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(photo credit: IDF)
The turning point, as Col. Avi Moyal calls it, was on August 14, 2006, the day the cease-fire went into effect, ending the month-long Second Lebanon War with Hizbullah.
The IDF began to pull out of Lebanon and officers from Ground Forces Command were ready, deployed along the border with questionnaires for soldiers and commanders to assess their level of fitness during their operations against Hizbullah.
That is when the stories began to emerge. First came reports of small squads that had difficulty climbing the steep Lebanese hills, then a story of a company commander who had to return to Israel after his troops got muscle cramps trying to climb a crucial mountain to gain access to the Hizbullah-stronghold of Bint Jbail.
After hundreds of interviews and questionnaires, the conclusion was clear: IDF combat troops were in bad shape to the point that they had difficulty fighting against an enemy like Hizbullah.
The immediate lesson in the IDF was to appoint an officer in charge of combat fitness. Until then, the officer in charge of combat fitness also served as commander of a brigade. Combat fitness was always the second priority. The man chosen for the job was Col. Avi Moyal, who in the past three years has revolutionized the IDF in terms of fitness. Moyal - who served for 20 years as the fitness instructor for the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) - has carried out this revolution from a small office inside the Wingate Institute near Netanya, together with a tiny staff.
His energy seems to be endless and over the past two years he has established spinning classes for the General Staff on the roof of the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv, jogging groups for senior officers on the Tel Aviv beachfront and lectures at faraway bases. He has also increased the IDF's participation in local marathons and also in some races around the world.
IN THE IDF he is called "Israel's Fitness Trainer." The name is not an exaggeration. When Ehud Olmert was prime minister, Moyal used to work out with him twice a week at Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) headquarters in Jerusalem. Now, he spends two mornings a week training Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. He was also the fitness trainer for the national soccer team and was rumored at one point to be a candidate to become its next head coach.
The first step after the Lebanon war was to create an official fitness scale for all combat units - basically a list of what commanders are allowed to do with their soldiers and at what stage of their training.
All training regimens need to be approved by Moyal and his team of fitness trainers.
"Soldiers are built in a long and slow process," a senior Ground Forces Command officer explains. "We can't draft a soldier today and tomorrow expect him to run 80 kilometers. This takes time."
Under this new scale, GFC completely changed the concept of long hikes. Until the 2006 war, infantry units used to take 80- and 90-kilometer treks during basic training. Now the length has been cut almost in half and instead the soldiers are carrying heavier loads - sometimes up to half their body weight - on their backs.
"We found soldiers who couldn't carry their necessary equipment into Lebanon," the officer says. "What we realized is that the soldiers didn't have problems walking the distance; it was the loads."
At the same time, Moyal took soldiers from almost every IDF unit and trained them to be fitness instructors. Last week, the largest course ever - of 82 instructors - graduated, bringing the total up to close to 500.
"These are regular combat soldiers who in addition to being fighters are also fitness trainers," the senior officer says. "Just like there are medics who are fighters, now there are trainers who are fighters."
DURING OPERATION Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Moyal heard from commanders about intelligence that Hamas was planning to kidnap soldiers. He immediately drove to the border with a team of combat instructors and trained commanders and soldiers how to fend off a kidnapper.
One of the skills taught was how to fight off kidnappers not just with an assault rifle, but also when the soldier's ammunition runs out or when he is attacked from behind and by surprise.
Another course he is hoping to soon establish is a mandatory self-defense course for all female soldiers.
Moyal has already discussed the idea with Brig.-Gen. Gila Klifi-Amir, the General Staff's adviser on women's affairs, and the two are hoping to secure a budget for the program. Under the plan, all female recruits will participate in a week-long self-defense course to provide them with the skills to fend off potential attackers, rapists and kidnappers.
"This course will be aimed at providing the female soldiers with self-confidence to travel around the country in the framework of their military service as many of them need to," explains the senior officer.
After all the above, though, what Moyal really takes pride in is his flagship program called "Healthy Lifestyle in the IDF" under which soldiers in 25 units across the country were chosen to be tested for fat levels in their blood. The units found to be "overweight" received visits from civilian chefs who taught their cooks how to make healthy food, met weekly with dieticians, received detailed workout regimes and personal trainers and one-on-one talks with Moyal.
The results, the senior officer says, were astounding, and within the first six months, the weight levels in the units dropped by more than 30 percent. Despite the success, the program lost its budget. Moyal, however, did not give up and went straight to the General Staff before which he presented the results. The decision was to expand the program to 25 more units and to allocate a budget for the next three years.
MOYAL ALSO established several running groups. The first is made up of close to 400 career junior officers who meet every Friday on the Tel Aviv beachfront. The second group meets on Saturday and consists of officers with the rank of colonel and higher. The condition to join this group was that the officer had to bring his or her spouse.
"The purpose here is to change the culture," the officer says. "To do this we need to reach as many people as possible."
The culture change can be seen by the number of solders signing up for marathons over the past two years. In 2006, for example, 6,430 soldiers ran in marathons. In 2008, the number skyrocketed to close to 20,000. In 2007, nine soldiers ran in the Tiberias Marathon. This year, there were more than 150.
Moyal is also much more than just talk and he actually puts his feet where his mouth is, running with all of the groups he has set up. In addition, he runs almost daily with a different IDF unit. One day Givati, the next day Naval Commandos and a day later the elite Yahalom Engineering Corps unit.
What about you? Are you ready to run?