It is nearly four years since the loss of my dominant arm, which was taken from me by rocket near the border of Gaza when I was a fresh-faced IDF recruit.
When I look back at my difficult recovery, before my return to combat, I can’t help but feeling blessed. The interim was rough but, without knowing it then, I gained insights that still benefit me today. In the period directly following my injury I already learned the most important lesson, one which continues to serve me well today: how to take it one day at a time.
Here is a dispatch I wrote from January 10, 2010:
Today, I rouse with a start. I lie wide awake in bed a full hour before my alarm begins to howl. Keeping my fist unclenched requires tremendous willpower. Today, while I button up my uniform, I feel the tension building under my eyes. I have much to accomplish.
Today, I need to ace my marksmanship exam. The range instructor will focus on every twitching muscle underneath my sweat-stained fatigues. She’ll demand a flawless performance, but I don’t have time to focus on that yet.
Today, I’ll spend countless hours with the primary fitness instructor on a brutal obstacle course. He and I will focus on my most difficult challenge: the rope climb. Today, we’ll drill endless repetitions, until we are both bleeding through the callouses on our palms. For solidarity, he’ll use one arm, too. We’ve grown close since the start of training.
Today, I’ll be one with the earth. I’ll crawl close enough to the ground that my chin scrapes against the dirt. My heavy gear will drag me down, but I don’t have time to focus on that yet, either. I have other challenges to conquer first.
Today, I walk out the door and into Jerusalem’s morning chill. My heavy pack digs into my shoulders; my rifle swings freely from its strap. I have a bad habit of holding my breath once my nerves start acting up. Each of my forced exhalations momentarily distorts my view with a thin finger of fog. I need to concentrate just to keep my breathing steady.
Today, a grimace of concentration consumes my features by the time I reach my first challenge. My expression intrigues the bystanders who notice it and are still brave enough to remain close.
My first obstacle comes to a full stop before me; its doors squeal open. I’ve thought this through. I’ve practiced for this.
I force myself to take a deep breath before stepping into the confines of the crowded Egged bus. Let the games begin.
Today, I slide my military ID card out of my pocket, quickly flashing it to the driver. There aren’t any passengers waiting to get on behind me. This doesn’t work in my favor. Experience has taught me that the driver will hit the gas 1.5 seconds after the double doors slide shut, if I’m lucky.
Without a moment to spare, I slip my credentials back into my right shirt pocket. There isn’t even time to close the button. I grab the support strap above my head and brace for the first and most lethal jolt of acceleration. Success. I’m still standing. Once the bus reaches a steady clip, I cautiously release my white-knuckled grip from the strap. My palm is imprinted with its sharp ridges. I continue to test for balance.
Today, I use my heavy pack to help me stay grounded. I take precise half steps through the cramped bus. Any soldier with pride remains standing when there are civilian commuters on board. My goal is to reach the designated standing area toward the back. Today, I can’t hold onto the many support beams scattered throughout the bus. I need to hold my rifle tightly, instead. Failing to do so would allow the heavy weapon to swing freely with each sharp turn. Seated passengers are at eye-level with the rifle and I don’t want it to clip them in the head.
Today, I make it halfway to the standing area before the bus reaches its next stop. Telegraphing the full break to come, I hold my breath and pitch myself forward to counter the rocky momentum. Success yet again, I’m still standing, and not a single passenger is suffocating underneath 240 pounds of Izzy and gear.
I use the momentary pause in activity to close the button on my dress shirt and to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s cold onboard and yet I’m sweating.
Today, I find a place to stand before the third stop. Today, I’m content. There are only two more bus rides during which I’ll need to repeat my acrobatics before reaching base – before the rope and the range.
If you ever might wonder…if you ever find it difficult to recall how I succeeded in the long run, how I made it back to combat, remember this day, and remember how it was no different than any other.
In life, we find success when we can see our vision with clarity. We find significance when we can focus our energy on navigating one hazard at a time like the obstacle-strewn bus.
Your rifle may steal your balance; your heavy pack may weigh you down – and yes, sometimes, life will throw you a curveball that strips you of a way to hold on.
Don’t hesitate. Concentrate, keep moving forward, and, today, hope that no unlucky passenger ends up underneath 240 pounds of you and your gear.