The Tough Road to the Red Beret: Becoming an Israeli Paratrooper

 

After completing basic training (as described in From Hockey Rinks to Parachutes: Becoming an Israeli Paratrooper), Elie joined the elite IDF paratroopers brigade Tzanchanim. In this article Elie describes his experience in the grueling paratroopers training school. 

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by Elie Klein

The first week was by far the hardest week I’ve had since I drafted back in December. But I have a feeling that it will keep getting replaced by new tough and exciting challenges. We spent the whole week at the shooting range, practicing different situations; gun jams, 25 and 50 meter targets, laying down, standing up, and the dreaded ‘matzav kriyah’ (the kneeling position). In this awfully uncomfortable shooting position, you are supposed to sit on your back foot while your front leg is out perpendicular to your other foot. Our mefakdim (commanders) made us stay in this position for painful amouts of time, and when they finally said stand, it took a couple of minutes to regain feeling in the bottom half of my body.

While we weren’t shooting, we were running and doing rolling exercises. One cool drill we did, was everyone lied down next to each other on our stomachs, and the person on the far right had to roll to the left on top of everyone until he was at the other end. This one was a lot of fun but also very tiring because we had all our gear on, and it was 95 degrees with the sun beaming down on us. In another exercise, we were going from standing..to sitting..to on the ground.. to rolling.. to standing..etc and I remember hearing roll left, and the guy next to me rolled into me and said “ROLL!”, and I replied “shamati aval lo asiti” (I heard but I didn’t do it), and then we both started cracking up due to of our exhaustion. Another exercise we did was with our vest on and helmets on our heads, we sprinted 100 meters, crawled 25 meters, and sprinted 100 meters back to the shooting range, and immediately shot 6 bullets at a target 50 meters away while we were still gasping for breath. All these drills are molding us into tip-top paratroopers (I think? haha)

The other highlight of the week was our second masa (road march), but our first with our mefekad (commander). If I were to compare our masot to baseball, our first one was like a spring training game in single A, and this one was a world series game against the top ace in the league. It was only 2km more, but we finished in 10 minutes less than the first one, due to our mefekad’s ridiculously fast pace. I also received the honor of the water pakalem, which means I had to carry on top of my vest and gun, nine 1.5 liters of water on my back, totaling to around 30 – 35 kgs! It was tough, we were basically in a light run the whole time, and by the end I probably shedded 5lbs of sweat.

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This week was one of the more special ones becuase of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Yom Hazikaron is the remembrance day for the Israeli soldiers who have fallen in previous wars defending our nation, which would not exist today if it weren’t for those heroes. Tzanchanim does something very cool for this day, where every grave of afallen paratrooper has a current paratrooper standing at his grave from 9 am until 11 am until the siren is sounded all around Israel, where everyone stops what they are doing (even driving in car) and stands to honor and remember the fallen soldiers.I was assigned at the second biggest military cemetery in the country right next to Tel Aviv, and when the siren sounded and the thousands of civilians and soldiers stood in utter silence, I had the chills for the entire two minutes. And when we sang the Hatikvah (national anthem) five minutes later, again I got the goosebumps.

I feel so proud to have the honor and privilege to wear the Tzahal green uniform and defend and protect Israel and her people. I feel that we are not just protecting Israel, but all Jews around the world, and although there are times when it is really hard, and when I miss my  friends and family (I miss everyone a lot!), or we are doing something completely useless like picking weeds, it is still very important and essential to the existence of the Jewish state today. I was talking with some other lone soldiers about the Holocaust and what we would have done if we were alive during that time period, whether we would fight against the Nazis, try hiding, or just give in, and we all agreed that by us being here today, and doing what we are doing, we would have joined the Jewish fighters to defend the Jews from the Nazis. The strength and pure existence  of the Israeli Army today will prevent another tragedy like the Holocaust from ever happening again. It’s also very interesting to me that we go form being very sad remembering our fallen Israelis, to the same night celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Israeli Independence Day.  In a way, we are honoring the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the Jewish state by celebrating Israel’s 64th birthday and living life to the fullest, going out to parties and bbq’s and saying, yes Israel is alive and as strong as ever, and we are part of the miracle.

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Shavua Sada’ot (field week) was our first of many weeks out in the field, and let me tell you; it was some week. An army bus took us out to the field on Saturday night where we started the week by doing some army crawling for an hour, and then going to sleep in our sleeping bags on the ground. Little did we know that this would be our best night of sleep because we were allowed to sleep with sleeping bags. Every other night (Sunday to Tuesday night) we sleep in holes that we dug out with one blanket issued to each soldier that were probably twice my age. Everyone had to do guard duty through the night, and if you weren’t awake guarding, then you were freezing your bottoms off in your holes. We had to sleep with everything on, including our vests and boots, using our helmets as a pillow. The only time during the whole week we were allowed to take our uniforms and boots off, was when we went running as a group in our sport clothes. Also each night we were hakpatza’ed (emergency wake up) by our mefeked samal (one night they actually used fireworks to wake us up) to intake in some fun activities. The activities which did not vary to much were as follows: the samal would crack a glow stick and throw it as far as he could and would tell us to crawl until you reach the stick. Once we reached it, he would pick it up and throw it in the opposite direction, back where we just came from. This would go on for about 1-2 hours each night, and the only differences were the terrain, first night we crawled over rocks, second thorn bushes, third was a nice little combination of the two, and the last night was mostly rocks again. My arms and hands are still recovering from all of the thorns, splinters, and bruises I suffered from all the crawling. It was so frustrating after you finish picking all the thorns out of your uniform (some in some very uncomfortable places) 5 minutes later, you’re covered in thorns again. During the day we had a lot of lessons on everything to do in the shetach; how to conduct yourself , camouflage, what to wear, how to walk, hand signals, leaving no trails of garbage behind, etc. One lesson which was pretty cool was how to find north using the sun during the day, and the big dipper and north star at night. Besides the crawling, the toughest part of the week was mealtimes. Each meal was the same box called ‘manat krav’ (combat rations) which included cans of tuna, beans, corn, pickles, canned fruit, bread, ketchup, mustard, chocolate spread, and chalava. The quality of the food was fine (although eating the same meal 12 times in a row does get a bit boring), but the execution of eating was really hard. We were given 15 minutes to eat, and there always had to be 4 soldiers on guard duty setting up a perimeter. All the cans had to be opened before we could begin eating, and at the end of time everything had to be in the box (we had to pick individual kernels of corn from the ground) so with the process of opening all the cans, and doing guard duty, you really only had 5-8 minutes to quickly make a tuna sandwich and eat some of the canned fruits. I heard next week when we are in the field we get much more time to eat which will be great. Other than that, we did lots of walking, practicing taking over hills (without shooting, we do the same thing with shooting this week), carrying fake wounded soldiers on your back with all their gear still on and both guns on you, and other fun stuff. Everything was really challenging but at the same time it was also fun, I felt like a real soldier out there.

The last day, on Wednesday, we finished the week with our masa hashba’ah (swearing in hike) which was 10km + 2km with the stretcher and sandbags on top of it. Before we left, our mefaked asked who was going to take the pakalem on the masa, and he stared directly at me when he asked about the heavy water pakal. So I took the hint pretty well, and without hesitation I picked up the 40-50 lb bag with a smile on my face. The course we marched on was ridiculous, basically uphill the entire time, and I remember in the 4th or 5th kilometer I started getting light headed and said to myself; once we reach the 6 km break point (every hour a 5-10 minute break is given) I will hand off the water bag to someone else in my group. When we arrived at the break, I chugged about 2-3 liters of water, was told I had the eye of the tiger look and crazily decided to finish the masa with the water bag on my back. Only myself and one other guy (another lone soldier from Cali) finished the entire 12 km with the water bags, all the other groups switched numerous times. The last 200 meters of the masa was a massive 70 degree inclined hill, where guys were pushing and grabbing each other to make it up, while rocks and other debris were falling down the hill all around us. It is honeslty the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but at the end when we were standing on top of that mountain, I felt tremendously proud of myself and all of my fellow tzanchans.

Now for the cool little surprise. After we finished our Masa, and we were rewarded with some chocolate sandwiches and juice, the commanders told us we would be going back to base in Black Hawks! Each kita was picked up in their own black hawk, and it was one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life. It was right out of a movie. We ran in a single line from a hundred meters away, with the co-pilot loaded us into the helicopter, instead of saying “Go! Go! Go!” he was saying “yalla! yalla! yalla!”, and from when we first saw the helicopter in our sights, the entire process took less then 2 minutes until we were up in the air. The ride lasted about 10 minutes, and when we landed we repeated the same process, unloading out of the black hawk as quickly as we could with huge smiles on our faces.

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On Thursday we headed to Jerusalem for our tekes hashba’ah (swearing into the paratroopers ceromony) at the Western Wall. The ceremony was very special because a) it was at the kotel where the paratroopers back in 1967 recaptured the Wall, and b) because my father flew over for the ceremony and to spend time with me after. There were thousands of people there, not joking, and although it was too crowded, it was a lot of fun and a moving experience.

 

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June 2nd. I can’t believe it is June already. This week we had a couple days with temperatures over 35 Celcius, which in Fahrenheit, for the Americanos, is 95 F and higher, and that was in May! I am not looking forward to the summer heat here in Israel, but like most things in the army, we say “אין מה לעשות” (there is nothing to do).

This time around, our conditions (in the Shetach) were much better; we got to sleep in sleeping bags (with our boots off!) instead of holes in the ground and never had an emergency wake-up in the middle of the night, and we received 25 minutes to eat rather than fifteen to twenty. The worst part was when we first arrived and we needed to clear out a space to make base camp, we were ordered by our commanders to crawl and roll around on the ground for an hour until all of the thorn bushes were taken down and the ground was level enough to sleep on.  The exercises we practiced storming hills in groups of two and four with live ammo both during the day and night were really fun and exciting. At night it was a little scary because first it was hard to see where you were running and crawling, and the guy next to you is only a couple meters away from you while you are both firing at targets. You just had to trust him and yourself not to slip and fall and accidentally shoot each other haha. Most of the week was comprised of these drills, except for the second to last day: the “abbach” (tear gas) day. When we formed in our big chet and the female instructor, decked out in her tear-gas protection suit, started to address us I started getting both really nervous and excited at the same time. I could not pay attention to what she had to say, and the fact that it was in hebrew, meant I really didn’t hear or understand what she said to us.  Then we all put our gas masks on and formed lines of 5 facing the tent filled with tear gas. When it was my row’s turn to go, we first had to do about 50 pushups and run a couple of sprints, all with the gas mask on, before we ran into the tent. The reason why: so we were breathing heavily, and when it was time to take off our mask in tent, we would be forced to breath in the gas. I was the first one to take off the mask in the tent, and I was so disoriented and confused I totally forgot to try and hold my breath and close my eyes to try and “cheat” the tear gas. The instructor started asking me questions: what’s my name, where I’m from, etc. and after about 10 seconds it was beginning to be incredibly difficult to speak because of the burning sensation in my throat from the tear gas. Then my eyes started to feel like they were on fire, and the instructor told me before I could run out of the tent, I had to do the chicken dance! I must have looked really funny at my attempt because I remember the last couple seconds before I was told to run, I was jumping up and down screaming in English “it burns!” I spent about 25-30 seconds in the tent filled with tear gas, and when I ran out  I was coughing and my eyes were tearing and my face was on fire for 5 minutes. After that I was all smiles and laughs, and watching everyone else suffering and running out of the tent.

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We finished the field week with another masa, but this was not just another masa. It was the Masa Samal. The Mefeked Samal is the disciplinary commander. He is probably one of the toughest guys on the entire base. When we started he was nowhere to be seen until we exited the gates from our base and he emerged from the woods and with the scariest and most serious face welcomed us to the “Masa Samal.” On our previous maso’ot we average 6 km in 1 hour. After every 6km we get a 10 minute break, and our first break on the Masa Samal came at 40 minutes! We were running most of the time, even when we were going up huge inclined hills. That day I was supposed to see the doctor because I had a bad cough for a week and a half, but I had a feeling that the doctor would not allow me to do the masa if I saw her. So I postponed my visit (stupidly) and partook in the masa. Twenty minutes in I was having a lot of difficulty breathing, getting very light-headed and started wheezing, and fell to the back of the group. I almost threw in the towel but I told myself make it to the break, and you can stop there. I made it to the break somehow, miraculously I started to breath again normally, and was able to finish the entire masa.  The Masa was supposed to be 13km plus 4km with the stretcher, when we entered the base, instead of going left and directly to our building, we turned right and circled the entire base still carrying the heavy stretcher for an extra kilometer. When we were finished we all started congratulating and hugging each other, which made me realize how true it is when people say the bond created between soldiers is unique and life-lasting. Moments like these, shared triumphs after obstacles were we all struggled together, create this “brotherhood” and special connection.

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The next week was “pakal” week, which is when everyone receives their specialized weapon, and begins to learn, train, and shoot it. The different groups are kalim (sharpshooters), negavists (light machine gunners), magists (heavy machine gunners), matolists (grenade launchers), and l.a.w.s. (light anti-tank weapons), and I received the MAG heavy machine gun. For everyone who is familiar with Call of Duty, the heavy machine gun in the game is the exact same gun that I was shooting and carrying around last week. It was a lot of fun to shoot, but not a lot of fun to carry around, especially when I had to hold it over my head for minutes at a time. One night during the week, we got “hakpatza’ed” (emergency wake-up) and had to crawl, run, take apart the gun, get in all the shooting positions, etc. for an hour. O yeah, I forgot to mention that on Sunday I finally went to the doctor for my cough, and she said I was crazy and should not have done the Masa, I had an infection in my chest, and she sent me to get chest x-rays because she thought I had pneumonia (don’t worry, I didn’t). She gave me a pass for the week not to intake in physical activities which I ignored, because I wanted to prove to my commanders that I was strong enough and determined to become a MAGist (There are only 2 MAGists in each platoon of 35 soldiers, so it is considered an honor). I made it to the end of the week, which was probably the most fun week I’ve had since I’ve been in the army, and on the last night because of how hard and well all of the MAGists worked, the commanders let us shoot tracer rounds (looks like red lasers when shot) at night, and my MAG 1 partner got to shoot 180 bullets Rambo style.

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On Sunday we gathered and loaded all our gear up on hummers, and split into groups of 4-6 soldiers and one commander, and were strategically spread out around the Karmel mountain. Whatever we needed we had to have with us (food,water, sleepbags, radio, etc.), because unlike the other times we are in the field, there was no base camp set up, we were “stranded” on our own, until the exercise was over. When we were driving out there, we were traveling on the highway in the hummers fully loaded up, with cars of civilians driving next to us, sending waves and smiles our way, it was really neat. Another perk was we were allowed to cook the cans of tuna (light a piece of toilet paper on fire on top the can of tuna in oil, and let it burn for 20-30 minutes), which made the tuna taste so much better (I also bring little mayo packets to flavor it up too). I like tuna, but eating tuna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 3-5 days in a row can get pretty boring.

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We pretended to be the “enemy” for the reserve duty soldiers practicing their ambushes, both sides using blanks. One night we were told be ready at 22:00, the soldiers were on their way, so my commander took us to the top of the mountain, running along a cliff on rocks, to the optimal spot to stake out and surprise them. We ended up waiting (it was freezing) 4 hours until they showed up, but we were unseen, and when the ensuing ‘fake’ battle started, I’m pretty sure we would have kicked their butts because of our positioning.

We spent a lot of time at the shooting range, running the obstacle course, and ended the week with our 23 km Masa Memem (Memem = platoon sergeant). The hike/march was 17km plus 5km with the sandbag loaded stretchers. But the biggest challenge was what I had to carry on the masa; the MAG heavy machine gun. I never felt so tired in my life (until our next 30 km hike, haha), my shoulders were so tight, and my feet felt like jello. My platoon was in the rear of the company, and at the end when we saw our base in the distance, I was called up to the front to walk next to our Memem, to carry and wave a huge Israeli flag. It was such a surreal moment, I was waving the flag so proudly and I felt it in my heart that we are the defenders of Israel and her people. Once we finished, our memem gave a nice pump-up speech about the Israeli flag and its history, and gave each us our own flag to carry around in our vests, whenever we have thoughts of doubt why or what we are doing here. A little cheesy, but it works for me, and I’m cool with it.

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Last Thursday was a special day for me because it marked the one year anniversary of my life here in Israel. I still can’t believe it’s already been a year, and so much has happened in this small amount of time. I’m like a completely different person; 40 lbs lighter, I can speak Hebrew (more or less), and I’m a soldier in the Israeli paratroopers. It feels kind of like a dream sometimes, but in a way it is, because I talked of doing this 5 years ago, kept true to my word, and now I’m living the dream! It hasn’t been an easy year, I miss my friends and family, sports, and other things from America, but I don’t regret one bit up my decision and I feel so happy and privileged to be serving in the IDF and defending Israel alongside my now fellow Israelis.

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Three weeks ago we started Imoon Mitkadem (Advanced training), and there have been many improvements from basic training but things have gotten much harder. We all received brand new vests like the ones our commanders have, but as a consequence we are forced to carry more weight around. We have more time to do things, and we can call our commanders by the first name without saying commander, but if we are late to something, we can get a more severe punishment now. We also never sleep anymore, we are lucky if we get five and a half, six hours of sleep in a night, and if it’s consecutive (without guard duty in the middle) you are even luckier. It’s kind of like “With great power comes great responsibility.” They can trust us now to do things on our own, but if we screw up, we have to pay the price for it.

The first week in advanced training, we went out to the field for ‘kita mitkadem’ (advanced class), where we had exercises ambushing a hill as an entire class/unit. All nine of us, including our commander, were shooting side by side, emptying clips, our grenade launcher shooting grenades, and our negavist firing his machine gun. It was a lot of fun, but also exhausting running up the hill. The first night we had our first ‘lila lavan’ , which literally means ‘white night’ but translates to an all nighter. We stayed up for 30 hours straight, walking up and down hills with 40 – 50 percent of my body weight on my back, carrying guys on stretchers, practicing fighting and ambush formations, and skipping meals. At one point when we all formed a circle on the ground for cover, one of the guys in my unit started snoring and we all started cracking up, it was great. Definitely the hardest night of my life, which was a great setup for our upcoming 30 km Masa. My legs and feet felt before the Masa they way they usually do after the Masa.

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The 30 km (25km plus 5 with the heavy stretchers) Masa was so long, that we started around ten, ten-thirty at night, and finished at sunrise. One of our breaks we even ate a plateful of pasta. We covered new territory this time, and the path was really cool, thankfully so we didn’t get too bored. We walked near the shesh shesh tesha (elite search and rescue unit) training base, that was in the middle of nowhere. It was exactly like in the movies, when someone sees a mirage of a city in the desert, but this actually existed. We also walked through this forest with trees that seemed 25 meters tall, which I had no idea existed in that part of Israel; I felt like I was walking around in New Hampshire. We finished the Masa in six and a half hours, which was apparently the fastest out of all the companies, and for the last 5km my platoon carried three stretchers instead of two like everyone else. At first, we laughed and told our sargeant he was crazy, but then we realized he was serious, we all got pumped up, and absolutely killed the ending. At points our company commander had to tell us to slow down because we were walking too fast, and I know we easily could have continued an extra 5km with the stretchers. Once again it was the combination of extremely difficultly but also a lot of fun. I got a huge blood blister on the bottom of my foot, and almost twisted my ankle a bunch of times, but finished it successfully.

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I was at a different base called Bizlach, where I learned about my new gun; the Mcklar (Automatic Grenade Launcher). It is an honor to be chosen as the Mcklarist in the entire plugah (company) ~100 guys, but what is not exciting is I have to carry the thing around on my back. 34.3 kg! Three other guys also have to carry the ammunition and stand. Wish me and my back luck during our war week next month. It was a lot of fun learning and shooting the gun, and I also got to play basketball against my commander (I won, haha), but the best part of the week was the pool time. Bizlach is where the officers training school is held, so along with it comes a pool. My commander took me to the pool after our 1 on 1 matchup, and we conveniently arrived when the female soldiers were getting out of the pool, putting their uniforms back on over their bikinis. There were also U.S. Marines on the base, training and learning from Israeli soldiers, so it was cool to talk to them and discuss the similarities and differences in what we do.

Elie in Macklar training

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That Shabbat we went to Hevron to guard and protect Jews walking to and from the Cave of the Patriachs to pray. It was a really amazing experience, people coming up to us to say thank you, shabbat shalom. The shifts really tough because they were 6 hours, standing the whole time, and wearing a very uncomfortable bullet and shrapnel proof vest. I was stationed a block away from the temple, and had a few instances when rocks or things on fire were thrown at us from rooftops.

Two weeks ago we stayed on an Ishoov (settlement) in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and learned about the history of the IDF, and had lots of discussions about various things: the gay parade in Jerusalem, what to do if a rock is thrown at you, how to compose yourself when you enter a home looking for a terrorist, etc. At the end of the week we took a quick trip in Jerusalem, we went to an old British prison and Har Herzel. It was neat being there in uniform with my gun, and seeing all the graves of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for the existence of Israel today.

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Last week we had a test on Thursday to compare the different units in the IDF, and see who is the best. There were 5 different parts of the test, krav maga, shooting, 2k run, obstacle course, and a written test. The day before the test, we found out which part we would be doing, so the entire week we practiced for everything. Lots of running, krav maga, and sitting in classrooms learning. I was chosen for the shooting part, and I partook in the hardest exercise of the test. I had to run 200 meters, crawl 10 meters, run another 200 meters, and then hit a target, small head, 40 meters away, 3 bullets while shooting on one knee, and three while lying down. Myself and only one other guy hit all 6 out of 6 shots on the test, but I think we did really well overall. Tzanchanim is the 2 year reining champs.

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Platoon week had been rumored to be the hardest week of training besides war week (less than two months away), and I think that it lived up to its expectations. We started the week Sunday in the middle of the night hiking up and down mountains until the sun finally showed itself. Our memem (platoon commander) delivered a pump up speech once we arrived in the shetach, and told us to imagine our bus was a helicopter dropping us off in Lebanon behind enemy lines. I got into character, but after endless hours of walking around, carrying heavy weight on my back, it’s inevitable to start getting depressed and have negative thoughts, and wishing you were home with your friends and family watching the Jets win the Super Bowl and/or the Rangers win the cup. (could this be the year?)

Once the sun finally showed itself we started a drill with our entire platoon of 30 guys partaking in it, including our mocs (squad commanders) and memem. My squad was in charge of storming the first hill, while one squad provided cover fire, and the third storming the other part of the hill. Everyone had to pay attention where they were running, crawling, and shooting to avoid any fatal accidents. Luckily and בעזרת השם we executed very well and impressed our company commander. After the targeel we were given time to pray and eat, and sleep as best as we could (without taking our vests off) under some shade in the disgusting heat.

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After the temperature cooled down we did another drill, very similar to the last one, and then did it again at night in the dark. We started to prepare for another sleepless night, loading up all our gear on our backs, opening the stretchers with people on them, and then magically six names were called to go stand on the side, including my name. Just as we were separated from the platoon, our commanders threw abbach grenades (tear gas) at everyone and as they started to run away coughing, another grenade was thrown in the direction they were heading. Half of me was happy that I was on the sideline, but the better half felt bad for my friends and wanted to be part of the suffering with everyone. They also told me the next day they were woken up by more abbach grenades thrown at them.

The six guys that were called out (along with seven other soldiers in different platoons in our company) make up a group called the “כתה רתק”. (cover fire squad). The firepower that we consist of is: an automatic grenade launcher (me!), two MAGs heavy machine guns (my old job), one Negev light machine gun, margama (mortars), and one kalah (sharpshooter). I wouldn’t mess with us if I were you. We went back to base, showered and I received a package from my aunt with chookalookim( army slang for snacks) and other goodies. It was such a great surprise, because usually the Israelis get packages all the time from their parents, so I was pleasantly shocked when I heard my name called.

We had lessons the following day on our jobs, formations, assignments, etc. And then at 4 o’clock we went back out to the shetach for firing practice. I shot 13 grenades (hit all my targets 700 meters away during the day, most at night) and the mags shot over 1,000 bullets. Lots of fun, except for carrying the Mcklar up the hills.

At the end of the week we did the balchan plugah (2 km run with our gear, and another km carrying 6 people on stretchers) followed by ya’alam (crawling, running, and shooting at targets.) We ran the first part in 15:28, and averaged 5.25 out of 6 targets hit. Yesterday we were told we have the best score on base and also we received a base all-time record score on the testing we did three weeks ago, which means we should be keeping our three-year streak alive of best g’dood in the Israeli Army.

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I am officially airborne! I think it’s safe to say that my last two weeks have been the most fun two weeks in the army yet. It was so cool to actually be jumping out of planes, which was what attracted me to Tzanchanim initially in job description. It was just like the scenes out of old war movies (more or less), we even used the same type of bags containing our vests and guns as the Paratroopers from Band of Brothers. At the beginning of the course we were told we had to complete 5 jumps in order to receive our wings, and I had heard in previous years, due to Air Force flight cancellations and other inconveniences, wings were earned with as few as just 2 jumps. But to my surprise, I completed all 5 out of 5 jumps with everything working out smoothly, except the lack of an in-flight movie, and I got charged for my carry-on luggage being over-weight twice. Even Tzahal Airlines will try to squeeze every penny they can get out of you. Just Kidding. Here was the order of jumps I completed:

  1. Morning Jump, without equipment
  2. Afternoon Jump, with equipment (bag containing vest and gun attached to our body)
  3. Morning Jump, with equipment
  4. Night Jump, under real mission conditions
  5. Afternoon Jump, with equipment

They were all tons of fun, but I think the night jump was the coolest. After the night jump, we had a little Masa which was difficult for most of us, because a) it was in the sand, and b) our bodies were a little banged up from the landings. (I heard only one soldier in our course broke his leg). It was priceless sitting in the plane, squeezed and bunched up next to your brothers, and someone reading the special prayer for paratrooping (I swear, I’m not making this up) and when he finishes, everyone screaming AMEN! Every-time the doors opened and the wind came rushing in the plane, my adrenaline would start pumping, and when I saw the red light change to green and 16-20 soldiers, jump/thrown out of the plane from both sides in less than 15 seconds, I would start smiling and couldn’t help but think; “Wow, I have one of the coolest jobs on Earth!” The entire time I was in the air was only about a minute each jump, but they are minutes I will never forget in my life. Looking back and seeing the plane pooping out soldiers, and hearing everyone screaming “Wooooooh!”, it was classic.

After we received our wings, we were happy to return back to our home Bach Tzanchanim base with our cozy air-conditioned rooms; we’re so spoiled in Tzanchanim. The next day we had a misdar (inspection/equipment check) for the ‘mefeked magama’ (commander in charge of all the paratrooper companies in the March ’12 draft), so we spent the morning cleaning and setting up all of our weapons. My kita was the first room he walked into, and after making his rounds questioning other soldiers he asked me my name, where I’m from, and questions about my pakal, the Mcklar. (Which I answered correctly). Then he told me I seemed like a serious soldier and shook my hand. My mak (unit commander) and I shared some laughs afterwards because my voice was a little deeper due to a cold I had, and I had a tough poker face the entire time he was in the room which only added to the situation. After we passed the inspection, we packed up and headed out to the shetach, but not to the field we are used to going to, we went to “leshob” (urban territory). It was a mock of an Arab style village/city built in the middle of nowhere. We were taught and learned quite well, how to patrol through the streets, go up and down stairs, and enter and ‘clear’ rooms and houses. It felt like I was in Counter Strike or Call of Duty. It was my first time shooting in close quarters (my target was about ten feet away) with another soldier on one knee hugging against me. Lots of trust went into that drill. We were told we are going to do more urban warfare training later on shooting at each other with blanks, and throwing flash grenades.

***

 

geared_up

Although two weeks has past since war week, the memories and feelings are still very fresh in my mind, luckily and miraculously the pain and soreness has left the body. So let me start at the very beginning, while we were still on base gearing up for the week. There was definitely a feeling of anxiousness, fear, and excitement in the air as we starting packing our bags waiting for the head commander of the base to come and quiz us to see if we were ready, because each soldier needs his approval to head out in the field for ‘war’. I’ve heard stories in the past of soldiers failing inspection, and staying back on base for the entire week. But luckily (or not) everyone passed inspection, and the second he left our plugah, the week could technically start whenever he wanted. As the mefeked margama (draft commander) walked around checking our bags, making sure everyone weighed in and was not carrying over the max 50% body weight (although I am positive more than 75% were over this silly rule), he approached me and noticed I had the Mcklar in my bag and asked “Did you weigh in? Is it comfortable? Are you sure you can carry this?” Which is a funny question, because I weighed in without equipment at 83 kg (183 lbs) and with all my equipment (vest, gun, other gun: Mcklar, equipment, etc) I weighed in at a scary 148 kg (326 lb). Which means, if I my math is correct (I wonder if I can still do integrals, I miss Engineering!), I would be shlepping 65 kg, 143.3 lbs!!! I asked my medic if this was safe and healthy to do, and he replied with : “!תהיה חזק” BE STRONG, haha.

Special Camouflage for the gunners on the cover fire unit

On Wednesday, at about 22:00, 23:00 we got the call to head out to the shetach. We spent the first night, walking out to Leshabiyah, the area where we practice urban warfare. Our first of many tarpols (company exercises of 100+ soldiers), began Thursday morning just as the sun was rising. My target was a tree only about 350 meters away, which is fairly close for the automatic grenade launcher (has a maximum range of 2,212 meters). As everyone started running, crawling, and advancing up hills, I set up and dialed in my coordinates, and when my commander told me to mekat aish (cover fire, shoot!) I unloaded about 12 grenades until the tree was knocked down and on fire. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of trees in Israel that I haven’t destroyed. After we finished the exercise, we were told to pack up, and begin our alichot (long walks between exercises), until we reached the area of our next tarpol. We were given 2 hrs to eat and rest, and then begin another tarpol. The area where we did our next exercise is the same place that we would be doing the tachzan (test for army judges/officials  to rank the different infantry units) on Sunday in a couple of days. This time, I was given 20 grenades to shoot, and to my surprise I knocked over two barrels stacked on each other 500 meters away. After the exercise, my mempeh (company commander) picked up the barrels that rolled down the hill, and with a big smile on his face gave me a nod of appraisal. So another tarpol finished, which meant another alichot would soon start. These were the worst and hardest parts of the week (maybe my life) for me because I had to carry my ridiculously heavy bag the entire time. We would walk for about half an hour, and then rest for five minutes, but when I sat down, I would need one to two guys to help me on my feet again. You wouldn’t believe how heavy the bag was. When guys would come by and try picking up my bag, their face would instantly be stricken with horror and they would say; how are you doing this? Kol hakavod (all the respect)! My unit commander called me a rhino, but I really felt like a camel. I walked a lot, carried a lot of weight on my back, didn’t have much to eat or drink (2-4 tuna and grape leaves, or chocolate sandwiches a day), and had trouble sitting and standing up. After another endless night of walking without sleeping, we completed another tarpol, and then set out for another alichot. Sounds repetitious? But this walk was the hardest three, four hours in my life. Most of the way was uphill, and with the sun beating down on us, and little water to drink, I wasn’t really sure if it was tears or sweat beading down my face; probably both. I kept setting little goals and telling myself get passed this hill, and then when I saw another hill a couple meters away all I could do was laugh. I had guys helping me on the inclines pushing me from the back, and giving me words of praise and encouragement. Finally when we arrived at the Leshabiyah, I released myself of the demon of a bag that was on my back, and collapsed to the ground. We had covered over 40 km already in just two and half days, and my back, shoulders, thighs, feet, basically everything, was aching. We spent Shabbat there, and although I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services and ate (literally frozen shnitzel) with my platoon which was very special and unique experience, I had a fever and was shaking, and needed to rest as soon as possible for as long as I could. I slept most of Shabbat on the rock-filled rooms, and when it came time to move again, I marvelously felt around 80% better.

So we hiked out to the spot for the tachzan on Sunday, and when it was showtime, and a busfull of high-ranking army officials came to observe our exercise, we all gave MVP-like performances. I knocked down the barrels again, and the girl judging me and my spotter’s performance told us, we did a great job and slipped us some oreos to snack on. Only in the Israeli army! After the officials left, it was just us and the shetach again, as we started yet another aliyachah. I won’t bore you anymore with the walking, exercise, walking, exercise, meal, walking, etc. In total I shot around 80 grenades, and we walked around 100 km. But luckily, on Monday night, my commander asked me before one of our walks, how I was holding up, and if I can continue carrying the Mcklar, and I answered Yes, I can continue, he told me to put the 35 kg Mcklar on the hummer, I didn’t have to carry the automatic grenade launcher on the walks anymore, just my equipment. Praise the lord! I was so happy, haha, the walks began to become enjoyable for me. Finally, Wednesday morning arrived, and in the midst of fog we held a little ceremony outside the base, we are now ready to serve in a war, god-forbid there is one, and war week is over! It was a little anti-climatic for me, because without the Mcklar in my bag, I thought this is it, that’s all? But the old proverb don’t count your eggs before they hatch would come in to play here. As we spent the day handing in our bags, cleaning our guns, the head of the base congratulated us for finishing the week, and told us there would be a surprise in store today.

At the end of war week, or so I thought!

I returned the Mcklar to the neshkia (gun/ammuntion storage place?) after cleaning it for a couple hours, and at night we had an end of advanced training ceremony filled with awards, videos and photos of our months of training, and the best part; impressions. Guys put on skits making fun of our commanders, some spot-on, they were hilarious. One guy deserved an Oscar for his performance, as not only did he nail the part of his platoon and company commanders, but he even had the audacity to make fun of the commander of the base. Another: Only in the Israeli army! After all the skits, the commander of the base took the podium, and said; “Now that you are certified let’s see how good and ready of soliders you are, because in three hours, everyone is heading back out to the field for another day of training.” Oi Vey! Talk about a buzz kill, all of the air inside the gymnasium was instantly sucked out with that last statement. The shavooz (depressed) looks on all of the soldiers were priceless. I saw Mcklar grenades waiting for me back in the plugah, which got me really scared and nervous, but luckily they decided not to open the locked neshkia, and therefore I did not need to carry the Mcklar. My platoon got pretty lucky, as we only hiked out a couple kilometers, slept for 4 hours, and at sunrise ride in black-hawk helicopters to the site of our exercise. After we finished in the afternoon, to our surprise a bus showed up to take us back to base, but once we piled in and were ready to go; the bus got stuck. I thought is this week ever going to end! But, everything worked out ok, the bus caught its traction, and we were all ecstatic to finally be done with war week. I was extremely proud of myself and all the guys in our company (not one guy quit and left the entire week, which I think hasn’t happened for a long time on base). I received the best soldier award for war week, which made all my hard work seem worth it the entire week.

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***

Around nightfall, we loaded up our gear on the buses and traveled to Beit Shemesh, which was the origin of our Masa Kumpta (final march for the red paratrooper berets). We were told the Masa would be 50 km, which is unfortunately a little “chalavi” (milky, weak) considering the paratroopers back in the day used to march twice as much. O well, no complaints from me. Everyone took the necessary preparations, loaded our vests up with chookalookim (snacks) and before we knew it, we were on our way. The first couple of hours were part of the hardest, due to the fact we were basically climbing and scaling up and down mountains. You have to remember, Jerusalem has a very high elevation, so in order to reach the holy city, the only way is going up (Aliyah). The food breaks were great, when we could eat, drink, refuel, and rest a little. Our commanders wouldn’t let us sit down on the breaks with their reasoning that we would cramp up and/or fall asleep, the latter was definitely true (I managed to sneak off and catch a couple zzz’s once or twice). Towards the end, around the time the sun rose, I started getting really tired and almost fell asleep while walking, which was dangerous due to the fact we were walking next to the edges of some pretty steep cliffs. I remember I even started to hallucinate a little at one point, but then I drank a lot of water, ate some snacks, and when the facade of the central bus station bridge in Jerusalem actually appeared in the distance, I woke up and knew we were close to our destination.

Once we reached the outskirts of J’town, we opened up the stretchers, plopped on some heavy sandbags, and started the final stretch of our journey. We had a nice surprise at this junction, when my old unit commander (he finished the army a two weeks before) joined us for the final hour of the masa. Although he is significantly shorter than I am, we became partners carrying the stretcher most of the time, and he even made me carry the spots in the back by myself. He gave me a lot of ‘rabak’ (~strength, motivation) it was so much fun, even though I was exhausted. My company, the 202, started towards the back of the group (101, 202, 890, gadzar) but as the time progressed my bad-ass company commander made us run to the front so we could finish first. When we reached our destination 14 hours later, we put down the stretchers and everyone collapsed to the ground and started congratulating each other for finishing. We were told we marched an extra surprise 10km, so in total we marched 60 km (50 + 10 w/ stretchers). It was difficult due to the amount of time (some parts were very boring), but it still doesn’t compare to my war week when I had to carry the Mcklar. When we hit Jerusalem, the commanders put their red berets on their heads, and as we walked on the sidewalks to Givat Hatachamoshit everyone was waving, honking, and congratulating us. The best part was about 1 km before Ammunition Hill, where my parents were waiting for me with a great sign my sister made. I gave my mom a very tired hug and kiss, and papa Klein got a nice fist pump. We finally made it to Ammunition Hill, dropped our gear and vests on the ground, changed our sweaty uniforms (no shower), and gathered around for the head of our base to say a few words to us. He told the 202 that we won the best company on base (no surprise, we’re awesome ha), and he was extremely proud of us, and ready to advance us to our next stage as paratroopers; the gdood. We ate lunch, practiced the ceremony for an hour in the blistering sun (very annoying to stand there after marching the entire night) and finally received our red berets late afternoon. It was really surreal when my commander took my old green bakum beret, which I had been wearing for the last 10 months, and replaced it with a brand new red beret. It definitely felt like I finally earned and deserved it.

 

 

To read Elie’s road to the IDF paratroopers unit click on this link: From Hockey Rinks to Parachutes: Becoming an Israeli Paratrooper

Based on Elie’s blog: Elie Aliyah & Lone SoldierJourney

Masa Kumpta: Elie arrives in Jerusalem and meet with his parents 

Paratroopers finish the Masa Kumpta and getting their red berets

 

Related Video: Luis Miller’s Masa Kumta

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