Friday, May 13, 2011

Arriving and Ascending as a Lohem

Following the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the Israeli army came under a storm of criticism. Besides pointed critiques of the strategic handling of the crisis, there was wide-spread anger at how unprepared the army seemed to be for the actual fighting. Many stories were told of infantry units that were marched deep into Lebanon without proper gear, food and the training to manage such arduous circumstances.

Under Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief who took over following the war and recently retired, many of these problems were addressed. Fitness standards were raised, new gear was purchased for the grunts, and tougher training for veteran soldiers was introduced. What this means in practice is that the refresher training each brigade undergoes every few months is now a serious affair. These months of refresher training are part of a rotation that sees three of the four infantry brigades (Paratroops, Golani, Nachal, Givati) manning the borders for a few months while the fourth trains in the Golan Heights. By chance, my team finished our formal training and "graduated" into the ranks of the Paratroops just as the brigade rotated from the Gaza border into refresher training in the Golan. What this means is that despite having just finished fourteen months of arduous training, my team's first task as combat soldiers is to train for two more months.

Our first week of post-training training was eerily reminiscent of the last weeks of our maslul. We were back in the desert foothills near Masada, carrying heavy loads over long nighttime treks. We barely slept, poor logistics saw us run out of food (so much for learning lessons from 2006!) and waiting at the end of the week was a familiar late night stretcher hike.

What made this baltam different than others is that this time there was a reason we hiked twelve kilometers carrying weighted stretchers: this stretcher hike was the Masa Aliyah, an event designed to welcome us to our new home as members of the Orev special-forces paratroopers.

As we approached our base, veteran members of the unit came looping and hollering, barely dressed in all manners of bird-like costumes (Orev, the shorthand name for our unit, is Hebrew for raven). Two rivers of fire bordered the final hundred yard dash home. When the gates of the base were finally swung open, complete pandemonium broke loose. Shaving cream, rainbow colored stick-lights and all manner of circus contraptions were set alight and thrown into the air. Dropping the stretchers, my guys joined the veteran soldiers in a tranced out, blissfully happy rave scene. We partied late into the night, dancing, sitting for a funny skit, and munching down on a sumptuous barbeque feast. It was a riotous yet lovely way to mark a week that began five days earlier with the country remembering the Holocaust and would end in a few days time with two days that honor Israel's veterans and independence (Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzamut). Today's masa aliya had a special resonance of its own. A year ago exactly, on May fifth, I completed a previous masa aliyah to the base of my former unit. Somehow it seems fitting that in this week of national memories, my own celebration recall the long path I have taken to finally find a home in the IDF.


The lack of food was not the only reason my fellow soldiers were grumbling this week. A shortage of funds means that for the foreseeable future my team will not be issued the lightweight and better quality vests and helmets worn by Israeli special forces. As my peers digested the news and came to terms with the run-of-the-mill faulty logistics, many whined that training had been better than our new setup. Behind their complaining lies the grim reality that while in training a soldier could always look forward to things getting better after the maslul, now that we have reached that sought after place and found it is just as poorly run, the only place to look forward to is finishing the army, a destination that lies nearly two years in the future for most of my peers.

No comments:

Post a Comment