More than just Numbers / by Sophie Schor

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I just covered 384km in 12 hours to sit at an army base where 387 soldiers, now officers, and 21 women, now officers, stood for 3 hours in 36 degree heat. They paraded around the yard. Left. Right. Left. 

My cousin just finished his officers course in the army, and I hitched a ride with the family to the base down near Mitzpe Ramon, aka the Deep South, far from any semblance of urban life and surrounded by desert.

We estimated that there were about 4,000 people there. Families came from all over the country, many carrying coolers full of food to share with their sons (and 21 daughters). Many families were wearing matching shirts; some homemade, some professionally done, with the name of their soldier next to a photo of him in army fatigues holding a huge gun. "We salute you our officer," was written across the back of one shirt. There were a few families of women wearing hijabs—Bedouin or Druze. My cousin's girlfriend shared with me that she loves how the army is a melting pot, everyone is a part of it. 

The ceremony lasted hours, marching, standing alert, standing at rest, saluting head officers, saluting at nothing, standing. (All to the tune of the army band which added an air of circus excitement to the whole affair).

My cousin finished the course as one of the top soldiers. His name was called, to our family's surprise, and he jogged out from the pack to stand in a line at the front. The Head Commander of the Armed forces saluted him personally. My mom equated the ceremony with Harvard graduation with my cousin in the Magna Cum Laude. In this militarized society, his social capital just went way up; the world of start ups, tech jobs, and politics is open to him.

Pride. 

And confusion. 

I share this post apprehensively, wrestling with my own personal discomfort at this system we're trapped in here in this country, and with my pride for my cousin who has accomplished something impressive. I stared out across the yard at the unknown faces and felt my stomach drop. It felt like a presentation of all those who will suffer in the next operation—because there will be another. Quiet never lasts for too long here. All these young faces, their serious expressions breaking to beam at their family members, who knows what will happen to them next?  Soldiers are not just a blur of faces—they are individuals with hopes, dreams, frustrations, families, favorite songs, girlfriends, boyfriends, inside jokes, restless nights, early mornings, sweet smiles and loving hugs. And most of them are 22 or younger.

As I hugged him goodbye, he told me he was glad that I came and could see it from another side. To see the people behind the army. "It's all for the good," he told me. 

My heart broke hearing him say that. I remember last summer, when he was serving in Gaza and I couldn't focus in class or remember what groceries I needed to buy as I worried for his own safety and watched the death toll tick higher. I have a hard time calling last summer "for the good" for anyone. 

Yet, in his world, what he is doing is all for the good. I remember as we drove him back home after he left Gaza. He shared how as he was with his troop on their way to Gaza, their bus drove right past the kibbutz where our family lives. He shared how at that moment, he knew he was going into Gaza for a reason. To protect his family. To make the rockets that threatened their lives stop. To prevent any underground sneak attacks from tunnels. He felt at that moment that what they were doing was right. 

And guess where his appointment as a new officer is taking him? To Gaza. 

I sat talking with his friend's father tonight, and we tried to find the words to describe our new officer. Pure. A big heart. Innocent. Kind. The father shared how when he was an officer leading a troop in Jenin in the West Bank, he had a hard time trying to convince one of his soldiers to go to the territories. He took him out for coffee to convince him that they had similar politics and were both against the occupation. "But we have to go, so I need you to help me do it in a way that's different." I asked him how they did it differently, and he said to lead an example at the checkpoints and treat people with dignity. They can't get rid of the checkpoints, he said, but they can still try to do the best they can.

16 months, 70 weeks, 486 days, 11,664 hours until my cousin is released from his service. March 17, 2016. It can't come soon enough.