My son Alex Sasaki, who left college in the US to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier, died a tragic death in March under circumstances that are still under investigation. When more than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Ceremony in Jerusalem and during the subsequent Shiva week of mourning, my wife and I received an outpouring of love and support that taught us much about the qualities Alex radiated and provided a measure of comfort after our agonizing loss.
Unfortunately, many news reports spread the premature speculation by the organization Keep Olim that our son had taken his own life because of mental illness and lack of proper support from the IDF. In fact, the group’s leaders did not know Alex, and knew nothing about his military service. Their actions caused significant pain.
It is therefore with a heavy heart that we seek to clarify the facts. When two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli Consulate representative came to our home in California to inform us with great care and respect of Alex’s passing, they specifically told us there was no evidence that he killed himself. An autopsy has been initiated but the results, which may reveal an aneurism or congenital health issue, are not yet known. We hope that in the future, Keep Olim will pause and reflect in sensitive situations such as ours to avoid perpetrating untruths and causing irreparable damage.
In reality, Alex’s IDF story is uplifting and inspiring. Prior to moving to Israel in 2016, Alex attended the University of Oregon but had decided to put college on hold. We knew he was down on himself and at some form of crossroads. One path, which emerged from a seed planted during his Birthright trip in 2013, was to return to Israel and serve in the IDF. But at age 25, he was told it was unlikely he’d be able to join a combat unit as he wished.
Advised by a friend that the army would initially reject him for combat but eventually relent if he insisted, Alex moved to Israel and became a citizen in 2016. Gradually he surmounted the obstacles of language and culture. He said he had found meaning to life.
When Alex joined the army, he radiated passion and purpose. Commanders cited his intense commitment to learning Hebrew, which was a critical factor in being selected for a combat unit.
We learned a lot about Alex during the shiva in Israel. While growing up, Alex loved making people laugh, which didn’t always serve him well. We were surprised that he was invited to a high school awards ceremony even though his grades were unimpressive. It turned out that Alex had won a special prize for troublemakers, given to the student who tallied the most visits to the vice-principal’s office but was still deemed to have a “big heart.” In the IDF, we were told, his sense of humor was only an asset.
After the funeral, one young man in Alex’s platoon told us he had been in a “very dark place.’’ Our son had saved his life by talking with him, he told us, and following up by phone after he left their unit.
When we attended the graduation ceremony from basic training, where he received his brown Golani beret, the transformation in Alex was undeniable. As we walked with him the last mile of a 26-mile overnight hike, where soldiers bear 40 percent of their body weight in equipment, along with carrying their comrades on stretchers, we saw joy in Alex’s face. His heartfelt connection with so many fellow soldiers and commanders was visible confirmation that he had made the right life-choice.
Later he tried out for the Golani special forces unit, one of the toughest physical tests in the IDF. He had no regrets when he was dropped, partly because he was older than the other recruits, telling friends what was important was that he tried and didn’t quit.
Having always loved art as a child, Alex volunteered to help paint the mascots and symbols that his platoon displayed to rally the troops. After spending a whole night painting numbers onto his unit’s backpacks for a military drill, Alex responded calmly the next morning when he discovered his work had been ruined by overnight rain. He simply smiled and repainted the packs.
As a child, Alex developed a love of cooking that led to jobs in college and later at home in southern California. He dreamed about opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv that would have his artwork on display. His love of rap and hip-hop music won him second prize in an IDF game show competition.
When he was punished using his phone while guarding an isolated and freezing location, friends offered to take turns keeping him company through an extra 12-hour shift.
Playing basketball when he was young and one of the smallest players he often could not get the ball to the basket from the free throw line, but in the playoffs with everything on the line, he made a last-second foul shot that sent the game into overtime. This ability translated to his IDF service, as his commanders told us how Alex was able to remain calm in very difficult situations, which was invaluable in helping his team succeed in their missions.
Through the stories told to us during the shiva process, we knew Alex experienced a sense of completeness while serving in the IDF. He had a spiritual awakening. While his life was much too short, knowing he had found this profound gift still provides much comfort. Many never find this grace even within a long lifetime.
So for Alex, life within the Golani Brigade and most specifically being part of his platoon was in no way a problem. It became clear that service in the IDF was his salvation, not his downfall.
We are grateful that Alex had the drive and determination to follow his own path — letting no obstacles stand in his way. He was able to find deep bonds among his fellow soldiers and a chosen home in Israel. The memories of Alex’s life in the IDF will be an ever-growing blessing for all of us who loved him.