Since 2004, you have served in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) elite Paratroopers Brigade. You passed arduous physical and mental tests to gain admission into this highly trained unit with a history of carrying out special forces-style missions. You have participated in countless operations, among them Israel's unilateral disengagement plan — also called the Disengagement plan or Gaza Pull-Out plan (2005) and the Second Lebanon War (2006). Most of the time, we haven't known your whereabouts or doings, and this is how it must be.
You have worn ceramic bulletproof vests, helmets, night vision goggles, and camouflage face paint (as shown in this photo you gave me on your return from the Second Lebanon War). You have marched for days bearing 60 kilos (132 pounds) and more of combat gear, canteens, backpacks, and injured comrades. You have endured weeks of fighting, intense hunger, fear, frustration, and physical and emotional exhaustion. And, for the rest of your days, the echoes of conflict and war will accompany you.
While your compulsory military service has been my personal grim reminder that freedom is not free, and that the freedoms I enjoy daily I can never take for granted, you are another kind of hero, too. When doctors diagnosed Ohad with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), you asked the army for leave to be present 24/7 for your youngest brother. So for one month, you were his constant companion, support, assistant, driver, and advocate during initial therapeutic treatments at Hadassah Medical Center. While jobs kept your parents from a round-the-clock presence for Ohad, you stood in for them and for your siblings who are either full-time students or workers.
Last Thursday, when you were honorably discharged from full-time duty (like all Israeli veteran soldiers, you are a reservist until age 50), I telephoned to speak with a sweet, life-affirming, bright young man. I wanted to congratulate and thank him for protecting his family, community, and nation, and for helping to safeguard the dreams, prayers, and labors of peace-seekers everywhere.
Dear Aviah, I felt my words inadequate and, humbled by your family's signature calm and unassuming courage, I stammered and talked nonsense. So, I am expressing my gratitude (and sadness) more fully by sharing parts of the comment I left on Stephanie's blog last spring, when, deeply affected by the Iraq War, she began, Dear American Soldier.
And though my comment was in response to Stephanie's letter, I was thinking of you, Aviah, and I was raising you up when I wrote —
I often speak with my beloved Israeli cousin, 20-year-old paratrooper Aviah, and I ask him endlessly your question, I wonder how you feel when you hear fellow[s…] criticize […] war and your role in it. . . .
When I spot soldiers in USA uniform at airports . . . I ask your questions— name, family, home, dreams, and responses to criticism by fellow citizens (and others) on the war they are fighting. It is easy for me to speak with them because . . . I almost automatically see all nations' soldiers as somebody’s son, husband, father, cousin, friend, classmate, neighbor, or ally.
And I have come to see most soldiers as children serving for many reasons and almost always at the behest of old men. And I always weep inside, often out loud, and like you, feel a lump in my throat and an almost paralyzing sadness.
May we pursue dialog instead of war and teach compassion in place of hatred. Always. All ways.