As a lone soldier, I know I'll never be alone

I remember wondering whether I’d feel less alone after making aliyah to a country where I knew few people, had no family, and struggled with the language.

 THE WRITER (center) and a couple of her comrades display the badges they received following the final march making them an operational unit. (photo credit: Yifat Kahana/IDF)
THE WRITER (center) and a couple of her comrades display the badges they received following the final march making them an operational unit.
(photo credit: Yifat Kahana/IDF)

I focus on the sound of marching, hundreds of boots hitting the ground over and over again. There is something comforting about the rhythm of it. Even four hours in, with 50% body weight on our backs plus stretchers filled with another 80 kg. of weights being passed from shoulder to shoulder, we all feel the comfort of our togetherness. This is our final “masa” (march) marking the end of our eight months of training as IDF combat intelligence soldiers. At sunrise, we will finish our climb through the Jerusalem mountains and ceremoniously be given matching badges officially making us an operational unit. We’d earned those badges through sweat, broken bones, torn muscles, sprained ankles, frozen fingers and so much more. We already felt what it meant to be a unit.

We’d been wearing identical uniforms and boots, hair up in identical ponytails, eating identical rations for so long it’s become difficult to distinguish myself from the group at times. I glance at my G-shock watch, this too is identical to that on the wrist of every other soldier marching with me. 

It is around 2 a.m., we still have a long time ahead of us and we are already beginning to ascend. Out of the corner of my eye I notice one of my friends is about to slip, I grab her hand, “Yalla you’ve got this,” I whisper. She squeezes my hand in reply. Just last night we had joked that all of us had developed a sixth sense in our ability to communicate. Each one of us anticipating the other’s potential fall and being there to prevent it from happening. I thought about how much truth there was to this, especially between us girls (being the minority in the unit and in combat in general). With just a glance we understand what the others need in a way I could never have imagined. The feeling brought on from this kind of unity is difficult to put into words but to me, it sounds like the rhythm of our marching. My commanders had said this would happen but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when it did.

I glance at my watch again, only 20 minutes had passed but that isn’t really what catches my eye. The date, July 24, 2021, is all I really focus on. I double-check, and then check a third time just to be certain. I hear my friend whispering to me that the seconds aren’t passing any faster just because I’m checking every second. I look at her, roll my eyes, and grin, but really all I can think about is the date. Exactly a year ago prior I had made aliyah – moved to Israel and officially made it my home. I think about how far I’ve come and how much has changed. 

Today I am officially a combat soldier, physically defending Israel whereas before it was just in words. I think back to the Hong Kong Model UN conference where I listened to people degrade Israel and I was the only defender. Some of the people there were my friends, until it came to Israel. That conference had made me feel lonely in a way I could not explain. Likewise, during the 2014 Hong Kong protests when we saw a sign comparing Hong Kong to Gaza and Israel to China, I realized I was the only one of my friends who could see anything wrong with the analogy or at least the only one willing to speak up about it. I remembered that loneliness as well. 

There was even the Jewish literature program I had attended in the US, that I loved parts of, but even among Jews I found few who shared my love for Israel and fewer who were willing to say it out loud. This felt even more lonely.

However, on a deeper level, I had felt most lonely among my closest friends in high school, a group of elite triathletes that trained together up to 30 hours a week. Among them, I had found a community and specifically bonded with a group of girls who like me believed we could do anything we put our minds to. We trained hard, pushed ourselves and each other, cheered for one another and strove to beat the boys. While I was truly a part of that team, one of those girls in matching swim caps and tri suits, who would seemingly support each other no matter what. I could only partly be me.

Lone soldiers snap a selfie with MK Ayelet Shaked (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)Lone soldiers snap a selfie with MK Ayelet Shaked (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Yes, we were all strong, independent feminists, however, as the only Jew and the only Zionist in the group I never felt like I could truly be myself. I skipped hangouts for Shabbat dinners and tried to avoid talking about the IDF while my peers chatted endlessly about their college plans. There was nothing that I could say that could explain to them the choices that I was making. I had found myself deeply lonely in both my religion and my ideologies. 

When my aliyah date got closer, although I was sure about my decision, I remember wondering whether I’d feel less alone after making aliyah to a country where I knew few people, had no family, and struggled with the language. At home I had a team of girls that I shared many things with and greatly enjoyed spending time with, but I couldn’t help hoping this would somehow fulfill that sense of loneliness that was seemingly present even among them. I was now voluntarily heading to Israel where I would be labeled a “lone soldier,” the name used for people like me, coming to Israel on their own to draft.

From the day I drafted, to my relief, I saw how inaccurate the title was. Not that everything was always easy. I live with other “lone” soldiers when off base and do miss my family and friends, but I have now found family among my fellow soldiers, who are new strong, independent athletic teammates that are always there to cheer me on. The biggest difference between them and my teammates from home is that among them I am the whole me.

While in some units, lone soldiers are unique in that they were the only ones that had volunteered to be there, in a female combat unit, all the girls have volunteered to be there in the specific roles they serve. None of us were required to be combat soldiers. We are all really here for the same reasons, a personal sense of duty to use every skill we have to defend Israel. I have truly found my teammates, my friends and my sisters in this group of strong independent girls.

I’ve traded my swim cap for a combat helmet and my expat lifestyle for a spot of earth and a sleeping bag. My Hebrew is improving. My swimming skills, less so. But most importantly I have learned what it means to come home and be accepted for all the parts of me. I know, with these girls, I will never be alone.

The writer is a 19-year-old from Hong Kong. She made aliyah in July 2020 and enlisted that November in the IDF where she serves in Isuf Kravi Unit 595 on the Syrian border.