As a mom of lone soldiers, four to be exact, I’m heartbroken about the events of the last few weeks, but I’m frustrated and angry too. The lone soldier community is a tight knit one and the recent tragedies involving lone soldiers has us all reeling. No matter the statistics, no matter the reason, even one death is one too many.
I was just reading a post on Facebook that made me angry on many levels. Well it wasn’t the post, but rather the comments, that were infuriating. One commenter suggested that parents who think their kid shouldn’t come to Israel should just prevent their child from doing so. Wow, seriously?! Obviously this commenter has never met, let alone raised, an 18 – 20 year old. Another suggested that most lone soldiers are coming to Israel to escape their problems, that they’re some running away from something. This may be the case for a very few, but as a six year veteran lone soldier parent I know many lone soldiers and the “problem children” are definitely in the minority. And as my husband said, we’re not sending in our “B” team.
As immigrants, lone soldiers have unique needs, just as any immigrant would have anywhere. But this is not just anywhere, it’s the Jewish homeland, and this is not just anyone it’s our children, so the expectations and the stakes are higher.
Many of our children who make aliya and enlist in the IDF are indeed running towards something. They want to live in their homeland and they want to protect her, this is their dream and we as their parents want to support them in any way we can. Are they idealistic? Of course they are, they’re young and optimistic, and thank G-d for that. If for no other reason, serving in the IDF helps these new immigrants to acclimate and be accepted into Israeli culture. Is that a reason to serve? Yes, it is, but the overwhelming reason our kids serve, is their feeling of responsibility to their land and their people.
The issues facing lone soldiers are multifaceted and complex. There is no one size fits all solution here. And any solutions are going to require time, talent, coordination and money. Are there kids that are running away from, rather than towards something? Yes, absolutely. But on the face of it that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not a good fit for serving. And we can’t paint every lone soldier with the same brush. That’s why the vetting process is so important.
There seems to be a lot of blame going around too. Blaming parents for sending their kids, blaming the IDF for not providing adequate services, blaming the officers – really just kids themselves – for not reacting to or realizing that these soldiers may be suffering. There is also a lot of help being offered by the IDF and by numerous NGOs, but to me, looking in from the outside, it looks like a shotgun approach. So many want to help but there’s no coordination. Social media can be a great tool, but it can also be reactionary and overwhelming.
So as a lone soldier parent the great thing about this space is that I can express my opinions, and that’s all they are, my opinions. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, these suggestions are as a result of experiencing my sons’ service and interacting with hundreds of other lone soldier parents. These suggestions aren’t reactionary, but rather come from years of participation in the lone soldier community, hearing about issues and trying to help find solutions.
So as a lone soldier parent here’s what I’d like to see:
- All potential lone soldiers should be required to attend an army mechina. There are a number of them out there already but they’re really more like an army “camp” experience. These mechinot need to be serious, not just giving kids a taste of the army but also assisting in rigorous mental and physical health screenings, done by professionals with the resources to follow up and refer kids to appropriate help when needed. Unlike Israeli kids enlisting, there is no paper trail and that needs to change. It’s too easy for these kids to skirt the truth or not tell the whole story. And unlike Israeli kids this army thing is new and they need a better understanding of what it’s all about.
- Garin Tzabar, Nefesh b’Nefesh, The Jewish Agency, what can you do to help screen and guide those that are making aliya through your organization? This is not an easy process but I think it’s something that would be invaluable. In addition, you need to make sure every potential soldier going through your organization has all the information about all the resources that they might need. And let the parents in on that information. We don’t need to micromanage our soldiers but if they need help, we need the information to help them.
- There needs to be a LOT of education to eliminate the stigma that all soldiers feel they will experience if they ask for help. Officers and commanders need to be trained in what to look out for and how to respond to a soldier in crisis. We don’t want those who need help to feel like they have failed, and we don’t want the system to fail them. The commanders and officers in the IDF are all young adults and need the guidance of professionals.
- While we’re talking about education, how about really educating those same commanders and officers in what all the needs of lone soldiers are. Don’t make our kids have to fight for the rights and benefits that are accorded to them because they are on their own.These commanders need to really understand the lone soldier experience. Don’t make them fight for time off to see their parents, either when they are in the country or when they can leave for a meyuchedet. When they ask for a yom siddurim give it to them without question. I have too many personal stories from my sons, like when their commanders, after a hard, sleepless week, tell the soldiers to go home, take it easy and nap before Shabbat. The commander doesn’t realize that when my sons go home they have to shop for food, cook for Shabbat (or try to find meals because they didn’t have their phone all week) and do laundry; or maybe they have to try to get to the bank or call the phone company to get something straight, all this before they can even think about sleeping. Commanders understanding the basic needs of their soldiers is essential to preventing crisis situations.
- COORDINATION. It’s wonderful that there are so many NGOs organizing to help our lone soldiers, and I appreciate them all, but that’s not enough. No one organization can be everything to everyone and some organizations are better prepared or have the resources to handle specific issues. Some are wonderful at providing winter gear to our soldiers, some at providing Shabbat meals or finding host families and some at resolving physical and mental health problems before and sometimes after they become a crisis. But there is no one place, no one resource for us as parents or our soldiers to turn to. Sometimes organizations become territorial and don’t want to refer soldiers to other organizations, but that isn’t in the best interest of our kids, so everyone needs to work together! That includes the IDF. Give our soldiers and their parents one place to go to find the best resources for every need.
- The IDF seems to have a lot of statistics, so they must know every lone soldier. They’ve become increasingly supportive of lone soldiers in practical ways but it’s time to step that up. So IDF, how about using your list and engaging those caring NGOs to set up a system where EVERY lone soldier gets a mentor? An adult that engages their soldier from the time they land in Israel and follows up with them at least weekly, not just throughout their service but after too. Someone that builds a relationship and helps their soldier find the resources they need. Throughout my sons’ service they have encountered many kindnesses from strangers and have been the recipients of amazingly caring adoptive families. I know that we are beyond fortunate and that not all lone soldiers have this, but it should be a requirement.
There are so many more things I’d like to suggest but for me these are the high points. Believe me, I know how fortunate we are that our kids have each other as well as caring adopted families. I’m fortunate that I’m connected to a number of lone soldier organizations that serve as resources for me and my kids. I’m fortunate because, as my youngest finishes his training, this is not our first rodeo and I know how to help him help himself. I recognize that this is not the case for most lone soldiers and their parents and getting those resources to the right people at the right time is essential. We need to do better, and as Am Yisroel we cannot let another soldier fall through the cracks.