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The Milestones of Service

By Paula Stern
12/21/2009, 12:00 AM
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.