'Group of 18' friends reduced to 17

Sgt.-Maj. Eyal Benin's mother was reluctant to sign the special release form required for only children who want to serve in combat units, but eventually she gave in. Though his only child status exempted him from front line duty, Benin was determined to stay with his tight-knit set of life-long friends, all of whom were going to be combat soldiers. "She didn't want to let him join, but she understood that it was his dream," said one of the friends in the circle, dubbed the "Group of 18." That dream led to tragedy Wednesday when Benin and seven other IDF soldiers were killed in a Hizbullah raid along the Lebanese border. Upon hearing the news, the rest of his crew dropped everything to gather at Benin's mother's apartment in Tel Aviv. She moved there from the small Negev town of Omer after divorcing Benin's father, who lives on Moshav Gderot. But Benin rented an apartment in Omer so that he could finish high school with his friends. "The most important thing for him was his buddies," the friend said. "He would do anything for his friends." Benin, 22, still had his Negev apartment when he was called up for reserve duty three weeks ago, though he was to have moved this summer to Jerusalem in order to study law at the Hebrew University. Pini Badash, head of the Omer regional council, called Benin "unbelievably smart." Badash explained that his son was Benin's best friend and said he had seen the "outgoing, smiling" former Nahal soldier frequently over the last week when he watched the World Cup at Badash's apartment. Benin's girlfriend of five years had been planning to move in with him in Jerusalem. She and Benin's mother declined to speak to The Jerusalem Post. Benin had recently completed what was meant to be his "post-army" trip when he got the call to report to the Northern border. He spent the past year in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, returning home only some four months ago. Badash described Benin as an integral part of the Group of 18. "It was a group of students that was together all the time," he said. "Yesterday it was 18," Benin's friend said. Today it's 17. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.