Friday, June 11, 2010

Wonder in the Air: Parachute Course

Parents are no longer invited by the Israeli Army to watch their children parachute. As legend has it, years ago a soldier jumped at night with a glow-stick in hand so his anxious parents would see their son. While hopping from the plane, the boy lost track of the glow-stick and it plummeted to earth. Watching the green light drop from the sky proved too much for his father, who went down with a heart attack just as his son arrived safely on the ground.

While families are kept at a distance, fear remains an ever-present element of jumping from a plane. My curiosity was my best defense against the fear I carried with me into the IDF's parachute course. Never a fan of extreme sport, my wonder at what lay beyond the gaping door of the aircraft, along with a good grasp of the technique and a healthy dose of luck, saw me safely through five wonder-full jumps.

If fear, technique and luck are the holy trinity of jump course, then laughs are the ignored fallen angel. The IDF jump course takes place over two weeks, one devoted to drilling everything from how to board the aircraft to the correct landing position and the second to the jumps, five for soldiers in the Paratroop Brigade and select special units (that'd be me!) and two for other special units invited to the course. Whether it is because the course instructors take themselves so seriously (watching everyone's heads snap to attention at the sound of a "up!" command that came out more like "ape!" was constantly hilarious--a horrible bunch of trained monkeys, ape!, we'd make!) or because orders are given in a tradition heavy sing-song cadence (haKol b'Seder!), through the first week of drills everyone was always fooling around. Ultimately the humor was the best defense against a fear that loomed beyond the pedantic training regimen.

Training week at jump course was not all a laugh. Much of the training consists of jumping from a series of mechanical contraptions, from a three story high zip-line to a back and neck ache inducing annoyance known as the Eichmann for resembling a hangman platform. The idea was to master the technique so that when the moment of truth came the body would react without thinking. A reasonable idea that, one my mind never came to terms with.

The problem started when I failed to 'feel the shock' during basic landing drills. After hours of jumping off a ramp and landing on my leg in the sand, my instructor continued to insist I was not "feeling the shock." Completed flustered, I blurted out, "Not in shock? Every time I run off the ramp I enter a world of shock you cannot imagine." Shock neto (as IDF slang has it, neto an adverb that means something like super-de-duper). What I failed to understand, to peals of laughter, is that in Hebrew the term "shock" can mean the English word or, more formally, the calf muscle. My instructor, suffice to be said, wanted me to feel my calf and not my confusion as I hit the ground!

The first time I hit the ground for real, after launching myself from a C-130 Hercules at 1,200 ft, my mind was working overdrive. "Feet together, oh please G-d, feet together, if its the last thing I do, feet..." Nailing the landing carries the same pressure, and nearly the same technique, as a gymnast at the Olympics. The fear level is nearly the equal experienced when first leaving the place. The difference is that the fear of leaving the plane comes from the lack of control (not jumping is hardly an option) while the fear of landing draws from the knowledge that with the ground rushing ever closer, your fate on touchdown is completely what you make of it.

From the moment the heavy plane took off, I sang songs with (Chel Avir, Commando Chel Avir is the fave) and without (Kol HaOlam Kulow is my charm) everyone to calm my fears. We sat on a low bench, cumbersome jumping equipment wedged every which way, singing and blinking back fear in the eerie red-light. A few minutes and the place reaches the sandy beaches we will be jumping over. Instructors in snazzy pilot overalls start barking out commands. You stand and your body goes through the motions of grabbing the overhanging chord and readying yourself for launch. And then the side doors are thrown open, the wind comes rushing in, and the first poor boy- G-d bless his naive soul- goes flying out into open space. This is when the fear takes hold. Everyone shuffles forward. And like a bull on his way to slaughter, you can do nothing but shuffle forward with all the rest, eyes glued to the blue and white doorway that draws ever closer.

Suddenly no one is in front of you. Your hands are holding the sides of the aircraft, one foot forward as you have been taught. Throat so dry, nerves outstretched...


You hesitate. You jump immediately.

It hardly matters because suddenly, somehow, the wind is taking you where it wants, body thrown around like a wooden puppet dancing his final dance. After less than two seconds of disorientating puppet ballet, the parachute opens and everything straightens out--canopy above, man below--like it should. And if you are like me and everyone else, you look up, see the white circle of fabric above, and thank the Lord the parachute is doing its job and none of the terrifying eventualities have come into play.

And then comes the wonder.

And the silence.

The glorious silence.

Eight seconds of wonder in the air. Eight seconds with the world on mute. Eight seconds of what must be flight, angels wings, because the ground is ever so far away and here I am, floating effortlessly through the sky. If it is a night jump, the world below seems aflame with pinpricks of light. By day there is only the blues of water reaching up to touch the sky while here and there are the greens and browns and grays and black of rural and urban life.

And then suddenly--it always comes in a rush--the wonder is replaced by the overwhelming reality that the hard ground is rushing ever closer. So close now, mental gymnastics time: What direction is the wind? Is my helmet fastened properly? Feet together, feet together.

I was greeted by a jeep on my first landing. Jeep being slang for when the wind is so strong that on landing, you get pulled along the ground by a canopy roaring along in the wind like a 4x4. I was plowed up and down sand dunes, through dozens of bushes, until one bush finally snagged my parachute. Save for the jeep, I took pride in executing a near perfect landing, toes lightly touching before my body rolled, calf muscle and all, over to the side. The rest of my landings were more touch and go with my helmet saving me from serious injury on at least two occasions.

Serious injury was an all too frequent occurrence with a few boys messing up their legs on every jump. All the injuries had taken place among the ranks of the Paratroop Brigade soldiers until the final night jump when one of my own messed up his leg. I was the first to reach my friend, running from my own landing site in the direction of the anguished cries of pain. Others came and we tended to our friend with the sinking knowledge that his injury would terminate his stay in our unit.

My friend's injury made the concluding ceremony all the more affecting. To the tune of Kol HaZman Tzanchan, our instructors pinned paratrooper wings (canfatz) to our chests. When my instructor reached me, he paused and set his bag of metallic wings aside.

"I have something else for you," he explained. "I want you to have my own wings, the ones I received when I completed the course."

"Why," I stammered, "what did I do?"

"You're just, you're a good man Charlie Brown," he said. While Minnesota's most famous cartoon hero was not actually part of his remarks, the line hung in the air as I thanked the instructor and promised to be worthy of the trust he had shown in me.

"You've jumped from a plane with nothing but a small strip of fabric on your back," my instructor told me as we said our goodbyes. "You realize what that means right? There is nothing now you cannot do. Because you'll always have those jumps as part of you."

My first day at jump school I had been buzzed to have arrived, proud that I had made it to a course that more than any other had served as some sort of goal when I had enlisted. Two weeks later I was leaving, silver wings on my chest reminding me nothing now was beyond my reach.

Note: All photos are public domain materials from the US Department of Defense. None of these are from the IDF since parachute photographs are prohibited. Check out this website for cool US parachute photos.

The Mavi Marmara Mistake

My world is full to bursting with the doings and demands of one of the IDF's most elite units. So when the rest of the world turned their attention recently to one of our sister units, Israel's naval commandos, I felt a certain level of undesired empathy. With all the confusion of what exactly took place on May 31, when Israeli naval commandos stormed the decks of six ships headed toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies, I also feel necessary to add my own few cents.

From what I gather, the basic story is as follows:

This summer a team of international, largely Turkish, pro-Palestinian activists organized a flotilla of ships to carry humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, a territory Israel and Egypt have placed under blockade since the radical Hamas group seized power in Gaza in June 2007. While Israel supplies humanitarian goods to Gaza, the blockade is intended to prevent Hamas from obtaining weapons like the rockets that continue to be fired on Israeli communities from Gaza. The flotilla was designed to call attention to the blockade, shaming Israel into opening Gaza's borders. As the boats approached Gaza in late May, Israel communicated they would defend the naval blockade and suggested the humanitarian goods be sent to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod. When the activists refused, Israeli naval commandos boarded the six boats. Five of the boats were seized with no loss of life. Fighting broke out on the largest boat, the Mavi Marmara, leading to the death of nine activists and dozens injured on both sides. While the humanitarian supplies were then unloaded in Ashdod and sent to Gaza, Israel was heavily criticized by governments and mass demonstrations throughout Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Exactly what happened on board the Mavi Marmara, why the operation did not proceed as smoothly as it did on the other boats, remains mired in controversy. As an Israeli soldier, serving in a similar unit to the soldiers who carried out the mission in late May, I know first hand that the naval commandos and their officers are not brainless stormtroopers. I have heard that the commandos boarded the boats with paint-guns, with hand guns holstered and only to be used as a last resort. The special forces soldiers I know would not indiscriminately fire into a crowd or eagerly fire upon political activists. But they would fight to defend their peers, especially as I have read when some of their fellow soldiers were captured or otherwise threatened by gangs of violent activists.

So much for my personal perspective. My real issue with the operation is that it was a mistake from the beginning. The activists were looking to shame Israel. They came to instigate. Sending soldiers on board, even with clear orders to refrain from firing unless absolutely necessary, was providing the activists with the opportunity they craved. Of course some of the activists seized their chance to create a riot! The Israeli response should have been based on how can we best achieve our objectives- maintaining the legitimacy of the Gaza blockade and avoiding a media firestorm- and how we can best ensure that our opponents' objectives- shaming Israel and delegitimatizing the blockade- are not achieved. The fact that five of the six boats were taken without casualties suggests the commando operation had some technical sophistication. Nonetheless, the risk was too high that our opponents would stand to gain by sending armed soldiers on board. As committed as I am to becoming as skilled a soldier as I can be, I recognize that my services will not always be most effective to the dangers my state confronts. Israel leaders failed in that regard, failed to craft a more skilled response that would have ensured our opponents did not triumph in this tragic confrontation.