The lone soldier
Americans travel from afar to defend the Israeli ally in democracy
Earlier this week, an estimated 20,000 Israelis gathered in Haifa for the funeral of a 21-year-old from South Padre Island, Texas, who had come to Israel, joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and died in fierce fighting in Gaza. Sean Carmeli was what the Israelis call a “lone soldier.” A lone soldier is defined by the Israeli government as a young man or woman without parents or family in Israel who joins the army to help defend the Israeli state. There are several thousand lone soldiers serving in the Israeli army at any given time, and about 35 percent of them are from the United States. Carmeli and another lone soldier, 24-year-old Max Steinberg of Los Angeles, were among the early casualties in the current conflict with Hamas fighters on the Gaza Strip.
Like most Americans, I had never heard of lone soldiers, but I met several last year during a trip to Israel. They come from all over: I met young soldiers from the United Kingdom, Sweden and New Jersey, who had all left their homes and family to join the IDF. Their stories were all pretty much the same and reminded me of stories I’d read of Americans who fought with the French and British in World War I before their own country entered the war.
They’re called lone soldiers because they are alone in Israel, having left their families in London, Stockholm or Jersey City to travel to a foreign country to serve. Some are dual citizens, and others had made a decision to become permanent Israeli citizens before signing up, but I was told that a few aren’t even Jewish. They view their service as essential to the survival of the Jewish state, and share a dedication to the need to defend Israel. They tend to end up in elite IDF units and bond with each other. Steinberg, for example, was a sharpshooter in the IDF’s elite Golani Brigade.
I asked those I met if they ever get a chance to visit their parents and families. Some parents travel to Israel to see them when they are on leave, and after their first year of service, they are granted a month’s leave so they can go back to their native countries to see families and friends. The soldier I met from New Jersey said he went back and was happy to see his family, but somewhat disappointed when he got together with his old high school friends to hang out.
“It was hard to identify with them anymore,” he told me. “They seemed more interested in things that I now think trivial than in the sorts of things that I’m doing.” None of them really understood or appreciated why he had decided to risk everything by actually volunteering to help defend the people of a foreign country against a brutal enemy. He said it was a decision he had difficulty explaining, even to his Jewish friends, but it was one of which he was proud.
Many American young people these days manage to extend their adolescence into their 20s, so it was easy to see why this young man who had chosen a different path and literally been forced to grow up had little in common with his former classmates. He would, one suspects, have been more comfortable sharing his experiences with young American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The IDF does all it can to make life easier for its lone soldiers, because the Israelis know how difficult and lonely being so far away from home can be. Private groups join in and virtually adopt them while they are in Israel and help them when they finish their service should they decide to stay and make their home there.
There are young men and women who are IDF lone soldiers at home in the United States right now who are anxiously trying to get back to Israel to rejoin their units. Many will stay in Israel, but others, knowing they have done what they can to help that tiny, but important nation survive will return to this country as veterans of a war they could have avoided. That they chose instead to volunteer, travel alone to a faraway nation, and risk their lives on behalf of the only democratic state in the Middle East says a lot about them, their dedication and their courage. It’s no wonder so many Israelis showed up to honor the young man from Texas.