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Making a connection to those who defend us
October 19th, 2001
Last summer, one of my favorite possessions, a cap from the U.S.S. Belknap, the command ship of the Sixth Fleet, flew off my head during a twilight boat ride on a lake in Maine. Shrieking, I had my sister-in-law turn the speed boat around, and we searched until we found the black hat bobbing in the darkening water.
Until now, my hat was just a cool thing to own. Given to me in Israel by an officer of the ship whom my family hosted as part of a reciprocal visitation program, it was the envy of many of my kibbutz friends — as cool an object to them as to me.
That hat has taken on a new meaning in the last few weeks since America’s war against terror began. I look at my hat in a new way, thinking about the servicemen and women aboard that ship and others as I do so. I don’t know anything about them or their families, and that’s a strange feeling.
Until I moved to Israel, I had the typical American Jewish experience of not knowing anyone in active service. But that changed overnight in Israel, where almost everyone is, lives with or knows a soldier.
There’s Omer, the son of my neighbor, grinning rakishly as he walks down the path to his home for a Shabbat furlough, paratrooper’s beret slapped on his head for eema’s benefit as he nears the door. It seems only yesterday that a 12-year-old Omer stood on my doorstep, shyly asking if I would please speak only English to him so that he could get a better grade in school. I can still hear him throwing the best of American slang my way while promising to drop by before he returns to his base.
There’s Joe, the American immigrant and father of three, equally shy, who startled me one day during a run in the fields, determined to tell me the location of leaky sprinkler valves that runners could drink from or cool off in. Joe left for reserve duty shortly after the birth of his third child, and never returned. May he rest in peace.
There’s Geula, of blessed memory, the concentration camp survivor, whose two sons died in Israel’s wars. A hard-working pioneer, she rarely spoke of her loss.
In Israel, I knew the people who protected me and my family. I knew their lives and hopes, motivations and fears. I knew the hardships their families suffered during their absences. Like all Israelis, I worried about their coming and going, and every fatality was a fatality that hit home.
Here I don’t know the people who protect me. I wish I did. They seem the antithesis of every negative stereotype attributed to the generations following Tom Brokaw’s “the Greatest”: the boomers, Generation X, Generation J (the Jewish equivalent of X) and the new young and wired Generation Y (the children of boomers).
As a citizen of a country unthreatened on its own soil for most of my lifetime, I’d like to hear why those who serve the U.S. choose to do so, or stay in a voluntary army long after the years they’ve signed up for are over. I think I know what they’ll say (it’s definitely not the pay), but I know it’ll do me good to hear them say it anyway.
I also know American servicemen and women have spouses, parents, sons and daughters, siblings and friends. I wish I knew these people too, so that I could try to help ease the pain of absence, as everyone does in Israel.
I’m grateful to our American servicemen and women. I felt the same way about them in Israel during the Gulf War, when they entered Iraq. For now I express that gratitude mainly through thought and prayer. I pray for their safety and their courage. I pray they will all return home.
Surprisingly, I also find myself writing letters with my children to an address we saw on television for letters to “Any Service Member.” We generally don’t respond to requests from or polls conducted on television. Who has the time?
Now, we’re making time. Because even if we don’t know those who are protecting us, we believe it’s important they know how much their service means to us and that we do not take them for granted. I doubt I’ll ever put my black cap on again without thinking twice about the person who gave it to me, the family he left behind in Baltimore and the many others like him who risk their lives for ours. May they go from strength to strength.