We made our way along that lonely plain like men who seek the right path they have lost, counting each step a loss till it is found.
As I feared, this week was a maelstrom of misery. In the first thirty hours I came closer to giving up than ever before in my service. All week I battled demons that ripped at my failure to help my peers. Yet when I stood atop Masada, after a hundred hours of doubt and despair, one word said it all: LOHEM. My goal from the day I decided to enlist in the army of Israel, finally accomplished. Finally, I am a combat soldier in the IDF.
Two days before the start of my final misakem, the commander of Sayeret Tzanchanim laid down marching orders: Do not count down to finishing the misakem. Instead make each hike, every exercise, your personal showpiece of all the skills and commitment you posses as a future lohem.
I wanted to take the commander at his word. Yet the stomach illness I have been fighting off for four weeks refused to provide much of a breather. For the first thirty hours of the misakem my own ills hardly seemed to matter. With one hundred pounds of gear strapped to my back, the fifty kilometers hiked over the first night and day brought me closer to quitting than I thought was possible. The march only paused for the rare live fire exercise, treasured opportunities to slough off heavy packs and wage war with a comparatively light combat vest. Marching at night is tolerable, with the cool night air and the nameless darkness allowing soldiers to slip into a dreamlike pace. But the endless kilometers under the daytime sun were plain agony. Every part of my body took turns crying out in pain, from the soles of my feet, to my knees, groin, waist, back, shoulders and even my head thanks to the ungainly helmet planted up top.
Twice a day, and once during the night, our march continued with weighted stretchers. Stretcher hikes force a squad to work together, four soldiers shouldering the heavy load while their peers provide encouragement and replacements when necessary. From my earliest military tryout (gibush), stretcher hikes have been one of my strengths, a difficult part of training I really savor. This week proved an exception. My passion for the trying hikes was AWOL. The resilience I rely upon to remain under a stretcher for endless eons was a mute shadow of more glorious times. This week I was the weak man, the one others rushed to switch out from the stretcher. Hating my weakness was no help. A long sleepless week forced me to find encouragement in other avenues, acknowledge modest victories when the challenges I would otherwise tackle remained beyond my grasp.
A hundred hours after I began the misakem on a windy Saturday night, Masada burst into view. The marches and the stretchers, the helicopters and the jeeps, the urban raids and hillside battles, the daytime heat and the bitter Tuesday night cold, the tuna and the halva, the course makim soldiers whom I am not one of that joined our final march... all are memories of the misakem I will gladly forget. The memory I cannot abandon is the final ascent of Masada. When I stepped under the lead stretcher and refused to let go. When a visiting officer grabbed my hand and pulled my arm, as the rest of me held on, to the mountaintop. And when my team stepped through the arch that frames the entrance to the summit, an arch that left trainees behind and turned each of us into a lohem in the army of Israel.
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