Protecting lone soldiers

A lone soldier is defined as a soldier serving in the IDF without parents in Israel. Some 7,000 lone soldiers are currently serving. Roughly half are new immigrants.

Mica Levit (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mica Levit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lone soldier Michaela (Mica) Levit, who was found dead just outside her base last week having left a note citing “hardships,” was the third lone soldier suspected of taking their own life this year. 
Her family is still trying to understand why US-born Levit, 19, who served in the prestigious Caracal Battalion, killed herself. Levit’s mother, Orit, told The Jerusalem Post’s defense reporter Anna Ahronheim that her daughter had been “full of life, positive and happy.”
Alex Sasaki, another lone soldier from the US, was found dead of an apparent overdose in March, and Stephan Martinetz reportedly hung himself in a lone soldier center in Haifa after he sought help for mental health problems numerous times. 
IDF figures released in January show a significant overall drop in the number of suicides in the Israeli military in 2018, with only eight of 43 deaths having been ruled as suicides. In the previous three years, suicide had been the leading cause of soldiers’ deaths. Yet this overall decrease in soldier suicides makes the number of lone soldier deaths more salient.
A lone soldier is defined as a soldier serving in the IDF without parents in Israel. Some 7,000 lone soldiers are currently serving. Roughly half are new immigrants.
Lone soldiers are entitled to assistance from the state, however, as Ahronheim noted, the annual State Comptroller report found major deficiencies in how the military deals with lone soldiers, whose needs the IDF has not fully examined. 
Lone soldiers are usually highly motivated, having made huge efforts and personal sacrifices to join the army. While there are several voluntary organizations doing amazing work to help them, nonetheless, the life of a lone soldier is not easy. Although they receive an extra stipend and rental assistance, many lone soldiers face financial hardships. They also face bureaucratic challenges – often because of inadequate Hebrew – and those who live in rented apartments also have logistical problems of buying food and doing laundry on a weekend off, problems their peers who go home to their families do not face. Many suffer from homesickness or loneliness, again on a scale completely different to other IDF soldiers who were brought up here and have families nearby. They also are less likely to understand how the system works, how to switch bases or handle a problem with an officer or peer.
So what can be done to prevent this tragic loss of life?
The IDF needs to rethink how it treats lone soldiers from the recruitment process on. First, there should be a better screening process to ensure potential recruits are not enlisting to escape personal problems. Lone soldiers should meet at the earliest stages with professionals who can help keep expectations realistic. Exceptionally high idealism can cause tremendous anguish when met with the more mundane realities and difficulties of military life. This help and screening should be offered from the moment the potential recruits reach the IDF recruiting offices.
A system must be established whereby lone soldiers regularly meet trained mental health officers during their service. As the Post’s Jeremy Sharon has noted, combat soldiers in particular are concerned that if they report feeling depressed or unhappy, their weapons could be taken away and their medical profiles lowered. Hence, meetings with the mental health officer should be routine and without stigmatization.
There must be a 24/7 anonymous mental health hotline dedicated to lone soldiers, and perhaps a buddy system of veteran lone soldiers twinning up with serving lone soldiers could be established. The first step, though, is to recognize that there is a problem. 
Orit Levit, Mica’s grieving mother, told the Post, “Does the army support them? Yes. But there is much more that can be done for these kids in terms of mental support. If I can do anything, it’s to make sure that no other soldier has to come back in a casket.”
We offer our heartfelt condolences and join her in urging the IDF and all relevant authorities and organizations to take action now to prevent the tragic loss of another young person’s life.