A group of 40 American cadets and officers wrapped up a two-week trip to Poland and Israel on Monday, meeting with high-ranking IDF officers to learn about the Jewish State and the complexity of its security situation.
Organized by Our Soldiers Speak, , the trip left a deep impression on the visiting service members who hail from the West Point Military Academy, the Air Force Academy and the Virginia Military Institute, with some even voicing their readiness to fight and if necessary die alongside IDF troops.
After spending time in Poland visiting Nazi concentration camps and Holocaust sites, the group received high-level briefings in Israel from current and former policy makers and commenta-tors from across the spectrum, in areas of security, strategy, international relations, law, and politics.
“This unparalleled experience enables American cadets to learn about hot-button issues and matters of utmost strategic importance in the Middle East firsthand,” said OSS founder and director Benjamin Anthony. “By forging bonds between the cadets and Israeli military officers, we are laying the groundwork for future understanding and productive interactions.”
The cadets, age 19 to 22, will enlist as officers in the US Armed Forces following their under-graduate studies.
“We wanted to impact people who will be in leaderships positions a short time after the trip to Israel,” Anthony said, adding that “all of them will be in command positions two or three years after this trip, and they will be better informed about America’s greatest ally in the Middle East and the world.”
By interacting with current and retired IDF officers and other policy makers in Israel, the Amer-ican cadets – who are the third OSS delegation here – are able to deepen their relationships to people with whom they will likely cross paths over the course of their military careers.
“The tour identified Israel as the only location in the Middle East as being safe, and a country where the officers will very likely meet and work with during their career,” Anthony said, add-ing that this trip “allows for a more beneficial, stronger, better understood relationship and collaboration between the officers of the two militaries.”
For the cadets, the majority visiting Israel for the first time, the experience has opened their eyes to a reality that is completely different than what they see in the media.
“I’ve learned more about Israel in two weeks than I learned in one semester,” Stephan Marn from Pennsylvania told The Jerusalem Post on the last day of the tour. “I was speechless in Poland... We visited sites that we only heard about in our history books.”
A student at the Virginia Military Institute, Marn said that while the media shows the Middle East as being unstable, he feels “completely safe and secure.”
“Recently we see images of violence and intensity in the media but its not necessarily the case,” he said, explaining that one of the strongest memories he has from the trip was joining Jerusalem Day celebrations while on a tour of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“Israel has so many enemies knocking on their back door, yet the people in Jerusalem were happy, enjoying life… It was an amount of true patriotism that I don’t see in America today. I got pretty emotional.”
Marn will serve in the US Army following graduation, and told the Post that he can “absolutely” see himself working alongside IDF officers over the course of his military career.
“No question, without a doubt,” he smiled.
The reality of being so close to enemies who threaten the state on a daily basis was a shock for all the cadets who spoke to the Post on Monday.
Santiago Lopez, a junior at VMI, said it was “strange” to be able to look out onto Syria from Is-rael.
“The Golan was much different than I expected,” said Lopez. “It was so peaceful. When you look out to Syria you see some ruins, but it’s nothing like you hear on the news. It was absurd. It was a lot more peaceful... I didn’t think it would be a tourist spot and look out into Syria.”
US Air Force Academy cadet Durkin Ross said it was “surreal” standing next to the Gaza Strip, and that following the trip all the news headlines are “a lot” more real.
“For such a young country, there is so much history that has happened in its 70 years of exist-ence,” Ross said. “So much has happened that it makes the United States look stagnant in that regard. Talking to the upper leadership of the State of Israel, the military leaders or members of Knesset, it seems like their way of reacting to certain problems happens a lot faster than in the US.”
Fellow US Air Force Academy cadet Kaitlyn Benton said the proximity of the dangers Israel fac-es, be it from Gaza or Syria, makes it so that they can’t be ignored.
“While our problems in the US are typically overseas, it’s not usually in your backyard that you can see your enemy in the distance,” she said. “The Gaza Strip is right there. We stood at the border. The same with Syria. These people who are trying to destroy the way of life here are right in the backyard, and that’s not a problem we face in the US; and that makes the situation a lot more real because you can’t deny that there are threats that need to be taken care of.”
Both Ross and Benton said the trip has given them the tools to allow them to work with their Israeli counterparts in the future
“Now that we have been here and seen the locations, it makes it a lot more real when we read the news headlines,” said Ross. “We remember the sites, sounds and smells from those loca-tions... being able to have that picture in my head, that I stood there, I can relate to this a lot more.”
For Benton, being able to see and recognize the personal connection that IDF soldiers have makes it impossible for her not to invest the same energy and commitment into working with Israel in the future.
“When we were overlooking the Gaza Strip, we were sitting in a kids playground, and I feel that we now have that personal connection,” Benton said. “We got to see exactly what Israeli soldiers are fighting for. It’s not an elusive war zone. They are protecting their families that they can see when they are involved in operations.”
For West Point cadets Travis Afuso and Alexandra Martin, the visits that stuck out were to the Syrian and Gaza borders.
“We haven’t been to a conflict area yet so it was very significant,” Martin said. “We were liter-ally actually seeing things that we had only heard and read about before. It’s a different expe-rience than the US that your neighbor could hate you. ‘Love thy neighbor’ is not necessarily the situation here.”
After seeing Israel’s southern front with Gaza, Afuso said that while it seemed peaceful, “at any moment war could break out there,” and that contrary to the United States, the troops in Israel “have a deep need to serve.”
“That’s the triumph of Israel,” said Afuso. “There are constant threats to Israel, but people continue to live their lives. That’s really inspiring. And it’s very different than in the United States, where we talk about threats in the United States, but those threats aren’t nearly as immediate and real for the average American. But we still see the average Israeli enduring.
“Every soldier we spoke to had a deep need to serve. They understand that there will be no Israel unless people are willing to die for Israel. A lot of people in America need to understand that nothing is free, and you have to work for it. Although they might be next to their hometowns, they could be going to war in a matter of hours.”
Afuso expressed no hesitation when asked if he would fight, and even die, next to Israeli sol-diers.
“Absolutely,” he told the Post. “We have a shared understanding of the threats, a shared set of values based on freedom and democracy, and those are the things which will allow us to fight together and if necessary to die by each other’s side if that’s what it comes to. If that is what my country asked of us, if I was sent here, I would be proud
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