Friday, March 4, 2011

Ilan Tokayer, 1985-2011

Tears and laughter remind me how far I am from so many people I care so much about. The missed weddings, the cheeky newborns. Life breaking upon the lonely surf of my army island.

The tears are not supposed to happen. Not when I am in the army, not when I am the one "putting my life on the line" or whatever a soldier's sacrifice is supposedly about.

So how could I accept, why should I believe, the rumor a friend passed my way this morning. "A fatal car accident in California. Ilan... yes, Ilan is gone."

Heavy silence in Ben Yehuda. Rumors. A world away, a world asleep. Rumors. Rumors I have no reason to accept. Rumors I don't want to.

Rumors that slowly, conversation by conversation, suggest that Ilan is really gone. I am not ready to mourn. Not for a friend I spoke to only five days ago, trading army stories, embarrassing wedding moments. Perceptive to a fault, intellectually curious like few I know. A friend waiting for me. No longer overseas, more than a world away. Miss ya so so much.

May Hashem comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Battle of the Parents

Your parents should not have to pay for your foolishness.

So ended the battle of the parents. A day long clash of loaded nerves and climactic phone calls between my once beloved lieutenant and I. At stake were a few days my officer initially gave me off to spend with my parents (visiting from overseas). Authority, trust and independence, though, were the real screws being turned in the eight hour drama that ensued.

Lone soldiers (IDF members whose immediate family live overseas) are entitled to at least four days leave once a year when their parents or siblings visit the country. It is a right rarely invoked, since most officers are all too happy to let lone soldiers under their command enjoy time off when their family visits. My commander tends to allow his soldiers the occasional evening off for weddings and such. Yet he has this way of granting approval that discourages my peers and I from making requests. Hence I was genuinely thankful when he honored my request to spend time with my visiting folks over a five day weekend.

Then the phone call came early Sunday morning. Return to base. A mistake was made, explained my commander, leaving too few soldiers to guard the base while everyone else is down south on navigation exercises. Since you are not training with us this week (I already had the necessary navigation exercises on my record from my previous unit), you are available to make up for the lapse and cover the kitchen and sentry tasks on base.

I was shocked that my time with my parents was getting dialed back so I could scrub dishes and keep watch on an empty courtyard. The casual way in which my commander left his instructions made it clear that we held very different views on the significance of a lone soldier’s family leave. From his perspective it is a treat, akin to the “holiday money” lone soldiers receive twice a year. My understanding is that a son spending a couple days with the family he has left thousands of miles behind in order to serve as a frontline soldier in the Israeli army is more like a right.

The lingering ill feelings between my commander and I over the fallout from course makim did not leave me eager to go rushing back to base in response to his phone call. My reluctance was also influenced by an event scheduled for later in the day, a symposium on Israeli advocacy organized by the family of Avi Schaefer that I was eager to attend together with my parents. So phone in hand, I prepared to do battle.

My first call to my new company commander proved fruitless. A quick buzz to the lady soldier in my unit tasked with assisting soldiers with such concerns was equally unhelpful. Unsure where to turn, I asked my host family on kibbutz. They suggested bringing in a truly special weapon: Zvika Levy.

Zvika Levy is the most well known advocate for lone soldiers in the IDF. For decades he has been helping lone soldiers make their way through army bureaucracy and handing out gifts at military ceremonies. My participation in Garin Tzabar means I have had little to do with Zvika. Yet I have met him a few times (he gave me a gift at my Swearing-In Ceremony!) and know he is especially well connected in the Paratroop Brigade. So well connected, in fact, I hesitated before speaking with him. Zvika typically makes his calls to colonels and majors, several ranks above mere lieutenants. The last thing I wanted was for my commander to get the impression that I was trying to go above his head and “outrank” him. Eventually, I called Zvika, made my concerns clear and asked him to make what inquiries he could that would not leave the wrong impressions.

Zvika proved as well connected, willing to help, and distracted as his reputation suggests. After our first conversation, I had to call him back a half dozen times over the afternoon to remind him of my case and check for updates. He assured me that he had the matter well in hand and there was no reason to worry. Until my commander struck back with a call of his own.

Why are you not back on base yet? Why have you not followed my orders? Neither of the questions that came barking from my cellphone were seeking an answer. The follow-up was not much more promising.

Who is your commander? You, I answered quickly. Then why have you been speaking to others, going behind my back and speaking to others when I and I alone am your commander?

My greatest fear in this whole battle of wills had been realized. My commander felt compromised. Disrespected. Robbed of authority. My lack of trust in him thrown on the wall for all to see. There was another side, however. And so I tried to explain myself.

With respect, sir, I spoke to others because as your soldier, I am not in a position to reason with you, my direct superior, when you give me an order that I have strong reason to believe is unfair, or at least overlooks my concerns. Particularly when the issue in question pertains to the rights of lone soldiers, the very person for me to turn to represent me and assist me is Zvika Levy, the most respected representative of lone soldiers in the IDF. Right?

The officer was in no mood to reason with me. Three hours from now you are on base. Click. (I realize there is no audible click with cellphones. Literary license!)

This terse conversation took place shortly after I arrived at the Avi Schaefer event. When the phone line went dead, I had time for a quick goodbye to my folks and a last run at the drinks table before running home to change. Midway through tying up boots and clipping on my belt, my lieutenant called again. “Your parents should not have to pay for your foolishness. Report first thing in the morning to base.”

The next day I reported to base, spent the day doing nothing at all and the following afternoon joined my unit down south for two nights of bruising navigation exercises. The navigation gave me ample time to reflect on the Sunday war of words. While I am sorry for souring the well with my officer, I have no regrets over the way I handled the matter. I realize I could have achieved a more advantageous outcome had I handled my case differently. Yet the way I pushed my case is a large part of the reason I needed to make the case to begin with. Some battles are not about winning and losing as much as bloodying the lip.


Bottom-line is I do not harbor any ill feelings towards my commanders for their roles in what happened this Sunday. Despite their insensitivity to a basic concern of lone soldiers, they are intelligent, well meaning young men whose commitment to the security of this state I deeply admire. The rub is that a gap exists between your average twenty-two year old officer’s knowledge of the challenges faced by lone soldiers.

Another rub is that I am far from the subservient, insecure soldier I was during the first eight months of my service. My time in the army, and the unpleasant experience with the officer from my past unit, has left me far more ready and willing to defend my own space and rights. If that means I have grown less Midwest polite and more Mideast assertive, than it simply means the army is leaving me more Israeli, as planned.