Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mud & the Military

I love to run in the rain. This journal was in fact inspired by a run in a Chinese downpour four years ago. Rain, however, does not descend in a vacuum. It falls to the ground, leaving an ocean of mud in its wake. Soldiers have tramped through that mud for time immemorial. Slogging through the mud, weighed down by a heavy pack, whipped and weathered by the unrelenting elements is the quintessential infantry experience. So when I say I spent the week navigating through the mud around Mount Tabor, I am dodging what really happened. The truth is that this week, I became a soldier.

Mud was the theme for every one of this week’s navigation exercises. Our first navigation was dramatically canceled when shooting broke out in the area between several local Arab residents. The muck, we were told, had upended some vehicles, leading to a disagreement that jumped from angry words to shots in the night. The next night I was the one in trouble, forced to wade through two miles of sharp thorns on the north footstep of Mount Tabor. When I finally made it to the end of the navigation at five in the morning, my commander declared that—surprise!—an unexpected ascent (and descent) of the mountain had been added to the exercise. The early morning view from the summit of one of Israel’s most iconic peaks almost made the extra climb worth the effort. Almost, but not quite.

Mount Tabor, aka the hump of the Galilee.

Climbing Mount Tabor came as a surprise to me and my fellow soldiers. The following night, however, was a surprise to everyone, commanders included. An early downpour chewed up the fields, leaving miles of mud to navigate. My commanders never made it to a scheduled midway meeting point in their off-road vehicle. In the trenches the going was no easier. The mud clung to my boots, doubling their size, tripling their weight and making every step akin to keeping afloat with cement bricks tied to my ankles. The only non-surprise of the night was that no one made it to the end on time. My partner and I were one of the first to arrive, a full hour after the deadline. While we did not make it on time, we did get to enjoy a breathtaking view of the dawn light rising over local minarets and the distant height of Mount Tabor.

A random picture I found online. My view was much more impressive.

The final navigation of the week was more of the same: valleys and hills all caked together in endless layers of mud. My commander warned that no one was to arrive late to the finish-line. With only minutes to spare and the end in sight, I was forced to pause for a very inconvenient yet even more necessary bathroom break. The only facilities, of course, were a few smooth stones and endless quantities of mud. After taking care of business, a mad sprint got me to the finish with less than a minute to spare. Finally, I thought as I washed my hands on the bus, a chance to nod off on the long ride back to base. My hands were still covered in soap when the bus came to an unwelcome stop. A quick glance revealed that we were at the base of Mount Barkan, one of the highest peaks in northern Israel.

“Five minutes,” my officer bellowed, “everyone in full gear, two stretchers in the air.”

For two hours my squad wrestled our way up the mountain. Mud and gravity conspired to make the journey frightful. Yet nothing could stop eighteen young men, now fully mudded soldiers, from putting this week to rest.

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