Like a lonely soldier, I know that I’ll never be alone

I focus on the sound of the march, hundreds of boots hitting the ground over and over. There is something comforting in its rhythm. Even four hours indoors, with 50% of body weight on the back plus stretchers filled with another 80 kg. From the weights that are passed from shoulder to shoulder, we all feel the comfort of our union. This is our final “mass” (march) that marks the end of our eight months of training as IDF combat intelligence soldiers. At dawn, we will finish our climb through the Jerusalem mountains and will be ceremoniously presented with matching badges, officially making us an operational unit. We had earned those badges through sweat, broken bones, ripped muscles, sprained ankles, frozen fingers, and much more. We already felt what it meant to be a unit.

We wore identical uniforms and boots, our hair tied back in an identical ponytail, eating identical rations for so long that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish myself from the group. I glance at my G-shock watch, it is also identical to the one on the wrist of all the other soldiers who march with me.

It’s around 2 in the morning, we still have a long time ahead of us and we are already starting to climb. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that one of my friends is about to slip, I grab her hand, “Yalla, you have this,” I whisper to her. She squeezes my hand in response. Last night we had joked that we had all developed a sixth sense in our ability to communicate. Each of us anticipating the other’s potential downfall and being there to prevent it from happening. I thought about how much truth there was in this, especially among us girls (being the minority in the unit and in combat in general). With just a glance we understand what others need in a way that you would never have imagined. The feeling that this kind of unity generates is difficult to put into words, but to me it sounds like the rhythm of our march. My commanders had said this would happen, but it is difficult to pin down exactly when it happened.

I look at my watch again, it’s only been 20 minutes but that’s not really what catches my eye. The date, July 24, 2021, is all I really focus on. I check twice, and then check a third time just to be sure. I hear my friend whisper to me that seconds don’t go by faster just because I’m checking every second. I look at her, roll my eyes, and smile, but really all I can think of is the date. Exactly a year ago I made aliyah, moved to Israel and officially made it my home. I think about how far I have come and how much it has changed.

Today I am officially a combat soldier, physically defending Israel whereas before it was only words. I remember the Model UN conference in Hong Kong, where I heard people demean Israel and I was the only advocate. Some of the people there were my friends, until he came to Israel. That lecture had made me feel lonely in a way that I couldn’t explain. Similarly, during the 2014 Hong Kong protests, when we saw a sign comparing Hong Kong to Gaza and Israel to China, I realized that I was the only one of my friends who could see something wrong with the analogy or at least the only one willing to talk. about. I also remembered that loneliness.

There was even the Jewish literature program I had attended in the US, which I loved parts of, but even among Jews I found few who shared my love for Israel and fewer who were willing to say it out loud. This felt even more lonely.

However, on a deeper level, I had felt most alone among my closest friends in high school, a group of elite triathletes who trained together for up to 30 hours a week. Between them, I had found a community and specifically joined a group of girls who, like me, believed that we could do anything we set our minds to. We train hard, we push ourselves and others, we cheer ourselves up and we push ourselves to beat the guys. While I was truly a part of that team, one of those girls in matching swim caps and triathlon suits, who seemingly supported each other no matter what. It could only be part of me.

Lone soldiers take a selfie with MK Ayelet Shaked (credit: TOMER NEUBERG / FLASH90)

Yes, we were all strong and independent feminists, however, as the only Jewish and the only Zionist in the group, I never felt that I could really be myself. I skipped meeting places for Shabbat dinners and tried to avoid talking about the IDF while my colleagues chatted endlessly about their college plans. There was nothing he could say that could explain the decisions he was making to them. I had found myself deeply alone in both my religion and my ideologies.

As my aliyah date approached, although I was sure of my decision, I remember wondering if I would feel less alone after making aliyah in a country where I knew few people, had no family, and struggled with the language. At home he had a team of girls with whom he shared many things and with whom he really enjoyed spending time, but he couldn’t help but hope that this would somehow fulfill that feeling of loneliness that was apparently present even among them. Now I was voluntarily heading to Israel, where I would be labeled a “lone soldier,” the name used for people like me, who come to Israel on their own to recruit.

From the day I wrote, to my relief, I saw how inaccurate the title was. Not that everything was always easy. I live with other “lonely” soldiers when I am off base and I miss my family and friends, but now I have found family among my fellow soldiers, who are strong and independent new athletic partners who are always there to cheer me on. The biggest difference between them and my housemates is that between them it’s all me.

While in some units the lone soldiers are unique in that they were the only ones who volunteered to be there, in a female combat unit all the girls volunteered to be there in the specific roles that perform. None of us had to be combat soldiers. We are all really here for the same reasons, a personal sense of duty to use all the skills we have to defend Israel. I have really found my teammates, my friends and my sisters in this group of strong and independent girls.

I traded in my shower cap for a combat helmet and my expat lifestyle for a place on earth and a sleeping bag. My Hebrew is improving. My swimming skills, less. But most importantly, I have learned what it means to come home and be accepted by all parts of me. I know, with these girls, I’ll never be alone.

The writer is a 19-year-old from Hong Kong. He made aliyah in July 2020 and enlisted in the IDF in November where he serves in Isuf Kravi’s Unit 595 on the Syrian border.

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