Friday, April 1, 2011

Misakam Prat: Great Expectations Ground Under

This past month marked the last stretch in my unit’s fourteen months of training, three weeks of especially intense exercises (known as misakmim, finals; singular: misakem) designed to test our accumulated toughness and skills. First up was misakem prat (individual final), a busy week that judged the individual soldier on the four pillars of training: navigation, shooting, weapons systems & Krav Maga. Next misakem tzevet (team final), when my eighteen man team dragged stretchers and conquered hillsides over four sleepless nights in the Jordan Valley. Finally, in every sense of the word, I concluded my training with a company wide week of hurting known as misakem maslul ('journey's end' is my poetic translation of choice).

For college grads (the few, the proud!), the whole shebang evokes college finals, those last few weeks of the semester when all-nighters and intense cram sessions are the norm. Just as final exams excite students with the promise of impending vacation, the misakmim had my army peers thrilled with the knowledge that our training is nearly over. While I am as eager as anyone to leave training behind, my own excitement was mixed with the hope that the rigor of the misakmim would reignite an urge to excel that has slipped in recent weeks.

The first week, misakem prat, is the best chance to make a personal statement. Teamwork is set aside for five days in order to highlight the strengths of the individual soldier. The main skill on display is navigation, otherwise known as trekking for hours through the night without a map and with over fifty percent body weight carried along for the ride. The navigation for the misakem is a three night affair that crosses the Galilee from sea (Mediterranean) to shining sea (Kineret). Each soldier is assigned four points hidden across thirty plus kilometers of hills and valleys. Every morning we are expected to arrive at a designated endpoint where we join a few other soldiers and spend the day in a hastily built forest hideaway. Daytime is a chance to rest and eat between guard shifts. By mid-afternoon our bags are back on our back and the next evening's navigation gets underway. On the morning of the third day, after wandering over eighty kilometers and ascending several of the highest peaks in the Galilee, the navigation concludes on the shores of the Kineret. While the navigation is over, the hardest ordeal of the week awaits in a final, fiendish baltam: a four hour ascent in the heat of the day of Mizpeh Yamim, a 720 meter high peak a few kilometers northwest of the Kineret.

Waiting on the summit are two buses. They ferry us back to base for a quick meal and four precious hours of exhausted sleep. We go to bed with the knowledge that at the stroke of midnight, six hours of hell will begin. Also known as the Krav Maga finale, the all-night feast of bruising fistfights is consciously designed to take place with our bodies as weak as soggy toast. Whatever strength we have left is beaten to a pulp during a first hour of wind-sprints and pushup crawls. The rest of the night is about running the gauntlet and round after round of kravot (gauntlet? kravot? see here). Shortly before dawn, the religious soldiers escape so they can put some food and water down before the start of a fast day (Ta'anit Esther) that will prevent them from eating or drinking for the next twelve hours. When the secular guys join them them two hours later, everyone is given a few minutes break before all-day tests on shooting and weapon system know-how get underway. By mid-afternoon everyone is wasted. Five days of scant food, little rest and incomparable physical stress made a band of once formidable fighters into wax zombies.

So the week went. For everyone else, at least. My own misakem prat is a very different story.

My misakem experience began like everyone else. Hours of studying over the previous shabbat paid off during the early goings of the navigation. With one night left, I was the only soldier in my seventy man company to have collected every nav-point. My success was as much about commitment as skill, the former a rare commodity this week. I was one of a handful of soldiers to collect more than half their assigned nav-points, with most guys making no pretense of the fact that the only point they looked for each night was the endpoint.

My peer's widespread apathy was not going to slow me down. Something inside of me had already taken care of that. Shortly after settling in for some rest before the final night of navigation, I awoke with the feeling that someone had just thrown up on me. What should have remained a dream quickly became reality when I started retching uncontrollably. For the next five hours my body paid the most painful of homages to Old Faithful - every twenty minutes I would double over and water would erupt from my mouth. With so much water and body heat leaving my body, my temperature and hydration level dropped. A medic tried opening my veins so he could set me up with an IV. He tried seven times, accomplishing nothing besides bloodying my elbows and reinforcing my hatred for needles.

The afternoon passed in misery. Freezing, bleeding and unable to stop throwing up, I was so weak that the thought of returning to my base (two hours distance) filled me with dread. Until I heard what my superiors had in store for me. The deputy company commander decided that I was simply dehydrated, and hence would sit in one of the open hummers for the night and wait to return to base with everyone tomorrow afternoon. I was too weak to laugh at such a ludicrous order. But I was not too far gone to attempt to reason with the twenty-two year old who clearly had no idea how sick I actually was.

After explaining that I was in no condition to drive around all night in an open vehicle (there was not a soul on the mountaintop that had not seen me puke my guts out over the last few hours) I asked if I could return to base. Then I suggested staying the night at the adjacent military base, a reasonable idea since we were less than a kilometer away from Michve Alon (a base nearly every foreign born soldier calls home for their first month of army service). Finally I asked for permission to spend the night recuperating at my kibbutz, only an hour away from our location atop Mount Hazon.

The deputy chief was not interested. And no other officer, from my own sergeant to the various lieutenants I thought I was on good terms with (my own lieutenant was absent), raised a finger in my defense. I had an idea why they were all acting like a herd of donkeys. Earlier in the day, before my waterworks began, the commander had chewed out the entire company, noting that dozens of guys had been complaining about aches and pains and it was time we man up and stop whining. He could not have been happy to see the best navigator of the week come forward with a new medical claim. As far as he was concerned, I was setting a bad example for the rest of the guys and had nothing wrong with me that skipping the next night's navigation would not solve.

While I knew what the officer was thinking, I did not particularly care. The bottom line was my deteriorating health and the zero confidence I had that the twenty-two year old telling me to spend the night driving through the freezing cold had any interest in my well-being. When I begged him once again to at least act with human decency, he responded that his order had nothing to do with him. This is the army, he shouted, this is how it works. Now shut up and get in the car.

I had no strength to argue. Yet when I heard what he said, that it was the army, some airy fairy other, that was prepared to subject me to such senseless abuse, I lost it. "What! Are you really blaming the army for what you are doing to me?! YOU are doing this, not some pie-in-the-sky system but you, a human being." The officer shouted at me to shut up. Naturally, I continued. "What you are saying reminds me of something I am ashamed to mention, something I would never suggest comparing to you or anyone in this army. But your blaming 'the system,' reeks of what so many Nazis claimed after the Holocaust. It was not us, the system did it..."

My Holocaust reference hit a raw nerve and the officer lost it. By then I was in too much pain to respond. When the officer told me to wait by the roadside for the hummer, I collapsed and nearly blacked out. I felt marooned on an island of pain, cut off from any reasonable or sympathetic human being.

Some time later the deputy commander's immediate superior showed up and declared I would in fact be immediately heading back to base. Before he would let me enter the waiting car, though, a final fiasco occurred. The commander blew his top when he caught sight of my attire, six hours of retching and freezing having led to several unorthodox changes in my wardrobe. Grabbing me by the shoulders, the officer shouted that I would not be going anywhere until I was properly dressed. My knees buckled and I would have fallen had the roaring buffoon not been shaking my shoulders over my unlaced shoelaces and lack of shirt (I was wearing a jacket instead). Somehow I made it into the car for the most painful two hour road trip of my life.

Back on base I threw up some more, got some rest and awoke the next morning feeling marginally better. My peers returned in the evening, rubbed raw from the final ascent up Mizpeh Yamim. I could only watch from the side as they struggled into sneakers hours later and ran off for six hours of Krav Maga. The misakem I had anticipated more than any other passed with me holding my stomach and trying to make sense of the week. My plans to excel transformed into a horrible mess of ruined health and angry superiors. Two days of navigation gold turned into medical malaise and outright verbal insubordination. Why now? Why me?

The irony is that I was one of the few soldiers who approached this week cleanly. Not only was I committed to finding all my navigation points, I heeded the rules and did not sneak along my cellphone. Few soldiers complied with this order. Some simply wanted to speak with girlfriends or listen to music over the course of the navigation. Most were not willing to rely on the faulty radios we carry and wanted a backup communication device in case they ran into real trouble. I brought along my cellphone on every previous navigation for both reasons. But this week, for the first time since I arrived and realized what an unprincipled mess navigation is in my unit, I went without. I wanted to believe, while testing myself over the course of the misakmim, that one can really play by all the rules and succeed. Instead I learned, as I fruitlessly argued with my twenty year old superiors for proper medical care, that not keeping an ace in hand is a fool's errand in this army.

In basic training, soldiers are taught to report their ailments to their superiors and then rely on their commanders to decide what they can safely do. These instructions form part of the unspoken contract between the army and the people of Israel: we give three years of our lives and the lives of our children with the assurance that the army goes to the utmost to treasure those lives. The rub is that an illogical bureaucracy and a flock of often unsympathetic officers are not only responsible for questions of life and death. They also have control over my life. They have the right to decide my decisions for me. Playing by all the rules means keeping all those decisions in their hands. That can be dangerous, a mistake I learned to my detriment this week.

Playing by all the rules this week was not my only mistake. It was a mistake to refer to the Holocaust while arguing with my superior. Never a good idea in a country built on too many painful histories. The rest of our argument, however, I would repeat again in a heartbeat. I have zero doubt that had I not stood up for myself, my commanders would have done with me what they liked and I may have suffered severe health consequences as a result. While I am prepared to suffer and even sacrifice my life as a soldier, I am not prepared to endure such trials for the sort of idiocy demonstrated this week.


My sickness lingered through the rest of the misakmim, leaving and returning in waves of nausea and intestinal irregularities. Eventually my officers took it seriously and a few medical examinations produced a diagnosis: Giardia, a diarrheal infection also known as beaver fever that operates like a less fatal form of dysentery.

It took me some time as well to realize where the infection had come from. And then I remembered taking a few sips from an innocent looking fast moving stream near the end of the first night's navigation. Out of water, and unable to make contact thanks to a broken radio, I was in dire straits when I made the fatal decision. The stream (Nachal Shagar), like nearly every waterway in Israel, is unsafe to drink from and most likely passed on the Giardia parasite.

It was not easy coming to terms with the fact that I brought this crippling illness on myself. It was no easier telling this to others, opening myself to the criticism of my superiors and the mockery of my peers. And yet I would not have it any other way. Identifying the source of my illness underlines a truism my father repeats to me at every opportunity: there are no accidents, only carelessness. In other words, the responsibility is in my hands. Despite the many ways in which the army robs a simple soldier like myself of decision making ability, nearly everything that happens to a soldier starts with him. This illness is just the latest, painful reminder that responsibility ultimately rests with me.

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