A Fish Out of Water

By Arye Dobuler

I began my studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008 after a seven year hiatus from high-school. During that period I served in a combat reconnaissance unit, volunteered in the US as a youth coordinator in Great Neck, New York, for the Jewish Agency, and managed a pizza shop.  So hitting the books again, listening to lectures, giving in papers and taking tests were not an easy transition for me. This new stage in my life was complicated even further by a three-week stint of army reserve duty on the Golan Heights smack dab in the middle of the semester. It took me a while to get back into the groove of things but as the last month of my first semester of university drew to a close, I was pretty sure I had a good handle on the material and was confident that I would do well.

   It was near the end of December and I had spent Shabbat by my parents’ house in Beit-El. My friend Alexis was just wrapping up her Birthright trip and we were scheduled to meet the next day. It would be the first time in eight years that we saw each other and we were both really excited. We had met and become close friends during three consecutive summers that I had worked in a camp in Atlanta, Georgia. Amazingly we had maintained a very close friendship over the years via the phone and skype. She had extended her trip a week just to spend time with me.

   So after Shabbat ended and my cell rang with her number on the screen, I was naturally surprised when I picked up and heard her crying hysterically.

   “Lexie, please calm down. What’s the matter?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

   “The army will draft you and I won’t get to see you!” she replied with loud heart wrenching sobs.

   I knew what she was referring to, especially after I had calmed the same fears voiced by my parents that very afternoon.

The whole Southern front with Gaza had been heating up for months with thousands of rockets and mortars being fired at Israeli civilians. The government had finally had enough and it seemed like things were gearing towards a major operation that would eventually include a ground invasion. Plus of course there was the desire to rescue Gilad Shalit, a young IDF soldier who had been kidnapped in June 2006.

   “Don’t worry,” I explained gently. “I really don’t think that I will be called up. I just finished three weeks of reserves and this won’t escalate into an all out war. The army has plenty of other soldiers you know, they don’t need me.”

  I heard the sobbing subsiding and Alexis sniffled, “I guess you’re right.” Then, trying to sound more optimistic she added, “So where are we going tomorrow? You want to just meet up for dessert or have dinner?”

   Before I could respond, I heard a call waiting tone, and I asked her to wait a moment. I switched to the other call and heard: “This is an automated message from your reserve unit. Please input your personal I.D. number for verification.”

   I was stunned, and thought that perhaps this was just a cautionary drill to test the phone systems. I pressed in my code and held my breath as the stilted female voice continued, “This is not a drill. This is not a drill. Report to your emergency assembly points in four hours. This is an emergency call up order.” The words echoed in my aching head as I switched back to Alexis.

   “Who was it?” she asked suspiciously.

   For a moment I was speechless, a thousand thoughts running through my head. A mental checklist of all the things I would need to grab and pack already forming in my mind. “Lexie, sweetie I’m so sorry. I’ve been called up. Maybe it’ll be over in a few days and I’ll still be able to see you.” I wanted very much to believe that myself.

    I heard a sharp intake of breath and the crying resumed, softer this time and somehow with more sadness. “Just promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

   My mouth felt very dry. “I’m so sorry. I have to go get ready. I’ll call when I can.” I hung up and slowly walked towards the staircase leading downstairs to where both my parents were. As I walked down, I saw my dad typing away at the computer keyboard and my mom near him reading a book. I dreaded what I needed to say. I cleared my throat and said quietly, “Abba, Ima, I have to go. I was called up.”

   Shocked silence was the only response for a moment. Then my dad stood up and hugged me. My mom just buried her head in her hands and wept, and all I could do was stand there awkwardly, my throat constricted. This was my third emergency call up and I was only 25. My history with the army was loaded. I had been injured by a bullet through my left arm in a gunfight in an Arab village in the Southern Hebron hills during my regular army service. I returned to my unit a month later. In 2006, a year after my release from the army, I got my first emergency summons and went to fight in Lebanon. The second call up was classified. Now here I was with a third one. My heart hammered with a mix of adrenaline and dread. The scars on my left arm felt strangely itchy and tingly. This was happening again!

   The clock on the wall showed 12:14 AM. There were no busses at that hour so I asked my father to drive me to Jerusalem. I quickly got into uniform, laced up my red boots and packed whatever gear I had into a green duffel bag. I gave my mother a big hug and kiss and told her it would be alright. She just whispered, “Please be safe.”

   The drive into Jerusalem was very quiet, neither my father nor I breaking the thundering silence. What could we say? I tried very hard to keep positive. Maybe the threat of invasion would cause Hamas in Gaza to stop firing and back down. Maybe we wouldn’t need to go in after all. Maybe I would be home in a few days. Maybe…

   My dad pulled up to the curb near the assembly courtyard not far from the northern entrance of the capital. Hundreds of other reservists were pouring in. I recognized a few drawn faces that turned my way. My father and I both stepped out of the car and he wrapped me in a bear hug. “Be well. Stay safe. May God watch over you. I love you and I’m very proud of you.”

   “Thanks Abba. I love you too. Please tell Ima not to worry. I’ll be in touch when I can. Hopefully this will be over soon and everyone will return safely.”

I gathered my duffel and went to join the others queuing in line to sign in that they were present. After I registered, I was ushered onto a waiting bus and when it was full the driver shut the doors and drove off heading north. My unit specializes in the Golan area and I assumed like the rest of the men that we were being sent up to deter Syria from possibly getting involved when things commenced down south. When we arrived at the supply base, we signed on for our weapons and combat equipment. Sergeants and officers were directing the flow of men and trying to organize everyone into their respective companies, platoons and squads.

   After eating a quick breakfast, we headed down to the firing ranges to zero in our rifle sights. Rumors ran rampant about what, if any, roles we might play in the coming days, and how long this conflict might last. Everyone had an “inside source” but of course it was all nonsense. No one except perhaps the battalion commander and upwards knew where we were headed.

   Wild speculation continued until late that Sunday night, as everyone gathered around empty barrels that had been filled with wood and lit to keep the men warm. That’s when our captain came out and told us to gather our gear. We were going south to train and prepare to join the invasion force. The men hustled and soon we were headed south. Those that were smart and able slept, but my mind just kept flashing through scenarios and working out possible tactical situations that might arise.

   When we arrived at the desert base down south not far from the Gaza border, we were all exhausted. The officers showed us where to stow our gear and showed us the tents that would be our homes for the duration of our stay there. We all crashed into the narrow canvas army cots and fell asleep. It would be the last night of ‘good’ sleep for a while. From the moment we woke up early Monday until Friday afternoon, we engaged in various battle drills and close-quarter combat refresher courses. Navigation, equipment and weapon proficiency tests were thrown in as well. Our cell-phones were collected by army intelligence so no one could give any critical info that might somehow be leaked to the enemy. Before I gave mine up, I called my parents and Alexis, who was leaving that Sunday. I told them that I would not be able to be in touch for a while, that I thought of them frequently and I hoped to return home soon. They responded with profuse well wishes and tearful prayers.

    By Friday evening we were part of the land blockade around Gaza and awaiting orders to cross the border. The weekend passed tensely and with utter dullness; the calm before the storm. We watched as rockets from Gaza repeatedly arced into the air, trailed thin streams of dirty white smoke, flew over our heads and exploded several kilometers into the rear. Each time our teeth clenched and we prayed no one was hurt. IAF planes overhead flew sorties and struck terrorist positions and headquarters.

   We watched and we waited. Each of us caught up in our own thoughts and private inner turmoil. The time passed agonizingly slowly. During a final briefing by the battalion colonel, we received word that regular army infantry units had just crossed the border. Our turn was rapidly approaching. A sleepless Saturday night followed, and most of us just gazed at the flashes across the razor wire fences of the border.

   “Form out. Check your gear. Let’s go!” shouted our company commander at around 3:30 a.m., in the darkness of Sunday morning, the 4th of January.

   My heart raced and I stretched my cold, cramped and fatigued body. I remember thinking that it was so strange, as we stood in the desert to be so cold. The nights were freezing nightmares and the days were only slightly better. It was an unusual cold spell that we were not properly prepared for; just another added discomfort. But those thoughts were pushed aside the moment I fell into place in my column as it started crossing through the gateway and into the barren no-mans land beyond. I checked to make sure all the soldiers in my squad were accounted for. Satisfied, I concentrated on what lay ahead. As I stepped across the border, towards the distant outskirts of the northern Gaza community of Beit-Hanoun, a deeper feeling of icy cold gripped my heart. The safe embrace of Israel was gone and I was once again on enemy territory.

   For the next eighteen days my unit and I fought through Beit Hanoun and beyond into Beit Layhia. We encountered mortar fire, snipers, booby traps and sporadic gunfire unleashed from Hamas militia hiding in tunnels and windows. The fighting was close-quarters and terrifying, but it would take too long to fully detail here. Suffice it to say, that I considered Gaza to be hell on earth.

All of us just wanted to accomplish the mission and return to our lives. This thought was hammered home when, hunkered in a house for shelter, I came upon one of my fellow staff sergeants, a burly tattoo artist whose arms were covered with twisting and snarling dragons. He was a real tough guy and an excellent soldier. As I came near I noticed that he was crying. For a second I stood awkwardly, not knowing if I should retreat and leave him be, or try to find out what was wrong. This is not the kind of man you expect to see crying. The dilemma was solved when he noticed me and in a choked voice said, “I really miss my wife and kids. I just want to see them.” For some reason, that to me was incredibly touching. I just silently patted him on the shoulder and moved on to check with the other soldiers.

   On the morning of Wednesday the 21st, we were told that a ceasefire had been agreed upon. All around, the gunfire and explosions were dying down.

   The intelligence officer notifying us probably expected to see relief in our weary faces and hear cheers of happiness. But all that he saw were tears in some soldiers’ eyes and angry determination in others. I was among the latter. We had not finished our mission. Shalit had not been rescued and Hamas had not been overthrown. No one wanted to stay, and all yearned for home, but we were willing to stay and fight. That however, was not up to us. Within hours we were pulled out and packed into buses for the nearly four-hour ride up north to the supply base where we returned our weapons and combat gear. I made a round of phone calls to notify friends and family that I was safe and coming home. Unfortunately, Alexis had already left the country and so I would email her that I was safe when I got back home. After the calls, those of us returning to Jerusalem boarded buses once again and settled in for the ride home.

    I remember stepping off the bus by the central bus station. It was 2 a.m. Thursday morning and I was in a filthy uniform and nearly falling off my feet from extreme exhaustion. I couldn’t think properly and all I wanted was to go to sleep. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house so I hailed a cab to my dorm room on Har Hatzofim. When I got there, I collapsed into bed and fell into a fitful sleep, echoes and images of the battles flooding my mind.

   I awoke at around 10 a.m. and groggily stood to take a long well-needed shower. The accumulated grime of the past few weeks washed off in a small river of black. When I was done I made the regrettable choice of going to class. There was only a week left to the semester and my brain was so addled, I could hardly remember what we were studying. I had missed in total almost seven weeks of my first semester due to army service, and I was now feeling terribly pressured about the impending finals.

   Sitting in class, after receiving many warm greetings, I couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong. I didn’t feel like I belonged. Life had continued as usual while the war was raging and even now people spoke about trivial things and smiled as if nothing had happened, while I was still hearing gunfire and feeling shockwaves of explosions.

   Thank G-d, no one in my unit had been killed, but about half a dozen were wounded. I could still vividly hear the cries for a medic after Roee took two bullets to the lower stomach when we were clearing out our first house. What was I thinking coming back now to a place that felt like la-la land? I looked down at my trigger finger on my right hand and saw the small callous that lay between the first and second digits. It was so alien in this academic environment. I felt disoriented and silently struggled to breathe. My brothers-in-arms were still in hospitals and I…I was a fish out of water.

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Filed under Issue 6: Creative Non-Fiction, Short Story

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