Friday, August 20, 2010

Terrors End

What does a day in the life at Israel’s elite anti-terrorism course sound like?

Yo dawg, give me back my weed. Wazzat you sayin’? Now ya got me angry, and you don’t want to see me…BAM, BAM BAM.

Who would have thought that providing Israeli teens with handguns would unleash their inner American gangsta? Such was the case during the early goings of Course Lotar, the Israeli army’s anti-terrorism course. Lotar is designed to give a select number of elite units the basic skills to respond to terrorist attacks. So over the course of three weeks, I was reintroduced to my rifle, taught the basics of firing a pistol and drilled repeatedly on how to neutralize a hostage crisis.

Before slipping off to Entebbe, however, I was fed a steady diet of terror. And I do mean fed. Alas, the food is only one of the many terrors that make up this top level course. Logistics on base are a terror. Nothing is located close to anything else so an inconvenient system of buses is necessary to move around. Facilities are a horror of their own. During one of the hottest summers in years, I had the good fortune to be on a base that has close to zero water taps or accessible bathrooms. A two hour “final drill”—which had me and my guys running around in the summer heat to pulsing heavy metal music, dry (no-ammunition) weapons in hand—almost came apart when no drinking water was available. Even activities that have no business being terrifying, like the army-wide Bar-Or fitness test, are dressed up as something special and renamed, honest to G-d, the ‘Bar-Or Terror!’ (Ya get the rhyme, right?)

The climax of gratuitous terror had to be when my guys were tasked with moving heavy boxes of ammunition. With sentries looking down from nearby towers, snarling dogs from the grounds of the IDF canine tracking unit (Oketz) and a barbed wire fence blocking any means of escape, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that the two dozen soldiers laboring shirtless in the hot sun were cons. By the time our chain-gang had finished invoking 1960 era prisoner flicks (I was thinking Newman’s Cool Man Luke) even the threatening dogs had slipped off to the shade.

Ironically, the daily krav maga sessions were one of the few activities devoid of terror. Part of the credit goes to Baboon and the Salamandra, two animalistic drills that quickly became legends. Baboon is a life-sized punching toy whom everyone had to run to and slug when the instructor suddenly announced “Baboon!” The Salamandra is a devious punishment drill that has us do laps lying on our back, feet in the air with only our scrunched stomachs providing any momentum across the floor. Both drills involve smacking into each other more than anything else—getting caught between the Baboon and twenty frantic guys was a mistake only the most foolish did not quickly master.

The lack of krav maga dread really stems from the staff trying too hard to amp up the shock value. Granted only seven minutes to prepare for a surprise session, guys played up their distress until the rest of us were shaking with laughs. When an instructor showed us a truly vile video of Islamic terrorists cutting off someone’s head, the attempt to get in our heads lost its edge because the video was screened on a grainy cellphone screen. And when the three weeks ended with a brutal round of one-vs.-everyone kravot bouts...Okay, so that last bit was still pretty scary. Terror, it seems, has not yet been vanquished.

A twenty-five year old officer from an outside unit joined my team for the duration of Course Lotar. While he left an indelible impression with the guys (mostly by his attempt to use Arabic—Ahlan Wa'sahlan, Bahnu b’Shalom…—to talk down some baddies during a simulated hostage crisis), our thoughts were on the soldier who joined a neighboring squad for Lotar. This other soldier was dropped from my squad in May during the infamous va’adot. Now he was almost but not quite back with us. It could not have been easy to play soldier when the two dozen guys—and the commander that had sent him packing—were training alongside.

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