Giving back to Sean, one student at a time

It all started on a bright June morning, somewhere on the Lebanese border. Or maybe it was July.

I was congregating with our platoon’s contingent of three or four other US-born soldiers, staring emptily at the vastness of the dilapidated army outpost baking before us in the unforgiving glare of the summer sun. We had no idea what we were doing.

“Hey, are you guys American?” an English-speaking voice called out in a distinctly non-Israeli accent.

“Yeah, yeah we are,” I said guardedly, scratching my overgrown beard as I sized-up the bright-eyed stripling whose smile disarmed me more than the grenade launched dangling effortlessly from his shoulder.

“Cool, me too. My name’s Sean; it sucks here, but if you hang with me and listen to everything I’ve got to say then you’ll be alright.”

And just like that, my life changed forever.

Sean Carmeli on Israel’s northern border, February 2013. (photo credit: Facebook)

We had just finished our grueling advanced infantry training and were slated to swap out a recently discharged a platoon of explosive and demolition specialists who had completed three years of mandatory service in B Company of the Golani Brigade’s 13th Battalion.

Long story short: We were fresh meat and marked men for a group of 60-some unfriendly faces, who just spent the last seven months on this hell-hole of an army base not fit for the feral dogs that roamed its perimeter. Unlike what you see on TV, the army isn’t as much a “Band of Brothers” as it is a band of overly-macho, under-appreciated 20-something-year-olds who religiously uphold hierarchies they despise and traditions they don’t understand. Needless to say, they were suspicious of newcomers and predisposed to loathe anyone who “didn’t have it as bad as they did.”

In spite of this (and in plain sight of the rest of the company), Sean Carmeli — a then 20-year-old Texas-born kid who hailed from a platoon more veteran than my own — broke with tradition and began fraternizing with us tze’irim — “youngsters” who weren’t supposed to be worthy of his attention — a deed frowned upon by the senior platoon of the company and logistics officers (the main enforcers of these traditions), to whom this was nothing short of heresy.

He scrupulously showed us around the outpost, telling us about the fatiguing nature of life on the front: the strenuous training; the sleepless nights on patrol; the endless amounts of the mess hall and latrine duty; the relentless nature of the logistics personnel. He coached us on the do’s and don’ts of army life while making an effort to get to know us, imparting equal parts genuine warmth and hardened wisdom on our doomed souls.

Sean’s amiability that day set the stage for a friendship that blossomed throughout the remainder of my service in the IDF. We quickly became close friends, bonding over American sports, hip hop and our shared identity as “lone soldiers” — individuals who felt the need to leave the comfort of their families abroad in order to defend the existence of the world’s sole Jewish state.

We spoke endlessly about our former social lives and all the meaningless frills from back home that we unexpectedly missed, spending downtime reminiscing over Mexican food and Spring Break parties during our assignments in Israel’s north and on the borders of Gaza and Egypt. As I was one of two university graduates in our company, he often asked me about college life and expressed a great deal of interest in pursuing a bachelor’s degree following the completion of his service.

It didn’t matter that we were in different platoons, or the fact that I was almost five years his senior — our friendship was based on a mutual admiration of one another. He may have been a tough cookie, but he was probably the most gentle soul I ever encountered during my service in the IDF.

Sean (top row, right-hand side) with his platoon on a base straddling the Israel-Gaza border. (photo credit: Facebook)
Sean (top row, right-hand side) with his platoon on a base straddling the Israel-Gaza border. (photo credit: Facebook)

Due to my advanced age of 25.5, I was released from the army after a year and a half of service. I saw Sean in our company’s mess hall on my last day of active duty and gave him a big hug; the bittersweet kind of embrace you give a loved one at a graduation or moving away party.

“I’m going to South America, but we’re gonna tear it up when I’m back in Israel.”

“Definitely, brother. Have a blast; we’ll hang out when you get back!”

Little did I know that was the last time I would ever see Sean or speak to him in person. The date was February 13th 2014, five months before Operation Protective Edge.

“Just keep my friends out of harms way”

I returned to Israel three and a half months later in a complete state of euphoria: I had just finished the adventure of a lifetime and was still high from finishing my service as a combat infantryman in the IDF. To top that off, I was admitted to graduate school at Tel Aviv University and secured an excellent job doing something I loved.

Things couldn’t have been going better for me, when all of a sudden everything came crumbling down.

Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and found dead after an exhaustive 18-day search. Communities near the Gaza border, a place I had just left four months ago, were getting bombarded by mortar and rocket fire, as Hamas rattled their sabers. Tensions ran high all over the country, as people were beginning to sense that war was imminent.

I began to research ways to get back with my old army outfit, should a ground offensive break out in the Gaza Strip. After discovering this was completely futile, I, a non-religious Jew, who oftentimes questions the existence of a benevolent higher-power, prayed to God, asking him for one thing:

“Please just keep my friends safe and out of harms way.”

A prayer left unanswered

I climbed down from my bunk-bed on the morning of July 20th, 2014 and shrugged into my uniform. The IDF had called me up for emergency reserve duty a week earlier and I had no way of reaching my brothers from B Company. After hearing rumors that the Golani Brigade penetrated Gaza the night before, I was uneasy when I turned on my phone to check the morning’s news.

13 soldiers killed in Gaza,” the headline read.

I continued reading, in horror: All 13 casualties were from the Golani Brigade, with a majority of them hailing from my former outfit, the 13th Battalion.

My stomach was in knots as I desperately tried to figure out what happened and who we lost.

Later that afternoon, while on a combat patrol of Israel’s northern border, a recently released reservist from the 13th Battalion received a Whatsapp message that claimed to contain the names of the day’s casualties.

“You want to me to read it to you?” he asked nervously.

“Alright,” I said uneasily. “Read it.”

I feigned toughness, but I was sick to my stomach; the lump in my throat kept growing larger and larger as he went down a list of names I did not initially recognize.

12 names go by; at this point the pressure was unbearable.

The final name on the list was Sean’s; I turned my head away as my eyes welled up with tears.

I was overcome with grief; reserve duty kept me out of Gaza and buried under a mountain of regret that I wasn’t able to be there for my army brethren. I spent the rest of the war withdrawn and angry, praying for the fighting to end and for my friends to return home safely.

Sean, a Texan born to Israeli parents, didn’t have a lot of a ton of friends or family in Israel, but tens of thousands of strangers showed up to Sean’s funeral in order to pay homage to a young man who sacrificed everything in defense of the State of Israel. I decided against leaving base to attend his funeral; as far as I was concerned, my duty was to stay in uniform and protect the country the best I could until the conflict was resolved. I felt there was no better way than to honor Sean and express camaraderie with my friends still fighting in Gaza.

Sean Carmeli's funeral in Haifa's military cemetery. (photo credit: Facebook)
Sean Carmeli’s funeral in Haifa’s military cemetery. (photo credit: Facebook)

Sean’s death didn’t mark the first the time I had lost a good friend, but his death was profoundly different for me. While the sacrifices of the other 66 soldiers who fell during that terrible war were no less worthy, his death — along with the deaths of lone soldiers Max Steinberg and Jordan Bensemhoun — was a powerful lesson for Israel and the Jewish Diaspora: it reminded us, once again, of the unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland.

While he was buried a hero and praised by many in Israel and around the world, there was little closure in losing someone like Sean; he may have died honorably, but that hardly made it any easier on me or anyone else whose life he touched.

Giving back to Sean

When I was brought in as the Director of International Development of Tel Aviv University’s School of Government and Policy late last year, my mission was clear: use my position to develop projects that advance the interests of the school, university and State of Israel.

Intuitively, my first thought was to do something significant for one of the county’s most special and, sadly, most vulnerable populations — lone soldiers.

After drafting a blueprint and working tirelessly with Professor Yossi Shain, Head of the Department of Political Science and School of Government and Policy, I ended up creating a scholarship fund for former lone soldiers studying at Tel Aviv University.

In keeping with Sean’s spirit and honoring his desire to pursue a degree after his service, we named the project the Sean Carmeli Scholarship Fund for Lone Soldiers at Tel Aviv University.

With his family’s blessing and the backing of the university, I was flown to the United States in February to help promote and raise capital for the fund, which offers the most charitable scholarships for former IDF lone soldiers anywhere in the world.

Me with the Carmeli family in their house in northern Israel, February 2016. (photo credit: Facebook)
Me with the Carmeli family in their house in northern Israel, February 2016. (photo credit: Facebook)

Knowing that Sean sincerely wanted to pursue an undergraduate education was enough of a reason to name the fund after him, but a piece of information I discovered while speaking with Sean’s family cemented my resolve to create this project in his honor: Sean’s parents told me that he had expressed a desire to volunteer in order to help lone soldiers navigate the difficulties of their service, following his release from the IDF.

The establishment of the Carmeli Fund has not only allowed me to assist in the education of fellow lone soldier brethren with their re-acclimatization to civilian life, but also to help maintain and build upon the legacy of a beloved comrade and dear friend.

We are still actively seeking donations, but our mission has resonated with a lot of people, allowing us to collect the funding necessary to finance the education of the first class of former lone soldiers studying at Tel Aviv University.

I’m not sure if he was ever chastised by his platoon mates for speaking to me on my first day on the front, but I’ll never forget the generosity and compassion he afforded that day and during our time in the army together.

Ultimately, I hope to impart the same values he embodied to a community of people he would have one day liked to have helped.

I owe him that more than anything else.

About the Author
Justin Jalil is a Research Fellow and the Director of International Development of Tel Aviv University's School of Government and Policy -- an institution where he obtained his MA in Political Science. A native of Los Angeles, California, Justin moved to Israel shortly after the completion of his BA at the University of Michigan and served as a lone soldier in the IDF's Golani Brigade from 2012-2014.
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