By Yitzchak Spodek
I can already feel my legs giving out on me; my shirt feels like it’s made of lead from how much I’ve sweated. The stretcher on my back has been digging the straps of my backpack into my shoulders, causing them to become inflamed and painful to the touch. I am only six kilometers into my fifty-five-kilometer march, my final test before receiving my red beret and officially joining the ranks of the elite 101st Paratrooper Brigade in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). I am six kilometers in, and I already want to quit. It was times like these, of immense pain and stress, that I was forced to confront the question of “why am I doing this?” What kind of person am I that I would move halfway around the world, to a country where I had no immediate family, to a people with whom I could not communicate, and to an army to which I was clearly an outsider?
That fifty-five-kilometer march occurred at the end of my eight months of combat training. But that was not the first time I had to face the question of what kind of person am I to do something like this. The first time I really had to ask myself that question was about a month into my training. It was my unit’s first real test: a week out in the field learning the basics on how to survive as a soldier in the elements. After a week of grueling physical tests, no sleep, and minimal food, came the final exam. We began the test early in the morning, and it lasted until early into the next morning. At one point in the middle of the night, we were tasked with having to climb up the side of a mountain without being detected. As a group, we made our way silently up the mountain and eventually made it to the top where our commander was waiting for us. To our surprise and delight, he was sitting down and motioned for us to join him. We gathered around, sitting in a circle one next to another. It was a cool desert night and being that we were in the middle of nowhere the stars were out in the millions. Everyone’s face was illuminated by the moonlight, throwing our shadows over the mountain. That’s where we started one of the most influential conversations I have had in my life.
Since we had only met a couple of weeks ago, we all went around saying our names, where we were from, and most importantly why we were there. I had thought about why I wanted to draft into the IDF before, but I never truly realized just how important of a question that was, and how more important my answer was. When it was my turn to speak, I started off by telling how I was born in Israel, how Israel has always been a part of my life, and that the army was just another aspect of every Israeli’s life. I explained that I felt no different than any other Israeli, plus I really wanted to get to jump out of an airplane. No real self-introspection, no deep and profound reasonings, and that was okay. My answer to why I was there was able to get me to that point, but it would not be able to get me through the next seven months. For that, I had to look inside of myself and figure out who I really was. I spent the next seven months doing what you would expect, suffering through rigorous physical tests, learning everything you can know about my M-4 and my M203 grenade launcher and yes, jumping out of an airplane. During those seven months, I learned who I was in ways that the average American nineteen-year-old simply cannot fathom. I learned that the limits I thought existed within myself were far below what I could really accomplish. I learned that I enjoyed reaching my limits and breaking through them. I reconfigured the way I viewed what I could achieve, I stopped saying I can’t and started saying what’s next. I learned to never give up, nothing I did was easy, and calling it hard would be the understatement of the century.
I remember struggling to pass one of the required physical tests: an obstacle course that I had to run in all my gear, vest, gun, helmet, and all. There was a five-hundred-meter run followed by a myriad of obstacles and lastly a six-hundred-meter run, all of which had to be completed in under ten minutes. Most of the soldiers in my unit were able to finish the course under the required time in one of their first tries, but it took me eight months. I remember feeling defeated, small, useless; like I was failing my commanders, and even worse like I was failing my dream. There were times when I gave up. I threw my helmet off and walked off the course, totally ashamed. But the next time the opportunity arose for me to try again, I did. At first, I was running the first half-kilometer too slowly, so I picked up my pace. I knew that I had to get to the first obstacle, the wall, by the two minutes and thirty seconds mark. Once my timing was correct, I focused my energy on getting over the six-foot-tall wall. This was where I quite literally hit a wall. I could not jump high enough to pull myself over this wall, I tried and failed countless times. I screamed, cursed, and totally embarrassed myself in front of all my brothers. During one attempt I spent thirty minutes trying to get over the damn wall and I didn’t even come close. I walked back to my room with my head hanging low when suddenly my commander grabbed my shoulder and asked to talk. I thought I was going to be reprimanded; I couldn’t complete the course and they were kicking me out. However, the conversation that followed changed my life forever.
In the IDF, during a combat soldier’s training, the relationship between the soldiers in training and their commanders is purely professional. So, when my commander pulled me aside and opened up about his own experiences and struggles during his training, that conversation was a major shift in how I believed in myself. He told me that he struggled with the same things I was struggling with and that he too felt the way I was feeling. And then he asked the question I had heard him ask that night up on the mountain under the stars: “why was I there? What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be?” For the first time I had to truly think about where I was, what I was doing, and the person I wanted to be. That conversation ignited a spark that lit a fire that is still and will forever be burning inside me. Under the stars I discovered my sense of me. I am someone that pushes boundaries. That does not accept that status quo simply because others do. I learned to fight, for those I care about, and at times for those I don’t. I learned the true meaning of the United States Navy SEALS infamous catchphrase, “embrace the suck.” Most importantly, I learned why I had come all that way, gone through all that suck, to get to where I was now. I did it so that the person who I am today, is better than the one who began this journey a mere eight months ago. I realized not just the person I was but also the person I was meant to be. I am proud of where I am today: stronger because of my experiences yesterday and prepared for whatever lies ahead tomorrow.
Photo Credit: Yitzchak Spodek