One year ago I was sitting in the living room of my apartment with my friend Rebecca, just casually studying for the final exam of my BA. We had the news on in the background and our eyes were constantly shifting from the stacks of notes on the table to the constant alerts of rocket fire and sirens wailing. I knew it was just a matter of time before the residents of Tel Aviv would get to sample the experience of running for shelter, but at that moment I remember looking forward to it, like it was some sort of attraction, something to make life more interesting. Because after all, I had just joked with Rebecca – I would never be drafted; it was an impossibility.
My head and my heart kept wandering to my family in the south; how were they? Was yet another round of violence destroying any semblance of normalcy they had retained? That’s when I remember seeing the news that tens of thousands of reservists were being drafted. I looked at Rebecca and gave off a nervous chuckle. Things were getting real very quickly, but come on, this is the same thing that happened during Pillar of Defense. They drafted thousands, including my friends, who ended up sitting on the border for two weeks just training. Call it climax-less suspense, a true feeling of powerlessness.
I peeked back at the TV, and that’s when my phone rang; it was sitting on the couch. I ran over to grab it and answered. Something very strange happened, a truly surreal moment that I cant quite describe. A robotic voice spoke into the line, quickly followed by the voice of a young woman in an almost inaudible voice telling me my unit had been activated under emergency protocols and that I had to reach my emergency meeting point immediately.
It’s highly probable that my face went pale in that moment, I’m not really sure – I’d have to ask Rebecca. I just wasn't expecting the call, but somewhere deep in my subconscious, I wanted it. As soon as I lifted my head and turned around I told Rebecca. She also had a fazed look on her face. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Yeah," I replied.
This was the moment I had mentally prepared for, and while the uncertainty and anxiety still clung to my face, I knew I had to go.
I made a bee-line for my bedroom, threw on my uniform, grabbed my "go" bag (its been packed since I was released in 2011), threw in every pair of socks and underwear I could find, closed the zipper, and I was ready – at least physically.
I dropped her off and drove away. As soon as I pulled away from her street, I started hearing the wail of that siren that we had become so accustomed to. A message immediately broke the radio broadcast: “Sirens in Tel Aviv.” People ran from their cars (myself included), and took cover under buildings. People were panicking, but it was over as soon as it started and I got back in the car and drove away.
At this point I began calming myself down and putting things into perspective. "Who knows," I thought, "maybe we won't even go in." I caught my breath, called my parents and broke the news to them. I could hear the anxiety in their voices, that this was the moment they had been praying to avoid for years. I tried to calm them down, giving them the same speech I had given myself, “Don’t worry, abba, everything will be all right.” Little did I know how drastically things would change for me.
Overwhelming ConfusionI finally reached our meeting point later that evening, parked my car, stepped out and grabbed my bag. As I began walking to the base’s gate, I remember a very sudden calm overwhelming me. I can't remember why, but it felt like all the stress I had experienced earlier was relieved; regardless of what I would do, I was in this. I felt that in this one moment a sliver of pride had cut through the thick air. I was called upon to defend my country; I would no longer be a passive bystander, dreading the news.
“So do you think this is the real deal?” everyone was wondering out loud. Pretty recently, I put up a picture of that night on Facebook with the caption “we had no clue.” The replies just confirmed what I already knew -- we really were clueless.
That night everyone went to sleep exhausted, lulled by a false sense of confidence that it wouldn't be that bad -- I remember the phrase “Gag Shavua” – meaning maximum one week and we go home. Boy, were we wrong.
Those first few days are kind of a blur to me; we spent them preparing our APCs (armored personnel carriers) for battle, loading equipment and talking with friends. It was hot – that I remember. But mostly I remember the unwavering uncertainty as the days passed and the feeling that we were going to make a difference began to dissipate. We just waited and waited some more.
Finally, about three or four days later, we got our marching orders, loaded our equipment onto trucks, and ourselves onto buses before heading off into the unknown.
Helmets and flak jacketsI remember driving into the darkness, finally reaching the area that was within immediate range of the rockets. The bus pulled over and the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. “Put on your helmets and flak jackets,” our commander said. I thought, "You got to be kidding." But he was serious, this was real.
In the middle of the night we arrived in an undisclosed location near Gaza and immediately the tension form the bus evolved into confusion. No one was quite sure where we were or what we were going to do.
As the minutes passed, a semblance of order began to form and we got specific orders and teamed up. I remember meeting my medics -- I’m an APC commander in a medical evacuation unit in reserves. We made our plans, and set up for the night.
That first night was crazy; we could hear and see the explosions in Gaza from afar, as we watched the rockets stream across the night sky towards our families. It was truly surreal.
Those first few days were equally crazy: Preparations, drills, setting up camp and moving camp filled our time. It got old really fast and I remember thinking, “This is exactly what my friend Gilad told me had happened when he was drafted in Pillar of Defense. In the end they just waited and eventually went home."
That was the prevailing theory among the unit. Although we were physically watching the air war from just a few miles away and taking the occasional rocket fire, our presence was just for show, we were leverage.
Then one night, after days of prep and training on how to properly evacuate multiple and severe injuries, we began hearing rumors that we were going in, rumors that were strengthened by media reports. Then at six PM, our officer told us to gather up and said it looked like we would make our move that night. He told us to call our families and tell them we would be out of touch. I think I can speak for everyone when I say our hearts began racing. My thoughts raced, “So maybe this is real, maybe we aren’t just for show.”
Tonight's the night
I remember calling my mom; it took me five minutes to dial because I wanted to be fully calm when I called her. I knew she was probably having a heart attack as is -- being thousands of miles away from me and not knowing what was happening. “Ima, I’m going to be out of touch, don’t ask questions. That’s all I can say.” For the first time, I think I heard someone’s heart drop on the phone -- she was audibly anxious.
We waited all night – awake with all our gear on, engines running as we saw the massive artillery and air strikes that were presumably in preparation for our entrance. At some point in the early morning, however, we were told our entrance had been delayed, and that we could go to sleep.
We were partially relieved, but also upset.
I remember as I laid out my sleeping bag on the roof of the APC, I looked up at the stars above and couldn’t calm down. The adrenaline was pumping and besides, the hum of drones and the howling of fighter jets constantly interrupted the tranquility of the stars. The lights from the hellfire missiles and rockets streaking overhead did little to help. At some point I began to count the little white lights streaming out of Gaza into the sky, like counting sheep but with Grad rockets.
When I did finally fall asleep it was only for a short while. We had to wake up and repeat the daily ritual: Brush your teeth, fold the sleeping bag, eat something and start drills for the day. I remember thinking that the randomness of it all seemed to overcome everyone’s attitudes, as if after that stressful night people had become more apathetic. We were surrounded by dozens of other large forces with tanks and APCs of various types.
Total chaosThat’s when it happened. We got the call and I called mom again to say goodbye. It felt more rehearsed this time and we got in our vehicles and began driving. I remember the drive towards the border, not actually believing it was happening. I remember the sand hitting my face as we drove through agricultural fields, the heat, the sweat, but also the satisfaction that we were moving on from our state of limbo -- we would no longer sit in the dust.
We finally got to our staging point. This was it; people were nervous but ready. We finished our last preparations, heard a few speeches, and got ready. Under the cover of darkness we began driving towards the border gate. If I thought the nights before were chaotic, I was wrong.
We drove for what felt like a long time, lights out, slowly creeping in. The first night was insane, nonstop artillery fire above us, tanks firing right next to us. It was a scene out of a movie, and the sky was caving in.
The next morning we all got up at around five or six AM, and heard the terrible news of the Golani tragedy in Shejaiya. It was a slap in the face, a real wake up moment, that if it hadn’t hit us yet -- this was the real deal.
That day marked the first true day of war for us; our war would last 42 days.
During that time, our unit saved several lives, treated many injured, and face the reality of death on several occasions. We also witnessed the immense scale of the war with every trip we made into the neighborhoods in Gaza, every mortar we took and every time we heard of a firefight with terrorists who popped out of the ground.
What remainsSome things are deeply embedded in my memory, like the time a mortar almost wiped out me and my officer Daniel, and the memory of leaping into action after the explosion, running out of blind instinct to where I heard the mortar hit. I wasn’t afraid, I felt untouchable -- like a Hollywood action star.
I reached the soldier whowas hit, cleared the area and helped a medic put a tourniquet above his wound. I yelled at the top of my lungs for a doctor and clearly remember seeing him approach. I remember screaming for help from the guys in my unit to put out the fires started by the mortars that were lapping at our feet, pulling the wounded soldier to safety while holding the IV bag, and watching him being shuttled away to a helicopter by my officer. It was truly one of many outer body experiences. It's in these moments that I realized how truly limitless our potential is - I was much stronger than I could ever imagine before.
The feeling of running to the APC to respond to a medical evacuation call is still in the back of my mind today too, that rush of immense adrenaline.
But honestly, the moment I most appreciate was a while after we left Gaza. We were still deployed in the area, and I had not seen my whole family since the operation started. We all received 48 hours furlough at home and my friends and I got a ride to the train station in Ashkelon. I got on a train and I remember the excitement was immense.
Not only had I not told anyone I was coming home, I lied and said I wasn’t. My father and siblings had just recently arrived in Israel and joined my mother. Then came that moment: I knocked on the door and my dad answered ….. his heart seemed to stop for a moment, his eyes glazed over and he grabbed me and started yelling as if he had won the lottery. My mom heard him yelling, turned around, and sprinted towards the door, literally jumping in the air. That moment felt amazing. I’m smiling as I write this because it was truly a moment I'll cherish forever.
With that being said, the whole affair was a learning experience. It took me a while to get back to normal. The first few days back I barely left the house. Every motorcycle screaming by sounded like an incoming mortar, and sometimes they still do.
I am telling my personal story not because it is unique – quite the contrary, it isn't – I am telling it because it's mine to own. This was my personal experience, the process I went through a year ago, and I am hopeful that other reservists and soldiers will share theirs as well.