A rude awakening

Many former soldiers have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.

sad soldier 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sad soldier 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Koby Solomon thought it would be different. After three years of waiting impatiently for the day of his release from compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces, the day came - and it was not what he expected. In place of the euphoria he thought he'd feel was a combination of confusion, relief and, he said, "a sense of falling into a void." "You wait so long to get out, and when you do, you have no clue about anything that goes on in the real world," the 21-year-old Nahariya resident explained. This sense of being lost and confused after leaving the army is a common problem facing many soldiers, said Moshe Shomron, a volunteer in the Organization for Advancement, Education, Work and Community, which is sponsored by the Defense Ministry's Fund for the Guidance of Discharged Soldiers. There are 20 such offices in the North from Hadera to Kiryat Shmona. The Nahariya organization set up shop a little more than a year ago. Shomron and the staff of three - including Limor Asraf, manager of human resources, and Liraz Azran, who is volunteering in the office during her two years of national service, have helped 350 soldiers find direction after the army. "The sense of bewilderment that former soldiers feel is a serious problem," stated Shomron, a retired army general. "It really hurts me to see the way soldiers, who gave three years of their lives to the country, are suddenly abandoned." To help ease soldiers' entry into the workforce, the Defense Ministry offers what are known as "preferred work" packages for soldiers in certain fields such as gas stations, construction, agriculture, factories and tourism. The soldiers commit themselves to at least six months of work, and afterward they are given a bonus of NIS 8,000. These subsidies are especially crucial in periphery areas hard-hit by unemployment. The bonus, according to Shomron, serves as an incentive for soldiers to work at minimum wage jobs. For Eran Kimhi, 22, of Kibbutz Cabri in the Western Galilee, the package was too tempting to refuse. He works 10 hours a day at the Cabiran aluminum products factory in his hometown. After three years in an IDF combat engineering unit, he said, "the job is a good deal. It's like the army gives you an extra gift." Kimhi's future path is similar to the one many soldiers follow. After the army, they work for a while in low-paying jobs and then travel to exotic places around the world. Kimhi, for example, is trying to decide whether to go east to India or west to South America before he returns to Israel to complete his high school matriculation and then start studying. While he found a job immediately after his army release, he said that many of his friends have spent time looking for work and floundering until they find both employment and a direction in life. The Defense Ministry has a Web site, www.hachvana.mod.gov.il, which explains to soldiers what some of their options are. There are offices around the country that offer career counseling, computer and academic courses and scholarship and employment opportunities. The office in Nahariya is just one of these way stations for soldiers to get accustomed to civilian life. Shomron feels that soldiers who are not located in the center of the country are hit the hardest after their army release, as there simply isn't enough work for them. He emphasizes that it's even harder for female soldiers. They can't work in construction or agriculture, and working at a gas station at night can be dangerous because of crime. "The government should offer subsidies for soldiers who work with disabled people, for example," Shomron said. His office provides career counseling for young women to learn how to write their resumes, as well as discounts at beauty salons to "help them with their self-confidence so that they can present themselves to future employers." For Ziv Rosi, 21, of Moshav Regba in the Galilee, there was never any question of what she wanted to do once she got out of the army. "My dream has always been to dance," Rosi said - and after eight auditions, she has finally achieved her wish, dancing with the "Festigal" show that travels around the country. The work is not subsidized, however, and after a grueling schedule of rehearsals and shows that sometimes begins early in the morning and runs late into the night, her salary comes out to less than minimum wage. But she says she doesn't really mind. "After I got out of the army, I was working at a nursery school, as a waitress and as a babysitter to pay for dance classes," Rosi explained about her passion. "And now I get to dance and get paid for it." She said she does it "for love and not for money, and that satisfies me." Rosi doesn't feel lost in terms of her direction in life (she plans to study after this year of whirlwind dancing), but she feels "geographically lost." Right now, she's a wandering dancer, settling down in an apartment for a few weeks only to pick up and move to the next apartment when the Festigal moves to the next venue. Sometimes she stays with friends, sometimes with family. While some employers and government officials might see recently released soldiers as needing a boost, Ronli Socolovsky from Moshav Shavei Zion in the Galilee believes it's the companies that can get a boost from the soldiers. "Former soldiers provide a fresh, enthusiastic workforce," Socolovsky said. "They don't have families [to take care of], they can work flexible hours, and after their army service, they have proved that they are responsible." According to Socolovsky, there are jobs available to soldiers even in the North, but not a wide variety of jobs. After Socolovsky was released from the army, where he served in the Engineering Corps, he attended a Defense Ministry-sponsored convention to learn about the options available to him. At first, he was uncertain what he wanted to do. "In the army, you have everything planned out for you," Socolovsky said. "And all of a sudden, you're out of that rigid framework." He said he was "sort of lucky" with his first job. He didn't find it - the job found him. He is now responsible for the youth activities on the moshav where he grew up, after volunteering as a counselor throughout his high-school years and organizing the moshav's summer camps. He also runs a Friday morning program for elementary school children. "The job has its difficult moments, but I do it for those moments of satisfaction, and that fills me up," Socolovsky said. He receives a part-time salary and has also started studying education and political science at the Open University. One of his neighbors, Roi Sharir, took a different route. Instead of staying on the moshav, which is situated between Acre and Nahariya, he moved to Eilat, where he worked at the Queen of Sheba Hilton Hotel. In the army, he was a cook; at the hotel he worked as a bellboy, at the pool and as a waiter. "It wasn't easy work," said Sharir, who sometimes logged 12 hours a day. He enjoyed meeting tourists, but after a while he got restless to return to the North. Eilat, he said, was a "faraway city in a faraway place," and he was not sorry to leave - with his NIS 8,000 stipend, which will pay for his upcoming trip to Australia. Due to the economy, there has been a drop in the number of soldiers who take off to travel, Shomron said. He said that soldiers want to jump-start their education and then get a good job. When soldiers come to Shomron's office for help, he spends at least half an hour talking to them to ascertain what might interest them. He prefers speaking to soldiers alone, without their parents, "because sometimes if a parent tells their child what to do, they don't want to follow [the parent's] advice. But if I tell them, then they're more open to hearing it." In the past, the army offered three-day intensive psychological and career testing for soldiers, but the program was dropped due to lack of funds. Shomron has asked Defense Ministry officials to bring that program back, because he feels it would help shorten young people's search. In the meantime, he said, he encourages soldiers to take advantage of his office's local contacts; he wants soldiers to feel that "we're backing them up." Shomron has also worked to reduce tuition for soldiers who want to complete their high-school matriculation in local colleges, and he is now trying to encourage the Defense Ministry to expand the preferred work program to include other jobs, such as with Israel Railways. This year, his office is sending 35 soldiers who have completed 12 years of schooling but don't have high-school diplomas to a special engineering program at the Technion, where they will finish their matriculation and then continue six years of studying. "We're helping them achieve their dreams that they never thought would even be possible," he said. Shomron also tries to encourage soldiers to apply to the Natan Fund, sponsored by a local businessman who provides NIS 100,000 in seed money to soldiers who want to start their own businesses. "These soldiers are under my care for five years after they finish the army," Shomron said. He keeps a list of all the soldiers who have spoken with him, keeping track of them in a concerned, fatherly manner, following up until they no longer need him. The preferred work program was something Solomon considered, but then rejected. "After three years in the army, I didn't want to work 10, 12 hours a day," he said. He added that in the North, there were very few jobs, and the ones there often "take advantage of young people." Solomon said he worked in a restaurant in Nahariya that refused to pay him a salary, and he relied solely on tips, sometimes coming up with less than minimum wage. Now he plans to leave the country to sell Dead Sea products in the United States in time for Christmas sales. "It's absolutely a problem that there are no jobs for us here," he said. "I have to leave the country to find work that will help pay for my studies." His feelings echo those of many former soldiers, who feel that the army doesn't do enough to help them get started with "real life." "They just kick us out and say, 'Good-bye and good luck,'" Solomon said.