Making A Contribution

I have never been to Europe. My wife has been there over 10 times and both my sons and their spouses have visited as well. Me? No interest. But Israel intrigues me and I have thought about it off and on over the years. Last January a dream about Israel came to me. It was a powerful one. Perhaps a vision? Who knows? At my age I rule nothing out. I awoke and immediately went downstairs to my computer and googled Kibbutz thinking that working on one could be a way of helping Israel.

While searching I discovered a better option: I could enroll in a program that supported the IDF-the Israeli Defense Forces-their army. Doing so would play into my wheelhouse, namely my extensive military background: I’m a retired Marine Corps Colonel with combat experience in Vietnam.
 
Therefore, I decided to visit Israel. It was not to be a trip. No, rather a quest. Uppermost in my mind was the thought of giving back to Israel. And my calculus was this: If I could somehow or other contribute to the readiness of the IDF, even in the minuteness of ways, then I achieved success.
 
My preparation over a ten-month period included reading numerous books about Israel and a daily review of the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, two influential Israeli newspapers.  The major conduit that permitted my venture to Israel to aid the IDF was an organization called Volunteers for Israel or VFI.
VFI is an American non-profit and works in conjunction with Sar El. Based in Israel, Sar El is also a non-profit service organization, subordinate and under the direction of the Israeli Logistics Corps. It is important to note that when you volunteer for these programs you are not in the IDF. Essentially, you are volunteering to perform mundane logistical tasks that free actual IDF soldiers to spend more time in training how to fight. 

Both VFI and Sar El are truly outstanding organizations. Incidentally, “Sar El” is a Hebrew acronym meaning Service for Israel and one of their key mottoes frequently used is this: “Stand with Israel, in Israel.”1st Week in Israel

So I flew to Israel on 4 November 2017. BTW, I re-read Anne Frank on my plane trip. I cried again.
 
My plan had me spending the first week in Tel Aviv attempting to network with Israelis and learn as much as possible about them and their country. I stayed in a lovely hotel a block from the Mediterranean and across from the US Embassy. I spent much time walking around the city and along the beautiful beaches of Tel Aviv. At night I avoided the tourist night-spots choosing instead a friendly neighborhood bar two blocks from my hotel. I like to drink and fortunately so do a number of Israelites. I spent six evenings there, and it is where I met many Israeli citizens. We got along extremely well!
 
A major objective I had in Israel was to speak to IDF soldiers about my experiences in Vietnam as a Marine Corps infantry platoon commander. The military always compiles “Lessons Learned,” which are historical statements about what went right or wrong on a particular mission or exercise with hope of improving a like future scenario. Thus, I wanted to share with IDF soldiers my mistakes and limited triumphs to benefit them in future skirmishes. The same circumstances that took place in combat 100 years ago, took place 50 years later, and happened again last week, and will take place 10 years from now. Believe me, I know. In any case, I created an entire lecture to go. In preparation for my trip, I contacted a number of people and Israeli organizations asking them to provide me an audience and forum.
 
The Lone Soldier Center (LSC) is a program I communicated with prior to my departure. It is truly an outstanding institution. The IDF has roughly 170,000 men and women on active duty and 550,000 reservists. Of the active duty force, approximately 7,000 are referred to as Lone Soldiers. Lone Soldiers are mostly volunteers to the IDF from other countries. They might also be Israeli citizens who have no families-they are orphaned, or abandoned, etc. Therefore, Lone Soldiers are members of the IDF who have no close family in Israel. The program reaches out to these troops and helps them in numerous ways: providing meals on holidays and Shabat, educating them on the complex legal and civil ways of Israel citizens, providing emergency financial aid when needed, etc.
This past October I received an email from an old high school classmate, Ed Pachtman, informing me that his grandsons were going to visit him.  Ed told me they were coming from Israel. I asked him if they were members of the IDF. He replied they were. I then asked him if they were Lone Soldiers and he said, somewhat surprised that I knew of this organization, “Yes, they were.” At which time I informed him of my plans to visit Israel and said if it was possible I would like to meet them. Ari is the oldest of the brothers, and he just completed his 3-year obligation. His younger brother, Noah, is just beginning his service in the IDF. Unfortunately, Ari was home on leave, and Noah was going through some very intense training. I was unable to link up with either of these fine young men.
 
I spent decades working in careers serving youth-education, the military, and business, and I found that the young people most likely to succeed are the ones who are focused. And not knowing either Ari or Noah nor any other Israeli Lone Soldiers I can’t help but believe they have focus and purpose in their young lives, making them a distinct minority, certainly in their American generation. Leaving the comforts of a home and traveling half way around the globe to serve in one of the best and toughest armies in the world is right impressive to me. I deeply admire them.
 
I went to the Lone Soldier Center in Tel Aviv three times and met a number of Lone Soldiers and staff members of the LSC.  On one day I found many exuberant young people  donating blood. The organization is fervent in its outlook encouraging members to take care of fellow Lone Soldiers and needy members of the community. Stretching it here but their enthusiasm, outlook, and dedication is perhaps akin to early day kibbutzim.
 
Earlier I mentioned frequenting a neighborhood bar. I met many people there-few tourists and mostly residents of Tel Aviv. Before beginning my journey to Israel, I had attempted to start learning Hebrew but abandoned that effort early on-memorization is not my forte. As some of you know, virtually all Israeli citizens speak English, which made communication seamless. When I introduced myself and told them my purpose for being in Israel, I was welcomed with open arms. The Israelis and I also had an extremely close bond-nearly all of us were veterans. Israel practices universal service. All young people, except some Orthodox Jews, have to serve in the IDF-males for three years and females for two years. Therefore, whomever I met was invariably a veteran. When they found out I was one, many doors, so to speak, were immediately opened. You have to be a veteran to understand that affinity.
 
A friend suggested I visit the Jerusalem Holocaust Musem. Jerusalem is approximately an hour and half from Tel Aviv. I did so. Mammoth crowds prevented me from studying the displays in the main museum. Adjacent to it was another spectacular edifice housing the Children’s Memorial. The money to build most of the Children’s Memorial came from a Beverly Hills family who were interned at Auschwitz. They lost their son while there in 1944. He was two and a half years old.
 
I toured the Children’s Memorial by myself and found the inside totally dark with the exception of thousands of tiny lights and candles embedded in a round ceiling and the floor. Hanging from the top were large posters, maybe 6’ by 4’ of children’s faces-perhaps 10 or so in number. They were being softly and gently moved by a fan system. And over a loud sound system you heard a person reading names. It went like this: Veronika Belcor, age 6, Warsaw, Poland, Dachau…Jonathan Weinberg, age 4, Dusselberg, Germany, Buchenwald…and so on and on. The memorial’s intention was to have you viewing and seeing these photos as in the heavens above and beyond. Riveting. Do you know how many children, roughly 14 and under, who were killed in the Holocaust? 1,500,000. Yes, one and a half million children.
 
 Forming up and standing in Israel supporting the IDF
 
On Sunday of my second week in Israel I went to meet other Sar El volunteers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. There were approximately 125 volunteers from all over the world in a corner of the airport. These people would be assigned to go to different IDF bases throughout Israel. You can sign up for one, two, or three-week programs. This being my first venture, I decided to do but a one-week stint. Speaking to others as we mingled, I found that many volunteers were true veterans of the program. One gentleman from France was on his twelfth assignment!
 
My group was called out and we met our “madricha,” in this case a young 19-year old female IDF soldier. She stayed with us for the entire 5-day tour and was essentially the liaison between us and the base officers and NCO’s where we were to be stationed. She led us out of the airport, and we boarded a bus that took us to a base about an hour and a half from the airport in the Negev Desert. We were roughly 25 kilometers from the Gaza Strip.
 
On the bus ride, our group of ten volunteers and the one madricha started to bond. And did we ever bond! Our contingent was from many different countries. We consisted of seven females and four males. Two young girls 21 and 29 respectively came from the Czech Republic. There were two Italian guys aged 26 and 29.  A married couple, in their early 70’s, lived near Dallas. A woman born in Russia was now living in Vancouver. Two women, making their 5th VFI tour, came from Iowa and Northern Virginia. Those two and the married couple were the only people who knew one another before our assignment. Our madricha was born in Israel (her grandfather, still living, was a Holocaust survivor and his tattooed “number” remains on his arm). Roughly half the group was Jewish and half not. I was the oldest.
 
Our assignment took us to a motor transport base. Our first stop was at a building wherein we were issued work uniforms-shirts, trousers, field jackets, caps, and belts. We  provided our own foot gear-sneakers, boots, etc.
 

After being issued our uniforms, we went to our barracks. The entire group-men and women-were assigned rooms on the second deck. Our rooms were interspersed with active duty IDF soldiers. The men’s head was on the second deck and the women’s on the ground floor. Four males were assigned to one room and the seven females shared three rooms. The quarters were typical Army austere. A “mattress” consisted of foam rubber measuring an inch.

Every morning we fell out in formation and one of our group raised the flag while the rest stood at attention. After this ceremony our madricha gathered us around, and she told us of the plan of the day and also passed on news from the world, much of it IDF and defense oriented.

 
We ate three meals a day in the base mess hall. Food, of course, was kosher and it was served buffet style. The IDF feeds their soldiers lightly at the morning and evening meals and heavily during noon meal. Although not an epicurean delight, the fare was quite healthy with a preponderance of vegetables at all three meals. You also could add hard-boiled eggs and bread at most meals.
Essentially the work we performed at the motor transport base was inventorying, sorting, and putting gear away. The IDF had recently concluded a field exercise utilizing the base, which I assumed housed the equipment used by a reserve motor transportation unit. Once the reserves came in from the field exercise, I suspect the soldiers returned to their civilian careers. The gear they had used was scattered through a number of warehouses. It was our job to square away this equipment and supplies so that when next used-in either a training role or the real thing-it was “good to go.” A secondary assigned mission required us to shred a lot of classified documents used in the exercise.
 
Thus, over the tour of duty you would find small groups of us in different warehouses completing various tasks. The weather was pleasant-high 70’s and low 80’s with no rain. We worked from roughly 0830 to 1630 with an hour for lunch. At night there was normally an hour program put on by our madricha. She would give a lecture on IDF or Israeli oriented subjects-IDF units and history, identifying Hebrew letters, etc.
 
To me the entire tour of duty brought me fondly back to my early days in the military. Stretching it here, but the entire experience was not too far removed from “boot camp.” Barracks, flag raising, chow hall, mission orientation for our cadre, reveille-all under, considering the comfortable homes we left, very Spartan conditions. I absolutely loved it!
 
And for me, the greatest blessing I received was the good fortune to meet and get to know an outstanding group of people. We were together 24/7 for five days. You could not leave the base, and common diversions were nonexistent-no movies, television, clubs, etc. The base did not support wifi, and although smart phones worked, you rarely saw them is use. And booze is forbidden on IDF bases. All of that contributed to bringing us collectively closer. We became a tight unit, and I was proud to be a member.
 
Concluding comments
 
•   I consider the Holocaust to be the greatest crime committed in history. We must insure it never happens again.
 
•   What a joy for me to discover Israel. The country is vibrant and exciting. You can feel the energy as you travel around. Optimism is in the air, which is missing in our country. Israel’s democracy is young, and I often feel ours is aging…and tired. If it was 30 years ago, and I had not started a business here in America, I would move there-in a heartbeat.
 
•   That is not to say that Israel is totally united. They are not. Their left opposes their right. Various sects exist and argue-Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and oh yes-secular, all make for volatile neighbors and viewpoints. Then there are the “settlements” or the “occupied territories” (?)-same real estate-different approaches. What to do about the future of the Temple Mount? Jerusalem-East and West and what is next? A two state solution for Israelis and Palestinians or? And so many other challenges. Yet, I feel confident they will overcome them.
 
•   The IDF is one of the world’s greatest armies. Considering their neighbors, they have to be. And there is no country that I know of that holds its armed forces in higher esteem than Israel. They are revered. No citizen would ever spit at an IDF soldier returning from war.
 
•   And finally, one of the mantras of the IDF found written in much of their literature and found on military installation signs is this: NEVER AGAIN.  I personally am all in. As long as David Ben Gurion airport remains open in any future war, and the kind Lord permits it, this aging warrior, but warrior still, will have the IDF’s back. I guarantee another Holocaust will not take place in my lifetime.
 
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