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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:

      Elul 17, 5769, 9/6/2009

      Ron Arad, Gilad Shalit, Ehud Barak and Israel

      I've been thinking a lot about Gilad Shalit for many months which. considering he's been held by Hamas for more than three years, isn't unusual. Gilad Shalit's situation is every soldier's mother's nightmare. Only death can be worse than what the Shalit family has endured and there are times when I wonder if even death is worse.

      So many say to me, "Come on, you don't really believe he is alive, do you?"

      I have to confess, I do. I have no evidence, no strong believe, no facts on wish to base this presumption. I recognize that it is an emotional decision - it hurts to much to think that once again this is only the twisted tortured workings of Hamas, though I know that they, Hezbollah, have done this very thing countless times so successfully.

      It is Hamas that continues to violate international law without punishment or even large-scale condemnation from anyone but Israel and a few stragglers. Certainly the Red Cross has taken no action; the UN has predictably done nothing. Silence reigns from the majority of European leaders. To their collective shame, no international representative has been allowed to see Gilad, to check on his condition, to demand regular contact with his family. And worse, no sanctions, no demands, no punishment, no real consequences have been levied against Hamas for this indecency.

      This is so different from how Israel treats Palestinian prisoners, so different from the college degrees many of them are earning, so different from the regular visits they receive with their families. And yet, Israel is afraid to trigger the anger of the world by even temporarily suspending the rules that Hamas has systematically and completely ignored for years. Why does a Palestinian sitting in our jail for security crimes, even murder, have the right to see his family, to hear of his children and his parents, while Gilad gets nothing, sees nothing?

      The case of Gilad Shalit reminds us too clearly of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and yet the differences are startling and have to be mentioned. There was clear evidence that at least one of the two soldiers had died during the cross-country attack on the Lebanese border, and that the second would have been, at best, in critical attention. Knowing how the Arabs, Hamas, Hezbollah, whatever, focus on causing injuries rather than healing them, it was always doubtful that any surviving soldier would have received the necessary treatment to survive.

      Beyond all corruption, beyond all hatred and friction they caused in our society, I find no forgiveness for the simple failture of the Olmert government to prepare us, the people, to accept the very real possibility that both soldiers had died in the raid and all the moment when we would be faced with bodies and not live soldiers. The army and government only really tried to make us believe this towards the end, almost two years and a war later. By then, we were no longer ready to really accept it. A humiliating prisoner "exchange" was agreed upon and there was a collective gasp, when Israel first saw the coffins and realized we had been praying and hoping for two years - all in vain.

      All indications are that Gilad Shalit was taken alive. Common sense says the conditions under which he has been held have likely been barbaric, that Hamas certainly is not interested in his comfort. Bargaining tool or not, Gilad remains a soldier of Israel, a child of our hearts. And herein lies the second worry I have. There is a scene in my mind that I know Hamas will never let us play out.

      It is of the tens of thousands who would line the streets to welcome Gilad home, the outpouring of a nation, the tears of all mothers. What wouldn't we do to have Gilad home...and doesn't Hamas know this.

      In the days before Purim and Passover and the High Holidays each year, we know that our enemies will attempt to launch an attack. Our joy is an insult to them, our happiness their undoing. They will not want us to celebrate Gilad's homecoming and they will do something, anything, to prevent that. More than what Gilad has endured in the last three years, the next few weeks and months may well determine his condition.

      And that brings us to Ron Arad. This is the other extreme. We know he was taken alive; we know he survived in captivity for some time. Just as we failed to bring Gilad home, we have failed Ron Arad and his family. Today's news report that Arad died in captivity, some 9 years after his capture, feels like a knife to the heart. Deep in my soul, I doubted that he could have lived this long, and wasn't even sure I wanted to imagine a life time of waiting to come home for him. And yet, thinking of him dying alone and seemingly abandoned brings no comfort either.

      I am not an advocate of releasing prisoners at all cost. Returning Ron or Gilad in exchange for future kidnappings and more terrorist attacks has never called to me. But where each Israeli government has failed is in the effort to make the world fight this battle.
      • Magen David Adom should not be part of the International Red Cross and no representatives should be allowed to visit or work in Israel until they make an effort to see Gilad - a real effort that includes threatening the Red Crescent with expulsion and a cessation of all aid and work in Gaza. People say this is collective punishment - has not our nation been collectively punished by suffering three years without Gilad?
      • The United Nations should not be allowed to continue operations. Immediate work by UNRWA should be stopped immediately until Gilad is brought home. Let the schools close, the camps shut down. No food, no medical aid. Nothing. The world will say this is unfair but what has been done to Gilad and his family is not fair either.
      • International leaders want to meet with the Palestinians - they should refuse to do so until it is clear that the Palestinian leader is ready to release a statement against violating international law - including the one that requires Hamas to have Gilad examined by international representatives.
      Finally, I'm left with sadness when I think of Ehud Barak's recent words. Ill-timed though they were, insensitive to be sure. Ehud Barak is correct - we cannot pay any price for Gilad Shalit. But his mistake is in talking to Israelis when he should be talking to the world. He said, "We are not in western Europe or North America.' This was his way of saying that Israelis must deal with living in the Middle East and the enemies that we have. He is correct - which is why he SHOULD be talking to the Europeans and Americans.

      We know where we live and it is natural to agonize for our missing son. Noam Shalit said it best - stop talking, Defense Minister Ehud Barak - at least stop talking to us. Tell the Europeans to stop sending in aid, until Hamas sends Gilad out. Tell them that we understand a prisoner deal must be made and we are ready.

      Not to release murderers - because we aren't asking for a murderer. Not to release terrorist masterminds, as we too are not asking for this. We will release as many innocent prisoners as we can - those who perhaps violated the law by being where they were not allowed to be and perhaps those of that sort - all in exchange for Gilad.

      No, it won't be thousands, possibly not even 450. But it will be like for like, as is the only way to ensure future kidnappings aren't encouraged. No, the Arabs won't be happy with this but they will accept it - because they  need UNRWA schools which should be closed; they need Red Cross assistance, which should be stopped; and they need money from the European Union, which must be delayed.

      Gilad Shalit is not Ron Arad...not yet. But he could be if our governments fail to demand that the world recognize what we already know. We are dealing with an organization that does need international support. Shut it down...and Gilad will come home.

      Elul 13, 5769, 9/2/2009

      A Year In: Even the Bus Drivers Love Our Soldiers

      This blog has been running now for more than two years. I started it's reincarnation here on Arutz Sheva at the beginning and then skipped to my current posts, but there were some that I wanted to post here that I felt were particularly special and explain what life is like in Israel, both as a soldier's mother, and a soldier. During the first year Elie was in, I learned so much about the army, about the way it treats its soldiers. I learned a lot about my son, and I learned, or perhaps I should say was reawakened to how much Israel loves its soldiers. This post, dating back to February, 2008, took place while Elie was taking the Commanders Course. As part of the course, each soldier took responsibility of the other soldiers, to see what it would be like once they'd finished the course.

      This post is dedicated to Israel's bus drivers. It was called:

      Even the Bus Drivers Love Them

      Yesterday, while driving to a special course in the north, Elie received a phone call from one of the other participants in the Commanders Course telling him (as the soldier responsible for knowing where everyone is) that the soldier had forgotten his backpack on a bus. He was calling to tell Elie that he was going to try to catch another bus to catch up with his backpack.

      Elie gave him permission simply by telling him to update him to let him know what was happening. In yet another very Israeli story -after the phone call, the soldier jumped on the next bus and explained to the driver what had happened. Soldiers get free buses and trains to almost anywhere in Israel and so they don't hesitate or worry about the number of rides they take.

      When the driver heard the story, he quickly radioed ahead to the bus in front, telling him about the soldier's backpack. The bus promptly pulled to the side of the road and waited for the second bus to catch up so that the soldier's backpack could be returned safely.

      There are so many stories like this in Israel. Recently, a young child fell asleep on the bus ride home from school. He woke up, looked around, and realized he had missed his stop. Suddenly frightened, the young child started to cry, at which point other passengers asked what happened and alerted the bus driver. Without hesitation, the bus driver turned the bus around and took the boy to his stop. He then turned the bus around again, and continued along his route.

      Another "famous" bus story had to do with one of Israel's leaders. When the bus driver realized that a former prime minister had boarded his bus, he insisted on driving the astonished leader to his doorstep, even though it was off the usual bus route. Embarrassed at the attention, the leader tried to argue with the bus driver, but the applause of the people on the bus made it clear that they agreed with the driver.

      The drivers yesterday, the one who called and the one who stopped, might not have had to turn a bus around for this soldier, but certainly they warmed his heart by making sure he and his backpack were reunited. With their help, the soldier quickly retrieved his property, jumped on another bus in the opposite direction, and was barely late for the start of the day's activities.

      Elie told me this story as if it was something natural and logical but I found it enchanting and just one of the many reasons why I'm so happy to live in this country.

      Elul 12, 5769, 9/1/2009

      The End that was No End

      Officially, the Gaza War ended on January 18. Many suspect this was because Israel knew that tremendous pressure would come from the incoming Obama administration if the war were to continue. So, the troops were withdrawn just in time; the equipment moved, a unilateral ceasefire declared.

      For me, the war really only ended a few days later, when Elie finally came home and was able to join us for our youngest son's bar mitzvah celebration. I spent hours talking with Elie, trying to make sure he was okay with what had happened, that he wasn't traumatized or haunted, depressed or uncomfortable. What came home was a young man who understood why Israel went in, if not why Israel stopped on January 18th. What came home was a young man comfortable with what his country called upon him to do. Not haunted, not traumatized. Proud of his role, happy to be home and clean and fed.

      He talked about Gaza. He was knowledgeable and clear and his convictions were strong and unwavering. He was happy to be home, but not happy that Israel has stopped before truly wiping out the rocket threats. What Elie knew then, what all Israel knew, was that Hamas' ability to launch rockets and mortars against Israel had been damaged, the infrastructure of their ability to attack Israel slowed, but not eliminated completely.

      The war ended 227 days ago but the rockets have continued. Yet again today, a rocket was fired at Israel - that makes at least 237 rockets in the last 227 days. More than a rocket a day...

      And I can't help but wonder what country in the world would accept such a thing? Obama wants us to compromise, to surrender all building rights, including natural growth. This means my daughter can't build a home here in the same city where I live. Obama, who has likely never been to my city and understands little of life here feels he is correct in mandating our behavior and worse, demanding concessions of Israel unilaterally and without any give from the other side.

      How incredible - they shoot rockets...and we are ordered to compromise. I have little doubt that if one of these rockets hits a school, Obama will issue his standard regret statement. But today's rocket didn't injure anyone - never mind those surprised and frightened by a sudden explosion on a peaceful weekend day.

      I wonder what the Germans or the French or the Swedes would do if someone were to explode a rocket somewhere in their country every day. Would it be acceptable so long as the rockets failed to do major damage? Until, of course, the rocket hit something, killed someone.

      Back in December, 2008, we launched a war to stop the rockets from terrorizing our citizens. Around the world, many understood our actions, but only after hearing that we'd had more than 10,000 rockets launched at our civilians. Even the Egyptians seemed to be saying to the Palestinians, "well, what did you expect them to do?"

      The war ended on January 18, but the rockets did not. An average of one rocket per day has fallen in the last 224 days.

      If it was your government allowing this, what would you demand of them?

      If it were your army, what would you have them do?

      I don't want my son to have to go back to Gaza, but I also know that if he doesn't go back within the next 7 months...my next son will.

      Elul 8, 5769, 8/28/2009

      A Soldier and a Wedding

      I went to a wedding last night. It was beautiful, as hopefully all weddings should be. It was sweet; it was romantic; it was exciting, it was fun and touching on so many levels. There was great joy and honor given to the grandparents and young children playing and having fun.

      The food was good, the music a bit loud. The bride was beautiful; the groom so handsome. I was close enough to the family to love watching them; distant enough to feel at times that I could watch from the outside. At one point, a soldier arrived. He was in uniform, M16 strapped to his back. He entered the wedding already in progress, the ceremony long over. His boots were dirty; he looked tired and I have little doubt he came straight from base to join his friends.

      He stood for a moment and watched, almost as if he was gathering the strength to join in. Some of the boys noticed him and walked towards him, just as he began to walk towards the dance floor. There was pats on the back, hand shaking, hugging. He walked into the far corner of the hall, beyond my sight and returned a few minutes later without his gun. Clearly, he had found some place safe to stash it, or someone to watch it.

      He joined the dancing and within minutes, was hugged by the groom. Whatever strength he was lacking before he began to dance returned. He was with his friends and as the group circled around, I realized that though he was the only one in uniform, these are all soldiers.

      I looked at the bride's oldest brother - he was one of my middle son's best friends for years as they grew from childhood to the towering men they are becoming. He was dancing with his new brother-in-law, laughing and having fun, and I realized that although he isn't a soldier now, he will be in just 7 months - he, like Shmulik, will enter the army as Elie leaves.

      I sat and watched the wedding, an insider and an outsider wrapped in one. At one point, the soldier left the dance floor with another young man; they moved to the side and began talking. I know enough of uniforms and boots and berets to know that he was a paratrooper; the three bars indicating that he's a sergeant.

      I don't know how long he's been in the army, when he will get out, what base he came from, where he serves. I can't tell if he fought in Lebanon or in Gaza, if he has sisters and brothers. He is a nameless soldier, in the Israeli army, hated by many simply for wearing a green uniform; and loved by many others, perhaps for the same reason.

      I don't know his name, where he lives, if his mother has a blog, if his father worries. But there was something in the way the soldier and his friend stood there and talked, something in the way their bodies were positioned, their heads leaning towards each other as they spoke. It is an intensity that I have seen in Elie when he talks to other soldiers.

      I saw it when he stood on the side and spoke to his cousin, another soldier in artillery. I saw it when he stood with our friend's son, Oren, beside the Sea of Galilee. It's a feeling that I have, that they are "talking army."

      They stood there to the side, the soldier and his friend at a wedding for about 15 minutes and then one slapped the other on the shoulder and they went back to dance and celebrate, the green uniform a whirl of color in a circle of past soldiers, current soldiers and future soldiers.

      Elul 4, 5769, 8/24/2009

      The Flat of the Roller Coaster

      It seems silly, now that I think about it, but aside from the time that Elie was near Gaza during the war, the single most terrifying thing that has happened was the time when our house phone rang in the middle of the night. It happened twice in a row and I asked my husband to see if the caller ID identified the number.

      He told me that it did, and the number calling us was Elie...but Elie didn't talk as we listened, didn't respond when we spoke. We hung up the phone and I started dialing his number, but he didn't answer; I sent him a text message and tried again. In the minutes before he answered, my mind raced through horrifying possibilities - he's laying somewhere hurt and he can't talk; a war has started...my husband thought of the possibility of his having been kidnapped. (Night Terrors)

      Trying to comfort me, my husband suggested that Elie had fallen asleep. And as his phone rang again, Elie finally answered. His voice was groggy; it was, as my husband suggested, an accidental call as Elie rolled over on his phone. It had been about two months since Israel launched a mission to bomb a building site in Syria - one that later was reported (by the UN and others) to contain nuclear radiation traces. Elie was up north that night; close to the Syrian border.

      Later, the world would accept the Syrians were up to no good and Israel had stopped something very sinister. But that night (Just When You Thought It Was Safe), Elie was ordered to the fields with the troops. Their weapons aimed at Syria, ready to fire.

      They fully expected Syrian planes to attack; knew there was the chance that war was coming towards them. I was at home, asleep, oblivious, as much of Israel was. After a few hours, Elie and about half the soldiers were told to stand down and get some rest while the second half stayed alert. Not knowing what would happen or if he'd have a chance to call us later to tell us that undoubtedly, plans had changed and he wouldn't make the 6:00 a.m. bus, he called me at 4:00 a.m.

      I woke out of a sound sleep, to hear Elie tell me that he wouldn't make the bus. I knew something was wrong, but it was a brief conversation. He couldn't tell me what happened, only that he wouldn't be on the bus and that it was a country-wide alert.

      Only about 12 hours later did the news begin to break through that there's been an incident up north, where my son was. All I got from Elie was the strange acknowledgment that it wasn't what I was hearing on the news, not exactly. It took him another week or so before he was able to get home; nights of worry and the memory of knowing something had happened, but not knowing what.

      I thought of all of this and those two night-time calls because last night at 4:43 a.m., my husband's cell phone rang and woke us up. He answered, but no one was there.

      "Who was it?" I asked, knowing that no one had answered.

      "Elie," he answered and went back to sleep.

      I stayed there for a few minutes wondering what to do; call him and risk waking him...or worse, interrupting him while he's on patrol. What was missing this time was the terror. My mind didn't travel that panicked road of imagination; I didn't think of him hurt or worse.

      I don't know what this means - perhaps that I've grown to accept things more, that I'm more able to wait for horrible news and don't need to anticipate it. I don't know. I thought for a few minutes, decided not to call him, and went back to sleep. In the morning, time was short so I rushed to work, taught, had meetings, and finally had time to call Elie on my way home.

      "Allo," he answered.

      "Hi, Elie - are you busy?"

      "Nope," he answered.

      "Everything okay?" I asked.

      "Yup," he answered. It was one of those conversations...

      "So, what were you doing at 4:43 in the morning?"

      "Why?" he asked a bit suspiciously.

      "Where you asleep?"

      "No," he answered. "Why?"

      "Because you called Abba," I told him.

      "Oh, oops," he said.

      I don't know what he was doing, what patrol he was on, but I know that he's safe; I know he's fine. I know he'll probably be out again tonight. Already as I closed the phone they were calling for him.

      But what was perhaps the most satisfying of all, was that I seem to have reached a plateau. My son has gone on operations in Arab villages, found guns and explosives. My son has been to war; been called upon to defend his nation and in so doing, kill our enemy so that they would stop attacking us. My son, my soldier, my Elie.

      It isn't complacency - it isn't that I am not afraid...it's just that I guess I have come to realize the call I fear the most, isn't Elie calling me in the middle of the night. I can handle his accidentally dialing our numbers any time, any place, any moment. I've heard explosions while I spoke to him - that was scary. I have had nights were I couldn't reach him but knew he was out there amid the rockets and fighting - that was terrifying.

      Now, I am...calmer and I recognize in myself the mother I have seen in others. I'll tell this to another soldier's mother and she will laugh; I'll write this to a soldier's father and he'll understand. Others said I had joined their ranks long ago when Elie entered the army, but I didn't feel it for myself. I wasn't there.

      They sent their sons to war and managed to function, while I held back and worried. They face each day with bravery and humor, while I hang back and worried. And sometime in the middle of the night, as I decided not to call Elie, I realized that the picture I had painted was all wrong.
      They are not nearly as brave or unconcerned as I had imagined; they too walk around with a piece of themselves missing and separate. And I am not nearly as paralyzed as I once thought. I have arrived - after two years, into a family of soldiers' parents.

      Perhaps I shouldn't write this next part, but I will anyway. There is a law for Murphy and a corollary. There is a truth that falls with time and happenstance. And so I will admit that the calm is fake. Rather, I am once again on the flat area of the roller coaster and allowing myself to believe I can coast to the end of the ride. I don't know what lies ahead - more uphill travels or sudden falls but the flat place is calm and settling and for now, and somewhere around 4:43 in the morning last night, I decided that I'll enjoy the ride.

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