About two weeks ago, I get a phone call from the elite units branch of the army. The soldier on the other end tells me that I have a summons for the first round of testing for the elite units – Yom Sayarot – and that I would get more information in the mail. I was beyond excited to get this phone call, since I had been waiting to hear if I would get the summons or not.
Yom Sayarot is a one day try out for three main elite units: Matkal, Shayetet, and Chovlim. To give you an idea of each of these units, Matkal is like the Delta Force of the US Army – it’s known as “The Unit” and no one really knows where they work or what they do. Shayetet is Israel’s navy seals, and Chovlim is captains of ships in the navy. Each of these units is extremely difficult to get into, Matkal being the hardest of them all.
December 31st, New Year’s Eve, was my big day at the Wingate Institute just south of Netanya. The Wingate Institute is Israel’s national center for physical education, and it is a central training facility for the army. Since I had to be there at 7:00am, I spent the night at my cousin’s house, which was a 15-minute drive away.
Yom Sayarot had arrived. I stepped out of the car into the freezing cold early morning air. The entire day was going to take place out-doors. I went over to the tent where I had to register. After I signed in, I was given my ID number for the day, 116, which I had to write with a black marker on the front and back of my white t-shirt. Everyone who came was given a number, 1 through 350. No one was called by name for the entire day, only by your number. After getting my number, I had to wait in line to be checked out by the doctor. Once I got the OK from the doc, I was good to go.
As people came and finished the doctor’s check, we were put into groups of about 50 or 60 and the first part of the day started: the Bar Or. The Bar Or is a physical test to see how physically fit you are. You do as many push-ups as you can and as many sit ups as you can, within a certain time limit, and then you run 2km as fast as you can. I did 36 push-ups, 47 sit-ups, and finished 20th in my group in the run. They used this physical test to divide us up into groups for the rest of the day.
After everyone finished the Bar Or, we were divided up into smaller groups of 12-15 people each and the real work of the day began. We went out to the sand dunes with our equipment. Each group had two stretchers, two 5-gallon water jugs, enough hand-held shovels for everyone in the group, and cloth bags with string to tie them shut. I had no clue what all the gear would be used for at the beginning of the day, but I would soon find out.
Our three testers, one from each of the three units, found our sand dune. We put the gear down, set up three picnic chairs for them to sit in, and then one of the testers pointed to the top of the dune and said, “Do you see the shovel at the top of that sand dune? Run up the right side of the dune, around the shovel at the top, and then run down the left side of the dune. Tzeh.” Tzeh is the Hebrew command for “go out”, or more simply, go. The moment he said go, everyone darted out in attempt to be the first one back down. Once the last person in the group came back down, he said, “Good, now do it again. Tzeh.” And off we were again – this exercise went on for about twenty times. If you came back down and were bending over with your hands on your knees to catch your breath, you had to go run an extra lap. In between runs, the tester liked to play with our minds. He said to us that we don’t have to be here. If we want we can stop, go back to the tent where we started and go home, that it’s our choice to be here. After about the 12th round, they started to write down the order in which we came back by our numbers (76 first, 116 second, 243 third, etc.). This first round of sprints up and down the sand dune was meant to filter out those who would give up, and break down everyone else who was going to stay to the same level.
After the first round of sprints, there was a 3-minute break. During this time, everyone had to drink 3 cups of water and we had to fill up 4 sandbags with sand, tie them shut and strap them to one of the stretchers. The next exercise was similar to the last one. We had to run not one, but two laps up and down the sand dune. Only here’s the catch: the first 4 people back do the second lap carrying the stretcher, the 5th and 6th people do the second lap carrying one of the 5-gallon jugs, and then everyone else just has to run it like the ones before. It doesn’t make logical sense that the people who get back first would have to be punished and carry the stretcher and jugs the second round, right? But no, everyone tried his hardest to be among the first to get back, to have the privilege of carrying the gear. Again, once the last people got back from the second round, each time without fail, in his quiet, calm voice would say, “Tzeh”. You don’t have to be here, if it’s hard for you, you can go. Tzeh. You don’t have to be here. Tzeh. You don’t have to be here. Tzeh. Like before, the testers wrote down who carried the stretcher and who carried the jugs, and they asked, by a show of hands, who could improve his place. People raised their hands and we kept on going. This continued for about 15 or 20 times.
After another 3-minute water break, we were told that in a number of minutes, there would be an aerial attack from the north. Each of us had to find a spot to take cover on the sand dune and dig a hole with a shovel measuring 1 meter long by 1 meter wide by 1 meter deep. Once that magic word, Tzeh, was uttered, we were off. I found myself a nice spot on the dune between two mounds of sand – I started to dig. I felt like a little kid again at the beach. When I was little, I remember going to the beach in Los Angeles and trying to dig a tunnel through the sand all the way to China. Now, I was in Israel trying to dig a tunnel all the way back to Los Angeles! I didn’t really know how long a meter was, so I just dug long, wide and deep. After a bit, they told us all to stop digging and get into our holes. I got in and my head was below the ground level. The three testers came around to each person and asked how big their hole was, why they chose that spot on the dune for cover and other questions about the measurements of their hole. After they got around to everyone, we all filled in our holes, drank some more water and then filled up sand bags and tied them shut.
One of the testers pointed off into the distance to a pole. With the sand bags on our shoulders, we had to go around the pole and come back, go up and down the dune and that was one lap. They told us that we had to do as many laps as we could, but if we wanted, we could sit, drink water, take breaks, do whatever we wanted – just to do as many laps as we could. For the first 10 seconds after he said Tzeh, everyone ran with the sand bags. But very soon after we started, everyone was walking, some at a slow pace, others and a quicker pace. Each time we passed the testers, we had to tell them our number and which number lap we had just finished (116, 4th lap). After I, and 3 others from my group, finished our 9th lap, they stopped us and everyone else as they came past the testers. They had us empty our sand bags and lie down in a line at the base of the sand dune. We had to crawl up the sand dune. After about 4 rounds of crawling up the dune and going back down again, they told us that the physical part of the day was over. I didn’t have a watch on me the entire day, so I had no concept of how long each activity lasted. I only know that we went out to the sand dunes at around 9am and came back at around 1:30pm. We got in a circle and stretched out. 15 people started the day in our group; 13 were left.
The rest of the day was more relaxed. They still told us what to do and where to go and we had to listen to everything they told us, but we weren’t running up and down sand dunes. We were basically waiting for the results – who would continue testing for what elite unit.
Finally they called us out of the tent that we were all waiting in. They told us that of all the people who started the day, one third didn’t finish, and of those who finished, only a small number would be chosen to continue testing for certain units. I was happy and proud of myself that I had finished the day. We stood outside as they read out the numbers for each unit. I listened for my number, and I heard it! My number was called to go to the tent for Matkal. I went to the tent with my bag; I was so excited. Through all the excitement though, I kept in my head that this was only the beginning. There is a long road ahead of testing and then, only if I finish all the testing, I have a chance of getting into “The Unite”. I will keep posting on the process.
After the day was over, at around 4pm, I went back to Sa’ad and rested. I wasn’t all that sore that night, it was the next morning, New Years, when I felt muscles in my body that I didn’t even know I had!
Throughout the day, my only focus was the tasks at hand. I didn’t have time, or even let myself, think of anything else. Whatever the present activity was, I was going to do it the best I could, better than the guy next to me. With each step I took running up the sand dune, I had to push myself, not let myself slack behind, and give it my all. I knew going in to the day, that there was no way that I would give in and leave; I was going to finish the day. Whether it was walking or running, whether or not I get chosen to continue testing for one of the elite units, I would not give up. So much of the day is physical. Everything you do involves physical strength, stamina, and speed. Running up and down the sand dunes over and over again, carrying the stretcher and jug up and down the dunes, walking with a filled 20-kilogram sand bag on your shoulders, and crawling up the sand dunes is not at all easy. But above all, it’s one big mind game. It’s so easy to begin that inner-dialogue where you say to yourself, “Why do I need this? I don’t have to be here. Why am I putting myself through all this?” The small challenge is the physical component; the much larger and more difficult challenge, is staying focused and keeping your mind away from that conversation.
So this is how I spent my New Years Eve – Hope you had a great New Years!