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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:
Cheshvan 18, 5770, 11/5/2009
As each soldier leaves the Israeli army, the division and the unit do something for them. They get monetary benefits to see them into the next phase of their lives (more on that when Elie actually gets out and I learn what they are); they get courses that help them learn skills, they get backpacks and hats and scarves and gloves, shampoo and personal hygienic kits, and they get honors in society. Forever, God willing, Elie will be labeled as an artillery soldier, a commander at that.
They go through life, these soldiers of Israel, meeting others and with a word "artillery", "paratroopers", "pilot", "Navy", "tanks"...with a single word they tell something about themselves. That is for the future, to a place we haven't yet gotten, so I'll focus on now, on this week, when Elie received a gift from the army.
I can't say what other divisions do; I can barely say what artillery does or will do. They gave him the gift of a vacation with several other artillery soldiers who will also be leaving in the coming months. Elie had the itinerary, kept "secret" from the others. It was to begin on Sunday morning in the northern city of Afula. Meet the bus, surrender yourself for fun.
Don't come in army uniforms - this is about you. They had (all but Elie and another commander) checked their guns back into the army. It isn't hard to look at Elie, even when he isn't in uniform, to know that he is a soldier. It's in the short hair, the body toned by years of exercise. But it's also there in the way he walks, the way he listens, the way he watches. Security is always an issue for Israel, even when you are on vacation. Elie would go armed, magazine in the gun, ready. It is another reality he lives with.
It was to be two days of hiking, bowling, going on tours of local points of interest, going to some historical sites. Sunday was fine, even great. They bowled Sunday night. I have to remember to ask Elie how he did.
Monday dawned incredibly cold and nasty. Record rainfall. In Jerusalem, I watched as the rain fell steadily in Israel, something it rarely does. All day, sometimes harder, sometimes less. Sometimes thunder, always wet. In Israel, winter and summer come with a vengeance and Monday was a fine example. There was even talk of snow on the highest levels of Mr. Hermon.
They made it to the first historical site and had a tour before the rains reached way up north, but then the skies opened. There would be no touring, no hiking for the rest of this second day. And this is where the "Israeli" comes into "Israeli army". They called the battalion commander to inform him that there was not much they could do. The battalion commander made a single phone call and within minutes, Elie and the others were off to a local country club, there to swim in heated waters, use the gym, and relax.
It was a gift, a break, a wonderful day. It was a thank you from a land so grateful to soldiers so loved.
Cheshvan 18, 5770, 11/5/2009
Elie's coming home today - through a series of complex twists, he is supposed to travel down to a large southern base to be one of the commanders of a preparation course training new commanders. It's a three week stint. One week training Elie on what he has to do, two weeks being the commander of the course.
Then it's back up north to rejoin his unit for training, then back in the center, this time near Jerusalem, on a checkpoint. That's how he will finish his army service. That's the plan, or was, or will be. The one great truth of the army is that no matter what they tell you will be, when it will be, where and how, tomorrow that will change.
"So you're coming home today?" I asked him this morning.
Elie explained that most soldiers leave late in the afternoon and get home in the evening. For him, living where we do, he has to take a bus to Tel Aviv and another to Jerusalem and another to our home. He gets home very late.
"I'm not sure what's happening Sunday," he told me. Sunday he was supposed to travel south to the base; return on Tuesday. Wednesday he was supposed to go north for the day and return that night, finally starting his training for the Commanders Preparation Course the following Sunday.
"They need me here. They're going to have a big problem if I go to <southern base>. And I have orders to go to the <southern base>. They need me in two places and I can't be in both at the same time."
"So what happens now?" I asked.
"They have to decide."
"Which do you want?" I asked.
He was silent for a moment and then finally responded. "I think <southern base>. It would be nice to rest."
While he would be in charge of the soldiers as they go through the preparation course gearing up to the Commanders Course, Elie's life would be relatively easy. He would be responsible for some of their training, but also for helping decide who goes and who stays (many are rejected before the course begins and many choose not to stay because the training is hard). But there are many who assist; these soldiers will become commanders, as Elie was trained.
When there is an incident, as there was with Elie's unit in Jerusalem a bit over a year ago, it is the commanders and the officers who raise their guns and fire. When Elie went with a group of soldiers earlier this week for a parting vacation from the army, it was Elie, the commander, who took a gun along. The others were free to climb and swim, while Elie and another few guarded.
Their training during this course is intense. Physical and mental. Tests for intelligence and stamina. They learn navigation beyond anything taught to non-commanders. They learn to shoot weapons beyond their M16. Each of these are taught by experts. It is Elie's job to teach some, train some, be counselor and companion some and guide the group from expert to expert. In between, he would be free to "play on the computer. It would be nice to be in <southern base>."
Elie began his training almost three years ago on this base and spent almost a full year during his various levels of training. It is very far from home and to some extent it is coming home, or at least visiting home one last time before he leaves the army.
I sometimes feel very old when I see my son and think of the lessons he has yet to learn; the understanding he has yet to develop. He knows that he is needed in two places. What he doesn't recognize, perhaps it is the folly of youth, is that there should be great joy in knowing that you are needed, even if you are over-needed.
Where will Elie be next week? I asked myself this question so many times over the last few years...right now, I've come to the wonderful place where I can feel that wherever it is, is okay with me (and him).
May it come in safety and health. May it come in the knowledge that what he does, no matter where he does it, serves his people and his nation.
Cheshvan 15, 5770, 11/2/2009
No. I can't believe the army will let Elie out this weekend. It isn't logical. He has been home for the last two weekends in a row. Sunday, the army is saying their thank you to Elie and about 20 other artillery soldiers as they prepare to end their service to the nation.
The army will take them on a two day vacation - hiking, entertainment, I don't even know what. That is Sunday. He must leave Sunday morning to join the group - these 20 soldiers from many units...each preparing in the next few months to return to civilian life and begin again whatever they might have thought to do before. Usually, Elie has to return to base later in the day. Since he must leave first thing Sunday morning, another commander will have to fulfill whatever tasks Elie might have been required to do over this weekend.
That being the case, that another commander must stay up north, there is no logic in Elie staying too. But that is a mother's logic, not army logic. Elie is supposed to be up north this weekend, would be if he wasn't going on this 2-day parting trip...so why change what is supposed to be.
"Will the army let you go?" I asked him repeatedly.
Each time, "they haven't let me know yet."
Yesterday, I was quite a ways up north. It would have been perfect for Elie to meet me. I would have saved him a train ride and a bus ride.
"If you can get out first thing, you can meet me here," I told him. "And if you get out in the afternoon like you did last time, I can leave here and drive part way to you."
"We'll see," was all Elie would say. It reminded me of all the "we'll sees" I gave my children growing up. How many of them did I deliver on? How many were just delaying tactics until I said "no?"
Yesterday I called him as I was preparing to leave Haifa and return south. "Are you coming home?" I asked.
"Still don't know," Elie said. "Anyway, it won't be today."
I woke this morning, sure that Elie wasn't coming home. I sent my younger children off to school, began preparing for the day and the coming Sabbath, all sure Elie wasn't coming home.
"We need to set the table for 7 for tomorrow; 5 tonight," I told my middle son. This is a calculation. The table without extensions can hold 6. I can put my younger daughter next to me. Is it worth having this large table when we will be only 5 tonight?
"Ok," my son responded in the clear voice of a male who will do whatever the female says so long as he doesn't have to make the decision.
He ran to do an errand and the phone rang. As I picked it up, I saw it was Elie calling. "Where are you?" was my first question - not even hello. His answer will be enough to tell me.
Oh God, he is coming home. So stupid to be so happy, so silly. He was home just a few days ago. He's in training up north, far from checkpoints and Arabs that might or might not be carrying weapons, explosives, knives. So silly but such joy.
He's coming home...only till Sunday, but joy. My family will be complete - one meal with all my children. I'm adding an extension to the table now.
Cheshvan 13, 5770, 10/31/2009
Decades ago, a representative of another country...I don't remember which any longer...came to Israel and toured our land with our prime minister. After quite a bit of time and many miles, the man turned to our leader and complimented him on the amazing job Israel had done to "deforest" the land. In his country, trees covered everything and the only way for people to create cities and homes was to first clear vast areas of land. Something that was time consuming, expensive, and slow.
Many years ago, I lived in a land that gets rainfall almost weekly. Certainly a month would not go by without some rainfall and at times, it was quite plentiful. Snow fell in the winter, rain all year round. Water came from the pipes in our home without thought and at little cost.
If the water was dirty in your cup, you spill it down the sink and fill the glass again. If you took too much, you spilled the rest out. Long showers, baths - whatever. Water was not a consideration, not a thought. There was water today, yesterday and would be tomorrow.
Rain was beautiful, but often inconvenient, wished away for another day. I was raised in a country where we sang, "Rain, rain, go away. Come back another day." Some child and I want to go out to play...and we did.
I moved to Israel and water became something more precious, as it is perhaps meant to be. We don't take it for granted - ever. We are obsessed with how much falls in each area of our country, the state of our national reservoirs. There is water coming out of the pipes today and yesterday and we hope tomorrow. We don't take long showers, baths much less often.
If the water in our cup is dirty, we go over to a plant and pour the water on it. If we can't possibly drink more water from our cup, we find a tree. We soap up our dishes with the water turned off and wash them quickly and all at once. I will often collect the dishwater from the sink and pour it into the garden. Many homes divert their shower water directly to the garden as well.
That's the water situation. As for the rain - we view it as a gift, each and every drop - as it should be viewed. We pray for rain from the holiday of Sukkot, which we just celebrated, until the holiday of Passover in the Spring.
And when it comes, as it did yesterday, we thank God for it. We marvel at it.
"It's miserable out there, thank God."
"Don't forget to wear your coat and find an umbrella. It's really nasty, thank God."
Yesterday it rained and I did something I haven't done in so long. I went outside and just stood in the falling rain. The drops were huge, the downpour a relief from a dry summer in which it never rains, after a dry winter in which it didn't rain enough.
We are hoping this winter will be filled with horrible, wet, nasty days that will replenish the Sea of Galilee, flow through the Jordan River, and bring alive the dying Dead Sea, which is drying up each month. Now is the time when we are filled with hope for what the winter months will bring. At some point, some scientists with suggest that based on predictions and formulations and tests, they expect this winter to be...wet, dry, normal, above, below - all words. What matters are the clouds, the heavens, the drops.
Last night, I stood quietly on the balcony of our new home, slowly getting wet and enjoyed the wet, wonderful gift God has given to this land this day.
May we be blessed with a winter full or rain and growth...and may Hezbollah in the north continue to not want to fight in the winter (and beyond).
Cheshvan 11, 5770, 10/29/2009
If there is any harder path to follow as a combat soldier's mother, it is to be the mother of a lone soldier. A lone soldier is a young man or woman who has decided that they must serve the country of Israel, as my son has. But there is a difference, a huge difference in that Elie can call me at any time, at any moment. With four words, he would have me running to my car, driving beyond the speed of light to get to him. With a simple, "Ima, I need you" I would be gone.
He knows this, as all my children do. Call me and I will be there. It doesn't matter where, when, why. The call is enough, the need the most critical thing. There are the silly little things that can be answered in a phone call - loneliness, the need for information, the need to talk. This can be given no matter where the mother is, though time and expense can be a factor.
And then there is that which is priceless, to us as mothers, and to them. Driving them to base when they are tired or have to get there at a ridiculous hour; loaning them a car for their day off; doing their laundry or helping them at least; home-baked cookies. It's the smile, the hug, the quiet discussions that make my life (and hopefully Elie's) easier as he follows this path.
I got the following comment from a lone soldier's mother and wanted to add it here because she shares a side of being a soldier's mother that I don't experience but is so important for others to understand. I live with much of what she experiences, and so much less.
She didn't choose her son's path, didn't anticipate it, didn't expect it. I did. I chose to bring my son to this country as a young child, knowing that this meant he would be a soldier some day in the distant future. I knew and was as prepared as I could be. I knew from the time Elie was six years old, even before he was born, to some extent, that the day would come when he would wear the uniform, carry the gun, and go places I don't want to imagine. I knew; she didn't.
She writes of his maturity and I see that in Elie too. She writes of things her son must do, things that Elie does too.
She has learned to live with uncertainty. Yes, that has become my constant companion.
She writes of the years after the army, as her son enters the national reserves, in many ways the true fighting force in Israel and I share with her the knowledge that she and I will be soldiers' mothers for decades to come.
And finally, she writes that she doesn't believe she has the same grace under fire that we Israelis have and here is the first time I will disagree with her. From the moment Elie entered the army, I knew that I belonged to a family much larger than the one I had started forming when I married my husband and we began bringing children into this world. Suddenly, everywhere I went, in meetings after meetings - there was a diversion, a comment, talk of where our sons and daughters were, what they were doing. What unit, what base - became a binding force between complete strangers. It happened just yesterday during a conversation with a woman who came here to discuss a new line of courses specifically for women...and soon it I learned that she has two sons who are soldier. It is the way of things in Israel and elsewhere.
I learned something else last year when Elie went to war - there is an even larger family I had never dreamed of joining. They are mothers in America and Europe, who have sons in Iraq and Afghanistan and all over, anywhere, who fight the same enemy, the same cultural values that seek to destroy my country (and theirs). They live with a grace I envy, a deep sense of faith and belief and a commitment to the same values our sons defend.
As I began to write here, I realized that American mothers who believe I am so brave, so filled with grace under fire...don't realize that I am awed by them. They are all mothers of lone soldiers - their sons far from home. Like this mother who wrote to me, they are so far from their sons, hours and hours, even days away from them. They cannot go to them, but must wait for them to be brought to some other place or brought all the way home. I am haunted by the thought and marvel at their grace that they live with this challenge.
I am so blessed to be so close to Elie; to have him come home every few weekends. To know, at a moment's notice, I could throw everything away and get in my car and drive to him. Sometimes, the drive is an hour away. Sometimes two, sometimes four. It doesn't matter. I don't see the grace she speaks of, the bravery others tell me I possess.
But what I do know is that she is in America. I am in Israel. We, she and I and you and them, are everywhere and our sons know our love, feel it through the telephone lines and deep in their hearts. We support them, love them, bless them, pray for them.
Lone Soldier's Mom has left a new comment on "Hearts and Rockets":
If someone asked me what is the most important thing you have learned about yourself since becoming the mother of an Israeli, and in particular, the mother of an Israeli soldier, I would say I have learned that I can live with uncertainty.
I have found out the hard way that rockets can hit where they have never hit before, that there is no such thing as a quiet checkpoint, that the IDF can send a unit from a brigade which has never been stationed outside the West Bank into a war zone.
I don't always know where my son is and what he is doing there. Things change quickly and when you least expect it. I no longer trust that I can sleep well because he is safely on base for the night because too many times I found out the next day that he wasn't. There is never going to be an end to all this uncertainty. After the army is reserve duty. In a war the reserves are called up and he will be anxious to go. In everyday civilian life, he goes from one place to another that I recognize as the sites of terrorist attacks, this bus station, this restaurant, that street.
It has all been a hard lesson for a suburban American mom who had a different kind of life all planned out and under control until three and a half years ago. My son has gained a lot of maturity and a different sort of confidence since he's been in the IDF. He's got a stronger backbone now. He's got guts.
I think this will stay with him forever, the knowledge that he had to do some really hard things for the benefit of people he will mostly never know and he was up to the task. Somewhere along the line, I realized that the IDF has changed me for the better, too. I'll never have that grace under fire that is so, so Israeli, but maybe a little bit of it has rubbed off on me.