Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Course Orev, a trip home, and learning why Krav Maga really isn't that fun

Family and friends,

I hope that you and your families are well and have enjoyed a relaxing summer and a beginning to a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year!

In tradition of the New Year, a time where we are supposed to leave our faults behind and embrace an exciting and promising year, pledging to help others more than last year, I want to bring an amazing philanthropic organization to your attention. A Package From Home is an organization dedicated to helping IDF soldiers through cards, gifts, and holiday presents. I learned of this organization by personally receiving a gift basket for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) filled with necessities for soldiers and thank you cards from families around the world. Each year we promise to give a little more and this is a perfect way to directly help IDF soldiers protecting Israel and Judaism. You can find out more about A Package From Home and donate or write emails to IDF soldiers such as myself at: http://apackagefromhome.org/.

In other exciting news, my blog has been picked up by the Center for Lone Soldiers in Memory of Michael Levin—a website and organization created to help Lone Soldiers in the IDF, and named in memory of Michael Levin, a lone soldier killed in the Second Lebanon War—and is featured on their website. I am ecstatic, as this is the perfect medium to reach out and help other and potential Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldiers). If you are looking for other Lone Soldier’s experiences, click on the weblink, as there are several blogs of other Lone Soldiers.

I have added a significant number of new photos of my training, the army, and my trip home. Since I have maximized the number of pictures in the first photo album, the new pictures a can be reached by clicking on the second slideshow of thumbnails on the right side of the blog or by clicking HERE.

I realize that it has been quite some time since I have written, and would apologize except that I was most likely too busy having a beer with you in Cleveland or San Diego to write! There is a lot to fill you in on—however, more than ever, I am not permitted to talk about much of my training—so let’s begin!

Since the last entry, I have finished my advanced training (3 months) in June and our “Machlakah” (unit) officially became a “Tzevet” (team; special forces in the IDF are known as a Tzevet) by completing a grueling 14 km masa (march) up and down the Negev’s mountains, carrying stretchers for all 4 hours of it! We finished half way up the largest mountain, signifying the conclusion of half our training, with the most grueling half left ahead of us. For a few minutes we enjoyed the amazing view from the mountain at 3 am, each wearing a hat stitched with “Orev Nachal: Tzevet Eyal” (each team is named after its commanding officer, my officer was Eyal), but then the realization that we had only completed half of our training, shook everyone back to the IDF’s overwhelming sense of reality.

Our next big step was a 15 km masa with 30 lbs sandbags in each person’s vest followed by 18 km of stretchers where all the sandbags were put on two stretchers. Not my exact idea of a “fun” 8 hours, if I may say so. The reward (if you haven’t caught on yet, in the IDF, to receive a significant part of your uniform—berate and unit’s pins—or move onto a new stage of training, is usually awarded after a long masa or a test of sheer will) was my unit’s move to our Special Forces training base, Beit Leid. Located just outside of Netanya, 40 minutes North of Tel Aviv, Beit Leid is the host to several units including Nachal’s Gadsar (Special Forces) units. We have traded the barren Negev for a picture-perfect New England summer camp. Surrounded by deciduous trees and actual houses, Beit Leid resembles an army base from Hollywood; I no longer sleep in a tent, I have a small “house” with air conditioning and heating! Our entire platoon is only a few years old, so bathrooms are clean and hot water is plentiful. It’s amazing what living in the desert, on a mattress, and in a 15-man tent will make you appreciate.

With the benefits of a Special Forces base come the rigors of Special Forces training. During Basic and Advanced training we were REQUIRED to sleep 6-7 hours a night. Beit Leid has no such requirement and there are often many nights that we don’t sleep a wink. After all night exercises in the field, we take a bus back to base and finish the week by cleaning and fixing all of our gear for hours at end, never getting a chance to catch up on sleep. The next morning we wake up to an 8-10 km run; pull ups, push ups, dips, etc.; sprints; and finally an hour and a half or so of intense Krav Maga. The more and more that the IDF pushes my body to its limit, the more you realize that there is virtually no border. Ninety-percent of everything that we do is mental, and simply not giving up leads to the most amazing accomplishments of our lives. My body has adjusted to the lack of sleep and once a hibernating human, I struggle to sleep more than six hours a night.

As I have mentioned previous, the IDF loves massot (masa, singular; massot, plural: meaning marches). Every few weeks, we have a several hour masa with stretchers. When I asked my commanders why we do them, they responded with, “Why not? They’re fun!” Although I have yet to thoroughly enjoy one of these grueling massot, they are an unbelievable test of self will and the feeling of finishing them is unparalleled. This is the exact philosophy the IDF wants to instill in its soldiers: everything passes and as long as you don’t quit, you will finish. This is one of the single greatest life lessons that I have learned. No matter how badly it hurts at that moment, you WILL finish it, and while sitting at a bar several weeks later, sipping a beer with friends, you will laugh about it and say, “yeah, it really wasn’t that bad”—even though it really was.

A while back my unit completed a multiple week course on our specialty, the Orev Missile. A U.S. made missile know as the TOW-2, it’s a fly-by-wire missile—meaning that once shot, the shooter can move the missile in air by moving his target location, and the information is relayed to the missile through wires—and although originally created in the 1960’s, the TOW-2 was revamped in the 1980’s and is used against anything from tanks (its original purpose) to buildings and people.

For me, the course was one of the hardest periods of my army service. In classrooms for hours at a time, I struggled to learn about advanced missile systems in Hebrew. However, the instructors were absolutely amazing, helping me for hours after each class, teaching entire lessons again in English. They helped me through the myriad of qualification tests, both written and physically assembling, firing, and dismantling the missile, and I finished the course with one of the highest overall scores of both Orev units—due entirely to the instructors’ tireless desire to help me.

The middle of Course Orev marked a transition for my Tzevet as we replaced our commanders. It was a particularly difficult transition for me as I was close and greatly respected my officer, Eyal, who had been vital in my return to Orev. Our new commanders—our officer is Katz, and as such we are now Tzevet Katz—are very talented and each is learning his new role with the Tzevet. As with any organization, we are learning more about ourselves with this transition, and believe that at the end it will make us a stronger team.

A significant portion of our training is orienteering and navigating. Each person is given a handful of coordinates, a start point, and an end point. In pairs (one partner knows the beginning half, the other the second half), each person has to create a path to get to each of his points and memorize it over the course of a few hours. That night we go into the field and each pair has to get to each of his coordinates without the use of a map. Navigating for hours at end, you are required to get your partner to the halfway point and he has to get you two to the excursion point. Navigating up and down mountains in pitch black is one of the most difficult adventures I have ever done, but an unbelievable thrill. I am very appreciative of having gone to college first, as we are required to cram a ludicrous amount of information in just a few hours, a skill we all learn well in college.

Here’s an example of one of our navigations: After 15 km of scaling mountains and descending into riverbeds, my partner and I reach the excursion point at about 1:30 AM. We were then given 15 minutes to plan our path to the top of a tallest mountain in the region, sitting at over 600 meters. Scaling the 20 degree mountain, we reached the top and were instructed to go to sleep, but not remove our gear. We were awoken an hour and a half later to see two stretchers opened and our commanders instructing us that in two minutes, two people were on the stretchers, and the stretchers were in the air, ready to be carried down the mountain. With four people under each stretcher, and two additional people helping steady the two people leading the stretchers down the mountain, we slowly descended. After 50 minutes, we reached the bottom and began our ascent up the neighbor mountain. Reaching the top at 9 AM, we were allowed to stretch and eat some breakfast before planning our navigation for that night, less than 12 hours away.

One of the hardest weeks of my entire training was a month and a half ago. Better known by its feared reputation than its benign name “Advanced M-16 Week,” I entered a week where we never worked in periods of longer than 30 seconds to two minutes. For 12 hours each day, we were in shooting ranges, dressed in bullet proof vests under our regular vests, totaling roughly 30 lbs. Never allowed to walk, every order was carried out by sprinting from one location to the next, learning the fundamentals of counterterrorism and urban-combat warfare. Each mistake—not matter how large or small—resulted in our entire unit in pushup position for minutes at a time. The week ended with each person shooting thousands of bullets and over 4 hours in pushup position.

Following 12 hours in the shooting ranges, we had two hours of Krav Maga—hand-to-hand combat training—which would always start with 30 minutes of pushups and sprints, followed by “aggression drills,” combining the fighting with football lineman drills. After each mistake or being one of last three in each drill, you put your hands behind your head and flexed your stomach as the instructor threw punches until you hunched over in agony. The point of Krav Maga is to learn how to disable someone as quickly as possible and under the most extreme circumstances. As rough as the training is, it is what makes the Special Forces so tough and stronger than our enemies. The last night of the week ended in two, two-hour sessions of Krav Maga, leaving each of us completely bruised from head-to-toe and more exhausted than we had ever been in our lives.

If that wasn’t enough, in addition to two hours of Krav Maga every night, we had two more hours of “Imun Lochemah” or personal war simulated exercises. Wearing bullet proof vests and vests, we sprinted, crawled, un-jammed our M-16 in every possible scenario, held shooting positions for minutes at a time (imagine basketball defensive position with legs bent at 90 degrees), all while instructors pushed and pulled us from all directions, simulating the most extreme war-time situations. As bad as all of this seems, the worst part of the week was our limited food rations. Each meal (3 meals a day) consisted of 1/3-1/2 can of tuna fish, handful of corn, handful of peanuts, and 3 slices of bread. I finished the week 10 lbs skinny and exhausted to my core.

The best part of finishing “Advanced M-16” week was a 20 hour flight to San Diego to celebrate my grandfather’s 95th birthday—yes, you read that correctly, NINETY-FIVE! Celebrating with family that I haven’t seen for over two and a half years, I enjoyed four days of Gordon-style partying, drinking, eating, schmoozing, and of course “allah-mems!” I am not sure who was more excited to see the other, my grandfather or me. Regardless, I was elated to spend such a meaningful family occasion by the side of not only one of my best friends, mentors, and heroes, but also a true mench.

Following the birthday celebrations, I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in Cleveland, visiting friends and celebrating Shabbat at MY house and at MY synagogue. Worried that I might have changed over the past year-plus, my fears were put to rest within five minutes of being picked up by Kabir; I knew I was home. Having survived the hardest, most painful 10 months of my life, I have never appreciated Cleveland, home, family, and friends as much as I did those 10 days. Fraternity parties, The Feast, coffee shops, Chipotle, bars, more Chipotle, famous Weinberg BBQs, and more Chipotle filled my 10 days of bliss, restoring the 10 lbs I had lost the previous week, and add 10 more lbs of beer and chimichuria-riblets!

I want to end with a pretty humorous story from roughly four months ago. After finishing Advanced Training, we spent three weeks in transition before moving to Beit Leid. Our commanders enjoying torturing us, preaching how our training was going to get infinitely times harder and how painful Krav Maga was going to be. One day, the commanders spent one hour having us create “Krav Maga shirts,” white shirts with our names written on the front, back, and sleeves. They emphasized that each t-shirt had to be exactly the same or we would be punished. With vivid images of Beit Leid Krav Maga planted by our commanders in our heads, we yelled at each other, perfecting each shirt, and fearing the unknown.

That night at dinner, a dark-skinned, broad-shouldered, intimidating man walked in the door, dressed in a black Krav Maga shirt and Orev Nachal hat pulled over his eyes, he walked over to the commander’s table, shaking each of our commander’s hands. Our entire platoon went silent. The man prepared four bowls of sour cream, and placed one at each of our tables, muttering, “Eat, you’re going to need the energy.” As he left, each table erupted in fear, devouring all traces of sour cream, and running back to his tent to organize his gear.

After dinner, our commander walked up to our formation with the same black shirt tucked into his pants. Every soldier had already removed his dog-tags, watch, and everything from his pant’s pockets, prerequisites of Krav Maga. Our commander walked away, and the man from dinner approached slowly. Taking his time to stare each soldier in the eye, the instructor spoke in a low voice, “This is no longer regular Krav Maga, this is Beit Leid Krav Maga. Forget what you have learned, what you have done, none of it matters. This Krav Maga is for real warriors. You have 9 minutes to be in your white shirts, in formation, on the other side of the fence. SEVEN, MOVE!”

Halfway through “MOVE” we were already sprinting to our tents, shirts in hand, and sprinting to the destination point. In less than three minutes both Orev units were standing in formation, shoulder to shoulder, hands behind our backs, feet parallel, silent. The instructor looked around, remained silent for 30 seconds, then asked someone why he wasn’t wearing white socks. “EVERYONE PUSHUP POSITION!” he yelled. For nearly five minutes we remained in pushup position, pumping out 10, 20, or 30 pushups when he yelled the command. “5 SECONDS, EVERYONE UP!” Everyone jumped up to formation in less than a second. “10 SECONDS EVERYONE IN A STRAIGHT LINE, HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD, FACING THE FENCE, GO!” In 3 seconds everyone was standing shoulder to shoulder, hands behind his head, facing the fence. “CLOSE YOUR EYES!” I heard a whimper next to me, I felt the soldier to my right’s arm shake against mine.

“DO NOT OPEN YOUR EYES UNDER ANY CONDITION!” Easy, no way I’m opening my eyes. Further down the right I hear punches hit a soldier, he cries out. Two seconds later cries erupt from my left. I begin to tremble. I hear a rustle from both directions and the next thing I know my pants and boxers are around my ankles. I am now fearful for my future children. I continue to flex my entire body, waiting for blows from the instructor.

I hear shouting from all directions but continue to close my eyes. After a minute and a half, I realize that there is no one on either side of me, and slightly open my eyes, looking slowly in each direction. At this point I realize that I am the only person still standing with his hands behind his head, pants around his ankles. Everyone else is in piles, punching and kicking our beloved commanders. Never seeing anything like this, I begin screaming at my comrades, “We’ve been on base for 21 straight days, WHY are you hitting our commanders! You’ll never leave base!” One soldier yells at me that it’s a tradition for breaking distance with commanders. Since they have beaten up on your for several months, now you get to return the favor. I laughed and pulled my pants up.

I am writing this entry from Beit Leid. Although we are on a one week break from the army, we needed volunteers to close for Rosh Hashanah. I volunteered since I already got two weeks at home and am unable to spend the holiday with my parents and sister. As with every entry, I end this with a hope that we may all learn to be more caring and selfless this New Year. I hope that you take my challenge and take five minutes of your time to write and support our IDF soldiers. I challenge you to visit Israel, to buy Israeli goods, attend Israel solidarity rallies, and go to synagogue more than twice a year. I also challenge you to reconnect with friends and family that you have lost touch with. All it takes is a five minute phone call to say “hi, I miss you and want to know how you have been.” We owe this to our loved ones, and more importantly to ourselves. Let’s make this a successful, peaceful, happy, and healthy New Year.

With great love and respect,

Shana tova vemetuka,

Nadav E. Weinberg

Friday, June 12, 2009

What it means to be a Chayal Boded

Family and Friends,
I hope that you and your families are well and enjoying the beginning of summer.

I have constructed a slightly different update than my past ones. Thanks to army regulations, I can't explain too much of I am doing right now, but here's a quick overview of my past two months:

  • After my 29 km + 9 km (with stretchers), 9 hour Massa (march)--up and down mountains and finishing on top of Masada--I was awarded with my unit's (Nachal) distinctive light green beret. My mother made the trip to celebrate with me, and we spent the week traveling all over the country visiting family, friends, drinking beer, and enjoying tasty BBQ's.
  • I am thoroughly enjoying my return to Orev (Special Forces unit), but it is significantly harder than the regular units. After a week of unrelenting 2 hour, mile-long-mountain-range-conquering exercises with live fire, we had a three hour march back to base, arriving at 4:30 AM. With a smile on their faces, our commanders gave us the famous "7-MOVE!" phrase (giving us 7 minutes to change into sports gear and sprint across the base) for a sunrise Krav Maga session (IDF hand-to-hand combat). Over the following 40 hours, we had several 3 hour marches and live fire drills, sleeping a generous 1.5 hours. Regardless, I haven't been happier in the army than I am now!
  • We have begun orienteering, the most interesting part of our training thus far. We are given starting and ending point and "destination points" in between that we have get to. In pairs, we create our own path (we're up to 11 kms now) and memorize every step of the way. Trick is, you can't use your map the entire time and it's all at night! Quite fun until you're lost for an hour and a half and have NO IDEA where you are. In recent news, everything looks EXACTLY the same in the desert!

What it means to be a Chayal Boded

Inspired by an article by two Chayalim Bodedim (Lonely Soldiers; soldiers who serve in the IDF without family in Israel), I have put together a list of experiences that detail what it means to be a Chayal Boded in the Israel Defense Forces. These are brief stories and feelings that I have experienced over the past 7 months of army service. As usual I have not sugar-coated my words; as you will read, the last 7 months have been the most demanding, depressing, and rewarding moments of my life.

- On your first day of army service, you do 30 push ups when your commander tells you to run to the wall and back to formation in 30 seconds. You quickly learn the word for wall in Hebrew. It’s “kir.”

- Living on a Kibbutz 8 hours each way from your army base. Calling your friends to buy you food from the supermarket because it will be closed for the weekend by the time you get home. Arriving at 3 PM and knowing that you’ll be headed back to base for more training in less than 36 hours.

- When the bus driver says “10 minute break” you automatically start your stopwatch (thank you for the auto programming, IDF). You laugh for a minute, but are sitting in your seat promptly at the 9:50 mark.

- Enjoying your one night to sleep-in without heating in 30 degree weather. You wake up automatically after 6 hours because your body no longer knows how to sleep any longer.

- Having one home-cooked meal a week (or every other week) from your host family.

- Making the trip home once a week if you’re lucky, but usually once every 2-3 long weeks of training.

- Making the 12 hour trip halfway around the world HOME to Cleveland, Ohio, once a year for less than 4 weeks. You relish every moment in YOUR bed, with your friends and family, and eating Chipotle burritos—double meat, extra guacamole, please!

- Spending holidays on base and guarding settlements in the West Bank. Enjoying 5 minutes of Hanukkah songs and half a Passover meal before returning to training and guard duty.

- Learning to live life 5 seconds at a time. To tie your shoes, switch uniforms, and run from formation to formation in seconds at a time.

- Learning to endure unrelinquishing pain and permanent bruises from head to toe.

- Showering once a week after returning from the field and praying the entire trip back to base that you’ll have hot water for those three glorious minutes.

- To spend every minute of every day missing your family, friends, and home in the US.

- To be on guard duty from 3-6 AM, staring at a pitch black desert and reminiscing about past girl friends. Seconds will never pass by as slowly.

- To experience the death of a dear childhood friend (Kambili Moukwa, 22) through emails, a week after his death. To spend the next two weeks in complete shock and depression, crying on guard duty at 3 AM since you have had no time to grieve. At that exact moment you realize that you are truly halfway around the world from your friends, family, and the life you once had.

- To wake up freezing (at 4 AM in the field), run while freezing, and to go to bed freezing with only a thin jacket to keep you warm. In short, to be colder than you’ve ever been in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s 3-foot snow winters.

- To wake up burning up (at 4 AM in the field), run while burning up, and to attempt to sleep in a tent of 12 near-naked guys but wake up every 15 minutes because it’s just that hot! In short, to be hotter than you’ve ever been in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s 100+ humid summers.

- To learn to live on 6 hours of sleep. To be so tired that you fall asleep eating, running, and shooting a large machine gun (all true stories!). To have a personal best record of 32 seconds from boarding a bus to head-back, mouth open, snoring bliss. In short, to be more tired than you’ve ever been—and yes, that includes all-nighters before finals at Case Western Reserve University.

- In short, to HATE the Negev (desert) and Basic Training more than anything you’ve ever hated in your life—and yes, that includes Cleveland’s winters and summers and college finals!

- After falling asleep shooting your Negev (large machine gun) at 2 AM, going back to your two-man tent, searching for your phone, and checking ESPN to see if the Cavs won—and falling asleep while typing the “V” in Cavs.

- To have your iPod preset to play Travis Tritt’s “Great Day to be Alive” as soon as you leave base. Why? Because it truly is a GREAT day to be alive!

- To be 23 years old and live in a tent for seven months. To feel that your 15-man tent is a Four Seasons Hotel after a week of squeezing the three largest soldiers of your unit into a two man tent and sleeping on rocks.

- To spend half of your 40 hour weekend talking to friends and family on Skype and telling the SAME stories over and over again. Honestly, you only want to know what’s new with your friends and family—and talk about something that’s NOT the army!

- To see your best friends once or twice a month because they serve in other units and don’t leave base when you do. When you see them everyone agrees to not mention the army for the next 10 minutes. Everyone sits in silence.

- To want to serve with and be the best of the best. To serve more time to be a part of a Sayeret (Special Forces Commando unit) because you know you will only get one chance to serve and had better make it the best you can—and that if you’re crazy enough to leave your life in the US to serve in the IDF, you’re sure crazy enough to be in a Special Forces unit!

- To crave a NokOut chocolate and vanilla ice cream bar for seven hours during a Massa (march) back to base. To bolt to the nearest kiosk to buy the ice cream bar the first minute you leave base.

- Being “awarded” top soldier with 70 lbs of massive machine gun and ammunition and (attempt) to crawl, run, and best first to attack the enemy.

- To risk your life everyday with live fire drills, patrols, and missions in Arab territories.

- To struggle everyday with Hebrew; to not be yourself because you simply can’t express your feelings in Hebrew. To think about every word you want to say before you say it, and right as you begin to speak, your commander is yelling at you about something else you don’t understand. To sit in a classroom learning about chemical weapons, orienteering, and mortars and not understanding a single word.

- To talk to your friends at home and stop in the middle of your sentence, forgetting the words: field, building, and water bottle.

- Having trouble connecting with friends back home because no one can relate to or understand what you’ve been going through.

- Never connecting 100% with your fellow soldiers because you don’t follow Hapoel Tel Aviv (a soccer club), listen to Ayal Golan, or went to anyone’s high school. To sit quietly in the corner listening to Kenny Chesney while everyone else sings Mizrachi music.

- Not having anyone to celebrate the recent Washington Redskin’s victories with because no one is a football fan—let alone know how to throw a football.

- Joining a baseball league so you can lace up your cleats, chew sunflower seeds, and not care that you’re 0-2 with 2 K’s. You’re just damn happy to smell the freshly cut grass, hop over the first base line on your way to left field, and talk about the Cleveland Indians—in English!

- Being told repeatedly that you’re not Israeli. Others criticize you asking why you are serving with them.

- For four months of ego shattering Basic Training, you never once receive a “good job” from your commanders. A “that wasn’t terrible” brings a grin to your face.

- To be turned down over and over and over by Israeli girls, hearing the same line “…if you weren’t in the army….” Who knew the oath of duty to the IDF what an oath of bachelorism?

- To be yelled at for seven months by a 19 year old who on several occasions has told you that you cannot use the restroom when you are sheer seconds from exploding.

- To miss Saturday college football games, 5 PM Winking Lizard Happy Hours, not asking permission to use the restroom, waking up next to your loving girlfriend, Shabbat family dinners, the births of cousins, and family milestones. To be lonelier than you have ever been.

- Being asked by EVERY Israeli if your life and fraternity resemble American Pie.

- When telling Israeli’s you’re from Cleveland, Ohio, EVERYONE responds with “Ohio!” They say they’ve never heard of Cleveland, but then ask if you know some song about Drew Carry and a city that “Rocks.” This still makes you laugh every time. You now tell people that Drew is a close family friend. They buy you a beer and love you.

- To stay up until 6 AM to watch Ohio State football games (you won’t mention which games they were because they didn’t win either of them).

- To spend your first birthday in Israel with an Akpatza (emergency wake-up) in the field. While carrying 120 lbs of gear and marching in formation, you realize that you have wandered two kilometers in the wrong direction. This is all at 3 AM. Happy Birthday to you.

- To experience extreme fluctuations in emotion; being ecstatic one minute to homesick the next—literally in the snap of a finger—and have no idea why.

- To have religious-settler children bring you cookies and tea while on a stakeout around their settlement in the West Bank. The children are all smiles until they see you’re not wearing a Yamika and rush back to their house to get you spares.

- To spend Shabbat on base and sing Shabbat prayers around the table with your Tzevet (unit), feeling the pride of serving in the only Jewish Army in the world. After the “newest,” hardest week of your life, you and your Tzevet are just happy to sit down and eat ONE meal together that week without constantly looking at your stopwatch.

- Random people yell good luck to you as you walk around in uniform. One second before falling asleep on the bus, a little girl pops her head up from the seat in front of you and let’s out the purest giggle, shyly yelling “thank you, soldier!” before jumping back down. You have never been so proud in your life.

- To be reminded that your friends are making $8,000 per month while you are raking in a prosperous $300 per month.

- But despite all this, you are a part of something that defines your identity and religion. You’re richer than your friends because you know that “the core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” You rise from your tent in the field to a sunrise so perfect Steinbeck can’t find words to describe its beauty. As you prepare for another exhausting 18-hour day, and know that because of what you’re doing everyone reading this can visit Israel, the little girl from the bus can go to school without rocket attacks, and our Jewish people will always have a home.

I hope that this lets you into my world a little bit more. It is not an easy life that I, and every other Chayal Boded, live in Israel, but a necessary one to ensure that there will ALWAYS be an Israel. Not to mention that it's the most rewarding experience of my life. As always, I have to propose the question: what have you done to support Israel recently? It doesn't require service in the IDF: a thank you card to soldiers, donations, visits to Israel, and lobbying for Israel's right to exist are all ways to support this amazing country.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy weekend and Shabbat Shalom!

With love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Return to Orev, April Fools' in the field, and experiences guarding in the West Bank

Family and Friends,
I hope you are enjoying the Spring and the snow is finally subsiding!
Here are the main experiences detailed in the email:
  • Return to Orev: reasons, explanations, what it means
  • Great friend, Jeremy's visit to Israel
  • Guarding and patrolling in the West Bank
  • April Fools' in the field
  • Recent luck with scorpions and wisdom teeth
Before I explain the story about my return to Orev, I ask for those of you who know my grandparents to make sure that you DO NOT share with them the news that I am returning to Orev. At their respective ages, they have enough to worry about with me serving in the IDF, let alone to know that I am serving in a special forces unit. They are aware that I am serving in a combat unit, and let's keep it at that.

As detailed in one of my recent blog entries, after passing a 4 day intensive tryout (gibbush) for Nachal's Special Forces Units, I began my service in the Orev (Anti-Tank) Unit. However, I was asked to sign an extra year--a total of 3 years of service--and after long family discussions, decided to serve in the 50th Airborne Battalion. Having transferred from Tzanchanim (Paratroopers) in 1982, the 50th Battalion is Nachal's most famous unit with a rich history and famous alumni. Having talked to current and past members of the 50th Battalion, I was excited to serve in the historical unit and alongside top notch soldiers. However, despite the 50th's historical greatness, it has declined greatly over the past two years, largely due to the elimination of a tryout (gibbush) to enter the battalion. As such, it has become a regular battalion with soldiers from all aspects of society.

From day one, I did not fit in with my fellow soldiers. The dramatic drop in discipline from the Special Forces to the general "gdudim" (battalions) is astounding, and contrary to all logic, I missed the strict discipline and impossible 5-second time increments that we were given. I constantly got into verbal fights with fellow soldiers, frustrated why they simply did not care about those around them and had no pride in their service. My fellow soldiers resented my desire to make our training harder, more disciplined; they resented my American background and lack of Hebrew. I had one person in my unit tell me that, "you're not Israeli, you'll never be Israeli. I don't know why you're serving with me." I spent the last 4 months walking around my tent in silence; I am a ghost without friends. When returning from weekends off, while soldiers hugged each other and asked about the other's weekend, I sat in the corner; no one cared what I did or embraced me with a hug. When I received the honor of the Negev (my light machine gun that is given to a top soldier in each unit), others looked on in disdain, disgusted that I, an American, was chosen to lead the unit into battle. I was constantly cursed behind my back and at times to my face. When my good friend Kambili passed away, I was a complete wreck for 2 straight weeks, and my commander, seeing how upset I was, promised to help me through the grieving. Never once did he so much as ask me how I was doing. As you can imagine, without close friends, estranged from my fellow soldiers, and with my heart and head still in the Special Forces, I fell into depression, hating every waking moment of my service. I lost my pride in my service.

Constantly in contact with my commanders in Orev, I began to pursue a way to return. I realized very quickly that the freezing 20 hour days in the field, of incomparable physical and mental pain, are bearable--potentially even fun--if spent with friends. While treated as an outcast in 50, I was welcomed with open arms each time I saw my unit in Orev. They would walk by and sing songs with lyrics
asking when I would return. In my short tenure on this planet, I have rarely met such loving and motivated people. This is where I belong.

I was staring a very simple decision in the face: 2 years of depression and disgust for my service, or 3 years of pride and life-long friendships. For those of you who know me well, I am a very prideful person. I wear fraternity letters more than one should and I graduated college with a large Jewish Star on my mortarboard. My service in the IDF has been fueled with fierce ideologies and a love for this country. With both waining, I realized my decision was already made for me: I would return to Orev.

I made this decision a month and a half ago. I have spent the last 6 weeks battling the army's bureaucracy, each week being told, "only a little bit longer." As a top soldier in 50, my commanders and officers did everything they could to fight my departure, but following a meeting with the Magad (the high officer in charge of Nachal's Basic Training and Advanced Training bases), I was finally and officially cleared to return. Sunday, April 19th, will mark my return to Orev and an extra year of service in the IDF.

When I received the official word that I would return to Orev, a genuine smile swept across my face for the first time in over 3 months. I realize that for many of you (and those that I have already talked to about my decision have made it quite clear) an extra year of me serving in the IDF, another year away from home, another year in harm's way, is frustrating and upsetting. I realize that a decision like this affects you all as well, but I hope that you understand that this is a choice that needed to be made, for me to enjoy and take pride in my service. It comes with a sacrifice, another year away from you, but a much richer and happier service. I apologize for putting an extra burden on some of you, but know that I will stay safe and come home as soon as possible.

I found a video of Orev (this is of the paratrooper's Orev, but essentially the same as Nachal's) so you can get a little understanding of what this unit is, what our training is like, and what we do. I mentioned in my last entry that on the Negev is an invisible laser that can only be seen with a special night vision that I wear on one eye (making me resemble RoboCop). You can see a soldier with all of the equipment on a mission at around the 43 second mark of the movie. At the 2:35 minute mark you see the training with the massive Orev anti-tank missile. Other highlights include intensive Krav Maga training (IDF hand-to-hand combat), urban warfare training, CRAWLING!, and parachuting--my biggest fear of my entire service (still have that fear of heights!).

About a month and a half ago, one of my best friends, Jeremy Stone, came to visit from Cleveland. Although it was his last spring break of college, Jeremy decided to partake in a comparative women's health care course through CWRU's social work school. Lucky to get a few days off from the army, I surprised Jeremy at the airport and spent the next two nights touring Jerusalem, drinking beers, and catching up on nearly a year of stories. Getting the following weekend off from the army, Jeremy finished the course and joined me at the kibbutz. Another two nights of Purim partying and a trip down to Tel Aviv with yet one last night of partying left both of us completely wiped out. The highlight for me was showing Jeremy around the kibbutz, the apple orchards, and climbing old guard towers around the kibbutz's perimeter. It was a mournful good bye, and seeing him made me realize how greatly I miss all of you, but we planned for trips after my service and his med school to South America, Australia, and a Safari in Africa--many, many years of great trips to be had. You can see pictures here, in my website's photo gallery, of our time together.

Since my last installment, I have spent two short tours patrolling and guarding in the West Bank. The first tour was for three days in Hevron where we helped guard a Jewish settlement and a Yeshiva (a very religious school). Not only was it my first time in the West Bank, it was my first time guarding something other than our training base. For up to 6 hours at a time (I would soon learn that this was a rather short time), we would stand and watch the surrounding streets and civilians (both Israeli and Palestinian) from guard towers. Of course, I spent my 6 hours with my 15 lbs Negev and half of the 50 lbs of accompanying ammo. To say the least, it was an exhausting and painful 6 hours, to which I came back for a rest and return for another 3 hour session shortly thereafter.

As it just so happened to be, we arrived at this base on Purim and were greeted warmly by religious settlers with "Mishloach Manot" (bags of cookies and candy). A film crew joined the settlers and filmed our ecstatic reactions for a high school in England who had sponsored our gifts. When they discovered that I was a Chayal Boded from the U.S., they interviewed me, asking why I came to serve and what my experiences have been. After some sweets, I headed for a second shift of guarding, watching hundreds of Palestinians walk past a main square. Guarding with my massive Negev, I was a popular sight for many of the Palestinian children, most of whom oogeled and ogled at the gun. However, there was one child, about 8 years old, who stopped and stared at me. At first I thought he was taken back by my gun, but after 10 seconds I realized he was staring directly at me, not blinking. Gazing back at him, I needed only a second to read his face: pure hatred. For this child I was nothing more than someone occupying his land. He had no idea who I am, where I come from, what my story is, my political beliefs, or most likely much of the history of the West Bank. For him, I was an unwanted soldier. I was greatly taken back by this child's face who continued to stare at me for another 10 seconds before his mother drug him away. In those 20 seconds, I had instantly become entwined in the bloody battle over the "occupied territories"; I was the face of occupation for this child and many of the Palestinians walking by. I spent the rest of my guarding session with this child's solemn face engraved in my mind. I could feel his pain, I could understand that at such a young age he does not understand the history of the situation or what I am doing there. After another two hours of guarding and contemplating, I came to a certain conclusion that I think we all need to practice: don't judge a book by its cover. Yes, I realize that this is idealistic, potentially even naive, but it is the epitome of truth in our society. Yes, this child had obvious reasons to hate me and what I stand for, but he had no idea who I am. I think this story is the thread that weaves the levels of bloodshed in the Middle East together. In so many ways both sides have lost track of what they stand for and how they want their grandchildren to grow up. The blanket of hatred is so thick that some don't even consider the other person a human being. And yes, despite my conservative stances, I think the underlying message we can all take from this is to not judge people too quickly. Do you really know where he comes from? How he grew up? What he was taught from a young age? The answer is usually a definite no. Have the decency to ask his name and what his story is. You never know what you might have in common.

My second guarding tour was less "exciting," if you will. I spent an 8 hour session guarding in a tower with another soldier, and then two patrol shifts. A patrol is very much what it sounds like: you walk around and "patrol" an area (usually an Israeli settlement) to make sure that the settlers are safe. I was "lucky" enough to do two patrols (I was the only Negevist there, and each patrol requires a Negev), one of 12 hours and one of 17 hours. With my Negev and 25 lbs of gear (40 lbs total), for 12 and 17 hours, I walked up and down mountains on the settlements' perimeter. Not allowed to remove any part of our gear for the entire patrol, we guarded over night, allowed to sleep in pairs for two shifts of one hour (two hours of sleep for the night). The only highlight of the experience was the settlers. There is plenty of negative press about radical Israeli settlers, so I expected nothing less than for settlers to look at me in the same light as the 8 year old Palestinian boy. Much to the contrary, we were greeted with cookies and tea and a myriad of "Shabbat Shalom's" and thank yous. The funniest part for me was when a few children were walking by and stopped to ask us where our "kipot" (yamika) were. A very religious settlement, every male wore a kipa, and these 7 year olds could not figure out why we were not wearing any. They insisted that we needed to wear kipot and ran away with promises of returning with two for each soldier. I laughed, realizing that these children were not too different from the Palestinian boy in Hevron, raised in a secluded area with a one-track mind.

On a side note, much of this occurred during Passover. It was my first Passover in Israel and by far the easiest Passover of my life. In Israel every bakery literally shuts down for Passover, and almost every restaurant is kosher for Passover (no wheat, flour, etc). When I asked a waitress if their menu was kosher for Passover, she laughed and replied with, "of course! where do you think you are?!" Without the temptation of my friends eating pizza and bread in the US, Passover flew by.

After Passover we headed back to the Shetach (field) for training in our "Kita" (a unit of 15 soldiers and a commander). The distance between the commanders and us soldiers was lifted and we were allowed to call our commanders for the first time by their first name. In the middle of the first night in the Shetach, we had an "akpatza" (an emergency wake up to simulate that we were under attack). After a few minutes everyone was in their gear, in formation and ready for the order from our commanders. One of our commanders, called a Samal (his designation is to toughen us up with brutal training), told us, through a radio in the middle of our formation, that we had 7 minutes to prepare our "Mizdar Conenut" (a representation of a war time situation where you have to have all of the unit's gear organized and checked). After 7 minutes, we stood back in formation, and the Samal continued to yell at us through the radio in the middle of the formation. Keep in mind that this is at 3 am and pitch black in the Shetach where you can barely see 10 feet in front of you. Everyone is completely confused, trying to locate our Samal. Each time we would glance around, the radio would yell back at us, our Samal telling us to look forward. Then he called out five people's names (all five of them in a row), and told them to "pull petzuah" (drop injured on the ground) and the five people next to them to lift them up. Completely baffled how he knew who everyone was, we all stood around in shock. He continued to yell at us through the radio for another 20 minutes, each time knowing exactly who everyone was and what each person had done incorrectly. We continued to look at each part of our encampment, thoroughly confused where our Samal was and how he could see us. Back in formation, the Samal asked us how we thought we had done and why we hadn't finished the task on time. After 15 seconds of silence and all of us utterly confused, he asked us if we knew what day it was. One person replied April 1st, and without thinking, yours truly piped up in English, "You've got to be shitting me!" At this point we found out where the Samal was when he and the other commanders burst into laughter from their tent, the Samal sitting in his sleeping bag, radio and night vision in hand. Barely controlling his laughter, he gave us 2 minutes to get back to sleep.

As usual, my luck has run its course rather beautifully. I had my wisdom teeth pulled in the army base (for the record, laughing gas is not permitted on army bases), and despite shots to numb the general area, not sleeping through a tooth extraction is a very painful experience. I believe the quote of the week was the dentist, after 15 minutes of prodding and pulling my bottom wisdom tooth, finally pulled it out and yelped, "whoa! that's huge!" I have a feeling there is a direct correlation between the size of the tooth and the amount of pain that comes with its removal. For my pain, I was granted 3 days of "gimmelim," or leave from the army, a fair trade off.

My second run in with gimmelim was the following week. While charging up a hill during a training exercise, I dropped to the shooting position on the ground. During exercises, one is required to wear knee pads but they serve as a formality as they fall down to one's ankles as soon as one runs. As such, I dropped down on my knees, crawled forward a few meters, popped back up and continued to charge the hill. Again I dropped down to laying position, but this time, after two seconds, I felt an agonizing pain shoot through my knee. Jumping up, I ran forward, glancing down to see something black shuffle away. At the end of the exercise, I lifted my pants, expecting to see blood gushing from my knee. Quite to the contrary, my knee had ballooned up, and my first step on my right knee led me straight to the ground. With help from another soldier, I reached the bottom of the hill. Our medic came over, asking me what happened, and when I mentioned a small black insect, he called immediately for a ride to the hospital, questioning me over and over if I was positive it was black. I explained that it was happened quickly but was 95% sure, and then asked why. He said that I had been stung by a scorpion, and if it was yellow, I could be dead soon. Driven to the hospital, EKG and blood tests confirmed that it was a black scorpion, also poisonous, but not deadly. In unbelievable amounts of pain, I was granted another 5 days of gimmelim. Ironically, my reports of gimmelim to family and friends here was responded with "mazel tovs." It's apparently quite the treat to get gimmelim, even if it is a painful experience.

I hope that you continue to enjoy the warming weather, and for those of you in Texas, Arizona, and desert regions, keep an extra eye out for scorpions!

Scorpion venom free and happier than ever in Orev,
Much love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg

Monday, March 2, 2009

Basic Training down, Advanced Training on deck, and the loss of a dear friend

Family and Friends,
I hope that you have managed to keep warm and safe from what I hear has been a harsh winter. With Spring around the corner, I bring you another update on my army service. By popular request, I will now include an outline at the beginning of each update to give you a brief update on my activities.

  • Losing a dear friend, Kambili Moukwa; feeling trapped and detach from my life in the US
  • Experiencing war in a country where I live; friends serving in Gaza and hearing about rockets falling near my house
  • Stories from my 4 months of Basic Training
  • Battling mental and physical exhaustion; finding the few bright spots to keep you going
  • Becoming the world's best dishwasher and weeder
  • Spending a week with my parents and family friends
I want to start this entry with a fond farewell to one of my dearest childhood friends, Kambili Moukwa. Moving to Shaker Heights from Seattle before middle school was a rough transition for me. I had few friends. I played cello, not quarterback. I focused on geometry, not the latest fashion trends. I ended middle school with a handful of friends, one being Kambili (Kam) Moukwa. Kam was one of my first friends and loved by everyone in our grade. With a radiant smile and contagious laugh, it was impossible not to love him.

On New Years, I texted friends back home, "Hope it's a great year! Drink one for me, I'm on guard duty and it's 3 AM." As I found out one week later, New Years was the final day of Kam's life. A student at the University of Pennsylvania, Kam was found dead outside of a Philadelphia club the following morning. No foul play was reported, the autopsy ruled out substance abuse.

With a war waging in Gaza, I was worried for my friends serving in war. As I scrolled through my email a week later, I came across several emails from family and friends informing me of Kam's untimely passing. With tears in my eyes, I read each email, staring at the computer screen in complete shock. While I was actively asking others for updates on friends in Gaza, I didn't dare fear the safety of my friends at home. Regardless, I was required to return to the army on Sunday morning and for the entire week barely spoke a word. One night on guard duty I stared at the clear skies and began to cry. Although I knew these were the same stars that my friends saw in the US, I felt completely trapped halfway around the world. While my friends sent cards and flowers to the Moukwa's, and negotiated trips to the funeral, I was stuck in the field learning how to shoot a M-16. This is a feeling that will never leave me. We often talk about the sacrifices that we make for what we believe in, but nothing compares to holding the cold metal of a M-16 and simultaneously feeling defenseless. I have never missed each of you as much as I did at that moment.

Kam was a dear friend, and a true "neshama," a truly good soul. His smile will never fade; each time I look at the bright stars, I think of his radiant smile. Kam, know that you are loved and missed and when I get the opportunity, I will visit your resting place.

As each of you saw on the news, in an attempt to protect its civilians, Israel launched an attack on Hamas in Gaza. As usual, the world wagged its finger at Israel's decision; the usual anti-Israel, ignorant reports came from Europe, Asia, and America. Muslim nations spoke out, demonstrators lashed out across the world. Israel, as usual, was the "bad occupier." Somehow all of these vocal, eager to condemn voices were silent over the past 8 years as rocket after rocket fell on southern Israel, each targeted at civilians. Israel had no choice, its people rose up and said enough is enough, we will not sit idly by while our civilians are attacked. While I was lucky enough to be in basic training, my friends answered the called as their units were sent into Gaza. For weeks I did not hear a word from them; for weeks I prayed for their safety and each of my fellow soldiers.

The feeling of war in a country is a frightening thing. The terminals of the bus station were eerily silent; the vibrant Mizrachi music was muted, soldiers did not celebrate their release for the weekend. The numbness of the entire country reminded me of America on September 11th. When I heard that rockets fell on cities in the North, I grabbed my friend and shook him for the exact location of impact. My home is in the North. Was my home, my adopted family, my friends harmed? This is a feeling that I hope none of you ever have to experience. It is one thing to watch CNN and cringe at the news, it is another to wonder if your home is still standing. I have started a list of websites, articles, and movies on the right side of my blog that defend Israel's actions and correct common lies of media reporting with Israel. I highly recommend that you read a very moving letter by an IDF soldier to the owner of a Gaza house where he was living for a few days; it is the first link on the website.

Unfortunately due to army classification, I am unable share most of my experiences from Basic Training, but I have put together a few humorous and entertaining stories to give you a taste of the last 4 months of my life.

In the middle of Basic Training we had an intensive week of learning to shoot the M-16 from all positions and times of day. I had been asking for "yom sedorim" (a day for lone soldiers to take care of problems with banks, cell phones, etc) for a month and was finally granted it on a Sunday. While everyone returned to base Sunday morning, I returned Monday morning. When I arrived on base, I called my commander, who was sleeping somewhere, and told me that I would receive a call from another commander on what to do. One hour later, I received a call from this commander who told me to take all of my gear into the field. I explain that all of my army gear was locked up on base, to which he told me the classic Israeli phrase, "al-tidag," don't worry, we'll get it later. With only my personal gear, I hustled down to the field to meet up with my unit.

The next day and a half were filled with shooting from day to night, night to day. Fearful of the forceful bang of the M-16, I make sure my earplugs were correctly nestled in my ears each time. Regardless, I lost hearing in my left ear, but after an hour it returned. Since I'm a lefty, I was instructed to shoot at the right end of the shooting range, laying next to a wall. Unless you have shot an M-16, you cannot fully comprehend the sheer force of the sound waves that come out of this killing machine. The reverberation off the wall literally hit me on the right side of my face with each shot. I felt a force stun my right ear, but figured that it was no different from what happened to my left ear before. However, after 4 hours I still could not hear anything from my right ear save a very annoying high-pitched ringing in my head. When I told my commanders that I hadn't heard for 4 hours, and they informed me that there was no doctor on base and I would have to wait until the following morning. Five minutes later, I was told that we have a few minutes to change into our workout clothes. I reminded my commanders that all of my equipment was locked up on base, to which I was told to, "borrow someones." Asking around, only one person had an extra pair of shoes, 3 sizes too small for me. Unfortunately in the army you can't say no, so I was forced to take these shoes and run the 2 km workout in my vest, helmet, and far too small shoes. After a few minutes, the shoes became vices on my feet, and I finish the run barely able to walk.

With my feet in agonizing pain, I return to the shooting range, where my commanders told me that they didn't want to chance my hearing and put me on guard duty for the next day and a half. The following night, I visit the hospital on base. After taking my vitals they asked me to wait outside. One hour later, they told me to eat dinner since the doctor would not be back for a while. Three hours later, I finally entered the doctor's office. At the exact second that I sat down in his office, the entire base lost power. Half an hour later, power up and running, he informed me that I need to go to the ER. The commanding officer told me to sleep on base for the night so I could be up at 5 am for the first bus into the city. When I got to the tent, the officer asked me where my personal gear was, and I informed him that it was in the field. He replied with "al-tidag" (don't worry, we'll get it in the morning), and told me to bed so I'd be ready to leave at 5 am. The morning came and everyone forgot about me. Waking up at 7:30, I ran outside and asked what I need to do. Someone asked where my gear was, I replied in the field. He told that there were no cars going there, and that I'd need to get it myself. Three miles later, I had my gear and was back on base. Just missing the bus to the city, I waited 2.5 hours for the next one. Finally in the city, I asked around for 30 minutes until someone knew how I could get to the hospital.

At Saroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, I checked-in and headed to the ear specialist. Waiting outside her office, I sat across from a soldier dressed in a tank jump suit, unshaven and filthy, an IV in his right arm. Talking to him, he informed me that he had been in Gaza and was brought here for hearing trouble. Immediately, I felt insignificant having suffered hearing loss in a shooting range. Staring at his tired eyes, I began to put my training in perspective. Sure training is rough, but it's not war. Days are long and tiring, but I am not in Gaza, I don't fear my safety. Looking at the soldier, I felt small, and when my name was call, I insisted the soldier take my place in line.

The doctor ran a few tests and after 10 minutes told me that I have "trauma and temporary deafness" to the ear. I returned to base and over the course of several days, my hearing returned. After spending the weekend on base, we prepared for a week living in the field. It was a rough week where we had 4 minutes to eat each meal and were woken up each morning to our commanders screaming "attack! attack!" In the darkest of winter nights, we had to dress, tie our shoes, and run to our defense positions around our campsite in mere seconds.

Our commanders instructed us to collapse the entire site, and get ready to march to another location. With my 20 lbs vest and M-16 on me already, I was given a 60 lbs bag to carry. Our officer walked by me and questioned why I didn't have anything in my arms. He slammed a 30 lbs tent in my arms, posts and all. A soldier to my right suffered from carrying 3 sleeping bags and put one on my shoulders. Marching in the cold, darkness, I tripped over 2 wool blankets that someone had dropped. Bending down, I threw one over each shoulder, on top of the sleeping bag that's on top of the large bag, that's on top of my vest. At this point I couldn't raise my head and was forced to find my way by following the footsteps of a soldier in front of me.

I continued to walk for 20...30...40 minutes. Not hearing a sound, I managed to look up and realized that there was no longer anyone around me. Getting to the top of a hill, I looked around but saw nothing in the pitch-black desert. I dropped my gear and ran north. Nothing. I ran South and saw a faint red light a half mile away. Putting all of the gear back on, I made my way back to my unit. As I collapsed on the ground under 120 lbs of gear, I was cursed at by my commanders for getting lost. I asked one of the commanders what day it was. He said January 20th. I laughed. He looked at me with a puzzled look. Smiling, I told him, "not a bad way to wake up on your birthday." Smiling, he informed me that they had a birthday surprise for me. That night we crawled 100 meters over rocks and boulders, up a mountain. When I reached the top he smiled and said, "Happy Birthday, Weinberg!"

About a month ago we received our specialties. There are sub-commanders (Mefaked Hulia), large machine gunners (Maggist), rocket launchers (Louwist), and grenade launchers (Matolist). However, the most respected and desired specialty is to be a Negevist. The Negev is a 15 lbs "light machine gun" that is awarded to the soldier with the most "rabak" (determination, energy) and is usually given to the most talented soldier (it is considered "kavod" or an honor, to be given the Negev). Having run the army obstacle course (Bochan Maslul) in one of the best times in the platoon, I was rewarded with the Negev and its 40 lbs of ammo. You can read more about the Negev here.

We spent a week living with the Negev, learning to unjam the gun in under 15 seconds, crawl with it, and shoot in a variety of positions. We even had to name our Negev. A Negevist is supposed to be the toughest soldier in his unit and our commanders made sure that we would not only be talented shooters, but brutally tough soldiers. For hours everyday we crawled, sprinted, and became one with our Negev. Waiting outside of the dining hall, we would stand in 2 lines, holding the Negev at shoulder's length for minutes at a time. The Negev comes with an invisible laser that can only be seen with a special night vision scope that I wear on one eye. This allows me to shoot accurately at night and similarly resemble RoboCop. Since the night vision only covers one eye, you see a double vision of green and black, night vision and normal darkness. At first this is very confusing and we spent an hour marching in darkness with soldiers falling over, tripping left and right.

The final night included written and physical tests on the Negev. After a week of brutality, we expect to be done until our commander instructed us to put all of our gear on and stand in a straight line in the middle of our platoon. For the next hour and a half we put on a show for the entire platoon. With every officer and commander yelling at us, we crawled, unjammed the Negev, sprinted, shot from all positions, spun left and right on the ground, jumped up and then dropped on our stomachs. Our fellow comrades, dressed in pajamas rooted us on.

When the highest ranking officer of our platoon asked me what my Negev's name was, I smiled and said, Kam.

Our "Massot" (marches) have increased greatly. Starting with a 2 km Massa at the beginning of Basic Training, we just completed a 18 + 3 km Massa that spanned 4.5 hours. We marched 18 km with vests and M-16s--me with my 15 lbs Negev. When we reached the top of a mountain, we expected to be done, only to finish the march with 3 km of "alumkot" (3 stretchers with one soldier on each stretcher). I rotated between stretchers, our officer yelling at me to get under a lagging stretcher and run it forward to the rest of the pack.

As you can see, exhaustion is commonplace in the army. With your body battered and bruised, it's all too easy to enter depression and hate your service. Soldiers are always tired, hungry, and lonely. However, there are a few times that get you through these rough patches and make you remember why you're here.

Dressed in uniform and walking in Tel Aviv with my friend Zach, a woman in a car kept staring at us. A little skeptical, we tried to ignore her. When the light turned green, she rolled her window down, smiled, and yelled "behatzlacha!" (good luck!). Although she thought that we were headed to Gaza, her smile and warm regards lifted both of our spirits.

We discovered a breakfast diner in Tel Aviv called Benedict's. Sitting next to my friends Ethan and Aaron, we each ordered a table's worth of food. Having just gotten off base, we were dressed in uniform, and of course, starving. The server laughed at the mountains of food in front of us. 15 minutes later, using the bread to drench up the remaining syrup, our server returned, stunned to see 17 empty plates in front of us. She smiled and returned with 3 shots of whisky on the house and removed 3 of the pancake orders from our bill.

Another plus of the army has been my weeding and dish washing skills. I am on the brink of becoming a professional weeder, and can wash 30 20-gallon tubs in under half and hour. My ability to serve pasta and chicken nuggets with a ladle in each hand also ranks in the top of my unit.

Two weeks ago my parents and dear family friends, the Gonick's, Sadler's, and Bradfield's, came to Israel on a "Green Technology" trip. I had the pleasure of returning to normal life: sleeping, eating, drinking, and eating some more. We visited 3 wineries, hiked Masada, ate steak and seafood, learned about the environmental problems Israel faces, and my personal favorite, slept in hotels, in real beds, with fresh sheets. I had an amazing time reconnecting with family friends and establishing new ties with the Sadler's. I was able to spend quality time with each of my parent's personally and share stories about the army with my father.

At the end of everyday, it's hard to keep smiling through mental and physical exhaustion, but there's one quote that I keep saying over and over. As my dear friend Bill Bradfield says, sure things can be shitty, but at the end of the day, "Life is Good!"

With a glass of Woodford Reserve in my hand and a full stomach of my aunt's homemade pot roast,
Much love and VDBL,
Nadav E. Weinberg