July 30, 2006

What we know now, after 2 whole weeks, about being parents of an Israeli soldier in wartime. On March 19, three days before his 19th birthday, we took our oldest son, our little boy, to Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill, (the site of a fierce battle in the Six-Day War) from where he went off to start his army service. He was going to start his training on the Golani base, as part of the elite commando unit, Egoz.

At the time, we were proud, and worried, but only in a theoretical sense, as we knew that his training lasts 18 months, and were confident that until the end of that, he would be safe, on his base. No one gave us instructions on how to be a parent of a soldier – and who expected the need to learn?

We already knew that you make lots of good food for when they come home for Shabbat, and plan on doing several loads of laundry in a hurry every time they come home, so it will be clean and dry before they go back again. We knew that you get up early – very early – to drive them to the bus station on Sunday morning, and then you start waiting again until the next Shabbat that they get to come home.

And we very quickly learned to measure our daily time with him in minutes and seconds, as most nights we get a hurried phone call, from his cell phone to ours, to say “Hi, I’m fine.”

From spending hours each day with him as a child, we have had to learn to accept – and appreciate – 14 minutes and 38 seconds (when he has lots of time), or 6 minutes and 3 seconds… It’s a gift, this little bit of ‘personal’ time allotted to him each evening by the army, and a ‘gift’ from the cell phone company, which gives soldiers low rates for calls placed at night, to encourage them to call home. And we already knew how much to appreciate that, imagining parents in the pre-cell phone era, waiting for the occasional letter or postcard.

This was an easy routine to get used to. All of us had been preparing for it for a very long time, and at 19, he was quite ready to be out of the house for big chunks of time. But that was all of four months ago, a long time ago, in a galaxy far away. And now, suddenly, there is a real war, and the soldiers fighting in it are all somebody’s sons, and everything looks completely different.

Shavit has just completed the first stage of his basic training, and was looking forward to a week’s vacation. But that has been cancelled, and all bets are off as to when – or if – that will happen. Had he finished his training, he would now be in Lebanon, as we hear daily reports about the actions of the Egoz unit there.

This week they lost five soldiers – the fifth was a young man who had made aliya alone from the Ukraine at the age of 15, and wanted nothing more than to become a real Israeli. He was killed after carrying one of his wounded comrades to safety, when he went back to rescue a second wounded soldier. His heroism cost him his life. He was a real Israeli.

Because he is still at this early stage of training, Shavit and his unit were sent to guard settlements, in order to allow the soldiers who had been there, to be moved up to the front. After two weeks of guarding a small settlement in Gush Etzion, he and all the soldiers training with him were sent to attend the funerals of their peers, the Egoz soldiers who were killed in Lebanon. Being so ‘green’ has exempt him from the real battle so far, but not from facing up to the reality and the danger, and the knowledge that it is real people – including soldiers, even in his unit, who die in wars.

Chaim, a close friend of Shavit’s, who was with him in nursery school, was drafted several months before him. Chaim is a talented musician, and his army service consists of playing in an army band. In the past, I had marvelled about how the army finds a place for everyone, and allows young people who have special talents to continue to develop those talents, while still fulfilling their army service. And I also thought that Chaim’s parents were so lucky, as they would never need to fear for his safety.

Chaim has spent the last two weeks in the north of the country, playing music to people as they sit in shelters. So much for safety – everyone who can is leaving those areas! And yet, I wonder how many armies in the world worry about the souls of their citizens, and see it as their duty to bring music, magic (yes, there is an army magician!!) and spiritual relief to them when they are being bombed.

A colleague of mine at work has children who are not yet of army age. But her nephew is a soldier, and last week she was relieved that he was in Nablus – an area that, three weeks ago, was not considered a very safe place to be. But it was better than being up north. Until, while he and a fellow soldier were patrolling in that city, the fellow soldier was blown up right beside him, by a rocket that was dropped on his head.

When a country is at war, no one is safe, and nowhere is safe. And even those who are in a place that is physically safe at the moment, are exposed daily to experiences and sights that may damage their souls, even if their body remains unscathed.

Is this reality sharper to parents of soldiers? Of course it is – when the army is not just made up of other people, but has your own child in it, everything is certainly more personal. And of course it isn’t – there are few people in this country who don’t have a direct connection to someone in the army, or who lives in whatever area is currently the battle zone, whether they be family, or friends, or their own past experience. This is the reality for all of us, whether we are parents of soldiers or not.

So what do we know now, after two whole weeks, about being parents of a soldier in wartime? What any parent knew before – you spend a few precious minutes talking to your soldier each day (if you’re lucky), and the remaining hours missing, thinking, and worrying, about them. And, just like you have been doing since the day your soldier was born, you try to believe, and pray with all your heart, that this war, and by that, you really mean all wars, will be over before your soldier is ready to fight.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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