Three times a year, the army gives its soldiers a week of vacation time. It’s a week when the man can slip back into the boy, back into watching too much television, staying up too late, eating wrong and more. In just over a week, it will be seven months since Elie entered the army. The changes go deep inside and will likely remain a part of who he has become.
Today, Elie’s first free day away from the army, he got up early. He drove his brother and then his sister to school and later came to my office (twice) to help with some renovations we are doing. We ate dinner together and by 9:30 p.m., Elie had already gone to sleep. The boy who has vacation from the army can quickly fall back into old patterns, but the soldier in Elie likes what he has become physically and so the discipline that has become so much a part of his life is what will be tested this week.
Yesterday, I picked Elie up from the nearby base where he will be stationed for the next two weeks (one week of which, he’ll spend at home with us). From there, we drove to a little store where Elie ordered prescription inserts for his boots to help ease some discomfort he’s had (a result of flat feet and being on his feet too many hours a day). The army will cover this expense and it was interesting to see the store filled with other soldiers. Next to Elie sat a friend from his unit that we’d brought along for the same purpose – getting the insert for the boots. Across from Elie, was a young soldier in the paratroopers, another in some other division we didn’t recognize. When that soldier left, a young female soldier sat down with her father. The father looked at Elie and his friend and asked what unit they were from. The light blue beret on Elie’s soldier is an automatic giveaway – artillery, so what was left was simply the name of his unit within the larger division, represented by a number.
What followed was a serious of short sentences, numbers, locations, actions – army talk. The man had been in artillery more years back than he wanted to remember. He asked where the boys were stationed, where they’d been and explained that his unit no longer existed, but had been merged into another. This is very much a part of Israel. Long after this man has stopped serving in the army, even as his daughter is now serving, he remains “artillery.” As I looked back and forth between Elie and this man, I realized that Elie too will be “artillery.” This is a part of him and what he has become.
After we left the store, we went to visit Elie’s friend, Re’em. Re’em has been moved to another hospital that specializes in rehabilitation and should hopefully help his recovery. The good news is that Re’em appears to have some feeling in his legs and is more aware of his surroundings. He looked at Elie and asked him how he was doing. It was hard for Elie, first because he had trouble understanding what Re’em was asking him and secondly because he didn’t have any idea what to say.
“What’s happening?” – the universal greeting of young men this age seemed so silly and it was clear that Re’em wasn’t up to talking for any length of time. Elie has not yet mastered the concept of “small talk” and didn’t understand that just speaking would have been a comfort. He tried to think of a topic. He tried to talk and found all words were completely inadequate. My mind filled with the words I wanted him to say, but I’ve had years more experience dealing with sick people, with those who are suffering.
Tell him about being stationed in the north, about how you’d had an exercise with a mutual friend’s unit and how you “bombed” the hill that Roi’s unit then “stormed.” Tell him that you are now stationed at a checkpoint not far away. Tell him you came to see him a few days after the accident and it is so good to see him awake. Tell him you don’t want to stay long because you know he is tired, but you are going to come back again as soon as you can.
I saw the anguish in Elie’s eyes and longed to help him. I spoke briefly to Re’em, who responded, but it was Elie he wanted to hear from. So much to say, but nothing could go through the lump in Elie’s throat and other than a few brief words, Elie watched as Re’em closed his eyes and went to sleep and then fought to awaken and look at Elie again.
Before we went into Re’em’s room, I saw Elie talking with his middle-brother, who had come along with me to get Elie and go to the various stops along the way. Elie was the big brother, giving advice, the all-knowing, self-assured one. Suddenly, in the hospital, he was so unsure of himself and what to do. There wasn’t much I could say to comfort him, no assurances I could give. It was good to see how much Re’em had progressed and it was also clear that he had a long road ahead of him. We’ll go back, and hopefully next time, Elie will be able to speak more.
After we left the hospital, Elie asked if we could stop by a store and pick up some snacks for the guys at the checkpoint. To get back home, we had the option of taking one of two roads. Elie’s group is stationed at a checkpoint on one of these roads and so we stopped at a store, bought cola and snacks and drove there. Elie got out with bags in hand and crossed the wide road alone while I watched. There is a brotherhood among soldiers, a deep friendship that develops that is obvious. Elie handed the snacks to one of his commanding officers, who thanked him and gave him a slap on the shoulder. Two others came over to greet him. Hand shakes, pats on the back. I was too far away to see the smiles I knew graced their faces, but the body language was clear. My son is among friends, among brothers.
The part that was special, was that Elie had only left them three hours before and yet he was greeted like a long lost hero. It helped ease the pain of seeing Re’em and being unable to do anything. Here, Elie did something – he moved with ease among his friends and then, to their great envy, he walked back to the car with a smile, to come home and sleep in his house, in his room, in his bed.