It has been a crazy few months.
You might recall that in early October I found myself back at the base where I served. Going to see this generation of warriors and celebrate 35 years since the establishment of the unit was quite an experience.
I feel like these past few months have started a process of reconnecting with a deep part of myself I had shut away. With my unit and people I have not seen in almost 20 years.
And it has opened a door.
Where to begin.
At the unit celebration I was surprised to meet one of my former team members who is now a senior officer. I remember having some incredible conversations with him as we stood guard duty. How we helped each other slog through long wet marches, where each boot felt like it was getting sucked off by the cold wet mud. How we learned to engage in combat, to work together, to be a team.
And then my leg got busted, the ankle ligaments tore. and I left my team. And after I had surgery I never saw or heard from him or any of my team again.
I got my buddy’s number and we said we would meet for coffee.
But before we could meet, he was sent out of country for a few weeks.
While he was away, I got a call from my Disabled Support Officer asking me to come give a talk in honor of IDF and Terror Victim Recognition Day (sort of like Veteran’s day). She wanted me to give the talk to the Battalion staff, but due to a conflict with training she asked if I would be OK talking to the Commando Training Center and School staff – the Officers and NCOs responsible for training the new generation of the Commando Unit which includes SOG Maglan.
I was excited, and anxious, about telling them my story. But I knew it was important to share with them my experience. Not only as an IDF Disabled Veteran, but as a Lone Soldier. And of course, being someone who loves to teach, I saw it as an opportunity to include a bit of leadership and strategy theory.
I told them about my decision to join a spec-ops unit. How I understood that my team would become a quasi-family that would be with me for life.
I told of my time in service as a lone soldier. About my initial injury. About how I wasn’t able to run, so I would hop twice on my left leg and the quickly skip on my right, which couldn’t bear my full weight. About my need to deal with everything by myself – getting home after a route march and Lila Lavan (literally an all nighter to clean and take care of our equipment after the week of training) to take care of my own laundry, shopping. cooking, and bureaucracy like banks etc. without the family support that so many of them take for granted.
I spoke about my dealing with my injury and the need to travel and visit therapists and doctors alone with my quasi-fluent Hebrew. I told them about the need to see several different doctors just to learn that the surgeon who would eventually perform the operation on my ankle had a backlog and would only be able to get to me in about the six months.
I told them about spending those six month acting as operational support and working as a sniper and sniper/shooting instructor in the unit despite the deterioration in my leg.
I told them about the actual surgery. How the doctor looked me in the eye as I entered the operating room and told me that I would be up and running like an panther in 6 months. About the crazy experience on the operating table – where despite the anesthesia I felt electric shocks spasming through my leg as they pulled and worked to repair the two torn ligaments. How it surprised the doctors that I was able to feel anything. And how they needed to inject not one but two more shots just to dull the feeling enough so they could continue with the surgery.
I explained what it was like to be all alone in my room on Kibbutz with a cast that went up to my knee. That I didn’t have anyone to help me. How I went for a week without being able to get food for myself. About falling while trying to get to the bathroom.
How nobody from the military, my unit, or my team came to visit or check on me.
How alone I was.
How close I was to ending it all.
How they moved me into the old age home on the Kibbutz once they realized that I wasn’t able to take care of myself.
And I told them about the return to the doctor. About the complications with my cast. And how I had to run around on old rickety crutches to deal with the bureaucracy of the military to take care of everything by myself despite the incredible amount of pain in my foot.
I told them about the nurse removing the stitches and the burning pain it caused – and how I threw up all over the floor and almost passed out, just from taking out a few stitches.
I told about the diagnosis a month and a half later that I have CRPS and that I would not be retuning to the military and would most likely never be able to walk on my leg again.
I told them about the intense therapy that kept me in a state of extreme pain and exhaustion. The travel to and from therapy that exacerbated the pain. How I did not have a life – all I had was pain.
I told them how I was unable to see a future. And how dark a time that was. How much the pain destroyed even the slightest pleasure. How my life felt like it was no longer worth living.
I told them about the decision to take control of my life and start university only to find that the university was nowhere near handicapped accessible. How I took up the challenge of making the university deal with the lack of handicapped accessibility. About working to establish a community for myself, helping to establish the Bar-Ilan Acting Society and hosting people for Friday night meals at my apartment. And about my continued therapy while working on my BA and then my PhD.
I told them about my friends and apartment mates stepping up to help change the bloody bandages after I went through 3 different back operations – one to insert a constant epidural drip, one to implant a Spinal Cord Stimulator into my back, and one to replace the battery when it stopped working.
I told them about my family, and rebuilding my life while dealing with the spread of the CRPS up to my knee. How my wife had to change the bandages from yet another 2 back operations to replace the battery again and then when we decided to remove the stimulator because it was no longer doing enough.
I told them about the morning I woke to find that the CRPS had spread to my left leg and how I could not stand because my legs kept collapsing because of the excruciating burning pain.
And I told them that, despite the pain and the spread of the CRPS, I would not wish to go back and change my decision to move to Israel or to enlist. How my family and the friends who I now consider as family would not be a part of my life if I were to go back. How I do not know what my life would be, but it would not include in it the people who are there day in and day out to support me and let me know that I am loved.
As I was bringing the talk to a close, one of the officers walked out of the hall. I didn’t think anything of it until the Base Commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, got up and started to bring the evening to a close. He stood there with a pre-printed thank you plaque and apologized in the name of the unit for the fact that nobody staying in touch. And then he paused and waited.
I asked what we were waiting for, and he said someone was bringing something…
And then the young First Lieutenant came back in and handed something to the commander.
It was a pair of wings – the insignia given to those who complete SOG Maglan training. Wings I had not earned.
This young officer had left to remove the insignia from his own Madei Alef – his formal uniform- to give me.
The base commander looked at me and said that the officer felt I deserved the wings. That I should know that I am just as much a part of this family as someone who finished training.
I was shocked. I was speechless. I could barely breathe.
The officers and NCOs all came up to tell me how impactful my talk was and they asked how they can help their lone soldiers. They thanked me for including leadership theories and other academia to help them be better leaders for their soldiers.
The education officer told me she wants me to come back and give this and other talks about leadership and strategy. Something I will definitely do if given the opportunity.
A young lone soldier came up and thanked me for helping explain what it means to face military service without the support of family.
One of the officers, a Captain, bent down and said “I’ve been in the military for almost 4 years. This was the most important, impactful, and educational lecture I have heard in all that time.” And walked away before I could say thank you.
Not two days later I met my buddy for coffee. And it was amazing to reconnect. We got to talking about the small things – little reminders of what it was like back when we were on the team together. And then I got a message from another member of the team asking to meet. And we had coffee. And told more stories. They want me to meet the rest of the team. But those are stories for another time.
And the Disabled Support Officer has since reached out to ask that I come and give a similar talk to the young command course trainees and their officers.
I am so looking forward to that experience.
In the picture you see:
My red beret that we get when we finished Advanced Training.
My sniper pin (attached to the beret) received once I qualified as a sniper specialist.
My jump wings, received after completing jump school before Advanced Training.
The tag for my unit, which is now the symbol for the Battalion, received after we finished Basic Training.
And the SOG Maglan insignia wings given to me by the Maglan Training Team Officer at the Veteran Day talk.