I drafted as a lone soldier in 2017.
At first I was determined not to complain; it was my choice to be there. But as training got tougher, along with majority of my fellow soldiers, I complained about everything: the alarms every morning or in the middle of the night, someone else making my decisions for me and pointless orders being shouted at me. Always having somewhere to be, my days never really belonging to me. I groaned when I had to do my job and I groaned even more when I was commanded to do anything that wasn’t my job.
Gradually throughout my service, the question of “Nuu, but why did you draft?” got tougher to answer. I found that most of the soldiers with me would have chosen to be anywhere else, and I eventually gave up on my idealistic, צהובה answers. I began to respond jokingly, “I don’t know why I’m here either.”
The army is overwhelming for every soldier; to go through it as a lone soldier adds so many other complexities. It is incredibly confronting to be on your own for the first time, starting a new life and speaking a new language while trying to understand and fit into a world that is nothing like what you know.
I was lucky that in my years of school I had learnt a lot more Hebrew than I thought and with time, I felt comfortable speaking. But I can still relate to the feeling of sitting with a group of friends and not being able to keep up with the pace of the conversation, not understanding what everyone was laughing about, or attempting to make a joke which was met with strange looks. There were many difficult conversations with commanders, trying over and over to express my opinion or just ask a simple question. It was so frustrating having something to say but not finding the right words, feeling unintelligent and constantly trying to prove myself.
I spent two months on a base near Eilat. We were on constant כוננות and stayed in uniform 24/7. When we did get two hours off, there was no hot water anyway. We’d spend six hours in the desert eating packaged rations in a hummer only to find out that the next patrol wasn’t switching us anytime soon and six hours slowly turned into twelve. One weekend when we were finally let off, we sat on the bus home relieved to have a break, with everyone sharing their plans and parties. But for me, I spent the little time I had before Shabbat desperately trying to find a new fridge on my lone soldier budget.
At my השבעה I remember looking into the audience and hoping to see a familiar face. All of the families and friends rushed over to their newly sworn-in soldier with hugs and delicious foods. I awkwardly joined some of my friends’ picnics, but it hurt not to have anyone there for me. I received invitations from friends and even strangers to come spend Shabbat or חגים at their homes, but too often I said no. I would convince myself that they didn’t really mean it or were asking out of pity and I didn’t want to intrude. Now I wish I had gone.
There are organisations that do provide as much support and assistance as they can but they all rely on the soldier asking – that’s where it starts. My attitude was that drafting was my commitment and as a good soldier I had to toughen up, deal with things quietly and do it all on my own. I was embarrassed to be struggling. I found that my commanders were often unable to understand the sensitivity of my situation. When I did appeal for my entitlements as a lone soldier, I was often guilt tripped for “taking advantage of the system.” I often felt misunderstood and stupid for asking. When before חג, the army gave me yet another set of towels and a handshake, I rolled my eyes.
Once, in the middle of the desert, after being sick for hours and shivering on the ground from dehydration, I was finally driven back to base at 4am and left on my own for the next few days. It was Sunday and I only got permission to see the doctor on Thursday. Another time, after three days of vomiting, I managed to get myself to the doctor where I lay alone for hours with a drip in my arm. Then I had to go back to an empty apartment with no one to look after me.
I got injured early in my service. That disqualified me from continuing the גיבוש to get into the unit I was hoping for and I was gutted. My friends commiserated and assured me that it wasn’t a big deal but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had let myself down. For the most part, I was positive and accepted that shit happens but being injured during training is really discouraging. We are told to grit our teeth and keep going, always to push ourselves and suck it up. Despite the medical documentation, I had commanders who mocked my injury. It felt like I was being punished. I was torn between taking my injury seriously by resting so I could heal properly and never wanting to sit out or be a פטוריסט (soldier with a medical exemption, often derogatory.) On one of our מסעות, the medic didn’t allow me to join the rest of my צוות and I was forced to stay behind to set up snacks and the pins they would receive at the end. I hated standing next to my sweaty friends and being handed a pin I felt I hadn’t earned. My injury affected me a lot emotionall. I had put so much pressure on myself to get it all right, whatever that means.
Only recently, nearly a year after being released from the army, have I begun to process my conflicted feelings towards my service. When I did open up about some of these feelings, my dad was surprised; he’d assumed the hardest parts of the army were physical. I was baffled that he hadn’t noticed the reality of my experience but looking back, I realised that I had only ever allowed my family and friends to see that I was okay and a “brave soldier”. I carried a constant guilt about not wanting to burden anyone with my problems or fear of exposing that maybe I couldn’t do it on my own.
The importance of admitting that things aren’t easy and reaching out for help is relevant for anyone, in any situation. Struggling in the army is an inevitable reality for any soldier but most especially for a lone soldier. Asking for help should be encouraged.
There were a lot of complications in receiving my מיוחדת to visit home. After a 23-hour transit from Australia, I arrived back in Israel at 12am and less than eight hours later, I was on a bus heading back to my base up north. My roommate and I had just been notified by our landlord that our apartment was being rented to new tenants and that we had two weeks to move out. I frantically scrolled through every Facebook group and contacted any agent or mover I could find – nothing. I called my parents, but they had no solutions and were helpless from so far away. I couldn’t sit around and joke with my friends, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. All I could think about was not having somewhere to live. After a few days, a close friend picked up on the situation and encouraged me to go speak to my officer. It took a lot of strength and I could barely explain what was going on. As soon as I walked into his office, I burst into tears. He reached out to the contacts he had and gave me permission to leave base that weekend to go look for apartments. Somehow things came together.
I was grateful that I had someone who noticed I wasn’t okay and I kept thinking about the many lone soldiers going through similar situations, feeling alone and too afraid or uncomfortable to ask for help and no one there to support them. Around that time three lone soldiers had taken their lives and it hit me that I needed to speak out.
One Shabbat on base, my platoon was ordering pizza, and one by one we gave over our credit card details to the guy on the phone. At my turn, I read out the numbers but when he found out that I wasn’t a citizen, he refused to accept my payment. Everyone overheard and I remember feeling so humiliated and too ashamed to ask anyone to loan me the 25 shekels. My commander noticed what was happening, shouted at the stubborn pizza guy and then put the money on his own card, saying, “You don’t owe me anything.” He didn’t think twice, but it meant the world to me.
Recently, I was telling a friend about my feelings of regret, that I felt that didn’t do enough in my army service. “I should have been a better soldier, more positive, more serious, complained less and been there for my friends more. I should have fought harder to sign on more time and gone further in the army. I should have given more of myself.” He responded, “Rayzl, you’re too hard on yourself, you did more than enough.” More than enough as I came to Israel. More than enough as I committed to draft. More than enough that I got through training and dealt with everything that a combat soldier faces.
I’ve been trying to see things differently now, as if he gave me permission to let go and acknowledge that I did an incredible thing and that is enough. With all the highs and the lows and the detours and the rerouting, it all counts and I owe myself credit for that.
The reality of being a soldier is that the meaningful highs are fleeting and the miserable lows last a lot longer. Eventually we all fall into the grind of army life, where there is nothing inspiring or charming. Sleeping in the field for weeks, shivering through the nights and dripping of sweat through the days, the dirt gradually layering itself onto your skin and not changing clothes or showering. Running on little to no hours of sleep and being expected to function. On early morning שמירות, I’d wedge my boots in-between the grates of the small heater and pull my neck warmer up over my nose, but the cold just gets colder and stings inside your bones. Most days all I wanted was a real bed, a hot shower and food that didn’t come out of a can.
I can look back now and laugh. I got through it all and they’re some of the greatest memories, but it’s pretty shit sometimes. There were rare moments that reminded me why I was there and that I was exactly where I was meant to be. Every time I boarded a civilian bus, I felt the weight of wearing green. Walking out of the תחנה מרכזית into the bustle of Friday, with my gun banging against my knees and carrying a bag half my size. My boots would be digging into my heels, my toes numb, and on those walks home I would recognise that I had gotten through another two weeks and that I had served my country. I was so proud.
I have not yet experienced anything else in my life that has pushed me to discover how capable I am, to confront my faults, grow from my weaknesses and embrace my limitations. I met a new part of me that had not yet been challenged. People tend to have a shiny, unrealistic image of lone soldiers and their service. During my time in the army I went through the loneliest and most confronting moments. Carrying it all on my own was exhausting and took from the energy I needed to be present as a soldier. I now understand how significant and impactful support is and that it is okay not to be okay.
I have written this with the hope that the conversation continues…