Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Baltam?! Not Again

My unit was sent to sleep with instructions that wake-up would be at four AM. Tomorrow would be the first time in four months we visited a shooting range and the plan was to make the most of the daylight hours. So when everyone was woken up less than two hours later with the curt command--five minutes, full gear, two stretchers in the air!--the mood was grim. Aize basa, the guys groaned, another baltam. Here we go again!

Without preparation, sudden suckiness, organized chaos or, as a fellow soldier insists, "surprise stretcher marches in the middle of the night" are all possible translations for the Hebrew word baltam. The slang term is an acronym for bilti metuchnan, a phrase whose casual meaning [unplanned] does little to capture the insidious role it plays in my unit's training.

Despite the implied unpredictability, a week does not pass in my unit without at least one baltam. Whether it is climbing Mount Tabor or lugging a stretcher up Mount Barkan at the end of a draining navigation, every baltam is designed to make us more resilient in the face of unexpected challenges that erupt when our minds and bodies finally seek to rest. The Israeli tendency towards last minute action with minimal planning makes more sense after experiencing the endless array of baltamim that crowd army life.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And so seasoned soldiers like my peers have worked out their own ways of combating the rash of baltamim. The final navigation exercise this week is a great example. After trekking through miles of farmland near Beersheva--and crossing a valley so thick with trees, thorns and water that the way across came by dancing over the tree tops, ala Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon were sumo wrestlers (per the heavy packs weighing us down) to have taken the role of the ethereal ninja warriors--our commander had surprising news waiting at the finish-line: You have two more checkpoints to collect. Take a quick look at a map and then get going- the bus is leaving in half an hour!

My body was sore and the straps of my heavy pack had all but fallen apart. The idea of running back into the wilds in search of two distant checkpoints was pretty dismal. So be it, I thought with a laugh, this is what they pay me for. Just as I turned away from the bus, however, a hand grabbed my shoulder.

"What checkpoints did you just get?" whispered one of the guys in my squad.

"Whats it to you?" I muttered, "If the commander just gave you the same ones, you can come with me if you want. But I warn you, be ready to run."

"Run?! Neither of us is going anywhere. Listen: I've already been to your checkpoints en route to here. No doubt you did the same for mine. We can just exchange the information encoded at the checkpoints and voila, hunker down out of sight of the bus for the next twenty minutes. Kapiche?"

The culture of baltamim, if not the way my unit at times responds to them, sheds light on a question friends have asked me recently. To wit: Considering the elite level training you came from, how does your current unit training compare? Easier, right?

Harder, actually. My past unit may have walked farther with greater weight on our backs. But everything we did was about creating highly trained soldiers, technically proficient in all manners of military skill. My current unit, with midnight stretcher marches interrupting basic shooting exercises, is designed to create tough warriors. We sleep less, train with worse gear, and often have disorganized logistics to thank for some of our most grueling episodes. The results may not produce soldiers who can shoot straight but at least we will know how to keep going when all hell breaks loose.

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