In a little over a week, Elie will have completed his first major milestone in the regular army. He’s finished basic training, finished a large exercise in the Golan Heights, been on the edge of war as the nation sat back waiting to see what the Syrians would do, and now he is serving in his first real position as a soldier at one of Israel’s checkpoints. This ends soon, as he reaches the end of his 7th month in the army.
Soon, Elie will have to make a decision. His unit is breaking up and being reassigned according to the army’s wishes and the preferences of the soldiers involved. They’ll come back together, possibly, if war breaks out and perhaps to take part in exercises requiring artillery practice or backup.
But for now, some will go on to the “commander’s” course – four months of training followed by an assignment in which they will escort the next group of artillery inductees through those first grueling months getting used to the army. They will do to the next batch what was done to them – make the young soldiers call them “Commander” and not use their first names. Make them stand at attention each night, sleep only 6 hours, inspect their guns and their cots, and teach them what it means to be a soldier…as they were taught. It means saying goodbye to Or and Yedidya for now, as they move on to their next assignments too. Elie’s commanding officers want him to do the course and become a commander. Elie isn’t sure.
Some will go on to be stationed in bases and checkpoints to finish out their army service. This path is not the one Elie is likely to take.
Finally, another small group will take a long and involved emergency medics course. This is much more detailed than the training Elie received during the five years he volunteered for the local ambulance squad. The medics (Hovshim) want Elie to take this course and that’s what Elie wants too.
If Elie takes the Course Hovshim, he can later choose to do the Course Mefakdim (Commanders Course). But, if he takes the Course Mefakdim, it is unlikely that the army will agree to give him the Course Hovshim later. A soldier cannot lead his troops and stop to treat them at the same time. Some will lead, others will try to save lives.
To some degree, it is Elie’s decision – a major one in his life so far, and not one in which I am involved. He must decide and perhaps even fight for what he wants. I dropped him off this morning at the base on my way to a client’s office and later in the day, as I drove past the base again, I thought – there’s my son, so close…and yet he doesn’t know that I’m just outside, driving past him. He’s somewhere in there, close, patrolling or sitting with friends. But for now, our lives have separated, until next week, hopefully, when he comes home again.
Already in the morning, when he came out of his room in full uniform – the first time in a week – I felt him slipping away; already his mind was back in the army. It’s a good feeling because he’s happy, he’s committed, and he’s gained so much. He’s more confident, more mature, physically stronger, and, for now, excited to be embarking on each new path.
At the same time, I feel a bit strange because I know that where he walks, I can’t follow. What he does, I won’t always know. What he knows, he can’t share with me completely. And whatever he decides, I have to accept.
The Israeli army is known for the “follow me” policy. In most armies, the commanders are in the rear – ordering their men into action. In Israel, the commanders lead. Follow me, they say to their soldiers. And the soldiers follow because they know the commander will guide them well. The commander takes the risk, is trained to shoot or handle the most complicated weapons and the soldiers follow. That’s also why the number of fallen commanding officers is so high in Israel. The most famous might well be Yoni Netanyahu, who fell in Entebbe, Uganda while leading a rescue of Jewish hostages, but the is one of thousands who fell while leading their men into battle. Being a commanding officer can be very dangerous.
Israeli medics are known to risk all to get to their soldiers, to try to save them. Many medics died in our last war because they didn’t wait to secure the path to the injured. To do so would likely mean allowing someone to bleed to death and so being a medic can be very dangerous in the Israeli army too. They are right there, in the thick of battle and when a soldier is wounded, they act as they have been trained, to do all in their power to stabilize, to save, to evacuate, to care for their wounded.
What this means is that there are no safe paths in the army, just as there are no truly safe paths in life. I’ve often told people that we give birth, if we are blessed, with perfect little babies, who spend their lives going around collecting scars. This morning, as I dropped Elie off, I thought about the scar on the top of his head – the one he got when he climbed like a monkey onto the bunk beds and then cut his head on the bookshelves nearby. It was very obvious because while on vacation this past week, he once again cut his hair very short and the hair has never quite grown back over the area where he was injured. And the scar on his leg, from the time he surreptitiously took a razor and wanted to see if he could cut his pajamas – he succeeded, but also cut his leg.
Life may be about collecting scars, but it is also about meeting challenges, testing yourself, and expanding your abilities. It’s interesting to watch Elie grow before my eyes, to test himself to see what he is capable of doing.
Commander or medic? I don’t know what he will choose, but I have faith that we will see him through each step…and no, he didn’t let me give him a kiss in front of the base when I dropped him off, but he did smile and say he’d call soon.