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