We're in the army now

A couple in their 60s enlist to help the war effort.

bards barak nicole IDf volunteers 248.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
bards barak nicole IDf volunteers 248.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
What does a 60-something Jerusalem couple do when war breaks out in the South? They join the army. Why? "To help our soldiers," say Nicole and Barak Bard. These highly motivated veterans, imbued with the values of duty and volunteerism, regularly help out the army through the Sar-El Volunteers for Israel program. After the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead, the French-born Nicole and US-born Barak saw an e-mail circulating among the group telling of an effort to organize volunteers for an army base near Ramle. They looked at each other and immediately said, "Let's go." "We had heard about older people volunteering on army bases," says Barak. "and we thought it would be sorting and stacking, schlepping and sweeping, but it was actually much more." Nicole, Barak and some 25 other volunteers who arrived at the base were given their army uniforms - pants, a shirt and a winter jacket. No hats, and no belts to hold up the pants, "which proved to be a big problem for the women," says Nicole. "This is actually the way the soldiers recognized us," laughs Barak, "with our sloppy uniforms, grey hair and definitely unmilitary walking style." The army regime consisted of a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call, breakfast at 7, work from 8-12, lunch and work again from 1-5. Due to the tense military situation, the volunteers were sometimes asked to work later. Nicole, who has no technological or mechanical experience, was given the job of fixing the headsets in the soldiers' helmets. "The young soldiers taught us how to do the repairs. And we had drawings to show us where all the different wires went," says Nicole nonchalantly. But the work was actually quite challenging, requiring a high level of dexterity and patience. "Sometimes the tiny screwdriver and all those small wires drove me nuts," she says. But she soldiered on. Barak was responsible for prying the helmets loose to take the headsets out. "Good thing my hands are strong from holding a video camera for hours," he says. "But at the end of the day, they still felt like Jello." The Bards worked side by side with the young Israeli soldiers, better known as "jobniks." They spoke with them and even taught them some French. And wherever they went on the base, the soldiers greeted them with a firm "Kol hakavod." "We were there to help the soldiers out and to do the jobs that would give them a bit more free time to spend with their families. They really appreciated that," says Barak. Barak and Nicole were moved by the genuine camaraderie among the soldiers and the constant hugging and back-slapping that went on between them. Every hour on the hour, the soldiers put on the news, tensely waiting to hear the situation in the Gaza Strip and the outcome of the day's fighting. Everyone knew someone in battle, and many of them had family living in the South, under constant attack from rocket fire. "We felt the tension in the air, and it moved us deeply," says Barak. Barak, who was drafted into the United States Army in 1962 and saw active service, says there is something very unique about the Israeli army. "All the soldiers know why they are here. They support each other and understand that they are literally fighting for the survival of their country. It is very special to see the relationships between them." He also notes the informality of the Israeli army. In the cafeteria, everyone sat together - the new recruits, the reserve soldiers, the volunteers and even some of the officers. First names were the order of the day, without even a "Yes, sir" in the air. The volunteers slept in simple barracks, with men and women in separate bunks, even the married couples. They had their own club, and in the evening they sat around and played Scrabble and Rummikub. Fortunately, their counselor did not tell them to turn the lights out at a certain time. "One volunteer was 90 years old," says Barak. "He's been coming for years, and he's in charge of bringing the vodka and herring. He was in the French Resistance and loved to regale us with stories." Most of the volunteers were older than the Bards. Every morning the volunteers were responsible for the flag-raising ceremony, attended by the "fix-it" brigade commander as the Bard's called their commanding officer. Toward the end of their fourth day at the base, Barak was called back to Jerusalem to film a video, and Nicole remained to work a little more and receive her army epaulets. "For someone who has never done military service, it was very emotional for me," says Nicole. "I felt like I really saw the Israeli army and connected to it." The volunteer program is open to anyone, and volunteers can choose to come for a day or weeks. "As long as they are willing to work," says Barak. Nicole and Barak Bard, video producers, made aliya from France in 1999. Barak originally hails from Los Angeles and Texas. He and Nicole met in Jerusalem in 1969; Barak came to find his roots, and Nicole was on the one-year Hebrew University program. When they married in 1973, they moved to France and stayed there for 26 years. They produced a documentary film Ich Bin Jude! Ich Bin Jude! (I'm a Jew! I'm a Jew!), chronicling Jewish Youth Movements' Resistance in Occupied France, which premiered at the Jerusalem Cinematheque in 2005, and has since been shown at Jewish film festivals around the world. During the years of filming, the Bards became very friendly with France's veteran Jewish Scouts, many of whom had organized distinct Jewish units in the French underground movement and were now living in Israel. And after 36 years of marriage, Barak still looks at Nicole and says that she was "the most elegant soldier I have ever seen."