When my turn arrived, I shuffled over to passport control at Ben Gurion Airport. A glance at my iPhone showed the time: 21:30. The date: Oct 17th. Exhausted and physically broken, I wore the grey sweatpants and matching hoodie of a man who no longer gave a damn. The balding and spectacled officer on duty skimmed through my Israeli and American documents and then glanced up to identify that I was in fact, me. Once satisfied, he slid my papers across the counter, but not before asking, “What’s with the partsuf tachat?” (Ass-Face)
Well, for one, I wasn’t happy to be leaving Israel.
My name is Izzy Ezagui and, on paper, I’m a 25-year-old disabled veteran in the IDF. Before moving to Israel in August of 2007, I lived the life of an average Jewish Miamian. Then, after going on Taglit, I decided to volunteer for the Israeli infantry. During Operation Cast Lead – right after I finished training – a mortar struck me dead on. I lost my left and dominant arm on the spot.
My journey was just getting started.
With the help of General Gallant, I managed to return to combat within a year. I finished my military service by leading a squad of thirteen soldiers through advanced training. That all ended in Bakum almost two years ago, at the end of 2011. For the last time, I trudged through the gate of a military base wearing a dress uniform, my heavy bag resting on my uneven shoulders. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt relieved to be done with active service. All that remained were a few weeks of reserve duty each year.
When I met my reserve unit a year later, I discovered that I had struck gold. My colonel, an old friend, commanded a battalion in the Special Forces that will play a part in whatever hostilities Israel faces in the coming years. He went out of his way to drag me to his squad, and he positioned me as one of the sharpshooters entrusted with protecting him and the rest of the unit’s command structure as it bounced from one dangerous front to the next. My satisfaction came from knowing that if war broke out, I’d be able to contribute to Israel’s protection, even if only a little; even if only like a fly on the wall.
I first got to know my fellow reservists during Operation Pillar of Defense, November, 2012. Although the IDF didn’t put boots on the ground in Gaza, I left the operation feeling like part of a brotherhood.
A week later, I moved back to the United States. I returned to Miami unsure of what to do with life after the IDF. What could I possibly come up with that would give me a similar level of fulfillment? Nothing I could think of scratched the surface.
I eventually found my calling. It happened unintentionally.
A few friends and I joined a Passover Seder on a college campus in Northern Florida.
“Hey, you’re Izzy,” shouted the Chabad rabbi who ran the seder. “Do you mind if I say a few words about you to the students tonight?” I told him to feel free. How could I deny such a reasonable request? A few minute later, I found out what a snafu I had made.
“Everyone,” the rabbi began. The room started to quite down. “Tonight, we have a special guest from the Israeli army.” I cringed. The rabbi continued, “his name is Izzy, and, now, he’s going to share his story.” I cringed again, cursing the rabbi under my breath.
But twenty minutes later – when I finished speaking – I knew I had found a calling. I haven’t stopped talking about Israel since. That brings us closer to my recent trip, and – as the officer at passport control described it – my partsuf tachat.
A few months ago, I received a Facebook message from my commanding officer: We had a week of training coming up in October. As soon as I received his notice, I cancelled my speaking engagements for that week. On paper everything seemed as if it would work out perfectly. I would speak at an event in Las Vegas the night before reserve duty and at an event in Florida the night after. I booked my ticket to Israel, with the help of an organization called DROR for the Wounded. What the hell was I thinking! In hindsight, I’ll admit, not much. The next time I come to Israel for the reserves, I’ll plan my trip so that I see more than the Negev and the airport.
I arrived in Ben Gurion jetlagged and with a stiff neck from passing out in coach. Is it me, or are the seats back there slowly inching closer together? After a few hours of sleep, I drove to Tse’elim, where my unit would spend the week training. I felt like I’d truly returned to Israel only when I detoured to a rest stop Aroma for a dose of caffeine. It wasn’t the Aroma that made me feel back at home, it was the older Israeli gentleman who tried to sidle his way in front of me. I had to remind myself that in Israel, a little nudge with my remaining elbow isn’t hutzpahdik; it’s necessary for survival. Another nudge or two later, I had my drink in hand.
Upon arriving on base, I learned the difference between the Special Forces and the regular infantry. We spent two cycles of thirty-four hours wide-awake in the field with only a short break in between. That recess in activity may have been the only time throughout my service where I succeeded in sleeping in the stifling heat of the midday sun, flies parading in and around my wide-open mouth. I don’t recommend reaching that point of exhaustion, but inducing a coma sure can help you pass out in rough conditions.
Halfway through the second day, I began to hallucinate about gorging myself on Mexican food, which is strange because I never eat Mexican food. By day four, I promised myself that if I survived the week, I’d get over my fear of approaching women. I survived the week, but as I’m writing this, I divert my eyes from the gorgeous girls walking by my table in my local Starbucks. Damn my irreversibly nerdy genes.
All considered, I enjoyed every moment in the Negev. Although I barely slept, and possibly left a toe or two lodged in my boots, I felt as if I were in a dream the entire week.
Growing up in Miami, I had spent many hours a day reading books, mostly sci-fi – Star Wars and the like. But I also read through Israel’s miraculous history of conflict. Soldiers like Zvika, of “Koah Zvika” (the Zvika Force), who single-handedly held the line with his constant tank-swapping heroics, or Moshe Levi, who continued fighting even after a sager missile tore off his arm, were as spectacular to me as the Jedi Knights. So how could I complain about a little discomfort as I sat beside people just like them, our butts aching on the same rough clumps of sand? Yeah, sleep could go screw itself.
The only thing that aggravated me was the disbelief I encountered from the men around me. Some of the reservists couldn’t seem to wrap their brains around my desire to be there, exhausted, in the desert with them. Most of my friends in Israel and America shared this sentiment. Every time one of the men asked me why the hell I was there, I felt like shaking him, “Stop asking me why I’m not sitting on the beach in Miami. You’ve left your wife and kids at home to go to war!”
Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to do that once I have a family. The thought terrifies me. I wanted to slap some sense into my new friends and explain, “I spent my childhood reading stories about people just like you, people I thought were legends, myths. Who the hell wouldn’t drop everything to spend a few weeks a year serving beside you?”
Plus, reserve duty has its benefits. The fear of showing up unprepared keeps me in shape. I’m sure it’s entirely possible to be a fat combat soldier, but I wouldn’t take my chances as a fat, one-armed combat soldier in the Special Forces.
By now I may have left you with the impression that I enjoy the concept of war. On the contrary, I hate everything about it. It’s exhausting, it’s dirty, and people die on both sides. The reason I show up is because I’ve learned what our nation suffered in the past; I know what the Jewish people have gone through. Sadly, though, it seems like some of us living in Israel have forgotten what our grandparents fought and sometimes died to give us. I urge you, fight to remember.
Standing in front of the balding and spectacled officer – with my matching grey sweats and heavy lids – I turned to peer at the long line of my impatient brothers and sisters waiting to leave Israel. No, this was not the time nor the place to share the thoughts clustered inside my head. I picked up the passports still resting on the counter with my exhausted and last arm and nodded at the officer before shuffling off to my gate.
Our little country isn’t perfect, far from it. It is however the only one we have. I look forward to seeing you the next time my plane hits the tarmac in Israel. Hopefully, I won’t be flying coach.