Friday, June 17, 2011

The Hardest Part of the Army

The misery of crawling into a sleeping-bag which is wet and sodden in total blackness on top of a mountain with the rain pissing down is misery without parallel.
Simon Murray, French veteran of Algeria

The hardest part of the army is standing up.

Or so I told a group of Americans tourists who came by our base for quite a revealing tour (who knew the Recon Paratroopers would put on such a show for a synagogue group on tour?!). I was assigned to accompany the group as they were shown a few propaganda videos, a collection of weapons we in fact never use (Uzis, handguns, etc.), trucks from the 1950s, and our graffiti-covered, foul-smelling barracks. As the tour wound down, time was set aside for a quick Q and A. Which is when one of the touring grammas politely asked what is the very hardest part of serving in the army. After deciding not to burden her with the social and emotional loneliness shared by most lone soldiers, I did a quick mental survey of the last three months of arduous training and told her the truth: The hardest part of the army is standing up.

You have been walking for miles through the night, heavy pack itching against the cold sweat between your shoulder blades, lower back and shoulders crying out for escape from the Sisyphean load. Your gun sling is carving a red whelp on the back of your neck, knees creaking onward as you ascend hills, cross through waist high thorns, and repeatedly fail to keep your balance on the unstable rock face at your feet.

So when the procession suddenly grounds to a halt, your body and mind as one collapse backwards, falling onto your pack for a precious few minutes of break. With the break in physical activity, the wind starts freezing the sweat, the stink and sopping mess of your shirt once again overwhelms your senses, and a damned thorn in your back makes every second of this break a fiendish torture. Nevertheless, you sit there basking in every dreadful moment, appreciating that for the first time all night your neck is not bent down by the weight on your back so you can finally look up and see the ochre moon and the sprinkled stars.

And then comes the order to stand. To reshoulder heavy packs and reform two lines. The march continues!

Everything holy beseeches you not to stand. Why be the first? No one else is making any effort to move. And why is the break over already? I was sleeping, finally resting from the grueling drudgery of this exercise. It is freezing foo shilling, there is no way I will move from my nest of semi-warmth here on the ground. And my legs have just slipped into the land of pins and needles. Give me a few more minutes to regain some control before getting up. Worst yet, I exchanged my sopping, freezing army shirt for a warm and dry thermal shirt during the break. Just the thought of slipping that sodden wreck back on my skin is terrifying. And have you tried shouldering my pack? Good Lord, Atlas himself could not keep such a heavy weight on his shoulders as long as I have.

So it goes. Throughout the night, every break commences with the awful need to gather one's wits and courage and stand up. Tactical necessity or incompetence often leads to frequent breaks. The march proceeds in stutter-step fashion. Sometimes nearly two hours pass without a break. Often you stand up, reshoulder your pack and move forward ten feet only to discover the march has stalled once again. Your body, of course, instantly collapses. Only to be told seconds later to get back up and continue marching.

The fighting, marching, fatigue and hunger are not always easy. But nothing compares to the elemental challenge of arising to recommence the march. As quaint as it may sound, simply standing up is the hardest of the hard in this man’s army.


I was checking out of a supermarket the other day when it happened. A disabled lady, middle aged and clearly not very wealthy, stopped me just as I was about to pay for my groceries. Soldier, she said in English, please let me. Without another word she slipped money into my hand and gestured that I was to pay for my groceries with her savings. I pray for you soldiers every night, she added as I tried to tell her generosity was unnecessary. Please allow me to help you in whatever small way I can.


  1. That supermarket story just broke my heart. I want to do that next time too.
    And it's true, we pray for you guys everyday.

  2. wow amazing story!!