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Army Mom: When the boys came home

Two sons, in and near the battles in Gaza this summer, are home for now and changed forever
Fellow soldiers seen mourning over the fresh grave of Golani soldier, Moshe Malko, at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2014. Staff Sgt. Moshe Malko, 20, from Jerusalem, was killed July 20 before dawn during combat in the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Fellow soldiers seen mourning over the fresh grave of Golani soldier, Moshe Malko, at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2014. Staff Sgt. Moshe Malko, 20, from Jerusalem, was killed July 20 before dawn during combat in the Gaza Strip. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

My son insists that it was an “operation” and not a war; I’m not sure of the difference. To me those 50 days of Tzuk Eitan, “Operation Protective Edge,” seemed pretty warlike, something I never experienced during my youth and early adult life in New York, or even during my first twenty-one years living in Israel.

They say that you haven’t really made aliyah until your first child is drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. At first that made sense to me as a means of relating to and even identifying with my Israeli friends who had grown up here. When my older son was drafted into the Tanks Corps and, soon after, my second son into Paratroopers, I was suddenly capable of making office banter using army slang. I could complain about my sons’ arduous training, the idiosyncrasies of the army regimen, and the irony that the officers who were ordering them around were themselves children. I thought that I could relate to my Israeli peers because now I was one of them, and they treated me as such due to their respect for service in the IDF. But I was still different because I hadn’t gone through it myself.

Nothing prepared me for the anxiety and helplessness that I felt when faced with 50 days of both sons being stationed near or in Gaza. Not even my two decades of living in Israel with intermittent hostilities, military operations and even incessant bombings of buses and civilian locales, during which the whole nation shared the tragedy of innocents dying. Those times were terrifying, but they weren’t personal. Somehow, living through those periods I was always able to believe that I was safe. This time it was different. My sons were soldiers, my sons were on the front line, my sons were the targets that the entire world believed the enemy was justified to kill.

I joke with my sons that they need to be sympathetic to us, their parents. We worried day and night throughout “the summer that wasn’t,” while they were treated to barbecues, free haircuts from Tel Aviv’s leading stylists, musical performances by leading local artists and thousands upon thousands of gift packages filled with everything from underwear and toiletries to games, snacks and birthday cakes. But in reality, in between the good times and the boring times, there were intense moments that forced our children to grow up much too fast.

During the war we waited with bated breath for news from them, or even news about them when their phones were taken away. When they were given the opportunity to call and report that they were OK we breathed a long sigh of relief and believed it was so. And when the bloody operation ended, despite the tears and grief up to the last moments before the ceasefire, we finally exhaled.

But the crisis wasn’t over and it is not clear when it will end. Those moments of vivid reality, the horror of destruction and death, of killing and being killed, those pictures and experiences will never leave their memories. It seems like yesterday that my son’s biggest complaint was an ingrown toenail that bothers him when he runs. Now he cringes upon recalling the mother and son who ran to the street, stepping in front of the tank when the shooting had already begun. My son, who spent his high school years dreaming of surfing on the Tel Aviv beachfronts, now relives the nightmare of viewing the corpse of his friend whom he was asked by the army to identify, but could not do so because the face was unrecognizable.

At first we didn’t understand. We thought that when they came home they would be happy to see us, to see their friends, to relax without the pressures and anxiety of the fighting. But when they entered our house on Friday afternoon they were silent, deep in thought, anxious to hear about their friends who were injured, to visit them in the hospital, to be near the families of those whom we’d lost. They weren’t interested in the parties or in the details of the mundane. We asked how they were doing, but they couldn’t talk, they couldn’t express to us what they needed to say, not yet.

In the coming weeks we started to see changes. They told us about the morbid jokes that they could share only with the soldiers in their unit who experienced what they went through. The son who was asked to identify his friend’s body told us that the army required him to meet with the kaban, the army psychologist, afterwards. She told him that talking about the tragedy was the key to getting through it. We tried to be there for him, to let him speak about the experience without forcing conversation, to understand concepts that we couldn’t fathom. Slowly he started to open up, to tell us about what happened during those terrible moments amidst the sea of monotony.

I think about my experiences in America when I was their age – busy choosing college courses, perhaps upset when I was blocked from taking a class that was over subscribed or peeved by a poor pick in the dorm room lottery. It is hard to believe that we live in the same reality.

In the army’s combat units every soldier lived through his own tragedy. Every soldier knew someone who was killed, had a buddy who was injured, went to pay a shiva call to the family of someone they knew. Our sons live with the knowledge that it could have been them on the battlefield that day. They entered the summer as children eager to move ahead in their army environment, excelling at the tests, struggling with the obstacles. But they finished the summer wide awake in their sudden awareness of life in all its complexities, cherishing the camaraderie of their friends, returning to the childishness and antics of the past, but knowing that even the closest friendship may only be fleeting.

About the Author
Minna Ferziger Felig is a lawyer and business professional and a co-founder of the legal recruitment agency Machshavot Smartjob. Most importantly, she is the mother of four children and of an adopted lone soldier.
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