Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finishing 14 months of training, spending the High Holidays guarding, and why I will never cross an electrical fence again!

Family and Friends,

I hope that all of you and your families are well and weathering the winter in comfort (hey, there’s no snow in Israel!).

It has been roughly four months since my last email, for which I apologize, but as you will read, I’ve been busier than ever. Since my last correspondence, I have FINALLY finished one year and two months of Special Forces training, including five weeks of “finals” that tested every piece of information and training that I’ve learned. Also, I completed parachuting course and as usual, was at the receiving end of several humorous stories that you can read about below.

Before I begin, I want to pay tribute to those of you who have given so generously to my unit’s fundraising efforts for improved gear. Family and friends alike, you have been my rock, supporting my efforts to join the IDF, and constantly racking up high telephone bills to make sure I’m safe. Yet again you came to my assistance when I requested assistance in raising funds to purchase gear for my unit. With your assistance my unit now has state-of-the-art hiking boots, headlamps, water pouches (Camelbaks), and warm winter fleeces. Words are not enough to thank you for your generosity. We have been utilizing the gear for the last three months of training and not only has our performance improved, but injuries are down significantly. On behalf of my unit, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your generosity and support. I have added a significant number of new pictures, many of which highlight the new gear that you purchased. The new pictures a can be reached by clicking on the first slideshow of thumbnails on the right side of the blog or by clicking HERE.

Usually the Jewish High Holidays are a time to relax, take a break from one’s life, and reflect on the past year: what one did wrong, who one wronged, and where one needs to improve. It is a time that I take very seriously and enjoy the cleansing process. However, as with each first in the army, this year’s High Holidays were significantly different. For all three major holidays—Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukot—I was in the army. As you can see in this picture, my unit was called to provide extra security in the West Bank, and while fasting, I was forced to pray while on guard duty for all three holidays. Although far from the comforts of Cantor Shifman and B’nai Jeshurun’s choir, this was—as every holiday in the army has been—memorable. The core of the High Holidays is to reflect on your actions, to forgive those you’ve wronged, and to make a pledge to be a better person, a better Jew. Political views aside, spending my past year and the year to come protecting our Jewish people and Israel is the greatest way that I can become a better person and Jew. Standing for hours overlooking the West Bank, praying, and contemplating my past year of service and life decisions, I could not be more proud of myself. I know that I have hurt many of you along the way by making the choices I have made, and for that I ask for your forgiveness, but ask you to also look at the better man I have become for what I have done.

The last three months of training were without a doubt the hardest of the 14 months. Each week builds on what you’ve learned the previous few weeks, that it, it’s all cumulative. As such, the amount of information you’re expected to retain is astounding, forcing you to be at your best at all times. For example, my unit has done several months of navigations. Each week’s navigations get longer, harder, and you begin carrying weight—then more weight, and more weight, and more weight. (Again, I am not permitted to discuss my training in depth, so bear with me). One week, we navigated for four straight days, and at the end of each navigation, you had to build a camouflaged fort, alternating sleeping and studying the next day’s navigation (remember, I memorize all navigations, that is, when you actually navigate, you do so without a map!). Each navigation takes you up and down mountains and valleys, through villages and forests. Over the course of the four days, my partner and I navigated over 100 km (60+ miles)—including 15 mountains—while carrying 90 lbs.

With such intense weeks often come the most humorous stories, and this week led to one of my most memorable moments in the army. Navigations will often take you through farm lands, meaning that with 90+ lbs on your back, you have to negotiate barbwire fences, and at times electrical fences. Since it is often impossible to circumvent the fences, you and your partner carefully climb over or crawl under the fences (emphasis on CAREFULLY). About 8 hours into a navigation—and with another 4 hours to go—my partner and I came across a large electrical fence. We knew that we had to get to the other side of the farmland, but circumventing it would take at least an hour. We surveyed the fence and found a section where we could safely detach the fence and pass through. My partner—significantly smaller than me—threw his bag through and slipped right through the fence. Following his lead, I also threw my bag through and began to shimmy my way through the tight opening. Nearly through, my M-16 shifted, and the gun caught both sides of the fence, connecting the electrical circuit, and pumping electricity through my body. I should clarify that these electrical fences are engineered to keep roaming cows from eating the crops inside. As such, the voltage is enough to send a strong message to a cow. For me, a human being, this voltage was enough to launch me back out of the opening and throw me to the ground. Lying on the ground, I checked to see that my heart was still beating, and I could still move all my appendages. Lucky for me, I was okay, but the shock was enough to keep me fearful of every fence we approached from thereon.

At the end of this 12 hour navigation, my partner and I, joined by another pair, built a fort and went to sleep. Unfortunately it was 90 degrees and humid outside, a problem when your feet are blistered and you’re required to sleep in your boots and vest. Completely exhausted but unable to sleep, each person removed his shoes and vest. With our luck, for the first time all week our officer decided to come by and check on us. Seeing us without boots and vests, he began yelling and threatening us. Checking the other forts, he discovered that just about everyone was sleeping without boots and vests. In short, our punishment was to do the ENTIRE week again. You had better believe that no one removed his vest or boots that week!

Our “final” for navigations included navigations in the North and South of Israel (forest and desert regions). Navigating 25-30 km by yourself, while carrying 100 lbs, it was fair to say that these were the toughest navigations we’d ever done. Two of my friends were nearly eaten by Bedouin dogs while I climbed mountain ranges so high that the low clouds diminished visibility to just one meter in each direction. While navigating in the North, I climbed a mountain so steep, it took me nearly two hours to climb one mile (usually done in 20 minutes). While walking at 4 AM in the thick of a forest, I heard the distinct sound of grunting and stamping the ground. We were warned about this one: wild boars. Stopping dead in my path, I inserted my magazine, cocked the gun, and slowly retreated backwards. As I began to descend from this enormous mountain range, I had planned a path (which using a topographic map looked okay) and began to descend. Fighting my way through trees, gigantic boulders, and shrubbery, I again stopped dead in my path as I looked straight down a 100 foot rock wall! Deciding this wasn’t the ideal way to descend the mountain, I turned slowly—remember I have 100 lbs on my back—and began to retrace my steps to the top. I found a “better” path down, which was basically 6-10 foot boulder drops that I scooted down on my tush. Here’s a picture of me working my way down this “path.” These were some of the scariest moments of my life, but as everything over the past year and two months, I cursed the mountains as I descended them, then laughed about the experiences with my teammates afterwards, knowing that we were all a little tougher and stronger for what we had overcome.

Another great story came in our second to last week of training. Navigating, fighting, and taking over buildings—and just about everything else you can think about—with three teammates for four days, we lived off of a can of tuna a day per person and a handful of peanuts. Starving and exhausted while climbing one of the largest mountains I’ve ever seen, my “hooliah” (a small unit) noticed that on the road near us a car was driving quite slow until it came to a complete stop. One of my teammates, a chain smoker, decided he’d take a chance to see if the driver had a cigarette. As it turned out, the driver was none other than one of my teammate’s mothers! Not only did she bring a carton of cigarettes for the smokers, but a bag full of hamburgers, chips, and Coke! I cannot emphasize how shocked everyone was at that moment. This teammate had the foresight to call his mother and tell her that he’d be at a certain location at a certain time and to meet him there with food. NEVER has a hamburger tasted so good. When you’re carrying 110 lbs, climbing mountains, fighting, and living on only a few hours of sleep and a can of tuna a day, this is better than winning the lottery.

Easily the most exciting experience I’ve had over the past four months has been jumping out of an airplane. Anyone who knows me knows how scared I am of heights, flying, and especially parachuting. One of the “chuparim” (benefits/gifts) of being in a Special Forces unit is that you get to do course “tznicha” (jump course). By far the oldest soldier in my platoon, there was no way I was going to chicken out, so I sucked it up, and did the course. Not only was it painful (you’re strapped in around your groin and practice landing over and over hurts your knees), but it was tedious. Since you parachute solo and your chute automatically opens, you have to practice landing since that’s where the majority of injuries occur. As such, we practiced “galagim” (a name for the motion of landing: knees and feet together, feel the contact and roll in that direction, flinging your legs over your body, ideally eliminating the force of landing) over and over and over again, until the word made each of us cringe. You can watch a movie of me partaking in one of the more painful exercises HERE.

At the end of the course, we parachuted twice, easily the scariest experience of my life. They teach you to look up (so you don’t see the ground) and straight (so you don’t see the plane or people who jumped before you), but it doesn’t matter, when you get to the door of an airplane and you’re in the air, flying, you know exactly what you’re doing. When I got to the door, I saw my friend who had jumped right before me, twisted in air, falling to the ground. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I was told to jump and I responded with a stream of curses, and didn’t move. They told me to jump again, and before I could react, they had pushed me out of the plane. There are no words to explain the three seconds of sheer fear before your parachute opens, but once it does, there is no better feeling, and the world goes completely silent around you, a truly liberating feeling. You watch a video of my second jump HERE and another video of me safely on the ground HERE. I would love to tell you that I landed perfectly, just liked I’d been taught for two weeks, but as usual, my superb coordination was on display. Anyone who has parachuted understands the phenomenon of how fast the ground comes up to you. Preparing for landing, I entered into ready position, just like I’d been taught. My feet hit the ground, and instead of rolling, I landed flat on my tush, then my back. Lying on the ground, I found myself in a peculiar position again, reminiscent of my encounter with the electrical fence.

My final week of training, known as “Mesakem Maslul” (Finals of Training), was one of, if not the hardest weeks of my army experience. Living on nearly no food and no sleep for four days, my team navigated up and down mountains and valleys for miles at a time, executing missions along the way. I was carrying 110 lbs with my Negev (machine gun) throughout the week and at times felt as if I was going to collapse mid-step—I fell asleep walking for the first time; there are periods of 10-15 minutes that I do not remember at all. The week was very special for me because it ended on December 31st, the day before my dear childhood friend, Kambili Moukwa, died last year (New Years). For those who remember, I named my Negev Kam and whenever I felt like I couldn’t keep going, I thought of Kambili, and kept pushing through. As I ascended the final mountain, I pushed back tears as I cradled my Negev, remembering Kambili and muttering, “We did it, we finally did it!” Standing on top of that mountain and watching the sunrise was one of the greatest moments of my life. I have never been more proud of any award, degree, or achievement in my life. Nothing has shaped me or matured me the way the last 14 months of training have. I know now that there is NOTHING I can’t do. I’ve lived the last 14 months working 120 hours a week, with virtually no personal life, on call 24/7, starving, exhausted, and pushed the brink of what the body can survive, and then some. HERE is a slightly glorified video of my unit’s training (sorry, you must have Facebook to watch the movie; it is too long to post on YouTube). In addition, you can read an article that was published in the official IDF Magazine, Bemahana, on my platoon and my unit’s last week of training HERE (I’m actually quoted in the article; the article is in Hebrew as well).

After finishing training, I was graciously granted two weeks of leave to travel with my parents. We spent the first part of it moving my belongings to Tel Aviv where I am living with two of my best friends from the kibbutz, Ethan and Blake. We spent the rest of the time traveling around the country visiting family and friends while trying to relax when time permitted. Although a stressful move (lord knows how painful bureaucracy is in Israel), it was great to see my parents and spend time with them. Living halfway around the world sure does pull families together!

Please note, my new address is:

Nadav Weinberg
25 Pinkas #6
Tel Aviv, Israel 62662

New Skype name: nadav.e.weinberg

Thank you to all for your birthday wishes, it was a much better birthday this year than last. Know that you are all missed dearly and in my heart and prayers.

Much love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg