We need to apologize to this generation, Generation Y,” said a commander of one of the IDF divisions operating in the Gaza Strip at the end of Operation Protective Edge. “We certainly doubted them, but all soldiers and officers performed superbly.“In places where senior officers were injured, the young officers took over and continued to lead the battle.”At the start of Protective Edge, there was serious doubts on the ability of the soldiers born from 1993 to 1996 to maintain the security of the country, as did previous generations. They were called spoiled, and said to be toy soldiers who grew up in a world of social networks and reality TV, disconnected from ideals.And then came the war.In Neveh Dan, a luxury neighborhood in Tel Aviv, a close-knit group of friends got together, poster children for the Facebook generation. Yet they served in elite fighting units, infantry, armor and engineering, not just guys but girls also serving as fighters and instructors for special units.For nine weeks they did not see each other, from the time of Operation Brother’s Keeper until the withdrawal from Gaza. After returning from the battlefield, the war-weary soldiers met up in their picturesque neighborhood.Talking late into the night, they listened, supported one another and struggled to digest what had happened to them. “Actually, on the day we went in, I thought we were not going in at all,” admitted Sgt. Shai from the 101 Battalion. “It could have been that we didn’t truly believe we were there, walking while the explosions were in the background, accompanied by crazy adrenaline.From the second we crossed the fence, all fears were gone. You turn the fear into caution, and use it instead of being afraid of it.”The friends, who’ve known each other since kindergarten, kept in touch during the operation through a WhatsApp group, Shichvat Amir (a name alluding to their age group). Upon hearing the announcement of the unilateral cease-fire and the troop withdrawal from Gaza, the group was flooded with excited messages.“We were worried about everyone, there was relentless tension,” said Sec.-Lt. Lior, an officer in the air force ground defense unit in whose house the meeting was held. “It is inconceivable that our friends, who are like brothers to us, have to go through these difficult experiences.And yet they told us about the good and happy moments they had, and I was proud to know they were also able to see a positive side to the story.”Operation Protective Edge changed the perspective that characterized this generation. They smelled the fear, felt the pain and demonstrated they were worthy.“Overall, we were just 20-year-old children,” said Sgt.Yuval of the Paratroop Brigade’s 101 Battalion. “But we grew up, we entered as children and left as men. It’s impossible to describe how strong the feeling is, to know that the citizens of Israel can relax, because no terrorist will come out tonight from the tunnel I uncovered.” “We mostly understood the proportions of problems in our daily lives,” said Sgt. Noa, a sabotage instructor.“We realized we had no other choice but to grow up.”At the beginning of the evening, the friends talked about the physical conditions they were under during the fighting. “It was 24 hours a day with the helmet on your head, and the ceramic body equipment tightly secured to you. We slept with it, ate with it, even used the bathroom with it. There was tons of sand all over our bodies – and I really hate sand,” Sgt. “Alef” of the Maglan unit said with a smile.“Not only that, but each person was in charge of a group of soldiers there for you, and you were there for them at any given moment.”‘My worst moments’ As the evening went on, the difficult moments came up. Soldiers got up and walked away, wanting to have a moment to themselves. Another friend would join them, patting them on the back with hugs and smiles, and they would continue to tell their stories.As Alef discussed the incident of the booby-trapped house in Khan Yunis, in which three fighters were killed, there was not a dry eye in the room.“We were at a certain point for a few days,” he said, “and suddenly there was a surprising, powerful explosion that made the earth shake. I felt the shock-wave go through my body. On the control radio no one said anything, but I felt that something bad had happened.“Within a second, the deputy commander arrived and we just got up and followed him, no questions asked. It was a short walk, 100 meters in all, but it was a cautious one because we knew that, in these situations, they are trying to kidnap soldiers. At that moment, I did not know what I was about to see; I never took care of wounded soldiers.“As we approached the ruins I saw my former commander, a real superhero, all in black – and he was crying. I could not let myself indulge in negative emotions while surrounded by soldiers lying wounded on the ground, stunned. I said to my friend, ‘Bro, what’s up with you,’ and he couldn’t remember the name of the guy lying next to him, who just a moment ago was his best friend.“And these are not children in school, these are fighters.Then I realized I needed to get out of the shock I was in, and not let anything affect me. We regrouped and began walking among the wounded, evacuating them from there.”As Alef continued to tell his stories, the painful memories poured like a flood from him. One could see how important it was for him to talk about what happened, to share, to vent – just not keep it in.“I moved among the wounded, those affected by inhaling smoke, others dealing with fragments of shrapnel in their bodies. I recognized one of them – a friend from the neighborhood, who was in deep shock and asked me to take care of his shoe.“I was responsible for the lightly wounded, and the doctor treated the ones who were badly wounded, those who were unconscious or not breathing. It was all moving very quickly and then there was another explosion, and in the background the whole time there was heavy fire.“Suddenly, next to me, a soldier who was wounded fell on the ground with shrapnel in his leg. I barely managed to reach him; he was treated with a tourniquet and taken away from there. In retrospect, I realized that near the place we were at was a tunnel built to abduct soldiers. Fortunately, the terrorists did not use it because we had great forces in the area.”In the midst of those tense moments was Noa, a combat engineer instructor, stationed in the operations room of the division headquarters created in the staging area. “I used all my resources to find out if Alef was one of the wounded,” she said. “I called anyone I could reach until I knew he was okay. Those were the most difficult moments I had.”Yuval then began telling his friends about the incident in the Strip in which their friend was killed, Staff-Sgt. Bnaya Rubel, a 20-year-old infantryman from Holon. “Bnaya’s squad was scanning the area, as a terrorist jumped out of a tunnel and started shooting only four meters away from them. At the same time, there were several explosions from [weaponry] put there beforehand, and that’s how he was killed.”He detailed it all concisely, adding: “I know, and they told us, that we controlled this incident in the best way possible – which means we functioned the best we could.”Scary? “It’s not scary. [Warfare] pumps you up and makes you feel you are best in the world,” revealed Yuval.“Before this all happened, if you were to ask me what I would do, I would say that whoever shoots my friends, I will shoot back at him. But in this situation, we were told to cease fire to avoid bilateral shooting. It was hard for me not to pull the trigger at the moment, but within 20 seconds tanks and other forces had arrived and they blew up the building, killing four terrorists.“ Yuval stopped talking. He had spoken in such a fluent manner, but when it came to talking about the moment he understood he had lost one of his closest friends, words were not forthcoming.“An hour and a half after the incident was over, we all gathered in a small room,” he finally said. “‘I have bad news,’ said the commander, and that was it; after that I did not hear anything else.”“It was quiet, and we were given five minutes to unwind.At that time we knew we had to raise our heads and look ahead, realizing we needed to put aside the death of Bnaya and only think about it at the end of the operation. And here we are, we succeeded and achieved our goals, and today we are here, making our parents happy. Of course, we continue to support Bnaya’s family, coping with his loss the way he would have wanted us to.”“There were a lot of moments when you feel like you’re in a movie,” said Shai. “The battle that Bnaya was killed in was about 100 meters away from us. We heard the shots, and then they announced there was someone injured from his platoon. I was worried about my friends, as Adi and Yuval are in that same platoon.”“Only two days later did they tell us who was killed.My commander told me over and over again, ‘We’ll deal with it after the operation is over, but right now there is a task that must be done and we must go on – so you are going to continue it.’” ‘Be proud of us’ Yuval came to this gathering with some concerns.He was still limping from a slight injury, his knee bandaged.“I thought they would laugh at me,” he admitted, “but then Lior stood up with a smile that you know is a smile of relief. It was nice to feel that your friends are happy to see you, and it’s really from their hearts.”In the middle of the evening, Lior’s parents arrived.They love the group and share the ever-present concern about the soldiers in the battlefield.Shai told the group about returning home from the field.“I surprised my parents,” he said. “My brother knew I was coming home and came to pick me up from the train. When my parents saw me they were astounded, because I had told them I was staying in the field. That weekend was my father’s 50th birthday, and he would not celebrate until my brother and I were back home.Of course, when we got back, we all went to celebrate together.”The large number of soldiers and reservists who came down South during the operation led to unplanned encounters. “One time we were in the staging area, relaxing and getting ready for our next task, and someone put his hand on my shoulder,” said Shai. “I looked back and saw my brother, who was also in the South as part of his job in the Telecommunication Corps. It was very exciting. He helped me paint my face with camouflage before entering Gaza, and he put my stuff on the bus. He really made me feel stronger, and didn’t go back home until I did.”“Ayin,” in a special unit, can barely discuss what he did in this operation. But he explains: “Knowing that all my friends from home were taking part made me stronger. Despite not meeting them when we were inside, the thought that they were just a few hundred meters away and experiencing the same incidents I was experiencing, added a lot of motivation to continue to fight – even in these difficult moments.”Not only did the young fighters of Operation Protective Edge prove that the youth of today are different from how they have been perceived, the young people on the home front showed they can contribute and give when necessary.“People say today’s youth is growing up without values, and gets everything on a silver platter, but we proved that we can perform tasks in the best way,” said Sgt. Michal, a multiple launch rocket system instructor in the Artillery Corps. “People our age from other countries do not experience what we experienced, whether it’s running to a bomb shelter, going to three funerals on the same day, or taking care of our friends. I think [people] should be proud of us, of the fighters who were inside Gaza, the others who kept protecting the country in different positions in the military, and those who remained on the home front and collected donations.”Nevertheless, the story ends the way that only Generation Y knows how: on Facebook, with the friends tagging those who attended the event, as well as those who stayed for one last Shabbat on base and were expected home soon.In two days, they would be experiencing this reality again, between one cease-fire to another, waiting for the operation to come to an end.