Cpl. Michael Abonyi, a 21-year-old immigrant from New Mexico, recently completed a grueling advanced training course to become an IDF paratrooper. Yet unlike his fellow soldiers, for Abonyi, this will be the second time he completes a full military training program.
Before dreaming of joining the IDF, Abonyi enrolled in the United States Marine Corps, where he served for two years. He then found that his heart yearned for Israel, leading him to carry out a dramatic about turn in his military career.
Abonyi shared his remarkable story with the The Jerusalem Post
He said he knew for years that his future lay in the military, and back in New Mexico, he took part in a military high school program, before enrolling in the US Naval Academy.
"This is a military university. Many apply, but not many get in. In it, you lead a military lifestyle in a college setting. After classes there are very vigorous physical exercise, and you are in military uniform every day. There is training when we weren't in class. After graduation, we get a diploma and an officer's rank," said the paratrooper.
Abonyi received a nomination from his local congressman and senator before being accepted at the academy. He planned on serving in the Marine Corps for ten years, and began handling public affairs logistics for his unit.
"School wasn't for me," he said. He was on track to becoming a commissioned officer. "It's really what I wanted to do. I loved it, and did it well. I loved the people and environment," he added.
But then, a longing for Israel began to take over. "I've always been a big Zionist," Abonyi said. "I was getting very involved in studying the Israeli Arab conflict. Zionism was really flaring up in me," he said.
Last winter, he took part in a Taglit trip to Israel for US military personnel, which brought soldiers from the US Army, Air Force and Navy to the country.
It was during this visit, Abonyi said, that he realized "there is so much about this place that I love. I also realized that I couldn't get to the bottom of everything going on here if I didn't live here. I decided to come here." He returned to the US, put in his paper work to leave the navy, and received an honorable discharge, along with strong recommendations from his commanders, who, Abonyi said, expressed understanding for his decision.
"The commanders believed in what I was doing and supported it," he said.
On February 28, just over a year ago, Abonyi landed in Israel, and was picked up by his cousins at the airport. For two months, he travelled around the country and studied the land. "I was so very happy with my decision, because I realized how much I loved this place," he said. "I taught myself the Hebrew alphabet on Google. The first few weeks were definitely tough getting around." He then enrolled in the Mikve Alon program which combines military training with Hebrew ulpan lessons.
"I spent three months with a notebook in front of my face. At the end, there was an opportunity to try out for the Paratroopers. I heard this was the hardest regular infantry unit to get into, and I thought, why not." Abonyi made the cut and got into the unit. "When I left Ulpan, i was convinced that I Iearned Hebrew. Then I came to the Paratroopers, and I realized I didn't understand anything that was going on," he recalled. It took two months for him to become versed in the every day Hebrew he heard on his training base.
Abonyi completed basic training for the third time at the Paratroopers, after doing basic training with the US Marines and Mikve Alon program.
"What was hardest emotionally was to go from a US commander, and be treated like a kid again, two more times," he said.
But Abonyi ploughed on, and completed his advanced combat training last week, which including parachute school and intensive field army drills.
"We spent a lot of time in the field, with a wool blanket and a yoga mat. There wasn't even a tent. Part of it was very difficult; it was a very strenuous environment," he said. "It really tested me and a lot of people I was with. The cultural differences were tough too. Israelis and Americans have different protocols. The smallest thing could be misunderstood."
On Wednesday, Abonyi completed his Paratroopers Beret ceremony. He received the Company Excellence award and during the ceremony, Abonyi's training base commander gave him his own red Paratroopers beret.
"That was a big honor," he said. "I can't say I didn't work for it." Now, Abonyi and the rest of his battalion are waiting for deployment.
"Right now, because of the situation in the country, we're not sure what's next for us. It's no secret that my unit is based in the Hermon Mountain on the border with Syria doing border security. We don't really know if we will be going up there, or doing more training. I can't tell you what's next. But if, at any point, war does happen, I will be there. I won't be sitting on the side. I'll do what I came here to do, and defend the country."