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      A Soldier’s Mother
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      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:

      Sivan 20, 5769, 6/12/2009

      Countdown begins...The Final Days Before


      My daughter was married just two weeks before Elie went into the army. This event and its timing brought many blessings - the joy of welcoming our son-in-law and his family into our own, the happiness of seeing my daughter so happy, and, in another way, the chance to focus on something else besides Elie's entering the army.

      Wedding plans filled our home - dresses and fittings and things for her future home. The wedding was wonderful, the week that followed unbelievably hectic...and then I had to face the next challenge. It was a countdown of sorts; each day a challenge to hold myself together, at least until he would go. I remember promising myself that I could...and would...fall apart - after. All I asked was that it wait until after he left.

      7 Days and Counting - March 18, 2007

      Seven days from now, I'll be driving Elie to the drop-off point. From there, he will be taken to join an artillery unit, given a uniform and a gun and taken to some location somewhere...and I'll cope with not knowing where.

      This week, after my daugther's wedding, it's all about him. What he will need, what we should still buy. He still needs a strong backpack and locks, underwear and extra socks. He looked so handsome at the wedding, dressed in the suit he didn't want to wear, in the shoes he didn't want to buy. Everyday pants and his hiking boots would have been his choice, but he made us all happy by dressing for the occasion.

      There are the physical things we concentrate on to avoid thinking about the emotional issues. What he will need, where he will go the first week, the second week. Months of basic training and then additional training for his unit. When will he be allowed to come home.

      I don't believe wisdom necessarily comes with age, but fear certainly does. The older we are, the more we learn to fear. When I was expecting my first child, and my second, and even my third, I was too young to fear, to understand that we aren't always blessed with beautiful, healthy babies. Only as I got older did I realize what an incredible miracle each child was.

      Now, with age, comes the reality that just as we are given this incredible gift, we must cherish it and watch over it at all times. This becomes hard to do when the child goes off to a new place, leaving you to wonder and worry.
      Elie does not seem to be afraid; this is a stage in his life, an experience. Many boys love the army. It gives them direction, training, companionship and life-long friends. Only we mothers focus on the more serious aspects of where our sons will go and what they will do. We are the ones left crippled behind as they soar in triumph. They are free of their studies, free of daily routine. Life is new and exciting for them. Responsibilities come with trust. The state of Israel puts its faith and its love into its soldiers. They are treated with love as they travel from place to place. People stop to give them rides or hand them candy and food when they are on patrol. It is a love affair that never ages. There are few countries, if any, in the world who can claim the relationship that Israel has with its soldiers. Each is a son of the nation and the whole nation celebrates and mourns together when it comes to our soldiers.

      Perhaps, despite the worries, my son is right. This is an adventure, a new road he will take. I should be excited for him. I should be (and I am) very proud of him. In other countries, 19 year old boys are drinking and driving and focusing on girls. It will be years before they grow up while here in Israel, they are given responsibility, life and death decisions.

      In a matter of a few weeks, my son will come home with a gun and the training to know when to use it and when not to use it. He will be given responsibilities to protect whole communities and our country. All this on the head of a soon-to-be 20 year old. He celebrates this time while I quietly mourn the boy he will leave behind.

      So, as Elie sees the adventure ahead, I look at the boy knowing that all too soon, the army will return him to me as a man, having experienced new and exciting things, having gone where I've never gone, done what I've never done. He'll hold people's lives in his hands and learn things I never dreamed he would need to know. How far to shoot, how to aim a massive weapon capable of bringing down a building.

      They'll teach him the human side of war - our responsibility to avoid civilian casualties when possible and even to endanger his life to protect our citizens (and the citizens of other lands). He will learn how to defend himself, how to recognize the enemy and how to react. All this is new to him and it will change him, as it does each boy because in the end, he will be not just a boy, not just a man, but a soldier too.

      6 Days and Counting - March 19, 2007

      So - today we went shopping for those last minute items that the army recommends each new soldier should have. We went to a camping store, which has its own list of what the army provides (one column) and what they recommend (two bigger columns). The store gives a free wallet and discounts for many of the items the new soldier will need.

      Undershirts - green; socks - gray. A wallet, a special strong backpack, a flashlight, toothbrush holder, antiseptic non-water cleaner, and much more. The hardest part wasn't paying the bill, but rather standing there listening to the young store clerk (who has served in the army), explain to my son what he would need. A rite of passage that they all go through here in Israel, a language they understand. It will be cold at night, hot and dusty during the day. You'll only have a few minutes to wash and dress (better to get the key lock rather than the combination lock); better to get the back with zippers and compartments. You can keep your wallet with you while on patrol, but you might get into trouble if you try to keep your cell phone. Don't take anything of real value - there are thieves even among your brothers in arms.

      You'll get nine pairs of socks from the army; three undershirts in green; three undershirts in white. Two types of uniforms - one to be worn on the base and during training; one for when you are going off-base.

      The young clerk smiled when he said that my son would be home the first weekend after he enters the army - the army's way of reminding us that we aren't losing a son...that he'll be home if we just have patience and hold ourselves together. We aren't saying goodbye forever...just a few more days and he'll be home - lugging dirty laundry, wanting to sleep and eat as much as he can. They can wear any pajamas, the store clerk explains, and any underwear they want. What matters is that on the outside, the uniform is perfect, the clothes according to regulation.

      Black shoe polish. "How do you know he needs black and not brown?" I ask naively, and the answer is a single word "Artillery." How strict they will be depends on the particulars of the army base, but it will be dirty and dusty and unpleasant - in short...reality.

      It's all so simple and logical - no time for a mother's feelings and worries. Monday is gone...6 more days.

      Four Days and Counting...Nothing Left to Do - March 21, 2007

      ...but worry.

      He's got all he needs - the backpack in which to pack his things, the green undershirts that will soon be a part of his uniform, extra little "gadgets" that he loves - like a keychain flashlight and a business card-size "thing" that contains pretty much everything - a flashlight, pen, 4 different screw drivers, magnifying glass, scissors, tweasers, and I'm not even sure what else.

      For him, these last days are dragging by - he's ready, all set...waiting to go.

      For me, I'm trying to act normal, keeping anxiety and worry at bay by trying to get the family back into a normal routine. Planning a family wedding is amazingly disruptive to the normal course of events. It's a wonderful thing to have, but it touches and rearranges schedules for weeks before and even after. Now, as things settle back to what they were and the new couple wants nothing more than to be left alone, it's time I can focus on Elie...but the amazing reality is, that isn't what he wants.

      Going to the army is a part of what he was raised to do, as much a part of normal life as pretty much every other stage in his life. It doesn't represent life and death battles, moral dilemnas, enemies or politics. It's a place he'll go to meet his obligation and because of how he feels about the country in which he lives, he'll perform his service to the best of his ability, as he serves in the local ambulance squad, as he "serves" in the family.

      For a young man, the army in Israel is about change, but also about growth. It's about new friends and about new experiences. To focus on this, is to help us cope with the unknown. He asked me tonight about how many pairs of socks he should bring with him. The army will give him 9 pairs of socks - should he bring a few more? This is a code phrase for the question of how long he'll be away from home. Or maybe not - maybe I am reading too much into what is really a simple question.

      He'll go to the army on Sunday - just 4 days from now. The army almost always sends the boys home for the first weekend after they enlist. It's their way of assuring us that the separation isn't permanent; that they aren't leaving home forever. After the weekend...comes the first period of unknown. How long will he be gone? When will he come home? Where will he be stationed? How long will it take him to get back here and how early in the morning will he have to leave in order to get back to base in time?

      If he's like other soldiers that I've met, he'll come home tired and hungry and all he'll want to do is shower, sleep and eat. We'll have to learn to leave him to the quiet he'll need, just as now he needs us to act as if Sunday doesn't represent some major change in our lives.

      He wants Sunday to be just another day. Just as before he went off to his yeshiva to learn for a few weeks at a time, now he'll go to the army. No fundamental difference, he wants to believe. But for us, it represents every possible difference in the world. But this is too much for him to handle, too much to take in when he's looking forward and not back at us. He'll go with a clean head and a full heart because we won't burden him with our worries and fears.

      Oh, he knows we are scared - but what is not spoken isn't heard...or so a young 19-year-old on the threshold of tomorrow would believe.

      The Night Before - March 24, 2007

      Trying to act normal when you feel your life changing from under you is an interesting experience. Elie has just carried his 7 year old sister up to bed. By the time she wakes in the morning, he will have left. She has no real understanding of the moment; I'm not sure Elie does either. Only later in life do things become so heavy. At 7 or 19, life is for the moment. You give or get a kiss goodnight and you don't wonder about who will give you a kiss tomorrow night.

      As you get older, you learn that you can't freeze moments. They come and go in an instance and all you can do is hold the image in your mind. Of Aliza jumping up on Elie and of Elie swinging her up in his arms. He's always loved the strength he has over her, that he can lift her up high and make her squeal with delight. He can flip her and play with her as no one else can. She loves it, as does he.

      I look back at pictures we have taken over the years and am surprised to see how often she is on his lap. He was just 6 months short of his 13th birthday when she was born. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight when his bar mitzvah came around and so many looked at the adorable 6 month old baby. I was terrified that she would wake up and cry during the service, but she slept peacefully. Even going through high school, when most boys would probably have no interest in a little sister, Elie adored her.

      It was Elie that laid down the rule in our house that soda is only for weekends and what we call "happy days." And Aliza accepted it right away. Aliza's world is shifting - first with her older sister getting married two weeks ago and now with Elie going off to the army.

      We believe, as is the army custom, that he'll be home next weekend, probably even before Aliza gets a chance to miss him. Tomorrow, his day will start in Jerusalem at a central gathering point for incoming soldiers. This is being repeated all over Israel.

      From there, they'll take these young men to a central point in Tel Aviv. They'll get their alloted supplies - the uniforms, socks, boots, washing kits and more. Those that need haircuts will get those as well. Elie is thinking of going to the mall tonight to have his hair cut, though I'm not sure he even needs it.

      They'll sleep the first night at this central point, before being dispersed all over Israel to the training camps that will be his home away from home for the next 2 months of basic training. By nightfall tomorrow, my son will be a soldier. In uniform. Beyond my reach.

      This blog, that began as my way of coping with the changes to our family as my son waits to become a soldier now begins a new phase. From tomorrow, it will truly be about a soldier and his mother, rather than about the way in which we prepared for this moment. One thing I have learned over the years is that tomorrow will come in its own good time. For me, I can only bless my son that he should go in peace and come home in peace, knowing that we love him for what he is, who he is, what he will become.





      Sivan 19, 5769, 6/11/2009

      The Letter...and Those Precious Moments


      Once I'd started the blog, there was no getting around the future, no denying that the day was coming. Only a week after I started the blog, amidst all my daughter's wedding plans, Elie got a letter from the army. I wished they would let me get used to the idea, but I knew we were on a roller coaster - or maybe a large Ferris Wheel. Either way, we were going around so fast, and all paths were leading us to that one moment when Elie would go, and I and the rest of the family would stay. I cherished those last few weeks, afraid that life would never bring me back to the same moment with my family together in just that way.

      The "Letter" - February 21, 2007

      The final draft call letter has arrived. The list of items the army will provide is a startling reminder that my son is entering the army. They will give him a set number of shirts, undershirts, socks, underwear, pants, shirts (uniforms), etc.

      You wouldn't expect any different, but for a mother about to send her first son off to the army, you can't help wondering who will give him love and warmth. Love and warmth. It is something my son takes for granted and would certainly scorn if anyone expressed the idea that he would need such things. He remains, before the army, a teenage boy. I have no doubt the army will turn him into "a man," though I will mourn the loss of the boy.

      Already, as a frequent and "mature" volunteer in the local ambulance squad, he has seen things that I have never seen. I have (thank God), never had someone die in my arms or beside me as I tried to save his life. I'm not sure I'd even know what to do and yet Elie handles it all with grace and leadership. I believe he will do well in the army (if they don't crush him first...and perhaps even if they do). The army is known to crush the individual within you in many ways - it is the nature of an army, any army, all armies, and the Israeli army is no different.

      But the Israeli army is known to build you back up - better than you were before, stronger, more decisive. I have no doubts that Elie can handle the army and will probably even love it, as many boys do. He is, at 19, so incredibly self-sufficient. He cooks - he's one of the best in the family. Rice, chicken, omelets, noodles with sauces - whatever it is, Elie is not afraid to try cooking. He does his own laundry (doesn't trust me not to lose his socks).

      But there is, within me, the concern for the person deep inside him. Elie doesn't need to share his emotions and so I try to pull them out of him at times. I guess one of my fears is that no one in the army will be there to do that.

      His commanding officer is scheduled to come to our home Saturday night. He will talk to Elie in preparation for what is to come. This is so typical of the Israeli army - the personal touch, the outreach. I am hoping that it will help me as well as Elie adjust to what is to come.

      Perhaps the greatest injustice...and mercy...in this whole process is that my oldest daughter is getting married just two weeks before Elie goes into the army. This helps me focus on other things, but it also doesn't allow us all to focus completely on Elie - for the good and the bad.

      Precious Moments - February 24, 2007

      As the clock ticks down towards both my daughter's upcoming wedding and Elie's entering the army, I find each moment is that much more precious. Today we gathered for our "last" Shabbat meal together as the family unit we have been. In another two weeks, even a little less, Haim will be joining our family and two weeks later, Elie will enter the army.

      Much of what Elie is feeling is kept private - it is his nature both to keep things private and to keep things in perspective. As a mother, that is much harder for me to do. I could discuss and analzye this forever, and the result would be the same. With all the wedding plans, we have yet to address the things Elie will need. The closest we have come to figuring this out was when my husband bought me a present - a wind-up flashlight that I'd heard about. Elie saw it and thought it was useful and I realize that I'll want to get one for him as it is much more reliable than battery-operated flashlights.

      So, for now, we are in a holding pattern - enjoying these precious moments, knowing change is just around the corner.


      Sivan 19, 5769, 6/11/2009

      Becoming a Soldier's Mother


      Weeks after my oldest son turned six, our family packed up all that we owned, and moved across the world to Israel. We did it for more reasons than I could mention here and that’s another story in itself. Weeks later, not yet fluent in the language that was to become, in many ways, his mother tongue, Elie entered first grade.

      Like all young children in Israel, he grew up while learning basic realities about himself and his obligations to his homeland. One of the constants was the knowledge that he would enter the Israeli army and serve his country. It was, in those early years, a distant cloud in the sky that seemed so incredibly beautiful.

      About six weeks before Elie entered the army, I realized that I needed something else. I needed to talk through my feelings, express them, absorb them and explain them. I did what I almost always do when feeling overwhelmed, I sat down and began to write. As it took shape and form, the story of one boy’s transition into a soldier became a universal rite of passage, both for a boy, and his mother.

      Elie’s been in the army for two years now but as I start this new blog, I’d like to take a few posts to go back and explain how Elie became a soldier, and I became a soldier’s mother.

      Starting Young - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

      Starting from a very young age, Israeli boys know that they are destined to go to the army. It's part of how they grow up, where they are headed, who they will become. For those of us who came to Israel as adults, it's something that is harder to assimilate. It's so easy, year after year, to deny that it will happen, to postpone dealing with it. So, here I am, six weeks away from when my son will enter the Israeli army, suddenly having it all become real. This blog is a soldier's mother's story.

      Elie is 19 years old. A handsome boy with the most incredible blue eyes. He's smart, a volunteer in the ambulance squad, and lest you think that I think he is perfect, he's got a mighty fine temper and his room's a terrible mess. Elie is the manager of the family, the one who analyzes everything. From the time he was young, he didn't trust us mere adults to manage things. When everyone else would fall asleep on those long evening drives home after a long vacation or whatever, Elie would stay awake and keep watch. "Are we lost?" he would ask when I hesitated. Only Elie.

      Once, on a trip to Eilat, we really were lost. Only Elie was awake when I pulled up to the roadblock and queried the soldier why he wouldn't open the gate to let us pass.

      "Where do you want to go?" the soldier asked.

      "Eilat," I answered.

      He smiled, "Back 29 kilometers and make a right."

      "What's that ahead of us?" I asked.

      "Egypt" was his answer.

      I made a u-turn, while everyone else was sleeping and looked in the mirror to see Elie's eyes watching me. Always watching. Always Elie.

      So - Elie is all grown up now, a man about to go to the army. We got his "marching" orders last week - artillery unit, and already I am panicking. Not because I don't want him to go, but because I haven't had the time to accept it all. My daughter, Elie's older sister, is getting married in a few weeks and two weeks after that, Elie goes in. I've been up to my elbows in wedding plans and jitters. Dresses and caterers and invitations and most importantly, smoothing out the nerves of a happy and excited bride. And, in the middle of all this, quietly moving closer and closer was this date - end of March, 2007, my son will be a soldier.



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