woudent tell people the details of the gibbush? The gibbush yahalom made me do soo , be carefull

  6. shlomo, appreciate your concern but no worries - everything written here can be found online in hebrew, with even more detail to boot!

  7. Hi can you contact me by mail cause i have some private questions (i am going to make alliya)
    if you will have some free time please contact me on my mail