(photo credit: REUTERS)
The IDF currently has an estimated 7,000 individuals serving as ‘lone soldiers,’ mostly composed of new immigrants and volunteers who came on their own to Israel in order to enlist. This narrow group is usually identified as highly motivated individuals seeking to integrate into Israeli society and predominantly serving in combat units.
As of most recently, lone soldiers have been known for another distressing fact – being the source of over a third of suicide cases in the military. While I do not claim to have a solution for suicide during the military, as it would require several significant changes from within the system, I strongly believe that the first step to take is to change how we refer to this group – from “lone” soldiers to “oleh” soldiers.
“Oleh” is a word used to describe new immigrants to Israel. The literal translation of this Hebrew word is “ascend.” It has a certain pride to it, connoting that one is now part of the Israeli society. It is a word that allows new immigrants to embrace their past while emphasizing their devotion to Israel, their new home.
The words we choose have the power to both comfort and harm. In this particular case, where individuals left most of their lives thousands of miles behind and are now away from their families, we should address them in a way that makes them feel they matter rather than feel alienated. When a person is constantly referred to as lonely by everyone throughout his service, even going as far as having to present himself as such in order to get benefits, naturally this takes a psychological toll.
In fact, the title of “lone soldier” continues long after the army is over. Whenever someone picks up on your accent and wonders about your story, you are still perceived as being alone. This phenomenon is actually transforming lone soldiers into lone civilians. By contrast, the title “oleh soldier” would add to the soldiers’ acclimation and feeling of societal belonging.
As a way to try to tackle the difficulties of being a lone soldier, the IDF over the years has gone a long way to improve these soldiers’ economic situation, granting them higher salaries, rental assistance and even monthlong leave to visit their families abroad.
Nevertheless, many still struggle with the overwhelming changes in culture and the lack of satisfaction in their appointed unit. Commanders, who are still in their teens and have the most interaction with the new soldiers, lack the knowledge of what an oleh soldier is going through, and in many cases lack the tools to deal with their difficulties. It is hard for someone with no real experience to be aware of one or two soldiers in an entire platoon who are going through something they have never experienced.
In the last three months, three lone soldiers have taken their lives, which has raised many worries among the different organizations that assist these soldiers and clearly has families of lone soldiers abroad perturbed as well.
The IDF still has to draw all its conclusions regarding this important topic, in order to start implementing serious reforms. But for the moment, why not start by doing the most simple of things, address these soldiers in a more suitable way – not as lone soldiers, but as oleh soldiers?The author is a former oleh soldier and currently studies political science, diplomacy and leadership in the Argov Fellows program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>