It was heartwarming yet tragic to see more than 1,000 IDF comrades-in-arms and civilians attend the funeral of Cpl. Alex Sasaki, a lone soldier from Laguna Beach, California who died last week, reportedly from a drug overdose. Israelis are an appreciative people and, as they have done in the past, they came out en masse to pay their final respects to Sasaki, a 27-year-old American who had immigrated to Israel to serve in the IDF.
Sasaki is the third lone soldier in the span of four months to die in uniform. While the circumstances surrounding his death are still being investigated by Military Police, the two before him committed suicide, one after seeking help over a period of several months.
According to the NGO KeepOlim, mental health problems among lone soldiers are on the rise, and this is not being addressed by the government or the IDF. “The situation of lone soldiers is deplorable. I blame every person who agreed to bring soldiers here and not provide the proper services and support for the needs of the soldiers,” said KeepOlim director Liami Lawrence.
Lawrence pointed out that the mental health hotline available to soldiers, run by the ERAN organization, is only for Hebrew and Arabic speakers, and that he himself fields calls from distressed lone soldiers and help them deal with their problems. “We have lone soldiers either during or after their service with no food, no beds for the weekend, and no mental health services. It’s a disgrace,” he said.
He stressed some lone soldiers are reluctant to report mental health problems to their commanders since they worry that their military profile will be lowered and they will be transferred out from combat units to menial service, the kind they did not come to Israel for.
Lawrence’s criticism is backed up by Hatnua MK Ksenia Svetlova who said that Diaspora Jews of military age should not come on aliyah until the crisis is resolved and the correct support systems are put in place for future lone soldiers.
“The issue of lone soldiers committing suicide is a result of outrageous apathy of the military system,” said Svetlova.
The IDF needs to address this issue and examine what is happening with lone soldiers. While the military can be commended for taking steps to lower the general number of suicides among its soldiers – eight committed suicide last year – the percentage of lone soldiers among these is on the rise.
This should not be tolerated. Lone soldiers are people who voluntarily joined the IDF from across the world, often while giving up a convenient life in the affluent West to serve. Many are graduates of prestigious universities who forego a lucrative salary to enlist.
They don’t have to make aliyah nor don a khaki uniform. Rather they feel the call to do something for the Jewish people is more compelling than the desire to do something just for themselves.
This sacrifice and selflessness should be appreciated not just when soldiers die and lack family and friends to attend their funeral but also when they are alive and need assistance. This means ensuring that lone soldiers have an appropriate support system from the IDF that includes not just worrying about their food and shelter but also provides the necessary emotional support.
As a first step, it would be worthwhile getting the IDF and the government on the same page.
In response to a Jerusalem Post article by Jeremy Sharon on Friday, the IDF denied claims it is not doing enough for the army’s 6,500 lone soldiers while the Aliyah and Integration Ministry said it was “aware of this painful topic” and was “working accordingly to provide appropriate solutions for such incidents.”
So, which is it? Is enough being done, as the IDF claims, or is this a “painful topic” that needs to have “appropriate solutions,” as the government ministry responsible for new olim claims?
This situation should not be tolerated. Lone soldiers have sacrificed enough by serving in the IDF. It is time they get the services they need.