It has been one year since Operation Protective Edge and contributions of lone soldiers, and the ultimate sacrifices they made with their lives, were unfortunately headline news during this war.
Their stories became our stories as we identified with the sacrifices they made to move to Israel and become part of our country. As fellow immigrants, we could relate to the difficulties of packing up and leaving families to start a new life. As parents of soldiers, we understood the stresses they faced. However, these soldiers were different from our sons and daughters, because they did not have their families waiting for them, waiting for them to return safely home from battle. The deaths of some of these volunteers highlighted their ultimate sacrifice; giving their lives for their people, so far away from their families.
For Max Steinberg’s family from California, it quickly became evident that the entire country was his family when more than 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Since the war, the issue of lone soldiers has been a hot topic. The Israeli public, especially English speaking immigrants, are more aware of them now than they were a year ago. We bake cookies, send care packages and organize Shabbat dinners. We donate money for winter clothes, hydration systems and pizzas.
But how many of us know what life is like for them on a daily basis? Do we understand what it means to be alone all the time?
About six months ago, I had a “guest” in my house for nearly two weeks. This guest, was an English speaking lone soldier, in an elite combat unit, who had been a welcomed guest in my home many times before. He had spent weekends and holidays with us over the years, but many months could also go by without hearing from him either. By the time he landed on my door step this time, he had been on extended sick leave for nearly two months, because of a head injury he sustained during a training exercise in the army. I don’t know exactly what transpired during his army service or during his sick leave. I do know that during his recuperation he had no structure, no supervision and no one to check in on him during this difficult time. I do know that by the time he came to stay with my family, he no longer had a place to live or enough money to buy food.
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But how many of us know what life is like for them on a daily basis? Do we understand what it means to be alone all the time? About six months ago, I had a “guest” in my house for nearly two weeks. This guest was an English-speaking lone soldier, in an elite combat unit, who had been a welcomed guest in my home many times before. He had spent weekends and holidays with us over the years, but many months could go by without hearing from him. By the time he landed on my doorstep this time, he had been on extended sick leave for nearly two months, because of a head injury he sustained during a training exercise in the army. I don’t know exactly what transpired during his army service or during his sick leave. I do know that during his recuperation he had no structure, no supervision and no one to check in on him during this difficult time. I do know that by the time he came to stay with my family, he no longer had a place to live or enough money to buy food.
I do know that “home” for him had been a run-down, not-very-clean apartment shared with other lone soldiers he rarely saw. I do know, that even in the best of circumstances he would return to his apartment on a Friday afternoon having to deal with cleaning, shopping, laundry and Shabbat preparations; but more often than not, just crash and go to sleep.
How often did his commanding officer reach out to him? Was the army negligent in taking care of this lone soldier? Is his story representative of how the army treats its soldiers when they falter? What took place when he checked in with the army and doctors during his sick leave? Could he have reached out to me for help sooner? Could the army have done more? If someone had just been watching out for this lone soldier, noticing what was going on with him, checking up on him during those two long months when he was on sick leave, things would have turned out better, and maybe he would still be living in Israel.
Lone soldiers from overseas volunteer in our army for a myriad of reasons, most of them out of altruism and Zionism.
Some are running away from problems, but most come to defend their country and help their people. Some of them are “adopted” by relatives or family friends, and some of them are on kibbutzim as part of the Garin Tzabar program. Many of the nearly 3,000 lone soldiers from overseas, however, live on their own, and most of them do well, if not very well, in the army.
But when something goes wrong and life gets tough, no one wants to feel alone. Everyone wants to know that someone has their back. Sick leave is often feared by lone soldiers, because there is no one to take care of them after they leave their base. They may be sent “home” by their officers, but more often than not, they would prefer to stay with their units, where at least someone will make them a cup of tea. There are nearly 6,000 lone soldiers in Israel today; most of whom return to empty, lonely apartments with no groceries, no drinks or no toilet paper.
Lone soldiers from overseas are a neglected population with unique needs.
As immigrants, their needs should not be just the responsibility of the army, but the government and civil society should collectively look out for them as well. These soldiers would benefit from the support of a community, where there is a place they can call home.
This fall, a new home for lone soldiers will open in Beit Shemesh. It will be situated between neighborhoods with many English-speaking families, both new and veteran immigrants, whose own sons and daughters serve in the army. This will be a home in the fullest sense of the word – not just a place to live. Adoptive families and a house counselor will take care of them, being there for them, in whatever ways they need. While there are a few other homes for lone soldiers around the country, this home will be unique in that it is specifically geared for English-speaking lone soldiers who want to be part of a community.
This grassroots effort, in coordination with The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, is being embraced by our communities and neighbors, supported by our friends and families, and applauded by our soldier sons and daughters.
In combat, there is no place for mom and dad. I know that very well. My son, a soldier in Nahal (Fighting Pioneer Youth), is continuously reminding me of that fact. But when he is sick, you can be sure that he turns to me and his father for comfort and help. When any soldier is sick, injured or on extended sick leave, he needs his mom and dad, or a caring, responsible adult in his life to take care of him.
The writer is a graduate student in Nonprofit Management and Leadership at the Hebrew University’s School of Social Work.
She is coordinating the establishment of The Lone Soldiers’ Home – Beit Shemesh.