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Lone soldiers: Diamonds in the rough

I have a vested interest in the well-being of those who choose to serve: I was in the first group of lone soldiers, and my daughter followed in my footsteps
Illustrative. Young olim land in Israel in preparation for joining the army. (courtesy, Nefesh B’Nefesh)
Illustrative. Young olim land in Israel in preparation for joining the army. (courtesy, Nefesh B’Nefesh)

The shocking headline in the Hebrew Haaretz read: 10% of the suicides in the IDF are Lone Soldiers so why bring them. As a former lone soldier, I found this to be a very insulting headline. I will not blame the author, Judy Maltz, as I am well aware that she was most likely not responsible for the headline; over the years I, too, have had my share of problems with the headlines chosen by editors. As someone with nearly 44 years of experience with the issue of lone soldiers, I want to share a personal perspective, and make a few suggestions.

I was part of the cohort of the first “Lone Soldiers” that the IDF dealt with as a distinct group. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War IDF doctrine called for the need for a larger army, the problem was there were not enough potential human resources to fill the perceived needs. New olim were considered a possible solution. This was the belief of the Director-General of the Aliyah Department, Retired General Uzi Narkiss, and the head of the Manpower Division of the IDF, General Moshe Nativ. At the time, I was the chairman of an organization called the Student Mobilization for Israel. In the summer of 1975, 80 of us made aliyah, and of that number, 20 went straight to the IDF. Nativ, together with Narkiss made sure that the draft offices knew we were coming and would treat us well. One of my enduring memories is being called out in the middle of basic training  and ordered to the office of the commander of the base. There, I was told to go home, shower and shave and report to the Kirya (army headquarters) the next day. When I got to the Kirya, I and everyone else who had been drafted with me (we did not serve together), found ourselves in the Chief of Staff dining room eating lunch on good china and being hosted by the colonel in charge of the draft offices. He wanted to know how we were doing and show that the IDF cared.

I was personally fortunate — not only did I come with a group, but I had very supportive parents who visited Israel shortly before I was drafted and made sure I was able to rent an apartment in Jerusalem’s Rechavia neighborhood. That apartment was soon filled with three other soldiers and two students. Even my beloved Bubbie (grandmother) came to Israel when I was drafted. My parents continued to visit regularly. As an only child, I could not be in a combat unit (that proscription would not hold for reserve duty) and I ended up serving as an officer in a very interesting position that allowed me the opportunity, on the side, to be an unofficial liaison to new immigrants. The door of the chief social welfare officer and all her deputies was always open to me, as was that of the deputy head of manpower. If an oleh had a problem in the army we could always solve it. I was happy to say that by the time I completed my army service, my unofficial job was taken by a major who was tasked with created a small unit just to take care of olim. Of those 20 who joined the army with me, many returned to the States after their service feeling they had done their part, a number stayed, and a few — like me — have moved back and forth over the years.

Fast forward 20 years, I was living in the States, and my eldest daughter had decided to follow both her parents’ footsteps and enlist in the army after high school (her mother and I enlisted after college). This time, I was the parent of the lone soldier. We did our best, making sure that I was in Israel for the week before she drafted, being there as she got on what seemed to be the very same bus I had boarded a generation earlier to begin her service. 

To be frank, it was very hard waving goodbye, knowing that I would be back on a plane to New York in a few hours. We did what we could. She was able to rent an apartment in Jerusalem, and she was fortunate to get the job she wanted. The army was also understanding when her youngest brother was born during the early part of her service; she was given leave to attend the brit in America. She had a satisfying and meaningful service, and her mother and I visited as often as possible. But being a parent of lone soldiers is not easy.

Another 12 years in the future, my younger daughter was planning to follow in the footsteps of her sister. The time had come to return to Israel. We had sold that part of our company that was location-dependent, and we did not want to have another child who was a lone soldier. So, my second daughter herself was not a lone soldier, but we ended up adopting at various times, four lone soldiers. Two men and two women — three of whom were combat soldiers. All four had been members of Garin Tzabar, but all ultimately preferred residing in Tel Aviv with a family who took care of them.

This brings me to Haaretz’s article and my suggestions.

Americans who volunteer to serve in the IDF can be broken down into three groups. The first group are those who have decided to live here and believe (mostly correctly) that the only way to be a “real” Israeli is to serve in the army. They should be encouraged and given as much help as necessary to make sure they succeed.

The second group are the children of Israelis living in the US who feel it’s their obligation to serve. They, too, should be given every assistance. Yes, many members of this group return to the US — the pull of family is strong — but they will have done their part. If or when the day comes when they decide to come back to Israel, their barrier to acceptance will be low because they served in the army.

The third group of volunteers — the only group of which to be wary — are those seeking the adventure of the IDF. As long as there have been armies, there are those who seek the military as a way of escape. As much as possible, before someone is accepted into the IDF, efforts should be made to ensure that the person has genuine ties to the country, or has lived here for some period (a one-year-program) before deciding to enter the service.

It is also time to rethink Garin Tzabar. Yes, it is good to have a support group, but for whatever reason, many Garin Tzabar volunteers have been sent to live on kibbutzim on remote borders of the country. Those locations are hard both to get to and hard to travel from to the rest of the country. Even more absurd, many in the current group who are pictured in the Haaretz article are being sent to live at Kibbutz Erez on the Gaza border. Who would send young people to live on the Gaza border, when they are home from the army and want to relax?

Instead, I would spend the Tzabar resources on placing lone soldiers in Israeli homes, find families that have space and interest in adopting a soldier for all or part of their 28-month service, similar to the way Jewish American families adopt young Shinshinim who work as junior Shlichim. Israelis who want to open their homes, they exist. Garin Tzabar should make sure that the soldiers have broader frameworks, sponsor weekly get-togethers in central locations  for the lone soldiers and their friends to meet up and strengthen bonds. 

The army has a special base to teach Hebrew, and the concept is sound, but the execution, despite the best intentions, is often problematic. The teachers are other soldiers who have received basic education on how to teach the language. Professional language teachers receive many years of training, while an 18-year-old who has gone through a three-month course may be able to teach a class on a very specific technical skill, teaching a language to a diverse population is a more significant challenge. The army should consider employing professional language teachers responsible for teaching Hebrew. The results, perhaps, might be significantly better, which would then help lone soldiers integrate better both in the IDF and in the country in general.

The army has made a great effort to deal with sexual harassment in the military, including creating a hotline that can be called 24/7 to get help — maybe something similar needs to exist for lone soldiers: a 24/7 hotline that is operated by someone who can address the problems faced by lone soldiers.

Finally, the biggest challenge may be when lone soldiers are discharged from the army. At that point, they just become part of the nameless mass of new immigrants, but are no longer quite “new” enough. They do not have family in the country to help with networking and these young people could get lost in the shuffle. The IDF has a department that deals with discharged soldiers; it should create a special subdivision that works specifically with discharged lone soldiers and keeps working with them for as long as they need help getting established. This subdivision will ensure as many former lone soldiers as possible remain in Israel and continue contributing to the country.

There is no one simple solution. Being a lone soldier, even in the best of circumstances, is lonely. Nothing is better than coming home to your favorite food made by a parent, as most soldiers do when they come back for the weekends off. While clearly, a stranger cannot replace the embrace of a parent’s arms, steps can be taken to making the army experiences of lone soldiers as fulfilling as possible, and hopefully, decrease the number who reach the point of contemplating and committing suicide.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne
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