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      A Soldier’s Mother
      One mother’s journey through the Israeli army with her sons

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      Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.

      Links to the Author's blogs:

      Tevet 24, 5770, 1/10/2010


      Every Friday night, my daughters and I light the Sabbath candles. There are different traditions for how many are lit each week. The "original" tradition or perhaps one taught in many homes, is that a woman lights two. There are many "two"s in the  Sabbath - related on some mystical level to the commandment to "zachor" and "shamor" - to remember and to guard the Sabbath day.

      Some families have the tradition of having a Jewish girl, from the age of 3 light one candle; others say girls don't light until they get married and make their own homes. When you marry, all traditions converge, and the newly married woman begins lighting two.

      With the birth of her first child, traditions separate again. Many continue lighting two for all their lives, others add a candle...one for each child. With time, I now light 7 candles each week...my original two, and five more for each of my children. I have one young daughter at home - she lights one. When my married daughter comes over, two more are added. It's a beautiful corner of our dining room; the candlelight is so amazingly gentle. Shabbat has finally come.

      Many years ago, not long after I had moved to Israel, I began lighting oil instead of candles. I saw these glass "candles" and thus I began lighting oil. Over time, the stores started selling the oil in colors - gentle purple, blue, yellow. Depending on which child fills the oil last week, I can end up with gaudy or inspiring...but that's something else I wanted to write in a  second.

      First, a conversation that I hope won't be considered a breach of trust. I met with a mother recently who had lost a son in the army. We talked of many things, what she was doing when she heard the news, how her life has gone since. She asked about Elie and smiled warmly. Sadly, we realized that her son and mine must have entered the army together, because both would have been leaving in just a few weeks.

      She showed me pictures of her children, many including the son who died recently. She too gave birth to three boys and two girls. Lovely, beautiful, handsome children. Without thinking, I asked her, "how do you answer when people ask you how many children you have?"

      "What would you answer? What do you think?" she asked me. And the answer came so clearly...five. She would answer five - all are her children and always will be, even if one is lost to her.

      Why do I write of this? Because I didn't ask her how many candles does she light. The answer, if it is her tradition, would be 7, like me.

      And one other tradition I have. Each week, I try to remember to have the oil refilled as soon as the Sabbath ends. I try to ask different children to fill it each week (thus the range from gaudy to inspiring and everything in between). My middle son takes great care to mix the colors; my youngest son is in the traffic light stage and though personally, I'd prefer one consistent color for all, I let him have his way. Elie usually doesn't want to...and if he will, he expects someone to hand him a color.

      There is a custom to do something small each day to remind us that the next Sabbath is coming; that peace to our homes is but a few days away. Perhaps you'll wash curtains on Sundays or change the sheets or do something and so it goes each day. By Wednesday, you are already thinking what you can cook. Thursday you make sure your house is clean; Friday you cook.

      For me, it begins immediately Saturday night by refilling the candles. This lets me see, each day, that we are waiting.

      Each week, I ask one of my sons to fill the candles - usually based on which one I believe won't be home. It is my way of having them here...just a bit. Last night, after the Sabbath ended, I handed Elie the bottle of blue oil and asked him to fill the candles again. He did...and all week, I will have that picture in my mind till next week comes and I light them.

      To remember and to guard - this is the meaning of the candles...and the soldier. He remembers his promise, he guards his land and each week, we light candles that remind us of who we are as Jews, as Israelis, as God's people, as parents. Elie filled the candles that will shine light in our home next Shabbat.

      Tevet 11, 5770, 12/28/2009

      A Year Ago...A War Ago

      It's been a year since the Gaza War. A year since I knew the taste of fear to a depth and reality beyond any I had experienced. There was no comfort, no sleep until I drove down and saw Elie for myself, when the war had ended. To mark this day in my own quiet way, I turned back...back a year and read the words I'd written then. Last year, on December 27th, as Israel knew it would go to war, I wrote (Going to War):
          No nation can allow its citizens to be bombed regularly. No nation can withstand what we have taken on a daily basis. Whether Israel's leaders can withstand the storm of international protests is yet to be seen; whether it will finally act to defend its own citizens is unknown.
          What is known is that Israel's soldiers are ready and want to see this done correctly. They are not celebrating this offensive, as Palestinians have celebrated successful terror attacks in the past. Rather, they are glad that finally, the government has given them the right to do what they have been trained to do. Tonight, Elie sleeps at the base where he has been for the last few months. I do not know where he will be tomorrow or the next day. It could be south to Gaza; it could be north in anticipation of Hizbollah causing trouble on the northern border; or it could be staying where he is while other troops are moved around.
          I'm not sure how I'll know, if I'll know, and that is one aspect of what scares me. It's so interesting how quickly the sense of calm can fly away. Tonight, being the mother of an Israeli combat soldier is a very scary thing, but then again, being an Israeli living in Sderot and Ashkelon and Netivot and so many other places has also been unbearably frightening lately and maybe this action will help.
          The news just said Israel is moving tanks into the area. Perhaps the ground forces will move in sooner than I'd thought. This was a huge mistake Israel had made in Lebanon, waiting too long to send them in. In the meantime, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said today:
              "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting. The operation will expand as necessary. I don't want to mislead anyone. This won't be easy and it won't be short, but we must be determined. The time has come to act. We do not go to this clash gladly, but neither are we afraid of it. We will not let terrorists hurt our citizens or soldiers. We will do what is necessary. For weeks Hamas and its affiliates lobbed Qassams and Grads and mortar shells on the towns and communities of the South. We have no intention of allowing this situation to continue."
          There is a time for calm, and there is a time for fighting, said our Defense Minister. As much as I could wish he was wrong, I know that in this, he is right. It is long past the time to have stopped these rockets and missiles and mortar shells, long past the time that diplomacy has failed.
          May God bless our air force and our tank division, our navy and our artillery and our ground forces. May each unit be protected, as it seeks to protect. May it accomplish its task and return home safe and whole. May God bless our sons and daughters and keep them safe. The time has come to fight.
      It's a year later. The fight came and went...and still we are a nation at war, a nation that buried a father of 7 last week after yet another brutal terrorist attack.

      Tevet 6, 5770, 12/23/2009

      I Lied...

      I wrote that I was on the fence between two sides of a debate about Gilad Shalit. I explained that one side is ready to do all that is necessary to finally bring Gilad home; and one side refuses to trade 1,000 terrorists and murderers for one Israeli soldier. Between the two are many who want so desperately to see Gilad home and yet understand so completely what will happen if this trade is confirmed. I wrote that I sat there on the fence because...because it is the easiest place to be.

      To stand on the side willing to trade 1000 for Gilad means to accept responsibility not if, but when, these terrorists kill again. It means knowing that Gilad's parents will celebrate and Gilad will come home...and in the future, even the near future, other parents will know the sorrow of Gilad's parents...but the price will be 2,000. To sit there means to know that in the future, other parents will mourn, and there will be nothing left to trade, just endless sorrow.

      To sit on the side against the trade means to accept responsibility that Hamas may kill Gilad and worse, they may say they did...and then that they didn't...and then that they did...and then that they didn't. And each time will be agony; each will be unbearable sorrow. It means knowing Gilad may never come home. It means turning our back, even just a little, on our own sons, knowing that what we now say we cannot do for Gilad, we can never agree to do in the future.

      To sit in the middle is to say I understand both sides, agree with both sides and can't make up my mind because it is too painful. It means saying my heart and love go with Gilad...and with the parents who will yet bury their children if this deal goes through. It means looking at my son and not having to answer ... what if...

      But, the truth is...I lied.

      I'm not on the fence. It's easier to admit to being on the fence than think of looking at Gilad's parents and telling them no. Not for Gilad, not for any soldier. I can't bring myself to write the words that come into my mind. It's a game I'm playing with myself. If I don't write my son, Elie's name, I don't have to imagine the scenario.

      If I were Gilad's parents, I would have done all that they have done; gone to every door, every capital in the world. I would have done all that they have done, as they have done it...if I could find the amazing strength and courage. All they have done is what loving parents should do. I find no fault with a word or action they have done. All that they have demanded...is what every parent can and should demand.

      If it were me, I might just as easily have crawled into a corner and sat there for all these three long years and beyond. I'm not sure, in their situation, if I would have shown the wisdom, the character, the strength, the courage to put one foot in front of the other, to laugh, to talk, to live. Even breathing seems more than can be expected.

      If I were the Prime Minister of Israel, I might quit over this decision alone. I would not want to be there, to tell Gilad's parents that the answer is no. Oh God, the answer has to be no. What agonies of the heart they must feel, what pain our Prime Minister must inflict. But no, we cannot release 1,000 prisoners, not for any single Israeli. Not the Prime Minister himself, not the President, the Chief Rabbi, not even for a child, not even for Gilad.

      We can release one, even two - no matter what horrible crimes they have committed, no matter how much blood is on their hands. We could do this for Gilad. We could release Marwan Barghouti, with his disgusting smug look. He is what the Palestinians believe will lead them into the future. He is a killer who has organized without thought or regret, even gleefully, the deaths of dozens of Israelis. Our courts examined the evidence...and sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. This is not a leader, this is a murderer, the worst, the lowest. Take him, I would say to the Palestinians - take him for Gilad. Him, but not more.

      One thousand - one thousand who have killed how many? One thousand...who will return and kill how many more?

      I lied and I have to tell the truth. If the decision were mine...and I thank God every day it is not...I would refuse the deal. I would tell the Palestinians no, not for Gilad, not for anyone. Take me and let Gilad go; pick one Palestinian prisoner - anyone you want and I'll trade him, but no.

      And then, I would reach inside myself and tell Gilad's parents. I would listen to the sound of their hearts breaking and know that I had caused it. I would feel guilt beyond anything I have ever experienced in my life and know that it was a feeling that would haunt me for the rest of my life.

      And I would know that I have lied to myself for the last time. No, God, no. Not even for my son, who I love more than words can express. Not for him...would I let other parents bury their children in the future. Not even for my own...and Gilad is one of mine too. That's what it means to be a soldier's mother...we become, in so many ways, mother to them all.

      And with that, with a heart breaking and tears that may never end, I admit the truth. We cannot release 1000 prisoners, not even for Gilad.

      Tevet 4, 5770, 12/21/2009

      The Milestones of Service

      The first milestones as your son enters the army are obvious - the first day when he leaves, the first call, the first time he comes home in a uniform, the first time he comes home with a gun. The first sleepless night you have, the first time you wake in fear and panic, the first horrible call when he tells you something has happened, the first time he is sick and far from home. The first time you don't know where he is; the first time you know he's out there, at night, in the desert, wandering, navigating, almost alone. The first time you learn he has raised his gun, the first time he shoots and the first time you know he is at war.

      We've passed them all, survived them all and come out stronger for the experience. Today, I realized there are other milestones yet to experience. Just as there is a start, there is a finish. Just as there are first times, there are last times.

      I spoke to Elie on the phone. He'd gotten the cake and chocolate I sent and said they were delicious. He told me about where he would be in the coming days, what he would be doing. Right now, he explained, he was waiting for the other unit to take over "konenut" - that's a term that means "on alert" or "on call."

      Essentially, for the last few weeks while Elie's unit has been in training maneuvers on the Golan Heights, they have also been on alert, on call. What this means, essentially, is ready for war. If Syria or Lebanon had launched an attack, Elie was in the first line of defense; Elie and his unit would be the first to fire back.

      When Hezbollah fired missiles into northern Israel a few months ago, artillery units responded immediately. That's their job, to be ready within minutes. For the last few months, this has been Elie's unit...until today.

      So Elie was waiting to hand over the responsibility. "What does that mean?" I asked him.

      "I'm waiting to close down the computer," he explained. The other unit was supposed to come online hours before, "but they're late." And so Elie's unit remained on alert, waiting.

      When the word came, that the other unit was ready, Elie powered down his computer. He closed the computer...likely (hopefully) for the last time as a soldier in the standing army.

      From here, he goes back to a checkpoint to finish the last few months in the army. In effect, he has stood down from Israel's borders for the last time as a soldier in the standing army of Israel. It's a milestone of sorts. A beginning, a passage to the future.

      Of course, there's that roller coaster we've been on, the one with the sudden climbs and sudden falls. From where I'm standing, I'm praying that it's flat from here till when Elie hands back his gun, hands in his uniforms and comes home.

      Yes, I know - Elie will be in the army for the next 18 years, serving one month per year in our national reserves. He is as obligated to serve in the reserves as he was to serve in the standing army. Each year, for the next 18 years, he will receive orders to show up on a certain day, he'll be assigned a certain unit and a task and each year, as they grow older, they will come together. Year by year, they will meet and catch up on the lives they have lead since the last time they met.

      But first there are many todays to experience. For now, today was the last time Elie was with the computers of the nagmashim (the armored personnel vehicles), last week was likely the last time that he would hear these powerful machines fire massive explosives at a target and spew forth fire. The last time...until the next time he returns as a reservist.

      Today, as he stood down and prepared to separate from the equipment, there is a sense of relief, a sense of success, a sense that we've made it so much farther than I ever could have imagined. And, there is the sudden realization that in the next few months, there will likely be as many milestones of parting as there were in the start. For each beginning, there is an end; for each journey, there is a starting point and an arrival.

      We are nearing the light at the end of the tunnel; it's there, so much brighter than it was before, so much closer. Tomorrow someone else's son will guard the northern borders and begin their training as Elie rotates yet again in the timeless dance the army leads every few months.

      It is his last rotation, his last shift. Next one brings him home...and sees his brother begin.

      Tevet 2, 5770, 12/19/2009

      The Purpose of the Army

      WARNING: Politics ahead

      Anyone who knows me, knows my political stand. I have tried, over the last almost three years, to focus not on my politics, but on the journey I and thousands of other mothers (and fathers) take when their son (and daughter) begins serving in the Israeli (or other) army. I have tried, throughout all this time, to show my son, Elie, in real and human terms - for the good and the bad.

      When he is good, I show what he has accomplished, what he has become. And when he (or the situation) is bad, I try to look at things realistically and balance the sides so none are embarrassed or hurt. I have written of politics sometimes, because it is impossible to live in Israel and in the Middle East without acknowledging that we are at war for political gains...no, not Israel's, but the Palestinians.

      That already is a statement, a political one. But I have read the history of this land; lived it. I know it and am not blind to the faults of my government and my land. I know what we are guilty of...and what we are not. I know what we do and why we do it and still believe in the morality of Israel and its people.

      You cannot stop history and re-start it at a convenient time. All that comes before, impacts on all there is now. This is something the Arabs refuse to accept and the world caters to this misconception. The Arabs do not want to speak of 1929, when they massacred the Jews in Hebron and ran them out of their homes. If a Jew dares to want to enter Hebron today, dares to want to live there, it is, in the Arabs mind, an act of incitement, a call to war. They are not interested in 1929, and they fail to understand that what happens in 2009 is related, not just to 2008 and 1968 and 1948, but yes, even back to 1929 and even further back.

      And the fact is, despite the massacres of 1929 and other years and places, the Arabs were offered a land, a state, long ago (in 1947) to be carved out of space that we (and they) occupied. They chose war. Within hours of the establishment of the State of Israel - they called for in the United Nations vote that would have given them half the land - they chose war. Five neighboring Arab nations invaded our land, seeking, in their own words, to push the Jews into the sea.

      They lost that war...and have spent the last 61 plus years bellyaching and whining about it, always a step behind in their ability to grasp an opportunity. They are now, in 2009, up to accepting Israel's pre-1967 borders.

      Those borders were suicidal then, completely impossible now. If we have 15 seconds to run to safety in Sderot when a rocket is launched, how much time would Jerusalem have from a rocket launched mere meters away? The answer is none...and the Arabs are counting on that. They have never talked of a real peace. At best, they talk of a hudna...a term used to mean a ceasefire of sorts. One of the earliest hudnas took place between Mohammed and some enemies. They negotiated a long hudna, which Mohammed quickly broke; the explanation being that you are entitled to lie and break a hudna if made with infidels (by the way, according to the Muslims...everyone but a Muslim is an infidel).

      Accepting borders that stood for all of 19 years (from 1948 to 1967), compared to new borders that have been in place for the last 40+ makes no sense and yet much of the world, including Barack Hussein Obama, has fallen into this absurdity. You can't erase time or put the clock back...no matter how often we all wish it were true. We can't...and they can't.

      But I digress....

      The purpose of the army is the subject of this post and one that I have avoided, for the sake of politics, writing about. Today, I will.

      "The army was meant to protect the country," so says Lt. Col. Res. Erez Eshel, head of the Ein Prat Leadership School. This is such an obvious statement and yet needs to be said. For years now, the State of Israel, or I should say the government of Israel, has been using and abusing the army for its own political agenda.

      Once it was the job of the army to protect the country from those who seek to destroy her. Now, the army is too often being used to "protect the country" from those who don't agree with the government's political actions. The army allowed itself to be used to expel Jews from their homes in Gaza. Almost 10,000 people were physically taken, the homes and communities, synagogues and schools they had built, were destroyed in exchange for....ah, that is the question. In exchange for what?

      There was no peace agreement, no real peace negotiations going on. The concept, as a friend explained to me, was to gain the "moral advantage." That was an incredibly expensive and painful exercise, I always thought, for something we already had. It was termed a unilateral agreement - that means, we do what we think they might want in the hope of pacifying them but with absolutely no obligation on their part.

      We already had the moral high ground, my friend and others said we needed. We do not target civilians. Our young are not sent into Gaza and Palestinian cities to blow themselves seeking a glorious death to the infidels. We don't even believe in infidels!

      What we got...as a result of the Gaza withdrawal that broke the heart of the nation...was rockets on Ashdod and Ashkelon, and 15 second warnings of impending doom. What we got was the Second Lebanon War...and the Gaza War which, in all likelihood, will soon be followed by the Second Gaza War.

      And still we haven't learned. Still the government seeks to use the army against its own people. But this time, the army is fighting back. Not the Defense Minister who is part of the government, and not really part of the army he once served as a general. Ehud Barak has long since lost his sense of army, replaced by his sense of serving himself and his future political ambitions.

      He knows how to fight...and how to fight right. He did it in Gaza and he would do it again...but he is also playing politics with the army. Putting our soldiers in a position that forces them to chose between defending the government's politics and defending the people; between serving the country they love and the doing what is best for that country. He has put the Hesder movement and tens of thousands of young men in an impossible situation. Follow orders...do as I command, or be cut off, cut out, canceled, isolated. Follow orders, immoral though they may be; follow orders even if it does against what you believe to be the best interests of your country, or go to jail, lose the rank you have worked so hard to attain.

      What Barak has forgotten is that we are a nation partially born out of the Holocaust. No, it is not what the Arabs claim - that Israel is Europe's payback or some-such nonsense. But in a very real sense, a portion of our founders were Jews who had come from Europe, survived the Holocaust, and were determined never to be at the mercy of others again. Here, in our land, we would (and do) determine our own destiny.

      We are a people who learn from time, experience, mistakes. That is why we won the Gaza War after losing the Second Lebanon War. Hamas was emboldened, thinking that if Hezbollah won in the north, they could use the same tactics in Gaza and achieve victory as well. But unlike those nations of history who fell because they failed to adapt, to learn...we do, we have, we will.

      We saw what we had done wrong, and fixed it - decisively, completely, quickly. We did not fight in Gaza as we fought in Lebanon, and should there be another Lebanon War, we will fight with the lessons we have learned. It is all there, in the training that Elie's group and others have been undergoing - all the lessons, already put to practical use to better the army.

      We as an army learn, but we as a people learn too. So we learned from Germany that a soldier cannot just follow orders. He must, at all times, know that those orders are just and moral because for these things, he will be held accountable. If a commanding officer orders a soldier to shoot an innocent man, the soldier will be put on trial...with the commanding officer. It has happened; it will happen. You cannot stand in an Israeli court and say, "I was just following orders."

      This is the strength of the Israeli army. This is what Ehud Barak has forgotten. We who suffered at the hands of those who followed orders, will never "just" follow orders when the orders are wrong, when the orders are for political reasons against the security and safety of our people and land.

      And so, soldiers in Israel are standing up and saying they will not follow orders that involve their destroying the homes and lives and belongings of the people they are charged with defending. My sons won't do it. My neighbors' sons and daughters won't do it. Don't ask them. They will go to jail if they must. Jail is nothing compared to selling out on your country, your beliefs.

      Friday night, last week, one soldier came back to our neighborhood, home to his family, after spending weeks in jail because he and his fellow soldiers held up a sign that said they would not expel Jews from their home He was welcomed back to the neighborhood with signs and cake and friends who told him that they were proud. He has made it clear - he has learned; he will not "just" follow orders - not those orders that would twist and betray the real purpose of the army.

      And our defense minister has now announced that a hesder yeshiva, similar to the one where my second son learns, will no longer be honored as a place in which young men can serve and learn. Choose Har Bracha, says the defense minister, and you will not be fulfilling your obligation to the nation.

      This is politics and doesn't belong in our army and so a Lt. Colonel in our army has chosen, correctly, to remind the defense minister and the government that "the army was meant to protect the country," and not serve the political needs of the government currently in office.

      I can only pray that the government will listen so that our sons and daughters can continue to serve in pride a nation they love and want to defend. In March, my second son's hesder will send their latest group to hesder, including my son. If Har Bracha's students cannot go, are not welcomed into the army of Israel, I hope all hesder yeshivot will not send their sons either.

      We are one country, one people, one land. If Barak will seek to divide, we cannot let him. The purpose of the government is to lead all; the purpose of the army is to defend all. If Barak can't remember that, he truly doesn't belong anywhere near the defense ministry. Let all our sons serve to protect us against our enemies...or we have lost all.

      Our strength is that we do not follow orders blindly; our soldiers think and react. This is what has won war after war; let our sons think, let our army defend.

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