A giant kingfisher, azure wings and crimson crest strapped on to the hardy chest of a unit veteran, welcomed me to the Israeli Air Force base I will call home for the duration of my military service. After five months of basic training, first with the Nachal Brigade and then in my unit's own version of boot camp, I had arrived. Seventeen months of intensive commando instruction lie ahead. Ninety kilometers of twilight trekking lay behind me. Yet when the costumed kingfisher pulled me into a circle of rave dancing soldiers, I gladly threw my legs in the air and filled the air of my new base with cries of utter joy.
Most Israeli combat soldiers culminate their training with a masa kumta, a beret march designed to test endurance and composure over the course of an exhaustive all night trek. A hundred or more kilometers used to be the norm until the army changed tracks to stress the weight soldiers carry rather than the distance they travel. So today regular combat soldiers face a forty to sixty km hike before receiving the colorful beret- brown for Golani, red for the Paratroopers, bright green for Nachal, purple for Givati, etc- that identify where they serve.
No berets awaited us at the end of our mega-masa. But we started our ninety km trek with an even more desired objective: to finally arrive at our unit's real base, to finally gain a sense of identity and home better than any round French cap. After barely avoiding elimination from the unit the day before, I began what is known as the masa aliyah with an even higher level of motivation. I am so happy to be here, I repeated to myself as we set out in the early afternoon from a sandy bluff in the southern desert.
So happy, so happy, I repeated, as the sun set, as exhaustion and a stubborn knee pain became my only companions, as our steps took us out of the desert and towards the sea. Over the course of the night, two of our guys went down with leg injuries. Both times we responded by opening our stretchers and, until the next rest stop, carrying our peers through the endless night. I was frustrated all night by a searing pain in my left knee, painful enough to neutralize the high energy I usually bring to our masa'ot. The knowledge that I only the day before I had been given a second lease on remaining in the unit kept me going. A brief pep talk from my commander also added to the fire. A few hours before daylight, most of my team had been reduced to a catatonic pace, stumbling along with a glazed look in their eye. My commander responded by calling everyone to his side. Looking into our eyes, he reminded us that there is nothing a locham in our unit cannot overcome. "Raise your heads high," he insisted, "and stay close." Our pace picked up, the sun soon brought the promise of a new day and before we knew it we were only a few kilometers away from the base.
The rest of the masa was crescendoed pandemonium. First a gaggle of teens from Ben Shemen and fathers and older brothers whom also served in the unit emerged from buses and cars to walk by our side for the last few kilometers. Together we arrived at the beach, the sand and sea reminding me all too well of the infamous masa along the coast of Israel. And just like the conclusion to that incredible journey, again all hell broke loose. All of machzor 2008, the soldiers who began our unit's two years of training in November 2008, came bounding down from the dunes, dressed in all manner of bizarre costume and armed with everything from ox horns to rocket launchers. They transformed the last few kilometers into a frenzied dash, calling out random groups of soldiers ("Kol haKibbutznikim, Kadima!" All kibbutzniks to the front! Or: "Kulam eem Chaverot Yafot, Kadima" Everyone with a pretty girlfriend, to the front!) to race to the front of the march. The funniest moment came when a few of the 2008 soldiers realized who I was and with a shout called out, "Kol HaChesterim, Kadima!" All the Chesters, forward! The joke, one that has accompanied me through my training, lying in the bizarre coincidence that the only other lone soldiers serving in my unit is a fellow with the 2008 gang with my same surname.
Propelled by the soldiers of 2008, we arrived by the gates of our base. Yesterday these same gates had stood before me, barred and grim as my future in the unit was decided. Now they were opened wide in welcome. Beyond the entrance, the hundred plus soldiers whom serve my unit in non-combat roles stood in two lines. We ran between them, cheered and clapped like conquering heroes. No tekes kumta [beret ceremony] awaited us in the base. Instead the next hour played host to a mix of rave dancing and silly skits as each division of our unit introduced themselves, from the Krav Maga instructors to the mechanic and medical teams. We were introduced one by one, like a graduation ceremony, and then instructed to close our eyes. With cries of "November 2009 to the pool," unseen soldiers threw us over their shoulders and ran towards what, in my exhausted delirium, seemed to be a desired dunking. Instead they dropped us off at the nearby dining hall for a banquet of sorts that formally inaugurated our aliyah [ascent] to the unit.
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