Today, on Remembrance Day, I’d like to pay tribute to those who are on active duty, and to those who have tragically lost their lives while serving their country.
As the mother of three young Israelis – one son who completed his service earlier this month, another who still has almost a year to go, and a daughter who is due to be drafted in August – we, as a family, have lived and breathed the army for almost half a decade.
Contrary to what some may think, the whole process doesn’t start once a person leaves school. Serving in the Israel Defense Forces is something that shapes the lives of Israelis from their mid-teens to middle age. Israeli kids don’t simply leave school, show up at the nearest base, sign on, complete their service, and then leave.
The lives of Israelis are shaped by the IDF
It all starts in high school, with the final years dominated by army preparations.
The first port of call is the tzav rishon (first call up) when the child is summoned to one of the IDF recruitment centers to undergo various tests and assessments to establish their profile. The day itself is long and arduous, not to mention stressful, as it provides a first taste of the army for potential recruits.
The tzav rishon comprises three separate components: psycho-technical tests, medical testing, and an interview. At the end, marks are given, forming the child’s overall profile score.
Those who attain high enough profile scores qualify to try out for elite units, which have their own separate gibushim (trials). Multiple trials, leading to weeks out of school for some, are not uncommon.
Such trials are designed to test both physical and mental strength and endurance over the course of a few days. They are grueling, both mentally and physically.
Not all make it through the trials – some fall at the first hurdle and go home after a day or so; others stay the course, only to be told that they’ve not been successful, leaving them with a feeling of frustration and disappointment, not to mention utter exhaustion.
A relatively small number are selected for elite units. For them, the anxious wait to find out where they will serve is over.
Meanwhile, the unsuccessful candidates have to wait to find out where they’ll be placed.
This is often the case for new recruits, most of whom won’t find out where they will be going until maybe a month or so before they are drafted. Although they can express a preference, in essence, the final choice remains with the army. What they say, goes.
The list of job options is seemingly endless – and not a little confusing. There were over 1,000 different job titles available in the IDF, at the last count.
Combat nearly always takes precedence over everything else for boys.
If, according to his profile score, a boy is suited to combat, that is what he’ll do, in one form or another.
Sometimes a child will not be happy with the placement that the army has assigned them. This can lead to months of anxiety while efforts are made to try to get it changed, often to no avail.
Once the final decision has been made and relayed to the new recruit about where and when they will begin their service, the countdown begins – in theory.
With the army, nothing is set in stone. All decisions are based on their ever-changing needs. A starting date could change at any moment, only adding to the general feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, not just for the child, but for the whole family.
Nevertheless, once this information is received, families cautiously swing into action as yom giyus (draft day) approaches.
Those precious, anxiety-fuelled weeks leading to it are usually spent trawling around the shops, in an attempt to find everything on the “list.” It is not uncommon to spend hours agonizing over which socks and underpants are best to buy.
DRAFT DAY itself is difficult for everyone. Many begin their service having never spent any time away from home, except for the odd night here and there.
We, the parents, wave off our precious children… lumps in our throats, tears in our eyes and pride in our hearts. More often than not, we – and they – have no idea where they’re being taken, as they disappear from sight, carrying their huge rucksacks on their backs, nervously smiling and waving as they go.
The wait for that first phone call and treasured photo of your child in uniform is excruciating. You learn very quickly that keeping busy is the best thing to do at times like these.
When the call comes, it’s always too short in terms of time and content. Invariably, parents are left with dozens of unanswered questions, and a feeling of emptiness.
All the while, as parents stew at home, our children – now soldiers – have to learn fast. As soon as they are drafted, they become the property of the army. No longer can they rely on us to sort things out for them. If they have a problem, they have to seek help from their commander or someone higher up in the army. All we can do is lend an ear and try our best to provide emotional support from the sidelines.
Practical support, on the other hand, is the easy part; fetching and carrying from various bases around the country when the buses and trains aren’t running, cooking food for your child (and his unit) before he goes back, and most importantly, washing uniforms.
The uniform is an important part of a soldier’s life.
Nothing can prepare you for the first time your child comes home in uniform (or with a gun, but that’s a different matter).
Pride is the overwhelming feeling. Then fear, as the daunting task of washing the filthy, stinking items hits you. At first, you approach it as if you were washing fancy, haute couture clothes. Should it go in a hot wash? Will it shrink in the drier? Does it need ironing?
All of these questions loom large as soldiers return home, armed with bags full of putrid uniforms.
And while they come home to get their washing done, it’s also important for them to have some much-needed rest. Many, however, are unable to switch off, even at home.
They carry the heavy burden of service around with them, like a cloak of responsibility.
In truth, serving soldiers are never really off duty, and consequently, neither are we, their parents.
We worry constantly about them, whatever their job. Even those who may appear to have an easy service are sacrificing the best years of their lives. While their peers abroad are enjoying university or a gap year, those here are joining the army.
LEAVING THE army can prove extremely difficult as well. Although many soldiers dream of “cutting their choger” (IDF identity card), signifying the end of their service, the reality is that many do not know where to go from there.
Transitioning from the army into civilian life is exceptionally difficult, particularly for combat soldiers whose service involved difficult and dangerous operations. Many are left with both physical and mental scars that can take time to process and heal. The army provides some assistance, but in truth, it falls far short of what’s required.
And it doesn’t stop there. All Israelis under age 40 who served in the IDF, unless otherwise exempt, are theoretically eligible for reserve duty, miluim. The long arm of the army follows most Israelis throughout their lives, in one way or another.
Tragically, as we all know, there are those who don’t make it to the end of their service – and it is they whom we salute and remember today.
These days, fewer soldiers are losing their lives in combat, as Israel has not been involved in any major conflicts since 2014, when 67 were killed in combat during Operation Protective Edge. In contrast, only three soldiers were killed in combat over the past year.
While this statistic may seem heartening, it’s important to remember that even today many soldiers do not make it to the end of their service for other reasons.
Fifty-nine soldiers lost their lives during their service since the last Memorial Day, according to figures released by the Defense Ministry on Friday. Suicide remains the leading cause of death, with at least 14 soldiers believed to have taken their own lives in 2022.
This heartbreaking fact illustrates the hardships that many of our soldiers today face in the IDF. Not only are our young people required to risk their lives for the sake of their country, they are often required to do so in the most difficult and stressful circumstances.
Each and every one of our soldiers – whether young or old, male or female, new recruits or veterans – deserves our utmost admiration and respect. They are the beating heart of this tiny country. Without them, Israel would not exist.
And today, on Remembrance Day, we honor all of our brave soldiers who lost their lives as a result of their selfless dedication to this tiny country.
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel where she works at The Jerusalem Post.