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IDF Cadet & Team Meet
The Cliff of Doom

By Dan S. Defense

This is a true story of an experience I'll never forget. It happened sometime in the summer of 1988, in the vast Israeli Negev desert, while I was training to become an IDF officer, in the IDF's 1st training base, called BHD 1.Every person attending the course is a volunteer, that went through serious vetting ahead of time, which entailed physical and physiological testing, and for some units (such as the one I came from) a nasty process called Selection. The course had a very high bar and folks were kicked out or dropped out all the time. We lived under a microscope and pushed to extremes every day.

But this story isn't about the hardship; it's about a funny story that happened to me. As a cadet in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) I was trained, among many other things, in planning a tactical assault. I learned that doing so on paper, with creative writing and implementing it in real life, is very different, but I'm getting ahead of myself. We trained hard in tactics and weapons all day, and at night worked on expanding our understanding of mission planning and concepts of fire and control.

My team, which consisted of about 15 or so other cadets, got an assignment which entailed taking over an enemy strong hold. The enemy post was well situated, on top of a high cliff, in the middle of the Negev desert. Within the outpost was a critical radar installation that had to be destroyed. The enemy post had superior visibility and ability to deploy fire on any approaching force. To make matters worse, we were told that there was a larger enemy base, with troops on stand-by that could join the fight in about 30 minutes. Our mission was to plan a successful "hit and run" strike that will allow our force to overwhelm the enemy outpost, destroy the critical radar installation and get out and away before the arrival of the enemy's reinforcements.

Our DS (Directing Staff) told us that out of the 15 assignments, one would be selected to be played out in real life and the rest would just get graded. After a long day of running around and executing different infantry maneuvers, and critiquing each other's performance, and after we sorted out our weapons, kit and bodies, we set down to do our assignments. As a close knit team, we helped each other with everything, but decide to do our work solo to see who had the brightest tactical mind.

As all things in life, timing is everything, and at that time I was reading an Alistair MacLean book, which lingered in the back of my mind. I decide I'd take a bold approach, and use surprise to achieve my goal, and minimize casualties. I'll lead my force to the target, assail via the steepest part of the cliff, through the section Intelligence marked as least protect, because no sane man would ever use it. After getting up and observing the outpost, to identify guards and possible patrols, we'd strike the enemy at about 0300, when they were all fast asleep. We'd blow up the radar with a bunch of C4 (explosive), lay down cover fire and disappear into the night. I was very pleased with my approach. I drew out the attack plans and added details, timing and force allocation. I handed over my assignment and prepared for another long day of field training.

As cadets, we loved being in class since it meant sitting rather than running, and it meant we had a roof over our head. We typically arrive about 10-15 minutes early and use the time in a productive manner. Some guys went to sleep, a typical activity for any short recess, while others used the time to write home. I dreamed of clean and comfortable bed when our DS arrived and reality came back into focus. Instead of a lesson, we'd get our assignments back and review pros and cons. As a cadet, you are always evaluated and can be kicked out at any point prior to commission.

This assignment was important and there was tension in the room. The DS started by telling us that we all passed, despite some barely making it. They determined we weren't the sharpest knifes in the kitchen but we'd have to do. They said that one assignment caught their attention as creative and daring. They decided that that assignment would serve as our mission for the night, and that the author would lead the force. We looked around to see who'd get deadly scrutiny from the DS and grief from us.

I just hoped that it's someone who knew how to navigate well and could take us straight to the target, and not around the world in eighty kilometers. Getting lost in the desert at night is easy and finding the next way-point hard. In any case, it didn't take long to learn who "won" the honors. My name was called and my heart sank. I was told to come up and brief the team on the mission.

What started with giggles of relief from the other guys, quickly turned into somber faces and I distinctly remember, seeing a few guys with dropped jaws. As my plan of attack sunk in, so did moral-especially my moral! But my plan was chosen and there was no way around it. After taking grief from my mates, I set down to plan the assault route. I had to navigate for about 20 kilometers, memorizing the route, with my map sealed. We were to leave at last light, with full kit and march our way into work, or what I though, was my last leadership exercise and final night at BHD 1.

At last light, we went through a weapons and kit inspection, to assure all our kit was silent (nothing must rattle or make any noise) and that nothing reflected light. We distributed the general team kit such as Communications, GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), Night Vision scope, Stretcher and so on. As the team leader, I only had to carry my own kit and the responsibility for the team and the mission. Somehow that felt heavier than any of the other kit but that's what I signed up to do, and I wanted to get the most experience out of this opportunity.

My first job was to get my team to target. I wanted to get their as soon as possible but without wearing down my team. I set a pretty fast but reasonable pace and was thankful for a moonless night. It made navigation more difficult but it would make the assailing part easier. We made good time and we got to the target. I made our way toward the cliff, which I knew to be steep from the topographical map, but when I saw it in front of me, in reality, I couldn't keep myself from whistling quietly with deep comprehension. My second in commend leaned over and asked "Are you serious???"

He was always toned down and understated and as I looked up, I knew he was right. I also knew it was late for that line of thinking. I knew my team and I knew we could get up there, but the climbing would be exceedingly hard, especially after a 20K hike and with large and heavy kit such as the GPMG. I figured it would take a long time to get there and I could hear the mumblings from my team mates. I was in-charge for the moment but we were all peers and they didn't like what they saw.

I gave the team a water break and a pep talk. They knew what I was doing but I was thankful most of them went along. One guy challenged my sanity but was quickly silenced by the rest. The DS didn't stop writing stuff in their little notebooks, something they did often and it was rarely good (for us). I'll spare you the nightmare of getting up there, but we did and I was able to do a recce and assign people to specific tasks, such as GPMG providing cover fire from a good spot, some folks to set the charges on the radar and some folks to take out the guards and sleeping quarters. This was going to be live fire drill, so safety was critical and everyone was focused and "switched on".

Now, since this was an exercise and there was no "real enemy", the DS acted out the opposition by telling me what was happening, throwing flash-bangs (aka Stun Grenades), and me giving orders to that affect. It was very noisy, with gun fire, explosions and smoke. If that wasn't bad enough, the DS took down folks and told them to scream, at the top of their lungs, something like "I lost my leg, it's bleeding, heeeelp...." or, "For God's Sake, Dan--Help me...".

The DS took down my number 2 in command fairly early on. And believe me, even in a drill that is very distracting, and when you get into it, everything seems real and you are called upon to make life and death decisions. I couldn't and wouldn't stop the charge to dispatch the medic, to help my friends. The mission comes first and you never stop in a middle of a charge, because then everyone dies, but knowing that and acting on it isn't easy. Not when you feel its real, with the sounds of gun fire all around and when the deep smell of cordite feels your lungs and eyes. I was in a training drill but it felt I was doing this for real and I love it.

The attack went well, we fired many hundreds of rounds at the old builds and targets and blew up "stuff", but complications came up, and I stressed to my limit and then some. It was a very long night and when we came back to base for debriefing, I was so exhausted, physically and mentally, so much so, that I wasn't able to feel any stress or worry about my grade. The mission was accomplished and my team came back. I didn't get lost and I didn't lose it under stress. As far as I was concerned it went well, and if they wanted to throw me out, that was fine because I felt good about what we did that night.

I wasn't kicked out. Several flaws were raised by the DS and my team members. I contributed several additional problems and what went through my mind. You learn by being brutally honest and you hide nothing-even if it makes you look foolish or stupid-it was a core value that I internalized early on. After being crucified, it was time for the Lead DS to sum up the training mission.

You did well, Dan. I'd have done it differently but overall good job. Now go get cleaned up, get some sleep and I'll see you in the afternoon for your next mission briefing. It was over and I felt exhausted and delighted. I replayed his few short words as well as set down to clean the gear, both individual and kit, before sorting ourselves out for sleep. I knew I was going to get weeks of grief from my mates, for the extra hardship I inflicted with my "daring plan", but I didn't care and went to sleep exhausted and happy. It was a dreamless sleep but I'm pretty sure I had a smile on my face.

Until next time, stay safe by staying alert!

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