Post 21: The Paratroopers

The tryouts for the paratroopers take place at the bakoom, the main army base in Israel. The tryouts reminded me more of a series of disorganized summer camp activities than a tryout for the most desirable infantry brigade in the IDF, the one difference being that the campers were all trying to impress the counselors, a situation notably absent from my days as a camp counselor.

I arrived at 8:30 AM on Sunday, and assembled along with those who were there early as well under a giant pavilion.  A steady stream of people began flowing in, and by 10:30 am the bleachers were full. The Paratroopers tryout that Garin Tzabar does is a tryout for selected Israelis and all of the country’s lone soldiers that wish to be considered for the paratroopers, including those in the midst of army Ulpan (language course) that want to join the paratroopers after they finish the course. All in all we were told that no more than 15 people from all the lone soldiers present at the tryout (which numbered close to 100) would be accepted, and that only 4-10 of those would come from Garin Tzabar (we numbered 44 at this point). Fortunately those numbers turned out to be low, and over 25 lone soldiers were accepted. It’s rumored that Garin Tzabar and lone soldiers in general get screwed every other year in this tryout (i.e. 25 one year, 5 the next) so keep that in mind and ask around if you’re planning on doing the army next year. As Tzvika, the father of the lone soldiers, put it in his pep talk to us before the tryout, “they take only the best.” So the advice here is simple, as I mentioned in the last blog. Train hard so that if they only take 5 people, 4 other people are sweating for the last spots behind you. Leave no doubt in anyone’s mind who deserves to make the cut.

Before anything physical occurred, those of us that were lone soldiers were given a comprehensive survey to fill out listing our interests, education, parents information, ect. It was used at the end of the tryout to assist our interviewers as well as to give the army a full view of who we are, what we’ve done, and where we come from.  As the questionnaire was written in complex Hebrew, many of us got help from the soldiers that were working at the tryout. After lunch, we waited for a few hours to do our baror, or a 2 Kilometer timed run that’s done before every tryout to see where everyone’s fitness stands in relation to one another. I placed 7th out of my group of 44 which I was not unhappy with considering that my group, consisting on the first day solely of Garin Tzabar kids, was one of the most motivated and well prepared for the tryout.

The first day of the tryout was run by active-duty Paratrooper commanders, who lead us around, ordered us to wait in the sun for long periods of time, forced us to drink ridiculous amounts of water, and got us our uniforms for the tryout. After dinner, we were brought back to our tents and given instructions to be outside in a “chet” (which is basically a “u” open to the commander) at 3:15 with our uniforms on. After a dismal night sleep rife with anticipation, 3:00 am rolled around and we got up and began dressing. Eventually we were all lined up outside and separated into groups of 30-40.

Most of my friends were placed in a group consisting of nearly all Garin Tzabar kids. In my tsevet (or group, which started with 35) I was the only American.  The pre-morning chill was intense, and we shivered under our insufficient army uniforms. After a number of forced bouts of water consumption, we met our drill sergeant for the day, a large, imposing figure who looked completely comfortable wearing only a T-shirt in the 50 degree weather.  Those charged with running the actual tryout, including our drill sergeant, were all reservists in their late 30’s or early 40’s, whose reserve duty was the implementation of  tryouts for the unit. Upon gauging the size of our original group, I suspected that the first order of business would be to weed people out. This turned out to be a good analysis.

After a light run to a location about 1.5 KM away, our commander lined us up, ordered us to sprint around a sand bag some 35 meters away, and sprint back, while the other commanders recorded only the names of the first 3 people back. Unlike Yom Sayerot, this tryout is a free for all. The road was too small for 35 people to line up on evenly, and the path around the sand bag was too small for everyone to go around fairly. At some point it became a catch 22: If they catch you pushing people out of the way or grabbing in order to get back first, they mark you down and this diminishes your chances. By the same token, if you are not aggressive enough, given the sheer insanity of the situation, you cannot possibly come in the top three no matter how fast you are. I did my best to find the balance.   Throughout the exercise, our commander kept saying in a friendly tone, “Anyone who wants can have a drink of water. You can stop all the running and the craziness. All you have to do is say ‘I quit.’ ” More than a couple of people took him up on this. As soon as everyone was back, he would ask the person he had designated as the time-keeper how long it had taken us, shake his head, and send us off again.  After 10 minutes (20 minutes? It’s very hard to say how long this went on for), they gave us time to drink water and fill up sand bags. When the break-time elapsed, we did the same drill again, and after enough people were gasping for air, he ordered us to pick up the sandbags and hold them over our heads with straight arms, and recorded who was the first to comply and who was the last, and who quit in the middle (almost all those who brought down the sandbags before being told to do so were dismissed from the tryout). We would hold the sandbags for stretches that at times lasted over a minute, and more people dropped out during this segment. He would go right from the sand-bag holding to the sprints and then back again in a cruel see-saw of suffering.  Despite the discomfort, even at this point it was clear that this tryout would be nowhere near as difficult physically as Yom Sayerot had been.

Following this, we were brought to a sand field that was about 30 meters by 30 meters. By then, numbering in the high twenties, we were ordered to split into two lines and face each other on either side of the sand field. On our drill sergeant’s command, we hit the ground and crawled back and forth for a specified number of lengths each time, doing our best not to run into the people coming in the other direction. Disorganized would be an understatement here. I personally enjoyed this exercise, as crazy as that may sound. As soon as he gave the command to begin, I did a swan dive into the sand and started crawling like Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan.” I think the commanders were taken back at first and then amused, and they asked me for my name at the end of the first crawl which I took to be a good sign.

At the conclusion of the crawling exercise, we loaded 12 sand bags onto two stretchers and began a fast paced walk intermittent with sprints. I did my best to make sure I was under the stretcher as much as possible. Those that weren’t carrying the stretcher carried sand bags and/or Jerry cans. After 15 minutes  or so we arrived at a square of metal bars 7 or 8 feet off the ground. The commander ordered us to stand around the square and we played the following mind game: He would count from one to ten and then down to one again. You got to choose which number you went up on (this was effectively a free hang from a pull-up bar), at which point it was your goal to remain on the bar until the number was called again. At the end he went around and asked everyone what number they had picked and whether or not they had succeeded. Integrity is also at play here. With 3 commanders watching the group of 25-30, if you try to cheat, while you may get away with it, if you are caught you won’t be accepted into the paratroopers.  At ten, everyone had to do a pull-up, and to punish those who had chosen one, after he called number two on the way back down, those that were still hanging had to do another pull up. We did this four or five times or so before he declared that the coming trials would be optional. Just as a little (hopefully) obvious aside here, nothing in a tryout is ever optional. Always do everything. I succeeded all but twice, never choosing a number higher than five and usually choosing one or two. Both times that I failed I held on until my fingers literally slipped off the bar and I fell from 7 feet onto the ground. If you’re gonna fail, fail the right way.

Interspersed throughout the day were group conversations, where the commanders gauged people’s ability to contribute meaningful insights to conversations and their leadership tendencies: who took control of the conversation? Who was always talking and who spoke selectively? I did my best to contribute every time, and people cut me a little slack and allowed me to interject and stumble on my words when I had something I wanted to say. The conversations ranged in topics from government intervention in the economy to the pros and cons of doing business with Arab countries.

We were also charged with carrying out certain group exercises. The goal of one such exercise was as a group, equipped with a garbage can and a 15 foot tree trunk, to get everyone in the group on top of a wooden bar in the middle of a sand field. Nobody was allowed to set foot in that field on pain of restarting the exercise and winning everyone in the group 20 push-ups each, an unwanted gift after the bar-hanging exercise. Again, the idea here was not to succeed in the time allotted, which would have been impossible. These exercises were meant to gauge our personalities and our characters.  Honesty was again a factor here: if someone stepped in the sand, would they come clean or try to play it off like it never happened?

The last activity of the day was a 10 KM  march. The commander ordered 6 sandbags on each stretcher and told us to replace one another under the stretchers whenever we got tired. I started and finished under a stretcher and never left it once. I was told by a friend that this was the most important part of the tryout, and I was not about to screw this one up on the last exercise. We would speed-walk, jog, and then sprint, up hills and back down them, around landmarks and then back. At certain points the commanders said they were only recording the first stretcher that reported back, which made things even more fun. Every so often they would stop and record the names of those under the stretcher. I made it clear that I was not moving from under the stretcher, and at a certain point they stopped asking for my name and started referring to the stretcher I was under as “number 3’s stretcher.” “Number 3: Do you think your stretcher can come in first around that tree and back?” After what felt like days, we came to the road on which we had done our original 2K run, which gave me an added boost knowing that the end was in sight. With about 400 meters to go, our commander, who was in front of the group, broke into a run. We were a little bit behind the second stretcher at this point.  I looked at the guy next to me on our stretcher, screamed some motivational words that I now cannot remember for the life of me, after which point both of us broke into a run whilst shouting war cries as we passed the other stretcher and everyone else on the way down the home stretch. When we finally reached the commander, he couldn’t hide his smile. Finally, the physical segment of the tryout was concluded, and we were allotted time to drink water and stretch.

After running under a 175 pound stretcher for an hour, my body was run down like it never had been before. On Yom Sayerot, while the stretcher had been heavier and we had taken it up steeper terrain, we only ran with it intermittently and put it down after each sprint. After running with this stretcher for over an hour continuously, my body went into shock, and for a while I could not straighten up, and was resigned to hunching over my knees whilst dry-heaving (And who said things change after you graduate college? Monday morning. Different journey, same outcome). By and by I regained my senses and joined the group for stretches, but the memory of that feeling stuck with me.  While physically it was not very enjoyable, it is an awesome feeling to know that you have given everything you had to succeed, everything, and that win or lose, you will never look back and think to yourself: “what if I had tried harder?”

We were given an hour to shower, eat a light breakfast, and report to a central location for post-tryout interviews. When my name was called, I showed up with some notes prepared, and asked for permission to say a few things before the interview began. My interviewers, taken aback but impressed by this, allowed me to proceed. I told them of my motivations for coming to Israel and why I wanted the unit within the paratroopers that I want so badly. I told them of 5 hours a day on the kibbutz spent in Ulpan (intensive language course) in conjunction with 2 hour private Hebrew lessons every afternoon. I told them of my determination to succeed and the long hours of training I had put in. When I had said all I wanted to say, they had a few questions of their own: Why the paratroopers? Why do you think you will get along with 18 year olds when you are all ready 22? Do you have any leadership experience? Would you consider being an officer? What are your greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? I answered the questions to the best of my ability. Ultimately, I thought the interview went very well.  By the time it was over, I felt that I had successfully conveyed to them the intensity of my desire to end up where I want to be within the paratroopers. Having succeeded in doing that, the rest was out of my hands, and with that I packed up my things and headed to Tel Aviv to get a real lunch.

****************

A week later came the day when we were supposed to get our results. By noon, everyone knew whether or not they had gotten into the paratroopers…everyone except me. A week before the tryout, I had been granted an opportunity to retake my Hebrew test with some help from Garin Tzabar. The head of my kibbutz stressed to the office in charge of Army Ulpan that without a clean slate in the language department, my chances for acceptance into the top units would be severely limited.  About 7 of us from Garin Tzabar give or take were allowed to retake the test (only those who received a 5 out of 9 on the first test were allowed to retake the test), and all of us passed, which was no surprise given the intensive Hebrew programs we had all done on our respective kibbutzim. I was informed the next day that I had passed this test and would be exempt from army ulpan.

Anyway, after everyone had heard their results, I was told by the head of my kibbutz that the army had reported that while I was one of the strongest candidates at the tryout, the paratroopers had not gotten the results from my language test (welcome to army bureaucracy). Ultimately, I was not on the list of those who had not made the cut nor was I on the list of those who were accepted. What ensued was a very stressful day.  The army had screwed me before, and it looked like they were going to do it again, despite the fact that I had passed my Hebrew test and had done well at the tryout.  Finally, at around 5 O ‘Clock, the text came in telling me that I had been accepted, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Of those who had retaken the Hebrew test, passed, and participated in the paratroopers tryout, I was the only one they accepted, which was a tremendous honor.

As I write this, I am one day away from being drafted into the paratroopers. In less than 24 hours my life will belong to the IDF. 36 hours out of every 12 days will be mine at best; the rest I will spend on base, with an hour each night of free time to shower, get ready for bed, use my phone, and get my things in order.  I will likely spend my 23d birthday in a tryout for a special unit within the paratroopers, which will (finally) be the last tryout I do before I am put into a specific unit. I am very much looking forward to the journey ahead, which is certain to be life-changing. Thank you all for your support throughout the previous months. It has meant a lot to me.

14 Responses to “Post 21: The Paratroopers”

  1. Amnon Zaidenberg Says:

    Kol Hakavod, Corey. Your determination is remarkable and reminds me of my feelings thirty something years ago. Itay’s youngest brother, Amit, is folloowing your steps. See you soon with your kumtah aduma. Be Hatzlcha ve tishmor al atzmeicha.
    Amnon Zaidenberg

  2. Julie Platt Says:

    Mazal Tov Corey – thank you for taking the time to share the journey to this unbelievable triumph – I love you and admire you and am deeply inspired by you. At this time of Thanksgiving, I am grateful to you, Corey, for so aggressively pursuing your desire to defend our people. Julie (and the whole Platt Family)

  3. Zach Feldman Says:

    Alright Corey! Congratulations on getting in man. Make sure you get some rest when they let you and Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Debbe Feldman Says:

    Mazel Tov Corey! We will be thinking about you and missing you mightily on Thanksgiving. Sending you our love,
    Aunt Debbie, Uncle David, Sam, Zach and Jessie

  5. Jesse Says:

    Mazal Tov again, Some day I will be able to tell you how I feel about you and your journey. But for now keep you head down and watch you back.Snow is almost here and I will be thinking of the winter times spent together together. I will make a special sled run for you.

    Jesse

  6. Aunt Rho & Uncle Vic Says:

    Dearest Corey, You are a shining example of what true perseverance can do. You set your mind and body to this end and here you are. How very proud we are to say “Corey Feldman is our Nephew”. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you spend it. And, certainly, the happiest of birthdays. Stay safe and be happy. We love you.

  7. Aunt Sharon Says:

    Hi Corey!
    You did it! Mazel Tov – we are incredibly proud of you! We will miss you today but will certainly have a toast (or two) in your honor! Love, Aunt Sharon and Uncle Neil

  8. Tara Feldman Says:

    Good job Corey, i knew you could do it! Happy Thanksgiving and good luck at your next try out for the Elite Paratroopers!

  9. Janie Frieman Says:

    Corey… what an ordeal! I can’t imagine doing all this in English, let alone Hebrew! All that you accomplished before lunch is more physical activity than I’ve done in my lifetime! Since Jonathan doesn’t really give me details of what he’s going thru, your blog is enlightening me! Chazak, chazak, chazak!

  10. Marv Horwitz Says:

    Corey, you are unbelievable. My congratulations on your accomplishments. I am proud to know and admire you. Shalom

  11. shari beckman Says:

    hi corey,
    we talked about all of your accomplishments at our thanksgiving table. our entire family is so proud of you and wish you well in the coming weeks.
    love,
    shari & joel

  12. Josh Says:

    Keep it going my man. You’re doing unbelievable things over there. We’re cheering for you!

  13. eric diehl Says:

    yes! actully, i’m not surprised, friend. remember how impressed the U.S. marines were with our bike ride?

  14. Wendy Sandler Says:

    Hi Corey,
    Wow! I am exhausted just reading about your experience. I am incredibly proud of you, always have, always will. You are the true defination of a mensch. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing your journey with us. You are inspiring…
    xo With love and Hanukkah wishes,
    Wendy Sandler

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