The car horns went off all around us, the drivers offering their encouragement for us to press on for the final leg of our journey. We were in our fifteenth hour of the hike. The sun had risen hours ago, loosening up our limbs from the frigid night and awakening a newfound enthusiasm we all desperately needed to finish the ordeal.
At five in the afternoon on Monday, I started my masa kumtah, the beret hike. It’s the longest of all our nighttime hikes, a culmination of eight months of training, with each soldier being awarded the battalion’s colored beret at the end. From a park on the outskirts of Beit Shemesh, over four hundred of us from the March 2011 draft started off on what would become a more than sixty kilometer hike.
The sun was setting as we started off and we would not see it again for hours. During that time, we climbed up and down trails, across parking lots and village streets, through forests and open fields, drawing ever nearer to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem.
I carried over forty percent body weight. In addition to my combat vest, ammunition and equipment, I carried the MAG machine gun, which made everything just that much more difficult. In addition, every soldier brought along lots of candy: Mentos, sunflower seeds, chocolate, and other chewable items. Munching on these helped pass the time and provided small amounts of much needed energy.
We stopped once in the middle of the night for a meal. We were high in the mountains; our bodies covered in sweat, and needed to change uniforms to keep from freezing. We pressed on. The guy who was carrying the water pack kept falling asleep and stumbling, which required others to keep him upright and pull him along. For an hour, I sucked it up and threw the pack on my back to let him rest. It quickly became one of the hardest hours of my life. Those sixty minutes required a lot of rabak, a spirited craziness that had made me popular among the entire company.
But we eventually made it to a path outside Jerusalem. I looked up the mountain at the city, our destination, and thought the hike up looked daunting. Plus, we had opened a stretcher, which made the hike just that much more difficult. The columns started to collapse as soldiers cycled in and out helping carry the extra weight from the stretcher. Everyone was already walking gingerly as our feet ached and legs begged for a rest. But we pressed on.
As we entered the city, we reformed our columns, packed up the stretcher, and summoned a last surge of energy for the final three kilometers to Ammunition Hill. Family and friends were waiting for us. People passing in cars and on the sidewalks parted and encouraged us on as we traversed the modern roads to make it to the battlefield.
I always thought I might become teary-eyed at this moment, either because my parents would be waiting for me at the finish or because I would be alone. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it, and I was just too tired to do anything other than keep walking. When we finally made it to the national park at eight in the morning, I put my gun down and collapsed.
We had a few hours to sleep, eat and rest. Two good friends from Chicago who are also serving in the IDF were there to meet me. It was wonderful to spend time with them, but that also meant I wasn’t able to sleep.
At four in the afternoon, after changing into our Aleph, or dress uniforms, shaving, and polishing our boots, we stood for a run-through of our ceremony. I could barely stand. I felt weak and dizzy. I sat down for a minute, but then the guys around me were telling me to stand back up and walk to the front of the platoon, because I had just been named machlekah mitztayin or “Outstanding in the Platoon.” It was an incredible honor. From about thirty-five guys, the commanders and officers had recognized me, a lone soldier with limited Hebrew, as the best soldier. I couldn’t believe it.
In the fading sunlight, the ceremony was short and sweet. I started with my green beret that I had received the previous December on my first day in the IDF and ended with Tzanchanim’s cherished red beret, the kumtah adomah.