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First Days in the Army

By Paula Stern
6/18/2009, 12:00 AM
By far, one of the hardest days I had experienced up to that point in my life was the day Elie went into the army. It was emotionally draining because I forced myself to not react, not cry, not hold him back. It was all about letting him go free and easily with a promise to myself, that after he went, I'd fall, I'd cry, I'd come to terms and go forward. The first few days and weeks were an incredible experience because it was, essentially, my first real encounter with army life.

My Son the Soldier - Induction Day - March 25, 2007

Well, the day has finally come - arriving with a mixture of so many emotions and unspoken fears. Elie packed his bag last night - as ready to go as he has been for some time now. Perhaps over the weekend, he was a little more playful, a little more "around" us than usual, but this morning, it was all business.

He woke me up at 6:30 a.m. (I'd been up long before, but I wasn't going to tell him that). We got in the car, found the place a short 20 minutes later. There were a few other cars parked in front of the building, each with a young man sitting in the front beside a parent. No one got out to talk to anyone else, each holding those last few minutes. You don't want to speak any great words of wisdom - there aren't any left to be said. You can tell him that you love him, but really, he knows it already. This isn't like school, where he can call if he needs me to come and pick him up. His experiences are now his own and we are left behind in real life, as much symbolized by his walking alone into the building after a few quick words and a refusal to give me a kiss (typical of a teenager boy). I sat outside with nothing to do but go back home. Other parents still sat in their cars with their children, but I'm glad we did it the "quick" way.

There is no ceremony, no great moment, just a gentle slide into a new world. He went in his direction without hesitation; I reluctantly went in mine and I tried all day not to think of where he was. Or, more importantly, I tried not to think of where he wasn't. From the time my children were born, almost without exception, I have known where they are. Perhaps not to an exact location, but close enough to know that they are within reach, within a short drive or call away. Now enters a time when more often than not, I won't know where he is, what he is doing. I will have to trust that no news is good news, that he is ok.

Elie called me around 6:30 p.m. - not quite as good as him walking through the door, but still a wonderful gift. He's fine. He's wearing a uniform. He complained about the heat of Tel Aviv after the cool and wonderful air of Jerusalem's hills. They gave him boots and they are more comfortable than he expected them to be. They didn't have any undershirts, but he's got the 3 or 4 that he packed from home. They fed him lunch and dinner and there's a place to get snacks. He has a place to sleep, some boys he knows from school and one from a neighboring town. Tomorrow he'll go to the base. No, they didn't give him a gun (I didn't expect them to). No, he doesn't know the rest of the schedule. All normal talk - so many questions I could ask, but won't. I'll take it one day at a time...for the next three years. Today is over. He's safe. He's fine. Tomorrow is another day.

My son is a soldier in the army of Israel. Why that makes me want to cry, I can't explain when it is something that I have accepted, something in which I feel pride. For now, the fear and worry that threatens to push the pride aside will be my personal battle in the next day and week and year. My son is where I have always wanted him to be, doing what he must do. It is something that Jews have been unable to do for thousands of years - to defend their land and their right to live here. My son is a soldier in the army of Israel.

Those First Calls - March 25, 2007

The first calls from a son in the army are precious. You listen to the voice. He sounds okay, he's being taken care of, he's happy. He'll tell you the plans, as the army tells him. No one to argue with, when what they tell him isn't logical - that too is part of the army.

So, as Passover approaches, we are told that Elie will be able to come home for the Seder on Monday night, but have to return to the army Wednesday morning. He'll then be able to come back home on Friday, but have to return to the army on Sunday. He'll be able to come home on Monday for the last day of the holiday, but have to return again on Wednesday after that. Is it logical to endure a three hour trip on Friday and Sunday and Monday and Wednesday? Wouldn't it be better to let him stay at home from Friday to Wednesday? How much training will he really be able to do? A few hours - maybe the equivalent of one full day?

This is the lesson we are to learn, and learn it early. You do not question the logic of the army. You take what they will give you and be grateful for it. There are so many questions we'd like to ask, but each call home is only for a few minutes.

His day starts early and ends after something like 17-18 hours. Elie gets up at 4:30 a.m. and has a long and detailed day.

"How are things?" we ask.

"Fine. Good," he answers.

"So, did they cut your hair on the first day?"

"No"

"Ok, that's good. "Did you get all your supplies?"

"Some," he answers. "We got the pack and sleeping bag."

And he explains about there being two kinds of uniforms - essentially those that are worn on the base for training and those that are worn when a soldier goes off-base. He's only been issued one type so far.

I ask more questions. He answers and tells me what is happening. And, of course, as soon as we hang up, my mind fills with questions I didn't ask.

Is it cold there? Are you warm? Is the food good? Are you tired? It seems silly to ask him if he has made friends - this isn't school or camp.

But the thought of him being alone is scary for me. Of course, he won't be alone. He's on a very large base "somewhere" in the south. Alone is the last thing he will be for the next three years. He'll sleep with others in the same room, even shower in close quarters. Everywhere he will go, will be with others. But I want him to have people he can talk to, boys he can laugh with. There is no time off - except an hour before bed. I have to resist speaking in terms that are foreign to the army and while he will gain brothers-in-arms and in many cases friends for life, I worry about who he has to talk to now. They are all going into this as a new experience, depending on their commanding officer to guide them through. Faith is a wonderful thing, but somehow the mother in me still thinks of reasons to worry.

I'd like to think that some part of me is always aware of my children. Through business meetings and work or resting or shopping, at any moment, I am "aware" of my children in my heart. But so far, this "awareness" is different than it has ever been before. Now, it is a small ache buried deep inside. At any moment, it can swell up to the level of worry and then settle down. It can ignite my imagination (something that I am prone to at the worst of times) into thinking dim and dark thoughts and then I force myself back to reality. He is safe. He is on an army base going through basic training, for Heaven's sake! He won't face any really real danger for...for...days? Weeks? Months? Years? Never - will I even know when that moment comes. Perhaps that is the scary part. I may not even know. You could drive yourself insane if you continue on this road. Better to stop and look at the moment. Today, he is safe. He's ok. He's good. Today until it fades into tomorrow, I will not worry. Tomorrow - always tomorrow, I will allow myself to worry, but today, I will force the worry away because in all the years he was growing up, there was no other place I wanted him to be, no other country I wanted him to call home.

He will be safe and we will get through this all - one day at a time. We have survived three days already. I will get used to this new method of communication - short conversations, quick, intense. He's ok. He's safe. One call the first night; another the second night.

Today, a - text message "Ima, everything is good. I'll call you tomorrow." Everything is good - he'll call me tomorrow. What more can a mother ask for when she has already determined that the next three years will pass one day at a time.