In 1972 I was part of a group of young internationals who travelled to Israel to help defend our land and our people. Communication was rough; we were from South Africa, Britain, Australia, Poland, Argentina, America, France and Russia, and most of us could hardly speak or read Hebrew.
The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) designated me a Nahal soldier – a sort of part pioneer and part fighter farmer. Our base was located halfway between the yellow-bricked, fly-infested Egyptian town of El-Arish and the Suez Canal.
We tramped through sand and desert scrub, looking for any signs of landmines or intruders. I liked to be assigned to the watchtower. No one would bother me up there and I loved to look at the mountains and wonder which one was Mt. Sinai.
For the most part it was blessedly quiet. Our biggest excitement involved a Phantom jet roaring 100 feet above us heading to the Canal.
During basic training I obtained a small prayer shawl, tallit, and a prayer book in Hebrew and English. On Shabbat I would go off on my own to pray.
I wanted a set of tefillin, the black ritual boxes (containing the holy shema prayer) donned on weekdays…I wanted to feel the binding on my arm and the weight of the tefillin on my head. I wanted to be reminded that G‑d is above me. But at Nahal Yam there were no tefillin.
“Tefillin in the Sinai Desert?”
from the “First Person” series
I suppose this could be just me quoting a random article because of my support of Israel and my attraction to Jewish religious and faith practices.
But it isn’t.
I recently read another story about the American Girl in the Bunker, a young Jewish woman from New York City to has volunteered to serve with the IDF among 85 combat soldiers on the border of Gaza and Sinai. She’s seen a little more “excitement” than Jerry Klinger did back in 1972:
Three days ago we were just minding our business when we heard a huge explosion that literally shook the ground. I know the floor moved because our coffee spilled.
I didn’t think it could be a rocket or bomb because the warning siren, the tzeva adom, had not sounded. We all ran out to see what the noise was all about, and in the distance, maybe 2 kilometers away, we could see the telltale plume of smoke.
Seconds later, the siren rang and we all ran to the nearest shelter. The shelter is windowless. The room is built to hold 30 people, but somehow we managed to squeeze 70 inside. Luckily there was air conditioning, but it leaked everywhere and no matter where we sat, our bodies were splattered. People were pushing themselves up against the bunker walls to make room for the latecomers. In this chaos, it was my job to get a head count of my whole unit and make sure everyone had made it.
After three hours, we were told by the head of the base’s intelligence that it was safe to leave. It wasn’t for long, though. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three more rockets fell minutes later, this time even closer to us. The tzeva adom rang, but there was no time to find safety. Two seconds after the siren’s scream we felt the earth shake beneath our feet. We were totally vulnerable.
The nights are hell. I cannot sleep. I lie in bed, fully clothed, boots and helmet on, waiting to hear the alarm, waiting to dash out of the room to safety.
-Talia Lefkowitz, volunteer soldier with the Israeli Defense Force Paratroopers Brigade
My son David served in the Marine Corps for four years. On his deployment to Iraq, he was fired on by mortars on numerous occasions but wasn’t in a position to be able to fire back. I can’t imagine what the experience was like, but I can imagine what it’s like to have one of your children in that position, in harm’s way, in combat, at risk, where he could die.
There was nothing I could do about it the day David told my wife and me that he was joining the Marines (though we tried very hard to talk him out of it). There was nothing we could do the day he left for boot camp. There was nothing we could do the day he graduated from boot camp, except be very proud of him. There was nothing we could do the day he left for Iraq, the day he left to go to war, the day I knew that I might never see him again.
Except pray that God would watch over him and bring our son safely home.
And He did.
Like a lot of veterans, David suffers from various injuries, not as a direct result of combat, but of the conditions he had to serve under. He has a body that seems much older than his almost 26 years (his birthday is just two days away as I write this). We work out together five days a week. I watch him as he tries to repair a damaged ankle, a damaged knee, a damaged back, the pain he can never escape.
He also struggles with numerous emotional issues as a result of what he’s seen and what he’s experienced. It’s not like his personality is different, but his personality is being forced to filter and manage what it was like when people were trying to kill him with mortars, when people trying were trying to kill him by hiding explosives under pieces of trash so he’d drive over it, making it (and him) blow up, when he had to watch people all the time to make sure they weren’t going to shoot him.
This isn’t movie combat like you see in films such as Saving Private Ryan or gaming combat like when you play Call of Duty. This is real life where real people are holding real guns, getting ready to shoot other real people, listening to explosions, feeling the real fear of what could happen to them, and waiting for the next “boom” and wondering if they will be hurt or killed.
But David came home. He came home more or less intact. He’s married to a loving, compassionate wife and has a wonderful, three-year old son. And he struggles everyday with the consequences of having served in combat zone as a United States Marine.
I talked to him recently about Israel and the IDF. He has a great admiration for the IDF and, as a Jew, he supports the nation of Israel. If things had been different, if he had been a little more mature in years gone by, a little more in tune with a plan, he probably would have done what Jerry Klinger did or what Talia Lefkowitz is doing.
Or what Shayna Detwiler is about to do.
I met Shayna at a conference I attended last May. In fact, she was the co-ordinator for the conference and the person who made sure that I had a room, transportation, and everything else I needed to make it possible for me to attend the conference.
And she’s only twenty years old.
I don’t know what to feel. I don’t really know her, but she seems like a nice person. She young, energetic, friendly, outgoing.
Did I mention that she’s young?
I’m not really old. Not like my father, who just turned 80 is old. But I’m older. I see younger people through the eyes of a father and grandfather. I sometimes look at younger people and try to remember what I was doing when I was their age.
But mostly, I look at people like Shayna and remember the day when David went off to war. I hoped for the best and planned for the worst. Thank God the worst never came, but war is war. You never walk away from it exactly the same person you were when you walked into it.
Jerry Klinger told us what he remembers about his experience with war and in many ways it is very uplifting (read the whole article to find out why). Talia Lefkowitz is the girl sandwiched into a bunker with 85 combat soldiers, listening to the explosions and wondering if the next one is for her. David Pyles is still telling me his stories, even though he’s been honorably discharged from the Marines for a few years now.
David is my son and I listen and I become retroactively scared when he tells me something I didn’t know before about what happened to him. I sometimes get scared when he tells me something that’s happening to him now, which might be a flashback to something that happened years ago, and yet it is also happening to him now.
Shayna has parents and grandparents who love her and are probably worrying about her right now. I can’t help them. I’d be worried, too. In fact, I am worried too, even though I barely know her.
But I don’t have to know her. I have a son who served in war but in the end, they are all our sons and daughters…our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers. When someone goes off to war, they are all our family, and they all belong to us.
And may God go with Shayna and with all of our young men and women. And may God bring them all home again so that we can continue loving them.
I am a New York City girl who came to Israel to defend the Jewish state. I am proud of my service and of all the remarkable young men I have met who risk their lives every day to keep this country safe. I am the girl in the bunker, and I can tell you that these rocket attacks are a big deal.
They are all our children.