This summer my son, my eldest, turns 18. Two weeks ago, like pretty much every other boy his age in Israel, he went along to the local army recruitment office, in Haifa, clutching the relevant papers. He signed, and we are waiting for a letter in the post.
Except that the day he went, the offices were full of people seeking not to serve. His appointment was with an apologetic army psychologist who was slightly embarrassed that he needed to check my son was indeed unsuitable. And so the letter that we are waiting for is the (guaranteed) confirmation of his exemption from national service, rather than the details of where he will be serving his country for the next three plus years.
I am writing this because you may well pass my son, or someone very like him, in the street. He’s tall, muscular, perhaps a little on the slim side (side effects of many years of appetite-suppressing medications), he doesn’t wear glasses and though you might not think of him as a fighter, there is nothing outwardly to explain why he can’t do his duty. So you, or someone like you, striking up a conversation, might well ask him when he’s starting, what he’s doing, or why he’s not there. And that’s difficult, because he’s not a shirker but he can’t explain.
I can tell you that no one sane should ever let him near a weapon — because although he is a gentle soul, he might use it to kill himself, his family, or a passing stranger. I can tell you that he lacks all of the basic capabilities needed even for the most menial army job: He can’t consistently understand and follow instructions, can’t get from A to B (even if only a distance of a couple of hundred meters is involved) if the area is unfamiliar to him, can’t work as part of a team. I can tell you that much as we might hope, the chances of him being able to serve even in a voluntary capacity, age 21 when he finishes school, are slim.
But if you ask him, you will get a slightly wonky smile and a look of incomprehension. And you will perhaps think he’s dodging it. Or else that he and we are the lucky ones, avoiding all that is implicit in serving this country’s armed forces. We will not — at least in relation to him — be living on our nerves for three years, and then every chunk of milluim thereafter.
I want you to understand that its not so easy walking around with hidden disabilities. We live on our nerves, tiptoeing round normality most weeks of the year, every year. For us parents, national service is another of those life stages we won’t get to experience properly with our son. Its another point at which we can’t share with friends, with children of the same age, what we are all experiencing. The gap between our “special” children, and the rest, just gets bigger. And through life when he’s asked — or we are — what did he do in the army, all we will have to offer is that slightly wonky smile.