Don’t ask don’t tell

As a mom of lone soldiers I rely on a network of online fellow parents that are now friends, for comfort and support and sometimes for writing inspiration. Recently in an effort to educate moms who are new to having a kid as an IDF soldier, a veteran mom posted on one of the groups “things you never thought you’d hear your kid say which just became normal to us after a while!!” As a veteran mom I found many of the stories posted amusing and fortunately or unfortunately I could definitely relate to them. With three lone soldiers (soon to be four) in the family I’m a little jaded, I think the post turned into a bit of shock therapy for the “newbies”. My contribution to the post (I have so many stories it was hard to pick just one) goes as follows:

As anyone with a chayal knows our kids don’t get much time with their phone, especially during training, so I always carry my phone with me so I don’t miss a single precious call. When our chayal #1 first started I had been counseled on the importance of just listening so I asked open ended questions. This one has become a family classic:

Me: How was your week, do anything interesting?

Son: Last night we got to sneak through an Arab village!

Me: Um, like a fake Arab village?

Son: ~long pause~ yeah Ma, like a fake Arab village, whatever helps you sleep…

That conversation and a few more like it was the beginning of my own personal, tongue in cheek “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Yes you can say this is also called denial but back when I only had one son in the IDF, when it was all new to me, “don’t ask, don’t tell” allowed me to keep what was left of my sanity, at least for a while. As time went on little by little I did learn more. And once chayal #1 finished his service he would occasionally mention something I didn’t know and frankly didn’t want to know. The other problem was by then chayal #2 had drafted so I had a better idea of what he was going to be doing from chayal #1, my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was starting to unravel. With more than one son serving I loved hearing that they’d talk to each other but they didn’t always communicate well enough to warn the other what not to say to Mom.  I often found out from one what “not mother approved”  place the other was serving in.  There were also other ways I learned about what they were doing, like the time we were in Israel visiting and had gone out to dinner with friends. My friend’s husband wanted to know everything about my son’s service and asked him if he had ever been involved in live fire. My son looked up from the other end of the table to see if I’d heard the question, when he caught my eye he quickly said “you can’t ask me those kinds of questions in front of my mother”, oy.

Now, a few years (and many gray hairs and empty wine bottles) later, chayal #1 and chayal #2 have finished their service (although we still have miluim to look forward to) and chayal #3 is on active duty. While I know a lot more about their service I’m pretty sure I don’t know it all nor do I think I may ever know. I’ve somehow survived the things I’ve learned since those blissfully naïve days, all with amazement, pride and worry in equal measure. They now have each other to confide in and talk to and I’m grateful for that.

Writing is therapeutic for me. When I began writing this piece my intention was really to provide some humor, because what parent of an IDF soldier doesn’t need a laugh. That changed when I told my chayal #3 what I was writing about. He thought that “the brothers” as they refer to each other, did a pretty good job with my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

As we talked, I listened incredulous, as he told me this story from three and a half years ago. Turns out that the brothers all knew way before we did that our chayal #1 was in Gaza during Tzuk Eitan (we thought he was guarding some distant border). Chayal #1 was in Golani and the horrible day that a Golani unit was hit, 13 soldiers including lone soldiers were killed, is one I’ll never be able to forget. At the time chayal #3 was just 18 years old and in Israel as a madrich for an American summer program.  He knew where his brother was and because the names of the soldiers killed weren’t released right away he also knew that meant some of them must be lone soldiers whose parents hadn’t been informed yet. He heard about the attack while it was still early morning in the US but he didn’t want to call us because if G-d forbid something had happened he wanted us to have one last good night’s sleep and as much time without knowing as we could.  He worried all day waiting to hear something; when we did call him later that day with our heart breaking for the fallen soldiers and their families, we were, thank G-d, able to let him know that his brother was ok. Chayal #3 is now serving in a Special Forces unit like his brothers before him but said that that day remains the scariest day of his life.

I cried as he told me this story; I cried for myself remembering the unending worry of that summer; I cried thinking about the fallen heroes and their families, some of whom I now know; and I cried because my 18 year old son wanted to shield us in the only way he could think and shouldered that burden alone because of it. This part especially makes me realize how them not telling me what’s going on isn’t what I really want.

So now what? I still won’t ask specific questions, I’ll let them take the lead and I know that they may not tell me where they’re serving until after they’ve changed locations. But now after five years as a lone soldier mom, as scary as it is sometimes, I have a better understanding of what they do and I will do my best to listen and support them in any way I can. As I steel myself for chayal #4 to draft in the spring I know that these amazing sons we have raised will continue to protect me just as they protect their homeland Israel and I couldn’t be prouder.

About the Author
An ordinary Mom with extraordinary sons. Stacie Rojas Stufflebeam is a development director for a non-profit and the Mother of five sons, with four either currently serving or veterans in the IDF. She lives with her husband in the USA.
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