An American lawyer, Mark Werner volunteers each summer to work on Israeli military bases. This is a story of one of his volunteer experiences, where he had welcome company.
Some fathers and sons spend time together fishing or attending sporting events. That was not the case for me and my son. However, I discovered that working with my son on an Israeli military base can achieve the same bonding experience.
In 2010, my son David was a 26 year old law school student. I work for a global business and my work has always required me to spend much time away from home. When David was young, I could not spend as much time with him as I would have liked.
I had been going to Israel for each of the previous 8 years to volunteer on Israeli military bases through a program called Volunteers For Israel (outside the U.S. known as Sar-el). The program places civilian volunteers from all over the world on Israeli military bases to work with Israeli soldiers. It was an experience I had long wanted to share with David. He had been to Israel many times and his Hebrew is better than mine. But he thought that three weeks of manual labor away from his computer and other hobbies would be boring. Finally, this past spring, David agreed to volunteer with me, perhaps sensing that we would have fewer and fewer opportunities to share an experience like this.
I was delighted that David agreed to join me. My wife Arlene was also pleased with David’s decision. Other than a trip to Japan a decade ago, David and I have never spent time alone together. Arlene hoped that three weeks on a military base might provide an opportunity to forge a stronger father-son relationship.
At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, we learned that we would be part of a group of 14 volunteers, half American and half European/Canadian, on a headquarters base close to the Lebanese border near Rosh Hanikra.
Our accommodations at the headquarters base near the northern Israeli border were as spartan as any I’d seen on any base. With the exception of four double bunk beds, our 10’x15’ room was bare. Without cabinets, shelves or closets, the eight of us assigned to the room lived out of our suitcases. Each bed was equipped with a thin mattress, sheet, and sleeping bag (no pillow). We were issued old Israeli army fatigues, no different than the soldiers on the base.
Every morning the volunteers piled into a bus and headed for a border outpost. Each outpost consisted of a small fortress of concrete slabs perched on top of a strategic hill overlooking Lebanon. Along the outer perimeter of the outposts were a series of trenches, dotted by an occasional machine gun post.
Our job was to strengthen the outpost walls. We cut down the tough thorn bushes growing along the walls in front of the trenches which obscured the soldiers’ view towards Lebanon. Then we filled sandbags used to line the trenches and machine gun posts.
Once settled into our daily schedule, David seemed to like the regularity of our routine. We toiled away regardless of the weather — baking sun or howling mountain winds. One day we even worked through a sandstorm fog blown north from the southern Israeli desert. Surrounded by volunteers and soldiers who were mostly about his age, David attacked the work like everyone else — cutting, hacking, carrying and sweating. And he did it without complaint.
David and I were often paired together for sandbagging. We worked together, periodically switching jobs, with one of us holding open the bags and the other shoveling in the sand. The pleasure of the job was seeing the product of our labor. We filled hundreds of sandbags and cleared the vegetation from many rows of trenches.
David seemed to relish opportunities to work and interact with the soldiers. On one occasion, David approached a soldier adjusting the sights to a number of M-16 rifles. “Want to help me load magazines?” the soldier asked. “Sure”, he replied. And so David spent half a morning putting 29 bullets into each M-16 magazine.
I kept an eye out for David to make sure he was safe. But it turned out that he took care of me more than the other way around.
One morning, together with a platoon of Israeli soldiers, we were assigned to clear a field of thorn bushes and rocks. The field was located in Churfeish, a Druze village (Israeli Druze are a minority Muslim sect loyal to Israel).
In the midst of our work, I leaned over to pick up a rock and suddenly I felt a searing pain on my forehead. I had accidentally pushed my head up against a strand of newly laid barbed wire. At first, I didn’t realize what had happened, but David happened to be standing next to me.
“Dad, are you alright?” he asked in an alarmed tone. “You’re bleeding all over your face! Come sit down!” The barbed wire had lacerated my forehead at the hairline and blood was flowing down my face.
Shira, the female soldier in charge of the volunteers, rushed off to find the platoon’s medical kit and a medic. David hovered over me, nervously talking as a worried parent would to an injured child, trying to take my mind off the pain.
Shira returned with good news and bad news. The bad news was that this was an all-Druze platoon famous for its toughness in battle. In non-hostile situations like this, they often failed to take along a medic or a medical kit.
The good news was that one of the soldiers from this Druze platoon was from the village of Churfeish. He ran home to get a bottle of Betadine and some clean gauze pads from his mom’s medicine cabinet. With the gauze and some water from my canteen, Shira washed the blood off my face and then off the wound. After that, she dabbed my lacerated forehead with Betadine, leaving the wound uncovered.
My treatment was complete, but one passing soldier joked that I looked like Frankenstein. The laceration was shaped like the barbed wire — a long horizontal slash across my forehead with short perpendicular lines periodically intersecting it.
Worried at first by the blood flow, David was now concerned over what looked like an ugly wound. “Does it hurt Dad? Do you want to lie down?” he asked. I assured him that it looked worse than it felt, but I was touched by his attentive concern over my well-being as well as the novelty of having my son take care of his father.
The outpost we were primarily assigned to played a role in recent history. It was just outside this outpost that Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israel, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and triggered the 2006 Second Lebanese War. Realizing what a flashpoint this outpost was, we were determined to complete our work there.
On the final afternoon of our three week stint, we attacked the last hill on the outpost which had not yet been cleared of vegetation. It was so steep that the only way we could climb the hill and move around it was to hold onto a series of cables running from the top of the hill to its base. We knew this was our final afternoon of work and so we feverishly went at it, working without a break under the hot May sun.
At one point, David spotted a large army truck pulling up to the nearby back entrance of the mess hall and volunteered to help the soldiers unload the truck. One of the soldiers stopped David to ask: “Why are you volunteers here?” He replied: “I guess we’re just crazy.” His response drew a chuckle of appreciation from the soldiers.
It was nip and tuck, but by the end of the day we finished the last hill. Trudging down from that hill in the late afternoon, we were dirty, exhausted, and soaked to the skin in sweat. All we wanted to do was to go back to our bunks, shower, and collapse in our beds.
At the base of the hill, a soldier named Eitan motioned to us to join him on a semi-circle of chairs under some camouflage netting. Eitan was a member of the Israeli combat engineers brigade, called Hondassa Kravit, and had become friends with the volunteers.
“Because I am the best English speaker in my unit,” he began to address the group, “I have been elected by the soldiers on this outpost to express our thanks to you volunteers. We know that you pay your way to come from far away to work hard on this and other bases and we thank and respect you for this. The work you have done here is work we soldiers would otherwise have to do. And by your doing it, it has freed us up to do what we prefer to do, namely, go on patrol along the border. Both you and I know how sensitive this border is, and so you have allowed us to ensure that it is better protected. So, thank you.”
I’ve never felt better finishing up a volunteer stint than I did when I heard Eitan’s words. And I was glad that David was with me to hear how our presence affected the morale of the Israeli soldiers.
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It is often remarked that the next generation of American Jews – college and post-college – have less knowledge of and commitment to Israel. One way for me to communicate my commitment to Israel to my son was to share this experience together. Talking about a commitment which is close to your heart is one thing; acting on it conveys a much more powerful message. My hope is that sharing this experience with David helped to transmit to him the strong attachment I feel towards Israel.
Did our three weeks on an Israeli army base help strengthen our father-son relationship? Absolutely. But even more importantly, it allowed me to share one of my deepest commitments with my son.
Did he “get it”? I think so. Since that time, David has twice returned to Israel to volunteer on a base with me. And the father-son bonding has been priceless.
Mark Werner is the author of Army Fatigues: Joining Israel’s Army of International Volunteers (2008).