It's a long way from Boca Raton, Florida, to the grueling urban warfare of Gaza, but Ari Blatt, 22, a lone soldier who lives in Jerusalem, was "glad to do his part." Born in South Bend, Indiana, Blatt was the youngest of four children. At 12 he moved to Boca Raton to live with his grandparents. They lived a modern Orthodox lifestyle, but Blatt didn't really feel connected to Israel until he went on a March of the Living trip when he was 16. "Going to Poland and then to Israel, I felt that I understood for the first time why Israel exists and why it's important for the Jewish people to have their own place," says Blatt. Upon finishing high school, he decided to take a gap year in Israel. In October 2004 he went to a Kibbutz Ulpan program outside Jerusalem. "It was the best experience I had in Israel," he says. "I met the most interesting, multi-international people, learned about new cultures and traveled around the country." Blatt worked in the kibbutz glass factory, making bullet-proof windows. He learned basic Hebrew and met friends, who he says "will stay with me for life." During the program, Blatt met a lot of people who had already made aliya and a few who were going to join the army. "We talked a lot about what it means to live in Israel and to go into the army, and three months later, in January 2005, I decided to make aliya," he explains. It would be another 11 months before he tied up loose ends in the US, returned to Israel, registered for the IDF and was drafted. "I had no doubt that what I was doing was right," says Blatt. "The only hesitation I had was on our first day of induction. We were taken to Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, and I didn't understand a word that was said. I thought, 'If this is the situation, I'm in big trouble.'" But through the IDF Education Corps, Blatt spent two months in an army ulpan, learning Hebrew, Zionism and the history of the modern State of Israel. Again he was with people from all over the world, all lone soldiers, and made good friends. Blatt was determined to serve in a special forces combat unit. He underwent the grueling endurance tests and passed the exams, all in Hebrew, and was placed in a combat engineering unit. "I wanted to do something that was real and significant," he says. During his training he learned to detect and deal with underground tunnels, explosives, demolitions, bomb detonations and mine-field removal. His "specialty" was tunnels and hidden weapons caches. He did not see action during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, as he was still in basic training. But at the crossroads of his mandatory service and discharge, Blatt found himself in the thick of Operation Cast Lead. He was due to be discharged on January 5. On January 4, the IDF ground forces entered Gaza and, without missing a beat, Blatt went from a discharged soldier to a reserve soldier called up for emergency duty. "But I never actually left the army," he says. Although he had been in Gaza before, he says that this time it was different. The defensive was more massive, and there was a lot of work to do. "The morale was really high," explains Blatt. "There was the feeling that we were finally doing an all-out operation to protect Israel's citizens. This is what we had been trained for. In my eyes, this was a completely just war and I was proud to be part of it." Blatt was in Gaza for eight days. He then came out and went back in periodically over the next two weeks. With no family in Israel, Blatt's community and support were other lone soldiers. "There is a camaraderie among us that is different because we are all going through the same experience, no matter where we came from," says Blatt. Although his parents and grandparents were very worried about him, they supported his decision. In the month before his discharge, Blatt was preparing to enter civilian life, something - unlike his Israel-born comrades - he had never experienced here. He participated in a week-long Jewish Agency course for lone soldiers that taught him a lot about life as a civilian. "There are many things that people take for granted that we know, but we don't," says Blatt. "We didn't grow up in Israel, we served in the army for three years, and we aren't really so aware of our civilian rights." The course covered topics such as national insurance payments, medical insurance, taxes, the rights of discharged lone soldiers, college scholarships for new immigrants and entering the job market. "They even taught us how to write our resumes in Hebrew and interview for jobs. It was great," he says. "After the course, I was all psyched to be released, when suddenly I was back in the army. I had to immediately change my mind-set." Upon his release from the army, Blatt plans to return to the US to visit family and old friends and to travel, similar to the post-army backpacking trips taken by many of Israel's discharged soldiers to "clear their heads." "I'm not sure what I'm going to do next," says Blatt. "I'm just glad I came back okay."

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