The start of the past couple of weeks were strange in that we had not completely finished training but there was that kind of vibe in the air. Since I last wrote, to summarise, we had our final week out in שטח (the field), training on how to use the various equipment related to rocket launching and we were treated to a full week of time off from the army known as רגילה (Regilah). Whilst most chose to request permission to leave Israel and fly to various parts ofEurope, I decided to travel aroundIsrael to seesomeof the sites I have not yet seen. BeforeI bore you with the details of my fun week of holiday, let us back track to the final fullweek we spent out in שטח (the field). One thing I forgot to mention in my last blog is that my last week began slightly earlier than it should have because I along with several other girls from my פלגה (platoon) were ordered to return to base on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning as a punishmentfor not wearing t shirts under our uniform! This meant arriving back to kibbutz at midday on Friday and then returning the very next evening. All in all it was not so bad because I knew that they would give me a day to go home shortly after as I am unable to collect my laundry until the Sunday morning so I took slight advantage of my lone soldier privileges and managed to leave base on Sunday evening before returning on Tuesday morning.
I spent my day off doing all those important things lone soldiers have to do because they have no parents around, such as going to buy abicycle, which I can proudly say was the first time I have made such a large purchase, just speaking Hebrew. After returning to base, I called my מפקד (commander) to tell him I want to go and join everyone out in (the field), which he was able to get me permission for so off I went in the hummer to join everyone in the vast, hot, sandy desert. The day consisted of a lot of sitting around chasing the sun in order to permanently be under the shade of the rocket launcher, followed by a bit of playing around with the buttons on the computer of the launcher (a lot safer than it sounds). Eventually darkness fell upon us and we began our field routine for night. This meant arranging the rocket launchers in a certain formation, building up the nets to sleep under and being briefed on the dangers of night time. The interesting thing about sleeping in the desert is that despite the negative parts that the fine, ground up dust sticks to everything and just causes a general mess along with temporary breathing difficulties, it does make for a semi comfortable bed situation. I was given a 2am שמירח (guard duty), which mostly involved ensuring jackals didn’t come too close since the night before several people had woken up to the not so pleasant experience of a furry friend lying on top of them.
In the morning, after polishing our boots, which I promise you is a very difficult activity when they become covered in a layer ofdustjust seconds after being polished despite not moving a millimetre, half of us returned to base where we began to work on taking down all of the parts of our base we had built as we were heading off for a week of holiday. On Wednesday night after everyone had returned from the field and we were all as comfortable as possible in our beds, my מפקד (commander) came to our room and told my whole team to get up and meet at the rocket launcher as quick as possible. When we arrived he told us that having reached the last week in the field, we had earned the right to write our names on the inside of the rocket launcher – something I had been pestering him about for ages! Thursday began with a very early wake up followed by a bus rideto the officer’s training base where there were about 3000 soldiers all meeting together to take part in a fun run type of race. It was an incredible sight to see so many people in one place and I managed to bump into a few people I know. The rest of the week involved a lesson about road safety given very professionally by one of the girls in my group, which I think was the first lesson during which nobody fell asleep. We also returned all of our equipment from the rocket launcher, which is a lot of very heavy strange pieces of metal that I still don’t know the purpose for.
Leaving base at 6am on Friday marked the beginning of our week long break from the army before going back forthe last few days and ceremony of the end of training. Whilst most of my fellow Israeli soldiers spent the week out of Israel soaking up other countries and cultures, I decided to spend my time in the country I am protecting but as a citizen rather than a soldier. Therefore, I used up my days of freedom meeting up with friends, both from the army and from home, eating a lot, doing a lot of shopping and hiking around the North of Israel, in a stunning place called Nahal haShofet. I absolutely love the Northern areas with all the natural beauty so different to the bustle of the big cities and the dust of the desert in the South. On one of the days I chose to take out my newly purchased bicycle and tackle the long ride from Petach Tikva to Ramat Gan where I heard there is a stunning national park. After two hours of challenging up hill riding, I took a break to read a book in a playground before cycling back to kibbutz. The route back to Kibbutz was interesting as I followed directions that would take me through the fields alongside the busy highway that leads me home. I encountered all kinds of terrains on this journey fromnormal road, to forest land with huge trees or sticks at every turn, to beach-type sand – which by the way is impossible to cycle on. After the many obstacles of this route including a point that involved throwing the bicycle followed by myself over a barbed wire fence and running up a sandy hill with my bicycle away from the farmer’s dog who thought I was stealing his crops, I made it back onto the road next to Kibbutz to discover two punctured bicycle wheels. A not so great end to a fantastic, adventurous day! My week break also allowed me to beable to go to my friend’s ceremony where I could be there to see him receive his unit’s beret -a really special event!
The end of this week holiday led me into the last week of training where we returned to Shivta on Sunday to an evening bonfire with the platoon. Wesat around the fire and played various compliment games in which we went around the circle and each person said what they respected about someone or learnt from them overthe course of the training. Despite the discomfort and cringe-worthiness of the whole principle of the game, it was really nice to hear people complimenting each other and to be a part of it. This was followed by a BBQ before heading to bed. After four hours of sleep I got up to leave base for an appointment in Jerusalem for my shoulder torn ligament.
To cut a long story short, I am preparing for surgery to fix the tear, which will probably take place in Jerusalem after my month army leave in England. Tuesday brought final clearing up and lots of summary talksfrom different מפקדים (commanders), both individual and group talks. We were also given lots of memorabilia such as about five different t shirts, a neck warmer, a velcro patch to stick on the back of our helmets and bucket hats with our names on. Along with all this, one of my מפקדים (commanders) is being released from the army within the next month so she gave away to each soldier from the פלגה (platoon) various equipment that she no longer needs and I received the ידית (handle) from her gun, which is a real honour!
Tuesday night soon arrived and after finishing up my final summary talk with my מסו׳׳ל (company commander) at about 10pm, I was able to head off to sleep before waking up at 1:30am. After the very early wake up, we finished tidying up everything and by 3am we were on the bus to drive to the starting point of our final march of training. At 8am the march including every גדוד (battalion) in my unitthat is finishing training, began and so we set off in detached groups of approximately 400 soldiers and מפקדים (commanders) in total. Since it was already daylight, and it was a particularly hot day too, the walking was challenging and with the fast pace and difficult inclines and declines, there was nothing easy about it. Near the start of the march I began to experience intense pains in my shoulder and I even thought for a moment I wouldn’t be able to finish the march but the thought of not finishing the final march of training alongside everyone hurt more than my shoulder and so I found the mental strength to continue.
Arriving to the end point in Latrun, near Jerusalem, sweaty, tired and rather dehydrated, I was simply happy. After hanging around for a bit and finally eating some semi-decent food after 3 days of eating not much more than a plate of grated carrot due to a lack of food on the base, we got back on the bus to head to the Kotel for our final ceremony. Being able to shower before the ceremony would have been nice but we dealt with the conditions of sinks in the Kotel toilets as nearly 100 of us changed into our smart off-base uniforms amongst the angry tourists who simply wanted to use the toilets that were permanently engaged by smelly soldiers.
After getting ready for the טקס (ceremony), I was elated to find my dad and sister who had come to see me receive my סיכת לוחום (warrior pin) at my final ceremony. I spent a bit of time catching up with them and then the טקס (ceremony) began. Emotions were high at the ceremony for multiple reasons. The biggest being that it was a mark of the end of 8 months of hard work, sweat, sand, blood and tears and there could be nothing more special than standing side by side with the only people who can really understand what you went through because they went through it all with you. When it came to the time to remove the tape from our pins to mark the official event of us becoming לוחמים (warriors), I was honoured to find my מפל׳׳ג (platoon commander) head in my direction before removing his pin and positioning it on my left shirt pocket instead of the new one I had been given. I can imagine I will remember the rush of emotion that surged through me as he stopped in front of me and smiled whilst presenting me with his pin. At the end of the ceremony, I had thought it could not get much better until I was met by seven of my מפקדים (commanders) from my old base Michve Alon along with too many members of family and friends to count on both my hands. It was an incredibly special event and I cannot explain how lucky I feel to have been given the opportunity to finish this training and earn the pin that signifies all the hard work.
Before my dad and sister made the return journey home to England after approximately 24 hours in Israel, I spent Thursday with them in Jerusalem before returning to Kibbutz to get ready for my end of training party with my company. We celebrated by renting out a villa in Petach Tikva, complete with a heated swimming pool, open bar, amazing DJ and almost everyone attended including all of my מפקדים (commanders). It was most certainly an eventful night and I can definitely say there is no longer the uncomfortable distance between מפקד (commander) and חייל (soldier) within my סוללה (company) but what could you expect to happen in a situation like that with soldiers who finally feel free after 8 long months of intense training.
On Monday, I will begin the next stage of my army service up North in Ramat haGolan with about half of the people I have been with so far along with many new faces. I hope you will continue with me on my journey as I have so much enjoyed having my readers with me so far!
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Missing everyone back at home in England, please let me know if you’re planning a trip to Israel as I’d absolutely love to see you.
Ronit Prais – רונית פרייס