Beneath the Israeli Helmet – A Peak into Training New Israeli Soldiers

We have a junior in high school, and the alphabet soup of SATs, ACTs and A/P exams have started.  Looking at colleges and planning tours are all the fabric of this time in our teen’s life.  The scrolling photos of days gone by, are every cliché – where did the time go?

Yet, I’m aware if we lived in Israel – our world would be very different right now.  Our son, wouldn’t be preparing for his new adventure in college – but he soon would be training to risk his life in the Israeli military.  How do Israeli parents deal with sending their kids off to stare into the face of death?

I suppose daily life in Israel – prepares Israeli families somewhat – with missiles, stabbings and car rammings, but military life certainly increases the potential for the Angel of Death to visit too soon.

Recently I saw a powerful film, “Beneath the Helmet – From High School to the Home Front.”  It’s portrayed as a “coming of age story” – Israeli style. It follows drafted Israeli high school graduates into their training in the army.  They are training to become paratroopers.

It was clear throughout the film these new 18-year-old adults accepted their duty the country demanded of them. Each felt they not only were joining the military as was required, but they were fighting for the survival of the Jewish people.  As a mom, I saw boys burdened with the weight of their people and nation, on their shoulders.

Young soldiers – the way it’s always been for centuries everywhere. I just have had the luxury of it not hitting so close to home before.

These young people were all from different backgrounds. Oren, born in Israel had left with his family at five for Switzerland, and had come back to serve his country.

Eilon, was born in Ashdod, the largest port in Israel.1 Hearing the city’s name – Ashdod – I couldn’t help but think of our 2014 trip.  It’s a city I’ve come to know more about since our vacation in Israel, when we found ourselves at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge. Think touring incredible places, interspersed with cowering in bomb shelters.

Cities like Ashdod, Ashkelon and Sderot are where hundreds of harassing bombs from Gaza were sent that summer – a clear violation of Israeli human rights – targeting civilians – but the world doesn’t seem to notice.

Sderot is located less than a mile from Gaza – at least 75 percent of children aged 4–18 in Sderot suffer from post-traumatic stress, including sleeping disorders and severe anxiety.2 It has the dubious distinction of being the “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World.”3 Sadly, some of its many bomb shelters are built in the form of children’s play areas – located on school playgrounds.4

On our trip – we observed the human face of terror, first-hand.  As we were driving down to Eilat, in the south of Israel – we ran into a traffic jam – cars stopped and backed up in what seemed like for miles. We weren’t on Interstate 5 in California, at 5:00 p.m. – what was this?  We learned about it, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) while in a bomb shelter at 1 a.m. the next morning.

We had been woken up, greeted by the blasts of sirens, and hurried to the shelter – the stairwell. This wasn’t the first time on our trip – nor the last.  Fearing for our lives – a family of strangers huddled together seeking protection from the rockets streaking towards us.

I noticed a beautiful Israeli woman, she looked to be about thirty.  Her eyes were as big as saucers – her child draped to her chest as she instinctively held her baby girl close.  I was surprised to see the expression on her face – Israelis, are used to this – aren’t they?  The Israelis I had met before, and on this trip, were much more emotionally armored.  I asked her in my ignorance, if she was O.K.?

“No, I’m not okay!” she replied with tears in her eyes.  After days of constant bombing, she said, “We’re from Ashkelon.  We came down to Eilat to get away from this – but there’s no escape!” she said with a look of desperation.  I felt impotent – what do you say to someone with such a tragic reality? A silence still haunting me today.

Eilon, while on a home visit, showed the steel shades on the windows they would slide closed -while Palestinian missiles shot into their neighborhood.  His bedroom – the family bomb shelter – where his entire family trembled in fear. Isn’t your bedroom supposed to be your peace-filled sanctuary?  As a mom, I wondered about the impact on him and other Israelis of his generation – living this life.

Mekonen emigrated from Ethiopia at twelve. Twelve hours before boarding the plane to come to Israel, his father died.  Not only were they mourning losing their father and husband, but they were going to a new country, that spoke a new language, with a different culture.

You might be surprised to know there was a large black Jewish population in Ethiopia. During several major rescue operations from, famine and civil war, mainly during the 1970’s-1990’s they were airlifted to their homeland in Israel. With The Jewish Federations of North America in Ethiopia’s support, rescues continued through May 2015 – flying their last mission.5 I remember the fundraising campaigns as a young Jewish adult – “Save Ethiopian Jews.”

The Jewish Ethiopian population came from a poor, rural, uneducated society – delivered into a modern, educated, industrialized society.  This was a culture shock – and the struggle still exists today – but that’s a story for another time.

Eden is a commander.  Can you imagine at the age of 21, being entrusted for the lives and safety of 45 others?  I remember being their age and thinking about partying and meeting guys – when will I meet Mr. Right? These are just “normal” kids who love the beach, surfing, playing guitar and sports.

Sergeant Coral, is a female drill sergeant working at a pre-basic training facility helping foreign soldiers learn Hebrew and successfully integrate into the Israeli Defense Forces. She teaches soldiers who’ve made Aliyah (moved to Israel) from around the world – one minute helping a Russian – the next a Hungarian. The soldiers and commanders are personally changed and moved by working with each other.  Coral, having been raised a spoiled, affluent child, sees how her soldiers gave up everything to come to Israel – and she has learned how to connect with them.

For some of these kids – it seems like this is the first time away from home – making “best friends” on the bus on the way to the base.  But this is no summer camp – it’s the real deal and they are training to defend themselves, their country, and to learn to how to kill others – if necessary, before they kill you.

As they said good night to their commander and they were warned eight minutes until lights out – I couldn’t help but feel a sense of being tucked in like a ritual they might have done at home. The officers seem to take on the role of parent, hero and very tough boss – war is serious business.

Perhaps this was the first time they held a rifle – now, after eight hours of training, it would become their best friend – they give them names. They went on their first march carrying 55 pound packs.

The change was shocking for the young draftees – having to learn how to live doing everything outside including eating and sleeping.  This wasn’t playing cowboys and Indians – it was going to be their reality, and they had to learn to survive as their commander yelled at them to “Stay down and roll!” while holding tightly to their weapon. As he continued screaming, “Straight lines, straight lines,” fearing if they don’t, as they crawl on the ground, they would be in danger of shooting their buddies.

Practicing jumping correctly on the ground – was difficult and bruising – but different. Once they were up in the air on the plane, with the door open waiting to jump for the first time – it became very real.  As one soldier said, “If you don’t jump, they’ll push you.”  The ducklings lined up and one after the next, their chutes opened with relief and exhilaration.

During the film their relatives were interviewed – the mom worried – did her son have enough to eat and drink? Grandma – would he return home safe? Dad – I didn’t know he had it in him! When he returned safely while on leave, his mom caressed his dirty clothes – grateful to have them to wash.

They take the vow of service to their country – pledging their strength and possibly their life to beloved Israel – at the most holy Jewish sight – the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The quintessential symbol of the Jewish people – it was very moving. Parents and commanders attend – it’s a cause for celebration – and yet not.  They now will be facing real, unvarnished danger.

Later during their training they also would be taken to Mt. Herzl cemetery.  In a somber revelation – the commanders visit the graves of their fallen buddies.  They are advised they will know friends who they too will visit here someday – with the unspoken thought – or they might be visiting you.

In one poignant moment in the film – Mekonen’s family is struggling financially and he is extremely depressed.  Going AWOL would land him in jail. He’s torn between his duty to his family who needs his financial help – and his country’s.

Strong friendships are forged in the pain of military service and are hard for us civilians to comprehend. His commander arranges for his family debts to be covered by an arrangement of a donation and with the bank.

In shock and with tears in his eyes, Mekonen uttered a muffled, “Thank you very much.” Humanity at its finest – I too was moved to tears.

At day 100, they are treated to advanced training.  They don’t sleep, don’t eat, carry pounds of supplies and buddies on their back, and finally in exhaustion, are allowed to rest only to discover they accidentally chose to sleep on a red ant hill – definitely not a just reward.

Parents and friends come to greet them for their last march in celebration of their accomplishment – even taking off work to honor them with pride.

I thought this was a great film that gave me a glimpse into the lives and responsibilities of Israeli young adults.

In a discussion with an Israeli after seeing the film – he pointed out these were paratroopers – their unit would be in the elite in the service – toward the top of the food chain.  He also questioned the positivity of the film because it didn’t touch on the draft dodgers – also part of Israeli society.

What he said was all true and yet, I realize in this film, and as I write my blogs and my book – you can’t write about every nuance of every Israeli issue, in every piece – it’s too complex. Perhaps that’s why Israel is so captivating.  Hopefully, I can offer glimpses into a slice of Israeli life I care deeply about – from an American Jewish perspective.  There’s always more to learn, research and write. Thanks for reading.

I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

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Footnotes:

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashdod

2 “IRIN Middle East – ISRAEL-OPT: Relentless rocket attacks take psychological toll on children in Sderot – Israel – OPT – Children – Conflict – Health & Nutrition”. IRINnews.

3 “IRIN Middle East – ISRAEL-OPT: Relentless rocket attacks take psychological toll on children in Sderot – Israel – OPT – Children – Conflict – Health & Nutrition”. IRINnews.

4 “IRIN Middle East – ISRAEL-OPT: Relentless rocket attacks take psychological toll on children in Sderot – Israel – OPT – Children – Conflict – Health & Nutrition”. IRINnews.

5 https://jewishfederations.org/federation-impact-stories/journey-complete-ethiopian-jews-arrive-in-israel

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