By Elizabeth McNeill
Where do I even begin? 277 days, 40 weeks, 9 months.
I wanted that orange beret more than anything in the world.
Six months ago I left my first base where I completed a Hebrew course and basic training for three months of my army service. In April, I started my training as a combat soldier in the IDF search and rescue unit. I wanted to train to become a warrior, even though I had no idea what that meant.
So what has this wild experience been like?
Hours of learning Hebrew with girls from all over the world, biting my tongue while being disciplined by commanders five years younger than me. Being told I wouldn’t last in combat more than a week by an officer because of my Hebrew level, but still fighting for the chance to be there.
Starting combat basic training with Israelis from all over the country all 18 and 19 years old, who are beginning their service to their country my first real culture shock. Realizing
I was way in over my head. How was I going to make it through six months of training when I barely knew Hebrew?
Sleeping in a bunk bed surrounded by sisters and learning whatever is mine now belongs to them as well.
Traveling on a bus for hours and hours from my kibbutz (my home in Israel) in the North to 1.5 kilometers from Gaza (my training base) after only being able to be home on my kibbutz twice a month.
Sleeping with a M16, showering with a M16, learning to treat this gun like a third arm. Being given a new gun, a grenade launcher and being expected to climb, run, crawl and carry something half the size of me.
Wanting to give up. Asking to give up, begging to let them let me give up, but never being given up on.
Waking up at 3:30am to start a 18-hour day – sometimes not sleeping at all. Learning to smile and laugh through the tears.
Opening tuna cans in the desert, sometimes wearing the tuna cans. Eating only canned food for over a week.
The 15+ kilometer Masa Kumta march, starting in the night and ending in the morning. The feeling of completing one, with my friends by my side. The bruises from carrying a stretcher on my back, the high from finishing. Knowing we are all a bit stronger than we think.
Hours and hours of guarding the base, cleaning the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom, picking up trash, sitting in class. Pull ups, push-ups, runs with my vest. Seeing my first rocket intercepted by the iron dome and running to the shelter.
The obstacle course, the absurd amount of ice cream and coke a cola I have consumed on base. The laughs and the army friends have made each day easier.
The days and days of rescue exercises – learning to use tools that could help people trapped in collapsed buildings.
The weeks without showering. (I worked at the soap store in college, this was especially difficult).
Learning to defend myself in Krav Maga. Learning to shoot a Matol. Learning first aide. Learning rescue. Learning chemical warfare. Learning everything from Hebrew to English. Learning I can push myself further than ever thought I could.
Picking up trash until 1 a.m., asking myself: Why am I here? Why did I leave my family and my friends, why would I move 5,000 miles away after earning a degree from Temple University to put on a baggy uniform and literally eat garbage for 6 months to be a search and rescue combat soldier?
But most importantly – I learned what friendship really meant.
Without my friends in the army, I wouldn’t have gotten through the tough times and frankly the day to day moments where I literally had no idea what was going on. Without my Garin on my kibbutz, I wouldn’t have a family to come home to.
The last 277 days have been the most meaningful, difficult, frustrating, and soul filling. I am a proud Zionist, a proud Jew, and now a proud member of the search and rescue unit of the IDF.
Why did I join the IDF? Because it feels like home in Israel and it’s my turn to protect it.
Elizabeth McNeill recently joined the Israeli Defense Force. She is a graduate of Temple University and just completed her final step of combat training, called the Masa