'They've come to tell me he's dead'

Reservist Gilad Shtukelman, 26, returned from a vacation in New York within a day of receiving his emergency call up through a text message on his cellphone. He arrived on Friday and on Wednesday the gentle pianist who loved to write songs was one of 15 soldiers to die in combat in Lebanon. As of late Thursday night, his family was still waiting for his body to be identified and so no funeral time had been set. But the family didn't mourn alone. Just as Gilad had drawn people to him when he was alive, their home in the small Galilee hilltop community of Timrat was filled with friends. They spilled out onto the front and back lawns, hugged each other and cried as they spoke of the young man they all loved. One family friend who had known Gilad since birth, Rivka Mendel, said that this week three of the Shtukelman's four sons were in the army. Older brother Eliran, 29, also a reservist in the Armored Corps, had been similarly called into service on Saturday night, only he was sent to the Syrian border. Their younger brother Yarden, 19, was on the Egyptian border, leaving only Yair, 10, at home with their parents. But of their three sons, Micha and Rahel Shtukelman were worried about Gilad all Wednesday, recalled Mendel. "I spoke with Rahel over the phone three times that day. She cried and said she didn't have a good feeling," she recalled. Micha felt the same same way, she added. At 9 Wednesday night, Rahel stood on her lawn with a friend. In the darkness she saw a white taxi drive up the street, Mendel said. She turned to her friend and said, "They've come to tell me he's dead." When a number of military personnel emerged from the taxi and approached her, she told them, "I've been waiting for you." Since then, Mendel said, her mind has been filled with small memories of Gilad. She recalled how as a young boy he could stand on his head for a long time. And he was forgetful, she said. He was always leaving small items behind and backtracking for them. But at the same time, "He was the kind of person who always knew what he wanted and how to get it." He had planned to start university in the fall with an eye toward business and Asian studies, Mendel said. Gilad was an understanding son and a supportive brother. He was creative and in his brief time at home before leaving for Lebanon, he wrote a song about the war. It spoke of the sudden passage one makes from being in the midst of a happy life to engaging in battle, she said. Then he wrote, "the question is, who will return." Crying quietly, as he spoke, Gilad's friend Ro'i Barad said he never imagined that Gilad would be one of those people. "We were the best of friends," he said, then added "Until today." They had gone to the beach several weeks ago before Gilad left for the US. As they sat there on the sand they had spoken of the war. "Little did we know how soon it would touch our lives," Barad said. He could not say enough about what a special person his friend was. It was like Gilad to have returned immediately from vacation. He was the kind of a person who a leader with an intense sense of duty. If the army needed him there was no question in his mind that he would go, he said. The two spoke every day. He sent him text messages in the army, but had been unable to reach him on Wednesday. Then on Thursday, he was awakened by a phone call telling him that Gilad was dead. Looking out at the lawn filled with people, he said, "It's like a movie after the main character has died. If only it were just a movie and we could return to the life we had before today."