As soon as the bus arrived, we scrambled together all of our vests, packs, stretchers, and other assorted equipment that we needed for training and packed it all onto the bus. This requires squishing what one would think is too much equipment above, under, and between seats and soldiers so that everything fits in. When the bus was fully loaded, the commanders, as we always do, counted the soldiers to make sure that everyone was on the bus to head out for an intensive week of drills, battle simulations, and midnight-to-dawn marches. After 8 months of commanding these soldiers, I had developed a foolproof system for counting them. I knew that out of 12 soldiers, 11 would have already found their seats on the bus and have gone straight to sleep, preemptively catching up on the rest they knew they would be losing over the next 5 nights. The last soldier, I knew, no matter what, would not be on the bus.
Moshe had a bad habit of disappearing when it was convenient for him, and terrible for me. Whenever there was a mandatory briefing, inspection, or any daunting task for the soldiers to complete, Moshe knew exactly how to disappear, but also get away with it. Once you noticed that Moshe wasn’t there, you wanted to strangle him, but as soon as you found him and he flashed his smile, it was nearly impossible for you to still be angry enough to punish him. Besides, usually after a slap on the back and a rhetorical “What are we going to do with you?” most of Moshe’s routine disappearances ended by me pulling him out of his bed and then he joined the rest of the soldiers as if nothing had happened. But this time, it wasn’t so easy to get him out of bed.
After I succeeded in waking Moshe up, he groaned and mumbled about needing to settle some debts and then pulled out one of the most intimidating stacks of papers I have seen in my life. About a dozen of them were bank statements- all in red, another dozen consisted of unpaid bills to various companies. Then there were a few papers towards the bottom that came from a not-so-friendly lawyer’s office who represented one of the companies, detailing how they were going to seize his parents’ house if they didn’t pay the aforementioned bills. When most soldiers don’t want to participate in practice drills, they claim to have a headache, so we find them some ibuprofen to take and then everything’s fine. But with a headache like Moshe’s, no pill, over or under the counter, could easily solve this problem.
I know Moshe from Sunday to Friday and during that time, he is the charismatic, somewhat mischievous soldier who moved to Israel from Ethiopia 4 years ago. But from Friday to Sunday, Moshe takes on a much larger, more complicated role. On base, Moshe is able to handle himself in hebrew, but with native and foreign Hebrew speakers alike, he sometimes has to repeat himself or speak slower because of his heavy accent. But when Moshe is at home, he is the only adult Hebrew speaker in the house and therefore responsible for all the family’s’ finances and interaction with the Hebrew-speaking, tax collecting, and bill-sending population, into which they jumped head-first only a few years before.
When most soldiers go home for the weekend, they go to the beach, stay up all night with friends, and then catch up on sleep during the day. Most weekends when Moshe gets out of the army, he goes back to the restaurant where he used to work in high school, stays up all night washing dishes and then, if there’s time, catches up on some sleep. When he sits with his parents and tells them about his week, they understand very little of it because to them, the army is a way for their kids to gain acceptance in Israeli society. The small details of what that involves is of less interest to them. What they’re more concerned about is why their neighbor’s son, who is in a different combat unit, got a refrigerator from the army, but Moshe hasn’t gotten anything but a few punishments for his infamous disappearing acts.
When I first became a commander, I decided that it was my job to make sure that all of my new soldiers (who were then 4 months into basic training) would finish training and go on to be successful combat soldiers for a full 3 years. Serving as a combat soldier is not only important for Israel’s security, but also provides soldiers with an enriching experience that challenges them physically, mentally, and morally. For a new immigrant, these challenges ideally provide the tools to help them and their families succeed in Israeli society. Moshe and I, as new immigrants alike, share the experience of a combat army service as the fast-lane entry into Israeli culture, but I now understand that for many, the toll to merge into that lane is very high. Instead of serving in a day job in the army and coming home at night to work, Moshe spends all week, or sometimes multiple weeks at a time in the army, earning much less then he would if he worked during the evenings at home. Moshe’s experience, along with several other soldiers, has seriously challenged my understanding of what constitutes a “meaningful” army service.
To bring this all back to the packed bus full of sleeping soldiers, I promised Moshe that we would figure out a way for him to settle the debts once we came back to base at the end of the week. Moshe agreed to come with us for the week of training and was with us through it all, constantly pushing and pulling others up mountains through all hours of the night, despite the problems at home. His family’s debts, slowly but surely, are being paid off, even though he is not at home during the week.
When I think about all of the conflicts and controversies surrounding the Israeli Army, I am less concerned about the Gaza Flotilla Commissions and preparations for operations, but focus more on soldiers like Moshe, not just because it’s one more soldier to help us carry the stretcher, but more because of what Moshe’s success in the army represents.
More than 20 years have passed since major Ethiopian immigration to Israel began. In many ways, a large amount of those immigrants have not become accustomed to living in Israel, but the army plays a serious role in making that happen. It’s so important for me to see soldiers like Moshe succeed in the army because I know it will put him on a more successful path once he gets out.
Ultimately, Moshe completed the training and was recognized by the Higher-Ups for his accomplishment. The major victory though, is that a soldier like Moshe is able make the sacrifice at home to join a combat unit and the army (even though it’s made up of a lot of bureaucratic procedures) has the ability to help new immigrants like him to make that commitment. For me, that is the biggest piece of news, which unfortunately won’t make tomorrow’s headlines.