The rain was absolutely lashing on the car windows, the windshield wipers frantically attempting to keep the line of vision somewhat clear. It was the evening of February 27th, 2009 (My 21st birthday), and Gadi was driving me from my former dorms in Be'er Sheva to his house in Kiryat Gat. Gadi and I worked together in the same age group at camp this past summer, and I conisder him a good friend. So when he offered a couple of weeks ago to take me for a birthday, Shabbat dinner at his house, I immediately accepted. (The dinner at Gadi's house was incredible. His mother, Yael, cooked up an absolute feast and without a doubt it was one of the best meals so far in Israel.) Five minutes after he picked me up, the rain came. It had been raining in the north and in the central regions all day (in some places even snowing), but in Yerucham and Be'er Sheva it had only been a very ugly, windy, sandstormy sort of day. But, if you know anything about desert life, when it rains, it rains fast and it rains hard. Thus there is always the potential for a flashflood, a very dangerous place to be stuck. For us, it just made for a slow car ride with ample time to talk.
After initial greetings and normal catch up talk, we started getting into deeper conversation starting with issues with camp and then progressing into politics, university life, and war. Gadi commented that I was now the sole American he felt comfortable speaking freely with in Hebrew--everyone else his patient would run thin quickly and just revert to English, as he speaks a good English. This compliment was for sure in the top 3 presents I got for my bday. Anways, without going into complete detail of our conversation out of respect for Gadi's privacy, and with his permission, I would like to share a bit of what he said about his recent experience as an Israeli soldier in last month's Gaza fighting.
Gadi is a first year student of law at Tel Aviv University. He says it's basically the top law school and has a only a couple hundred students per class. Before being accepted to law school, he was an elite paratrooper in the Israeli army. It's a pretty intense unit, and if you're a normal paratrooper it's considered an honor, so kal v'chomer if you're סיירת (elite), you respect it. So, when the Gaza operation started in December, Gadi was immediately called up. One might think that since he was no longer an active soldier, he would not immediately have been called. I even asked, "But Gadi, I remember reading that it was only two weeks into the fighting that there was the massive reserves call-up," to which he told me that his unit, though reserve by title, goes in right away with the active combat soldiers because of their capabilities and competence. So, literally, one day he was in University, and the next day he was in Gaza, on the front line, fighting for his life. He said that in all of his previous three years of service, if you multiplied it by 10, you would have one day in Gaza. Gadi will tell you himself that he is not poltically on the Left. But the amount of sheer destruction he saw was terrifying. "Those people, literally, they have nothing. It's raining on this side of the border [where we're driving], and over there, they have nothing." I asked if he saw Hamas, how much close combat there was, and he said that he barely saw Hamas at all. They were cowards who fled, and when they weren't hiding, they were shooting rockets and guns down at the soldiers from civilian house tops. This is why the houses needed to be destroyed by Israeli airfire. I asked if he wanted to change the subject, if it was getting uncomfortable for him to talk about it. He told that that "in truth, for a couple of weeks after I came out, I was very reserved, very jumpy, very to myself. I didn't talk about it all at first, but eventually started to. But there are things there I saw that I have not told anyone, that I won't tell anyone. Now, though, I am more able to talk about it in general without problems." One of the hardest things for him, he told me, was the fact that "literally in one moment you are a normal citizen, a university student studying law with other normal people. You are living in a great apartment in Tel Aviv and going out to pubs. And then, in literally the next moment you are someone completely different. You are in Gaza. You are scared for your life at all times, you are in a place you do not want to be, all the time wishing it was over.
"For 31 days," he said, "I was in Gaza. And for 31 days, I dreamt of one moment. To be back in a classroom, learning and studying. My first day back in school, when the professor came into the room and started lecturing, Jonah, I broke down in tears."
The whole car ride, the whole time spent at Gadi's family's apartment--there were many hilarious and awesome stories that came out from those few hours. However, I chose to write about this particular conversation because I think it is of utmost importance to remember the pain they experience even when they don't tell us they're experiencing it. Whether they are your cousins in Kirkuk, Iraq or your family and friends in Israel. To remember that war is not good for anybody, and even if one returns from war physically unscathed, the things witnessed there are sometimes unspeakable. To remember that war is traumatic, and even though one returns to 'normal,' civilian life, there are things that will remain in a soldier's memory forever. And thus, most importantly, to support them. To listen to what they have to say, to talk things out, and simply to be there. I never seriously considered the post 9/11 popular American bumper stickers, "Support Our Troops," until now. Because even if one does not agree with all his or her government's foreign policies or military actions, the soldiers, the troops, are very much people just like you and me.