Phases of Army Life in Israel

My heart is not in my throat. That is an accomplishment. I can’t help but wonder if that is because I now know the army so well…or because I haven’t got a clue what is coming around the bend of the roller-coaster.

This should be the quiet ride, right? It’s nothing, really. So let me explain. Elie starts his first stint in the Reserves on Sunday. It’s a training run so he’s not on any front and there’s nothing really to worry about. I’ll keep saying that to myself until I believe it. Even if there would be a war, I often say to myself, even then, they would take the standing army guys, not Elie’s group.

During one discussion with Elie recently, he said something like, “in the next war”…and I thought how amazing it was that he was thinking of that.

“Do you really think you’ll be in the next war?” I asked him.

His answer was logical, that of a soldier. It will depend on how long the war lasts. If it goes over a certain period of time, they’ll have to call in the Reserves. Call in the Reserves – that could mean Elie.

Next week, he’ll be on a base learning; the week after, he’ll be in the field shooting. The loud cannons that fire far into the mountains – this time, again, the booms will be his…this time, he’ll be back with a new group of soldiers. These are the men he will accompany through the next 15+ years or so of his life, until he reaches the age of 40 (or so, depending on what the army decides in the years that come) and is discharged from the army.

What amazes me is that this same group will meet up each year and share life’s phases. Now they are single, or perhaps a few are married…next year, or the year after, or the year after that, more of them will be married and then most and then hopefully all. After that, they will begin showing off pictures of their children and talk of how doing Reserve duty gives them a chance to catch up on their sleep. Their sons and daughters will start to talk and walk and then enter school around the same time. Their sons will reach the age of bar mitzvah while they meet up each year and though 40 may be pushing it, one or two might even have a child married during this time. Lives will develop and be lived – shared each year for a few weeks at a time and maybe an occasional get-together here and there. A barbecue, a family event. This is the way it is in Israel – their “miluim” (Reserve Duty) buddies.

In a very small way, it reminds me of a movie I saw years ago with Alan Alda – “Same Time Next Year,” I think it was called. Only there, Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn were having an affair, betraying their families once a year to come together. It was a lovely movie built around a nasty concept. There was nothing right about it – a betrayal of family, of vows. There was nothing holy or honorable. I tried seeing it for the message Hollywood was trying to send, a cute idea, a gimmick, a catchy concept, but never got beyond that sense that despite the lovely relationship they were building, it was wrong. Just wrong. They followed each other through their lives – births of children, school, etc. and with each phase, I felt how wrong it was.

But to follow this to the army connection, the point was that they entered and exited each others lives that one weekend only, quickly catching up on all that had happened. They knew each others lives only through the one’s eyes and laughed and showed pictures and then promised to see each other again the following year.

Elie will go off – perhaps not the same time each year, but likely with the same group of guys. That really is where the analogy ends because in his case, the cause will be noble, honorable, just. He goes not to betray but to serve and the relationships he builds starting next week will be deep bonds of friendship between brothers.

I knew this day was coming more than a year ago when he left the army. It’s another phase in the life he has here as a soldier and I have as a soldier’s mother. Looking back to the weeks and days before he started in the army, I think “controlled panic” might best describe my feelings in those long-ago days. Perhaps “controlled terror” might work too.

I thought when Shmulik would go in the army, I’d have this army thing under control and yet, in some ways his going in was even harder than with Elie. It frightens me that I’m not frightened here; it concerns me that I’m not concerned. Isn’t that silly?

Looking back, I always had two great fears – the first is one that all mothers have every minute of their lives, that the unspeakable will happen, the words I cannot write, cannot think and certainly cannot let enter my heart or mind. The second was about how the army would treat my sons. It is the army way to build the man out of the boy, even when it means breaking the boy at first. But the man is built already and the army has more than a fair share of the credit in his reality. My fears were largely unfounded; the development so much a blessing.

So I’m back to the simplest of fears that all mothers have – no, they aren’t simple. That’s a silly word, but they are normal. Now it becomes the will of God and we are all at His mercy always. For those who think it is dangerous to live in Israel, we here laugh a bit because we feel so safe. Crime is very low compared to most countries and you have a much greater chance of being injured in a traffic accident (and I think even a plane crash if I remember the statistics correctly) than being involved in a terror attack. The bottom line for families of soldiers (but families of children too, if you think about it) is that God gives us these precious lives and we spend the rest of our lives giving thanks and praying for their safety.

I guess Sunday is a day that had to come and now that it is almost here, I’ll do what I did for all the other days of Elie’s service, of Shmulik’s service (and yes, of Yaakov and Chaim’s service too). I’ll get through it.

In a comment that I haven’t yet had time to answer, someone questioned my saying that this is where I always wanted Elie to be, doing what I always wanted him to do. She wrote, “THIS is what you wanted him to be – a soldier?”

No, I didn’t want them to be soldiers; I didn’t want Elie to go to war, to learn to shoot massive artillery weapons. No. I wanted him to live in a land that was his; to serve a nation that he believed in. I would rather live in a country that I’m willing to fight for – and hope that I don’t have to fight, than live in a country in which I simply exist. I grew up in a town and a community that often spoke of escaping the draft, of not fighting for the United States. Canada, Mexico, Europe – they would go anywhere rather than fight.

I had one friend who went into the US Marines…the rest would have run if there was a draft. What right do you have to live in a country and only take from it? That isn’t what I wanted for my sons (or my daughters). And so my children give to this land, they serve it and it enriches them as people, as citizens, as members of the community.

Sunday, Elie starts a new phase in his life. From Elie’s Induction Day post:

There is no ceremony, no great moment, just a gentle slide into a new world. He went in his direction without hesitation; I reluctantly went in mine and I tried all day not to think of where he was. Or, more importantly, I tried not to think of where he wasn’t. From the time my children were born, almost without exception, I have known where they are. Perhaps not to an exact location, but close enough to know that they are within reach, within a short drive or call away. Now enters a time when more often than not, I won’t know where he is, what he is doing. I will have to trust that no news is good news, that he is ok…

I’ll take it one day at a time…for the next three years. Today is over. He’s safe. He’s fine. Tomorrow is another day…

My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can’t explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year. My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years – to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.

If you have a minute, join me back at the beginning of this journey – Induction Day for Elie, 2007.

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