Saturday, January 26, 2008

Thermal Success

Last week when Elie came home, we went shopping for thermal underwear. I could, perhaps, have bought it without him. But I preferred him to go with me, and so we went together to the camping store in a large mall in Jerusalem. The store has a whole section in green, knowing that many soldiers shop there. In fact, most of the young store attendants are post-army and still serve in the army.

The young man who helped us guided us through the various options. The one Elie chose, which was the one that was most recommended, has an added level of protection against moisture on the outside, while being soft and absorbent on the inside. As Elie went to try it on, I knew it was smart that I had not attempted to purchase this for him on my own.

While I stood outside talking to the sales attendant, I explained about Elie being in the Commanders Course and how, as a relatively new soldier's mother, tend to worry about pretty much everything. "I didn't even tell my parents I was in Homat Magen," he told me.

Operation Homat Magen was launched in 2002 by Israel after a series of terrorist attacks within Israeli cities that took over 125 civilian lives. It was brutal warfare that took place inside Palestinian cities; house to house fighting between many of Israel’s elite soldiers and armed terrorists who had booby-trapped large areas of their cities, knowing that Israel would not take the safe way. Claims were made that hundreds, even thousands of Palestinians had lost their lives – it was all an orchestrated lie, proven false when even the United Nations and other investigating parties found only 52 bodies, almost all of them armed.

Special measures were taken to insure that innocent lives among the Palestinian population were not lost. To take these measures, our soldiers risked their lives by entering each house, searching for armed fighters and terrorist hide-aways hidden among the cities’ populations. This young man was one of them, and at the time, his parents did not know where he was or what he was doing. His mother did not even know what she should be worrying about.

A similar situation recently came to light when a young Israeli soldier died during training. He was in the final stages of joining one of Israel’s most elite units. His family had no idea he was training for that special unit and might never have known, if he hadn’t died tragically.

“I told them nothing,” the young man in the store told me. Don’t tell Elie that, I asked the man. I want to know. “It must makes you worry,” he countered back. How could I make him understand that mothers will worry anyway and it’s far better to worry about the simple things like cold than what his mother might have had to worry about. I think, deep down, that his mother probably knew where he was, knew he was in danger, and worried the whole time anyway. He needs to believe that his mother was saved worrying because he didn’t tell her but the reality is that worry becomes a part of your every waking minute, a companion that never quite leaves until your son walks through the door.

By contrast, so far in Elie’s military service, I know where he is and what he is doing…at least for the most part. I didn’t know the night Israel bombed something in Syria, at least until the main danger had passed, but within hours, I knew that my son and tens of thousands of other soldiers were on alert and waiting.

I know, at least for the next few weeks, where Elie will be and what he will be doing. After that, with the next regular army shake-up, there will be a change. There are many possibilities for what the army will do with Elie after he completes his first year. So far, he has spent most of his time in training: first at the most basic level, then the more specialized part for his unit, and now as a possible Commander for new soldiers coming into his type of unit.

If Elie agrees to go through Officer training, he would have another course and training period. So far, Elie is resisting this additional level, which would add more than a year to his required service time. If he continues on this track, he will finish his national service in 2 years and a few weeks. What road he will take during this time is not yet known to us. Elie accepts this lack of information as part and parcel of army life. “The army sometimes doesn’t even tell you until the night before,” Elie explained. Each soldier, each unit has a task or assignment…and they will find out, when the army gets around to telling them. They will probably know a little before they finish the Commanders Course, but, as Elie told me, there is even the possibility that they will not know until the night before they finish. What Elie was really saying was that there isn’t much we can do about it and there’s no sense in thinking beyond what we know today.

Tonight, Elie is going out on another navigation exercise. It’s cold and rainy, so perhaps the army will cancel it. Had it not been planned, Elie explained, he could have come home for the Sabbath. My guess, given the cold and the rain, is that it will not take place. But I am miles away, on the edge of a different desert and the weather here is quite different from what he experiences.

At this moment, I don’t really know where he is – out walking somewhere or inside warm and relaxed? I could probably call him, but I want to leave him to call me when he wants. He is past the age where I can check up on him; past the time in his life when he needs to report to his mother. I’ll wait and wonder, and yes, worry just a little.

“The thermal shirts are great,” he told me Friday when we spoke. He was doing his laundry; explaining about the huge sinks in the bathroom where he washes his clothes each week so that he doesn’t have to bring everything home. “They barely got dirty and they were really warm.”

One success story. I may not know where my son is right now, but I know that if he is out in the desert finding his way from one point to another, he is probably warm and relatively dry. If he is in his sleeping quarters or with his unit, he’s fine as well. He isn’t out on Israel’s borders tonight; he isn’t up north in the freezing temperatures on guard. He isn’t going into Palestinian villages hoping to stop terrorists before they strike, as they did a few days ago. He isn’t on a bomb squad somewhere going to check a suspicious object that may or may not be dangerous. He’s safe; probably warm; well protected; fed. He’s challenging his mind and body and learning so much. He’s happy and among brothers. It is the most I can hope for at times.

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