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The forgotten soldiers

Too many of the 7,000 lone soldiers per year who serve without support from family can't find housing and never manage to make a life in Israel

It was the perfect Tel Aviv evening: balmy with a breeze, on a Rothschild rooftop, ice-cold cocktail clinking in hand. I was chatting with a friend when an unexpected sound stilled our conversation. It was the unmistakable pitch of a woman crying through her words—but loudly, as if she were giving a speech. Curious, we made our way to the other side of the bar, where we found 50 people or so gathering around this young woman (who was in fact standing on a type of podium).

It turned out she was a lone soldier and was sharing the story of her struggles in the army, alongside half a dozen other lone soldiers.

“What is this?” I whispered to one of the observers.

“It’s a private event by a nonprofit called Bayit Brigade. They support lone soldiers with affordable housing,” a man answered.

The woman we were all watching (I’ll call her Naomi, to protect her identity), tried to swallow her tears as she spoke. “I didn’t have anywhere to sleep on the weekends. I spent a year living in Beit HaHayal, but it was problematic, as many soldiers with behavioral problems stay there. All I wanted was a home to call my own. But there was no way I could afford it.”

At this point she paused, taking a deep breath to steady herself.

She continued: “The commanders mean well, but many of them are not trained in how to support lone soldiers. They are only 20 years old themselves. They can’t possibly understand what it means to be Israeli, in the army, and not have someone to call at the end of the day. Not to have someone to help with bills, laundry, a home-cooked meal once in a while. My commander said to me, ‘If I’m able to get by on this salary, why can’t you?”

We in the crowd were stunned into silence. It was a Thursday evening, the other side of the bar thumped with the latest lounge house, and on this side, we were trying to hold back tears ourselves.

I waited for Naomi and the other soldiers to finish their short speeches, and then I went to go find her. Yes, I was already familiar with some of the sad statistics about lone soldiers: I knew that while they make up less than 5% of the IDF, they constitute over 30% of army suicides. And while many lone soldiers hail from wealthy and stable homes in North America and Europe, 50% of lone soldiers come from impoverished, broken homes in Israel (or are cast out by their families for being gay or turning secular).

I found Naomi and the other soldiers inside. I introduced myself and, feeling a bit woozy from both the cocktails and the crying, asked if I could give her a hug. I was simply overwhelmed by everything she and these other men and women have been through: being abandoned by their families to the point of not having food to eat or a place to sleep – how could this be?

One of the soldiers, I’ll call him Adam, said to me: “I literally had nowhere to go when I was off base. And the ironic thing was, I had the money to pay rent and still couldn’t get an apartment. No landlord would sign a lease with me because I didn’t have a guarantor. But then someone told me about the Guarantor Fund, and they cosigned my apartment.”

I looked around the room, at these young men and women, from the UK, Colombia, South Africa, Russia – so different from one another, and yet all wanting the same thing: a simple apartment they could afford. I noticed older Israelis as well, who looked to be in their sixties and seventies, sitting and chatting with the soldiers. I asked Adam how they were connected to all of this.

“Those are landlords,” he explained. “They rent their apartments at subsidized rates to lone soldiers. Some of us have actually become pretty close to our landlords–they’re like family now.” Wow. I was impressed. Who has landlords come to their party?! This was clearly something special.

Although the evening was uplifting, my web scrolling the next day was sobering. I discovered that, even though 85% of lone soldiers wish to stay in Israel, half of these soldiers leave “after completing their military service. And of the half that stay, one third leave shortly after.” What disheartening numbers. And it’s such a pity because these individuals have the potential to contribute so much if only there was a viable way for them to stay. And yet, how could Israel expect them to, when rents are exorbitant, salaries are pitiful, and they lack the necessary emotional and family support?

My research on the topic led me to a recent State Comptroller report on the IDF, which found that: “A significant percentage [of lone soldiers] reported having difficulties re-entering civilian society after their service… There does not exist a comprehensive, inter-agency program that defines the goals of the country regarding the integration of veteran lone soldiers, without family support, in Israeli society.”

Another former lone soldier, Joey Bendah, put it aptly: “After discharge, lone soldiers become lone civilians.”

So what is a lone soldier to do, if they want to stay?

I decided to call Aaron Lyon, one of the founders of Bayit Brigade, and ask him what they were doing to address these challenges. That’s when I heard this term for the first time:

“Lone soldiers are really forgotten soldiers, especially the veterans,” Aaron said. “There are all kinds of services in place to help them while they’re in the army, but as soon as they’re discharged, they have very little support. Unlike other Israelis who have a family home to live in while they get on their feet, earn a degree, start working – these lone soldiers have to support themselves from day one. And for a lot of them, especially the ones that carry emotional baggage, it’s just too much.”

He went on: “That’s why we founded Bayit Brigade, to offer lone soldiers affordable housing when they complete their service. We’ve housed 100 soldiers already in subsidized apartments in city centers, including Tel Aviv. Our staff assists them with everything from signing as guarantors to dealing with bills to connecting them to hosts for Shabbat meals. It’s a housing service, but at the end of the day, they get so much more than a home: they receive all the types of support they need to build a life in Israel. We get new applications every day, and are working on expanding our apartment network to help more lone soldier veterans.”

B’hatzlachah [good luck],” I told him. 100 soldiers housed is a huge mitzvah in a short time. But when I consider the fact that a whopping 7,000 lone soldiers serve in the IDF every year, I wonder how many of those are struggling like Naomi and Adam did. My research revealed a number of nonprofits working to support veteran lone soldiers, including the Lone Soldier Center, which provides career preparation to new veterans, and the HESEG Foundation which provides scholarships to former lone soldiers. All of these efforts are wonderful and should be commended – but is it enough to help these young men and women? What else can be done?

About the Author
Libbie Snyder manages a freelance writing and editing business from Tel Aviv, serving high tech and startup companies across Israel. She earned her BA in English Literature from Montreal's McGill University. Originally from Boston, she made aliyah in 2009. Libbie lives with her husband, two children, and two cats in Tel Aviv.
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