Israel Defense Forces soldiers operate in Gaza, Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israel Defense Forces soldiers operate in Gaza, Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Families of IDF soldiers live with one big fear — and countless small ones

Three months into Israel’s war with Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces finally offered some good news. A few thousand reservists would be withdrawing from Gaza and returning to life as civilians, at least for a while. Many will be called back into service in the coming months if the war continues or intensifies.

In the circles I keep — many of us are the parents or spouses of combat soldiers — there was quiet rejoicing for the soon-to-be reunited families. Some no longer had to fear the dreaded knock on the door from uniformed strangers sent to announce the death of their loved one. Parents of more than one combat soldier can now rest just a little easier knowing that one of their sons or daughters is safe at home.

For others, like us, the insomnia and the fear of that knock on the door continues.

In between the moments of worry, I imagine the day our 21-year-old son comes home safe and sound in mind, body and spirit. An armored personnel carrier mechanic and driver, he was scheduled to complete his military service on Oct. 12 but was instead drafted into the reserves in Gaza. His twin brother completed his service in August and hasn’t been called back so far.

We are not naive. Every soldier, and especially any combat soldier, taking part in Israel’s war with Hamas will emerge changed. Many have experienced trauma, and even those who haven’t will find it jarring to be a soldier one day and a civilian the next.

Israeli universities, which started their delayed first semester on Dec. 31, acknowledge the challenges faced by reservists.

At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, curricula have been adapted, course content is being streamlined and recorded, and reservists will be able to take a lighter course load.

Professor Chaim Hames, rector of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that students coming almost straight from the battlefield are dealing with complex feelings. So, too, are the students from the Gaza border communities whose lives were upended by the Oct. 7 massacre.

Nearly 100 members of the Ben-Gurion community, including students, faculty, staff or their immediate family members, were murdered on Oct. 7 or killed in combat.

The university has introduced systems that allow students who need emergency assistance to speak to a mental health professional and to take time off before they come back to study.

“We’re encouraging students not to postpone their studies for an additional year,” Hames said. “Getting into a sort of routine is good for your mental health.”

Danny Brom, a clinical psychologist and founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma and a member of our tight-knit south Jerusalem community, told me that not every soldier or civilian in Israel will experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Every soldier taking part in Israel’s war with Hamas will emerge changed.

“There’s the myth that everyone needs treatment. That’s not true,” Brom said. “Being in survival mode is not psychopathology. Rather, it’s the mechanism for our brains and bodies to function during difficult times. I’ve worked with Holocaust survivors and not all needed treatment.”

Even so, the adrenaline that keeps combat soldiers alert and alive continues to pump even after they come home. And that can be problematic.

“Adrenaline is a wonderful ‘drug,’ but you get used to it,” Brom told me. “It’s why you hear a lot of angry outbursts” once the soldiers are demobilized. “They don’t know what to do with themselves.” While even under the best circumstances reservists and regular soldiers need time to ease themselves back into civilian life, the knowledge that they can be called back at any time due to the Hamas war or an intensification of fighting with Hezbollah will make that transition much more difficult.

I spoke to 26-year-old Avi, who had been serving in a top unit in Gaza just three days earlier. He is storing — but not returning — his helmet, vest, gun and tactical uniform at his base. He knows he can be called up again.

During a short goodbye ceremony at his base, everyone acknowledged that “it’s not over,” he told me. “Everyone knew that we’re getting back to regular life, but not really. You really can’t commit to something very big when you don’t know when they’ll call you back.”

A fledgling artist, Avi had started a business not long before Hamas attacked Israel. He had a few paid commissions and more on the way.

“I had to put those completely to the side,” he said. “I’m going to start some new projects knowing I will probably have to put them aside again.” For him, the priority is winning the war and keeping Israel safe. Two of his close friends have been killed in combat.

During the long days and nights in Gaza, Avi said, he had a realization that he was where he needed to be and where Israel needed him most.

Avi and his buddies feel a sense of urgency these days. They are planning a short vacation the week after they are released.

“You don’t want to delay the fun. Otherwise it might not happen,” he said.

We pray that our twin sons, who spent the past three years in uniform, will get to have some fun together too. We pray that they can take the post-army trip they’ve dreamed of.

Because we never know what tomorrow will bring.

Michele Chabin (Photo/Courtesy)
Michele Chabin

Michele Chabin is a freelance journalist based in Israel.