I meant to take a picture of Elie’s laundry. Elie’s been great about his laundry for a long time now, choosing to do it himself. This hasn’t changed now that he’s in the army. So, he comes home Friday afternoon and one of the first things he does is throw in the first of two loads. In Israel, most people hang laundry, rather than use dryers. The reality is, living in a country that features sunshine for the vast majority of its days (and no rain at all from around April to November), its often faster (and cheaper) to hang the clothes to dry. And so, our little room off the kitchen is often filled with drying clothes. On Fridays, when Elie is home, the clothes are all green, the socks all gray. Uniforms, undershirts, socks, and even the green army hat the boys are forced to wear against the desert sun.
A short weekend together and then Elie won’t be home now for the next two weeks as his basic training intensifies. The overnight exercises will become many days in the field. As before, I send him back to the base with his favorite tuna/corn patties (for the trip down to Beersheva and beyond) and a big container full of chocolate chip cookies that with the proper care can be stretched to a full week, even with his sharing it with his tentmates! The tuna patties disappear between here and the base.
As his training intensifies, we learn more about the elements to being a soldier, and an Israeli one at that. There are those who claim Israeli soldiers are cruel and uncaring and yet, this past week in the midst of learning to shoot a gun, my son was taught how to avoid shooting it. Elie and his unit have been taught how to try NOT to injure, NOT to kill.
As someone who was born in America and spent his early years there (and living in a home where English is spoken often), Elie’s English is excellent, as is his Hebrew. Now, he is learning some words in Arabic. “Israeli army. Stop and identify yourself.”
The instructions are clear. We don’t want to hurt you – if you are innocent of wrongdoing, if you have reason to be here, stop and identify yourself. If they are ignored, Elie has been taught what to do – again and again, to attempt to avoid hurting…or being hurt. Only as a last resort are they taught to shoot to kill. If only the enemies of Israel would be so humane.
Elie shot a machine gun for the first time last week. He had to hit a cardboard target some 100 meters away. He hit 8 out of 10 – an excellent score, but he doesn’t want to become the unit’s gunner. Beyond these topics, politics entered into the weekend together. Though the army isn’t telling the boys anything specific, the general consensus among the soldiers, as among the country in general, is that we are headed for another war. It could be with Hizbollah, bolstered by last year’s victory in Lebanon when the Israeli government allowed itself to appear weak and indecisive. It could be with Hamas, also strengthened after watching the Lebanon War. It could be with Iran or Syria.
Since the day Elie went into the army, my thoughts are focused on what a military conflict would mean for him, as much as I worry about the country in general. For Elie and his unit, the timing here is everything. If the war starts before Elie finishes his basic training, or the artillery training that will soon follow, Elie will likely spend the war patrolling some area, and thus freeing experienced soldiers to go to war.
Beyond this training, Elie and his unit will likely be sent to battle. This is more than a mother can handle, at least more than I can handle at this time and so I pull myself back to the present – to the commitment of taking this day by day. Last summer, a close friend’s son was in Lebanon and was deeply effected by the war and the loss of members of his unit – even having a friend die in his arms. How does a young man of 20 deal with this? How can anyone deal with this and continue to live a normal life? This too is more than a mother can bear to think about.
Like Elie, my friend’s son was a boy in many ways when he went into the army, but a man walked out of Lebanon, a seasoned soldier. He mourns his friends, remembers the good times they spent, and is more committed than ever to defending Israel from future attacks.
Today, my son is home, sleeping in his bed, surrounded by all that is his. Tomorrow, Elie will get up early and catch one of the first buses back to the base. This I can handle. It’s become part of the known equation in our lives. This week, he’ll likely go back out on exercises, preparing for the larger operation where they will be out in the field for a full week at a time. On these smaller operations, a jeep travels from the base to the location where they are making camp only a short few kilometers away. The jeep carries their sleeping bags, fresh water, fresh bread. In short, it extends the comforts of the base to the camp. Soon, those comforts will be taken away. This is what it is like in a real battle. The supply lines are stretched. You have your combat meals and you carry what you need. You depend on your unit. You defend your perimeter. You follow the operation to its conclusion.
For now, I will focus only on that next exercise and think only about Elie sleeping out at a camp, close enough to base if anything is needed. I won’t think now of the greater dangers facing Israel, of Syria making noises, of Hizbollah and Hamas, and of Iran in the distance. I won’t think of katyushas and kassem missiles and mortars and the possibility of Iran going nuclear.
Israelis have become adept at living in the moment and rejoicing in what we are and what we have. If 9/11 taught Americans anything, it is that life is precarious, no matter where you are. That’s true if you are a soldier in Israel, but also true if you are a student in Virginia, a storekeeper in Iraq, a tourist in London, a commuter in Spain. Other countries have learned this lesson; too many more still must learn. There are no guarantees, no assurances that all will be well. You can drive yourself mad if you focus on the endless possibilities.
When tomorrow comes, we deal with it, learn from it, expand with it, learn with it. And when that day is done, we hope we are richer for having experienced it, and pray that we are almost ready to face the day after that.
That’s where we are now with Elie and the army. Today he was home with his family, enjoying the food, the attention, the extra hours to do nothing but sleep, eat together with the family, throw his little sister over his shoulder, argue with his big sister, and eventually play on the computer. Tomorrow he will be back in the army, feeling more and more a part of his unit, a part of the army routine. What was unknown a month ago is now familiar. What will happen in a month or two or three, will be dealt with in a month or two or three.
For now, we focus on the little things. The laundry is clean and dry and packed for the trip back to the base. The cookies in the plastic container. The cellular phone battery recharged and ready to go and Elie – Elie is safe and asleep in his room.