INN: An Israeli Soldier's Story by Fred Taub 6/6/2006
His nickname is "Itchy", which some people may guess he received after leaving home in Cleveland, Ohio, to join the Israel Defense Forces.
Perhaps because of a proverbial "itchy trigger finger" many people think all soldiers have, but it has actually been Ya'akov's nickname all his life, and his IDF service exemplifies the professionalism he and his fellow soldiers exhibit.
What makes Itchy different from most other Israeli soldiers is that while most Orthodox Jews who join the IDF come from a strongly Zionist family, Itchy's family "wears black hats"; thus, not the typical family whose kids people expect to join the IDF.
"I wanted to do it since I was a kid," he said. "The opportunity struck at a certain time, so I grabbed it. I was learning in the yeshiva in Waterbury, Connecticut, when my brother-in-law mentioned an IDF religious unit to me. I decided I was old enough to do it and I was ready to join. I did not give it much thought. I made the decision to join and that was it."
Itchy joined the Nachal Chareidi – an all-religious battalion: "This is the unit I wanted to be in because it's an uncompromising religious unit. I had the chance to grow and practice religion too."
Just because they take extra time to pray and study the Talmud does not make them a lesser unit in the eyes of other soldiers. In fact, it is the opposite: "We regularly compete against non-religious units and we come out on top. There are no girls in the unit and the unit is highly praised by generals. People come to me on the streets and see my insignia, and say 'Kol hakavod.' One of the best parts of our unit is that rabbis are there all the time to answer Halachic questions and soldier's wives can visit the base. They [the IDF] understand the needs of the religious soldiers."
While the unit is primarily comprised of Israeli-born soldiers, people come from all over the world - including from the US, France, Australia and South America - to join the brigade.
"I spoke basic Hebrew when I came, and my Hebrew got better in the army," Itchy said. "At first I walked around the streets in a uniform with a gun, but I couldn't even give people directions. There were challenges every day because I was an American. Learning the language was the hardest part, but I picked it up after a few weeks. This was my first time in Israel, but I fit in perfectly after a while."
Studying long hours in yeshivas all his life, being strong-willed and decisive has paid off. After just nine months in the army, Itchy is a squad leader, in charge of his unit when no officers are around, and will soon be going to the IDF's officer training school.
"Army life is not all fun and games. Training is rough and you really have to want to be there," he said. "It is a matter of will. Sometimes, the scrawniest kids make it and the toughest guys don't. You have to want to be there.
"One day I was on a jeep patrol, checking things out, and we decided to stop to pick up lunch at one of the checkpoints where our unit was set up. There were about 30 Palestinian cars in line at the checkpoint when we left to go back to our base for a shift change. Suddenly, over the radio, we heard there was a terrorist attack at the checkpoint we just left. After five minutes, the commander announced on the radio that the incident was cleared."
As it turned out, an officer at the checkpoint noticed a Palestinian man wearing a big coat on a hot day and carrying a larger than usual stomach. The man looked "overall suspicious", Itchy explained.
The officer on-scene screamed, "Stop!" to the man in the suspicious jacket. Upon hearing this, all the soldiers went into heightened alert. The Palestinian tried to explain that the wire hanging out from his shirt was from a TV remote control, which only made the Israeli soldiers more suspicious, to say the least. A command was given. The IDF soldiers pointed their guns at the suspicious Palestinian man. The officer said, "If you move one inch, we will blast you down."
The man was ordered to back up away from the checkpoint and away from everyone. From a safe distance, he was ordered to remove his coat, which revealed a fully loaded suicide bomb vest. He was then ordered to strip down to his underwear, just in case there was a second bomb. The would-be suicide bomber was taken into custody and everyone was safe.
Itchy had been at the checkpoint just moments before, where IDF soldiers check cars and IDs with the utmost respect for Palestinians, even when they know any one of them may be wearing a suicide belt:
We treat everyone like humans. We don't touch anything in cars. We show respect. They move things if we want to see things we are not allowed to touch. We stand behind them as they move things for us. If we suspect something is wrong, we check with metal detectors, and if something is wrong, we go up the command chain for permission to search further. We ask for everything and only touch something if something is very not right.The procedures they follow obviously work well.
These soldiers saved countless lives by preventing a suicide bomber from striking his target somewhere in central Israel, but they did not celebrate, as most people would have expected: "We were not scared and we acted better than people expect because we have good training and good officers in control. There were no high-fives. We did not win a football game. We did our job and we are ready to do it again. There was no party and that's the way it should be."
Somewhere in Israel, families are continuing to have birthday parties thanks to the bravery of soldiers like Itchy and his battalion who catch would-be terrorists. The soldiers on the front lines in the war on terror in Israel, Iraq, the US and everywhere else in the world all deserve our respect and appreciation. The next time you see a soldier, take a moment to look that brave man or woman in the eye and simply say, "Thank you," because that soldier, unbeknownst to you, may have already saved your life.