Giving Advice

I’m not sure when it happened…when I suddenly began to feel that I could help others along the path I have taken (or been forced to take) over the last two plus years.

My son turned 17 last week and received a letter from the army about his physical. Since the letter is in Hebrew, we only understand parts of it. Does anyone have any advice about this? Is he supposed to go by himself, or with a parent? Any other advice from those who have done this before would be appreciated.

And so I found myself in an interesting position – I am the “veteran” mother with two years of experience behind me. I’ve been through this moment twice already – sending them off to the recruitment office knowing that from this moment on, what they do has nothing to do with me. I cannot control where the army will send them, what they will tell the army. I answered this mother’s inquiry from the heart and was surprised to find my eyes filling with tears when I explained to her that this is the beginning of letting go of your son.

Totally let him go by himself. He has to start.

A few words of advice – tell him not to be nervous and tell him to speak out if he has an interest. If his profile is high enough, they will ask him if he is willing to serve in a combat unit. He probably should decide this in advance – neither of my sons asked me for an opinion – both opted to go to combat units.

Elie is serving in artillery…it looks like Shmulik is going to go to Golani

However, if your son is going to go to yeshiva or whatever, it doesn’t matter what really happens now. This first appointment is for the army to test him. From there, they begin considering what is best for him (and for the army). Your son will have opportunities along the way in which units will approach him and ask if he wants to try out and join them. Some, like the Navy and Air Force are very “prestigious” – but also require a longer commitment.

If your son excels in school and wants to become a doctor or engineer, there is a possibility that the army would pay for this direction against a further commitment in the future.

For this initial meeting – there’s nothing he really has to do – other than answer the questions honestly, and no, this is the moment when you begin to start to let him go. It is hard…I can’t tell you how hard…but you have to do it…and more importantly, he has to do it. For what it is worth, I can tell you that I am in awe of the army’s ability to fit the kid into the right peg.

Maybe I lucked out, I don’t know…but so far, the process has worked. The main thing is to have your son determine his own future and his preferences – let him know you are there to listen, you’ll help where you can…and you will FOLLOW him.

The thing is, without this “army” in our lives, I think maturity is a gradual process. There is this hazy line between infancy and childhood. There is no one moment when you suddenly say, my child is no longer an infant, but a toddler or no longer a toddler, but a young boy.

When is the moment when a boy becomes a man? I would have told you a few years ago that it isn’t a moment, but a series of moments, a gradual process. I would have told you that you won’t suddenly look at your son and think, “wow, he’s a man” where yesterday you thought he was a boy.

I would have told you it is something that happens over time, that maturity was like a warmth that slowly slips into the body with time. But the army changes all that. You cannot hand a gun to a boy. Well, I’ll probably have the National Rifle Association and right-to-bear-arms people tell me I’m wrong about that, so let me qualify it by saying that with the gun comes tremendous responsibility.

When you hand a gun to a child, it is because you are going to teach him to shoot an animal, a piece of cardboard in the shape of a target. When you hand a gun to a soldier, it is because you are going to teach him to kill another human being. See this man, see this terrorist. He wants to kill your people, your family. Stop him. Shoot in the air and maybe he will stop because life is precious and if you can save your life AND his life, you should.

Shoot at his legs and maybe he will stop because life is precious.

Kill him. Shoot him in the head or in the heart, but stop him and stop him now because life is precious. That is not something you can teach a child.

If you raise your gun and aim it at a person, you may have to fire. Elie has raised his gun several times and he was prepared to fire. He was seconds away. With more gratitude to God than you can imagine, Elie didn’t have to fire his gun at anyone (at least not that he’s told me).

And so, when this mother is asking advice, what she is really asking, or what we will really have to tell her, is that this is the beginning of the process. It will start the first time the boy leaves home and goes to the recruitment office.

They will test him physically and give him a profile. Based on that profile, if it is high enough, they will ask him a question, “Are you prepared to serve in a combat unit?” or “Are you willing to serve in a combat unit?”

And the moment the boy answers, that first step to manhood is taken. He will answer, not you. He will decide, not his mother. Months will follow in which the boy will return to high school, take his tests and be with his friends. And while he is doing this, his name is traveling around the army as they decide, as they ask him more questions and offer him possibilities.

And then, the letter will come. And then the day will come. And like you sent him off to the recruiting office, you will send him off to the army. If it is any consolation, your job is not done once he becomes a man.

He will still need you, call you and you’ll still need him, call him. But it will be different because he isn’t your little boy any more. You can’t call him home when you want him (you can’t even call him at all some of the time). And, at first, he’ll come home in “army” mode. He’ll be the new man, tired, dirty, hungry, more serious.

He will go so many places without you, do so many things you’ll never really understand. He’ll tell you that he is going to train in the night and laugh when you worry he’ll be cold. He’ll tell you he is hiking up mountains and running kilometers and you’ll worry about his knees and he’ll smile and tell you he’s fine. He’ll come home alone and go back to base alone and you’ll realize that you have to let him.

He’ll follow all the rules the army tells him, dress carefully, shine his boots and clean his gun. You may not realize it at this point, but he is already closer to what he will be than what he was when he left your home. And what you will learn is that you will love him in all his forms, all his moods. You’ll tolerate all that he does because you are just grateful to have him home. And that’s when the second shift will take place. He will swing back, ever so slightly, to the boy he was. He’ll shine his boots less often because he has learned the powers and limitations of the military police; he will polish his gun because it is important, but he won’t take it with him when he doesn’t have to.

He will tease and laugh and show you more of what he was and that’s when you’ll know the transition is complete and this is who he is – the boy and the man will find peace within the one body they share and you will smile and turn to some other mother and tell her to let him go alone. And yes, you’ll tell her, this is what I did and I cried when I did it; I cry when I tell you to do it.

That’s the only advice I can give – let him go alone when he has to – and be there when he comes home.

8 Comments on Giving Advice

  1. I can’t comment from experience on much of what you’ve said, simply because I am not a parent.

    However, you are very right about letting him go on his own – during the army one has to make many decisions about one’s future, and how to deal with the system, and these decisions often have to be made on the fly, with no one to consult. Which is why it’s important to be accquainted with the system as much as possible from the start.

    Another thing – about choosing combat or not. If one is NOT an only son (which I believe is really only son, not only child) and medically capable, there really is very little choice – odds are the army will send him to combat regardless.

  2. I know that both my sons were asked if they were willing to serve in combat units. Both had 97 profile (the highest possible one) and both immediately answered that they were willing. I’m not sure what would have happened had either answered in the negative. I only know that they were asked (which gave me the impression that the army offered an out). Certainly, if a boy absolutely refuses to be in a combat unit, as far as I know, generally, the army won’t force him. They’ll assign him to the ranks of what we call here the “jobnik” or non-combat units – which is actually the bulk of the army and includes support, transport, and so much more.

  3. Honestly, I’m not sure who is asked and how much of that is really a question, or only asked to gauge motivation.

    I have, however, seen quite a few people at the Bakum get sent to lockup for refusing to go to the their assigned units. In my experience (personal and of friends), the IDF is not so accommodating, to say the least, when it comes to unit assignment (not that I’m saying it should be).

  4. Anonymous // June 4, 2009 at 1:39 pm // Reply

    You should drive him there if you can. My son had to go all the way up to Haifa and had a lot of trouble finding his way after getting off the bus. It added a lot of stress to a long and stressful day. Send him with a snack and something to do to pass the waiting time. If I remember correctly, this interview he decided to have conducted in Hebrew instead of English and the interviewer was not allowed to help him with words he did not understand. My son spent a lot of time beforehand deciding on his top choices for combat unit, assuming his profile would be high enough, which it was, and one of those is usually where you end up. I left that up to him (except I said he could not be in tanks because I wasn’t brave enough for that). He got into his first choice and it turned out to be a good one.

    I didn’t cry until he went off to the induction center for the first day and called me while waiting for a bus to take him to his first base. They took pictures of his face and teeth, fingerprints, gave him dog tags for his neck and each boot. Each boot. That was really hard and still is. I wish I had been prepared for that. They should tell all the new soldiers, don’t tell that to your mom. Let her think you just got a bunch of shots and new clothes. We need to be eased into this new reality.

  5. As you well know, I have not sent a child off to the military, but as I read your post here, was reminded – again – about the universality of motherhood.

    Bearing that in mind, I am posting a piece on my own site, just for you, the Israeli Soldier’s Mother, and ALL the military mothers.

    Bless you all.

  6. I think you gave wonderful advice.

  7. Since Oct. 2002 I’ve been a military mom, first of one, then two, now back to one. I remember the day my son came home from the long day of physicals and papers and, finally, signing the dotted line. I had cried all day, but I said to him “You have chosen an honorable thing and I’m proud of you. But I’m going to cry, I can’t help it.” With that understanding, I’ve cried and he’s hugged and we said goodbye and hello many times during his four years of active duty.

    About 6 months prior to his enlistment a childhood friend of mine, married with two small children, was killed in a car accident by a woman who was drunk and high on drugs. While I grieved the loss of my friend, I was struck by the realization that although her parents (her dad performed our wedding ceremony) lived down the road from her, they could NOT take her next breath had she been standing next to them and I can’t take the next breath for my children either. Only G-d can do that. Only He knows the number of their (and my) days. I need to remember the one who created them, who knows them by name, and who loves them, holds them in the palm of His hand. That brings a peace, even in the tears, and makes it easier to serve on the sidelines, which is what we moms do. That knowledge sustained me even when I knew he was in combat.

    Write often! Talk even if he calls late at night and wakes you out of a sound sleep! Keep relatives and friends updated; their prayers will be the wind beneath your wings and his.

    Blessings and hugs from one military mom to another.

  8. I am mother to a 27 year old and a 17 year old … both boys (men). My greatest struggle was when the eldest left home. My heart and soul cry at the fact that mothers (and families) in Israel would probably love to have my worries in place of their own. As God as my witness, I shall not cease to pray for peace in Israel. God bless you all.

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