When IDF Sgt. Gal Amitai, now 21 and serving in an anti-tank company within the paratroopers, was just 11 years old, he had already decided that he would become a high-level combat soldier.
Tragically, this decision came about when Amitai and his two siblings were sitting shiva for their father, Sgt. (res.) Yaron Amitai, who was killed in 2006, just hours before a cease-fire brought the Second Lebanon War to a close.
At 45, Yaron was the oldest IDF casualty from that war.
He had volunteered as a combat medic with the paratroopers, even though he was exempt from reserve duty at his age. He died with another soldier while inside a house they had set up as a makeshift triage center where, alongside IDF doctors in the Southern Lebanon village of Kantara, they were treating wounded troops.
The house was accidentally targeted by an IDF tank in a friendly-fire incident, with a shell scoring a direct hit on the structure, resulting in the death of both soldiers.
AMITAI, NOW 18 months into his service, reflects on the father he lost, and on the impact this loss has had on his wish to defend his country, and his strong sense of patriotism.
Although he does not have many memories of his father “as a soldier,” he says he remembers Yaron as “the ultimate family man.”
“He was the funniest person ever, full of humor. We did a lot of trips – especially in the South – and if we went to a park he was always the first one to jump around on the playground equipment. He was like a child clowning around,” Amitai says.
His father worked long hours during the week selling life insurance – Amitai defines his father’s civilian job as “the ultimate paradox” – often returning home late at night. But Friday, he says, was his “father’s day.” He remembers them eating hummus together and spending quality time with him on those Fridays when he was a child.
While the rules of the IDF stipulate that the children of the fallen are not required to serve in combat units, Amitai has insisted on pursuing that path.
In such a case the surviving parent – his mother, Meirav – is required to sign a document allowing him or her to essentially volunteer for combat service despite the loss.
“Already at the shiva I asked for my mother’s blessing, and asked her to sign the form, [when the time comes],” he says.
“When it [being drafted] got closer I asked her again, and she was hesitant to sign, but I was comfortable with my decision. When the actual time came she signed even through her tears. I feel that period and all the feelings that went with it together.”
His sister Yuval, now 24, served as a commander in a tank unit, and his brother Assaf, 17, is now getting ready for his army service.
Meirav had to sign the IDF document for each of her children.
“I signed with mixed feelings,” she says.
“On one hand I want to give them the freedom to choose [their army paths], but on the other I am filled with great anxiety. [Because of our loss], I can’t at this point say to them that ‘everything will be OK.’” Amitai seconds his mother’s sentiment.
“‘It won’t happen to me,’ is what people say, but I don’t subscribe to that slogan. It can happen, so it’s a bit scary. But the pride and happiness in service lessens the feelings of being scared to a point where they almost don’t exist.”
He adds that going into combat was a decision based on the values and principles he was raised with by his parents, in which he was encouraged to pursue his strengths.
“If I knew I could excel in computers, I would go for that, but I felt I could contribute more to the state in combat.”
He adds that serving in combat “is full circle for me, after what happened to my father.”
MEIRAV ALSO reflects on her husband’s decision to volunteer during the war and on the fact that Gal is now a combat soldier – and on the risks that accompany that fact.
She says that she respects the fact that her husband volunteered, even though she is now sometimes angry that he did.
“I lost him for the same reason that I loved him,” she says.
“For Yaron, if you were a friend, then you were a friend until the end, the same if you were a father or a husband or a soldier. He felt he had no choice but to go into battle.”
Regarding Gal’s service, she admits to having mixed feelings about it but says, “I have confidence he knows what he is doing. Gal is calm under pressure and demonstrates good judgment.”
Amitai celebrated his bar mitzva along with other children who lost a parent in the army, as part of the IDF Widows and Orphans’ communal bar-mitzva program.
IDFWO CHAIRWOMAN Nava Shoham Solan remembers Amitai’s bar mitzva and recalls that he delivered an emotional speech about his father. Her own husband was killed in 1982 in the First Lebanon War. She joined IDFWO as a volunteer, in 2007.
Shoham Solan knows the Amitai family well. She points out that Yuval has worked as a volunteer counselor at the IDFWO’s Otzma camps for children which are held several times a year during the holidays, while Assaf has attended as a camper.
The goal of these camps, she says, is to allow the youngsters to learn about resilience while in a supportive environment with others who have experienced similar loss, along with their counselors.
The organization has been involved in assisting the Amitais through their grief for years.
“IDFWO has given us strength,” says Meirav. “It’s important to be a part of an organization that gives us so much help.”
She adds that IDFWO “does important work behind the scenes to be a voice for those [who suffered loss].” That includes lobbying Knesset members for increased benefits for the relatives of victims.
At the same time, she feels that Jews around the world who care about Israel might in the past not have truly grasped the sacrifice which was made on behalf of not only Israel but the entire Jewish People by those who fell in battle, and the struggle which the surviving family members goes though.
But thanks to the work of IDFWO she says she feels that now they can understand, ultimately appreciating and also realizing she says, “that we [Jews] have no other country.” The IDF Widows and Orphans Organization is the sole non-profit organization recognized by the State of Israel that represents and supports the widows and orphans of Israel’s fallen soldiers. The organization provides social, emotional and financial support to widows and orphans who have suffered the greatest loss: that of a husband and/or father. From the moment that the family is informed of the tragic news, until the child graduates university, the IDFWO is on hand to support and help those left behind. http:// www.idfwo.org/?CategoryID=231