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A Pin, A Tag, An Exchange of Pride and Honor

By Paula Stern
5/28/2010, 12:00 AM
When Elie finished his Commanders Course, there was a ceremony. After the speeches, his commanding officer approached each of the soldiers in his group and pinned up the pocket flap they'd left dangling down. In this way, they were uncovering the new pin each had been given. It would take too long to pin on each medal and so it was easier to go and fix the flap as a sign that each had been given the new rank and job of Commander.

When Or approached Elie, he seemed to be standing there a long time relative to how long he stood before the others. I wondered what was happening...and suddenly, Elie's face broke into a grin. Or tapped him on the shoulder, a brief hug, and on to the next soldier.

I caught the grin on camera and asked Elie what had happened. He explained to me that there is a tradition. In each group, the army designates an "Excellent" soldier. There are many factors to this - how they do, but also other factors that make the army want to recognize this soldier. Another "undocumented" feature is the pin exchange. Put simply, this is a private moment between each commander and one soldier that he chooses. As he approaches, rather than give the soldier the new pin, he removes his own from his shirt, gives the new soldier this old pin as a sign of respect and honor, and keeps the new pin for himself in place of the old one.

This is what Or did for Elie - and Elie recognized and appreciated the honor. It is done quietly with no announcement - it is for the soldier and, if the family is lucky enough to see it and understand, for them too.

On Monday, as I watched Chaim receive his rifle and Bible, I noticed his commanding officer reach up to his own shoulder and remove something. Later I would learn it was his tag, that announced he was part of the Kfir Brigade. This time, I caught it all on video - all clear. The commanding officer placed his own tag on Chaim's shoulder and then gave him a hard push - some other tradition I don't know but saw was done with each soldier.

At this point, I was able to understand - he had chosen Chaim. My eyes filled with tears and I was afraid I was going to mess up the video. I blinked my eyes furiously to clear them, to keep watching and tried to hold the camera straight. This is an honor - from soldier to soldier; an exchange between a commander and his soldier, but so much more.

These are the traditions I knew nothing about the first time around and which mean so much now that I do understand. It is one more thing I love about the Israeli army.