To an IDF unit, their kumta, or beret, is the ultimate goal for most combat soldiers. It is an achievement unlike any other, the mark of the completion of training. Each unit dons their own color, red for the paratroopers, turquoise for artillery, black for tanks, lime green for Nahal, and so on. To earn the lime green, my unit had to hike 65km, beginning in our base in the middle of the Negev desert, and hiking to Masada, the legendary stronghold of Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire.
I always laugh at the preparation process before the masa. A couple hours before the start of the masa and we look like a group of Navy Seals gathered around their gun table, like in the movies. They check their gear, screw on silencers, and change their scopes. Except, for us, instead of weapons of war, although we do have those, our tables are filled with talc, medical tape, antichaffing cream, bandages, extra pairs of socks, snacks, and caffeine pills. We toss things back and forth. “Who has talc,” the cries go. “Anyone have leucoplast!?” As we exit the tent and begin donning our gear, we undoubtedly leave puffs of talc wherever we walk. People wrap Israeli flags around themselves. A few people hold go-pros. When we begin the masa it is a quarter before 5, the sun is low in the sky and 500 soldiers begin their masa kumta.
We hiked all night. By the time we finally arrived at Masada, our feet were hamburger and our sides raw and bleeding from the chaffing know as shwarma. When we were finally allowed to collapse, in the parking lot of Masada, no one cared enough to take off their vests or boots. If you didn’t know better, it probably appeared somewhat like a scene from The Walking Dead. The ground littered with soldiers sleeping and those who were awake, wandered around like zombies, too swollen and sore to walk normally. We arrived the next day at our ceremony. Friends and family gathered to watch us exchange our dark brownish green “Bakum” kumtot for the lime green berets of Nahal. When it came my turn, my commander took his own kumta of his shoulder and gave it to me. He gave me a hard punch to the chest, and considering the fact that my legs weren’t working, I tipped right over. Fortunately, my friends behind me caught me. The tradition of a commander passing on his kumta to a deserving soldier has long been practiced and it is an honor to be a part of it.
My kumta is woven of cheap, itchy wool, $10 at any army store here, yet what it represents is limitless. It represents that first flight from America, leaving my family crying in the airport as I sat reevaluating my entire decision to come here. It represents the first three months in Israel, without friends, without hebrew, feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt. It represents my first day in the army, standing in Chet, rain dripping off my stiff, dark green “Bakum” kumta, as I looked at the unfamiliar faces around me. It represents my first day in Kravi, feeling overwhelmed and lost with the fluent hebrew speakers around me, and wondering how I would ever get through the next 8 months. It represents every masa, the blistered feet, aching back, burning muscles, and the dread of having another 30km. It represents standing in 120 degree heat, after days of three or less hours of sleep, getting yelled at by the commanders for the fourth time since lunch. And it represents the three nails I’m missing, liters of blood and sweat, and scars that dot my body. But along with the pain and suffering comes the good, the excitement, the achievement. My kumta represents a new family, friends that are like brothers. It represents standing under the Israeli flag, rifle in hand, singing hatikvah. It represents the joy and accomplishment of finishing masaot and field weeks. It represents the evolution of my hebrew and mental strength to levels I didn’t know I could achieve. And it represents every time we supported each other, every time we hugged each other, pulled and pushed each other, yelled at each other, and willed each other to the finish line. And we made it, sweaty and tired, but we still made it. So when I walk through the train station with the lime green kumta on my shoulders, those around me see just that, but I see and feel the weight, emotions, happiness, pain, and love that I have experienced the last 11 months.
Training is over. I am officially a combat fighter in the Nahal Brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces. I will remember the moment for the rest of my life.