A Lone Soldier’s Story

By Eran Mordel

Georgia Tech Graduate and IDF Lone Soldier Eran Mordel

Almost all boys grow up on their parents’ stories, always curious to hear how their teenage years were. I grew up hearing about my dad’s years in the IDF and especially his time as a private in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and an officer and combat physician in the First Lebanon War in 1982.

For me, enlisting in the IDF was completely natural. All four of my grandparents survived the Holocaust. My parents were born in Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the late 1950s and made aliyah to Israel in the early 1970s. Both my parents and the rest of my family in Israel have served in the IDF. My brother served as a paramedic with Magen David Adom, Israel’s national ambulance service, and taught a course I later volunteered for.

Serving in a combat unit was especially important for me. I always hope for peaceful resolutions to conflict, but if that is not an option, I feel obligated to be on the front lines to protect Israel.

Operation Protective Edge began right as I was beginning a noncommissioned officer course for squad commanders. It was an overwhelming and devastating few weeks. We lost five guys from the double company I went in with — I am still trying to wrap my head around that. War is chaos, and I guess it opened my eyes in a way I couldn’t have expected.

My platoon was involved with a sniper shooting out of a U.N. shelter in Shijaiyah and in securing one of the most complicated tunnel networks penetrating Israel, where we found motorcycles, weapons and explosives.

I always appreciated but didn’t quite understand how critical international support and media shape Israel’s policies on the front lines. Decisions that influence the ability of the IDF to operate in Gaza are directly related to the conversations going on in the Israeli Cabinet, in the U.S. political arena, and, yes, on college campuses worldwide.

Beyond the big-players talk between Washington and Jerusalem are people far below in the midst of the conflict: the soldiers. My platoon came to base on the Sunday before we were deployed according to plan. We packed our bags for a week, as we were slated to have weekend leave the upcoming Friday. On that Wednesday, everything changed. I would not see home for six weeks, the entire operation.

My socks came from Canada, underwear from California and energy bars from all over the U.S. East Coast. I know because of the FIDF stickers on the boxes. Donors from halfway across the world helped me stay hygienic, fed and loved in the middle of the Negev’s heat on the line in Gaza.

The support I offered soldiers during Operations Cast Lead in 2009 and Pillar of Defense in 2012 came around full circle with me on the receiving end.

Perhaps the most calming pieces of the operation were the few minutes I managed to get my hands on a phone and call home to hear my parents and brother. For obvious reasons, their telling me that everything was going to be OK meant more than every commander’s reassurance. If they were calm, how could I not be?

Only afterward did they tell me about the under-the-radar support groups that FIDF convened on three occasions in Atlanta to keep the soldiers’ families together. These definitely kept my parents informed and surrounded by those who felt the same uneasiness about having their children in the line of fire.

I compare my four years at Georgia Tech, from age 18 to 22, with the coming-of-age experience my buddies I serve with are experiencing in the IDF. At Georgia Tech, I became independent, faced my first major dilemmas, discovered, explored and planned my career; this same maturity happens in Israel in a different context: the IDF. I’m fortunate to experience and learn from both.

In the same way that Georgia Tech provided me with options for student life, a clinic and other student services, the IDF provides services and lifestyle options for soldiers. Unlike a university, however, the IDF does not have endowments and allocations to build recreational centers and places of worship or fund large-scale events for soldiers. FIDF is a major player for that reason.

In my short tenure here, I have been fed by countless FIDF barbecues, been hosted by donors for Friday night dinners and met other lone soldiers through FIDF functions off base. On base, I have prayed in Hebron in a caravan synagogue donated through FIDF — religious soldiers would not have been able to pray otherwise — and had my teeth checked by a dentist in an FIDF-donated facility.

Everyone has a story and a way to contribute. Be it a donation, a visit to Israel, an educational seminar, political influence or any other notion, Israel and Israeli soldiers need and appreciate every show of support.

Eran Mordel, 24, is a squad commander in the 202nd Airborne Battalion. A Jerusalem native, he moved to the United States at age 3 and grew up in the Atlanta area, graduating from Walton High School in East Cobb, where he was class president his junior and senior years, and Georgia Tech, where he was an AEPi member and the first Jewish student body president. He served in Operation Protective Edge last summer. He lives with his grandmother in Jerusalem.