Saturday, June 30, 2012

IAF: A lone soldier gets his wings

Tracy Frydberg..
The Times of Israel..
29 June '12..

After three years of intense physical and mental training, constant high-stakes challenges and numerous eliminations, the newly ranked Lieutenant “G” will receive his wings today and become an official pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

Lieutenant G, who could not reveal his full identity, is no ordinary pilot. Though the young officer lived in Israel until age six, he grew up and was educated in Canada and then Australia.

While the graduating pilot was brought up in a Zionist household that was part of a Jewish community, “a Jewish community that loves Israel is different from a Jewish community that’s in Israel,” he said. Upon turning 18, the lieutenant made the decision to return to Israel as a lone soldier, an individual from abroad who chooses to come and serve in the Israeli army.

It was his strong Jewish and Zionist identity that compelled Lieutenant G to not only serve in the army, but to choose the additionally strenuous and elite Israeli Air Force, a 12-year commitment.

“I believe that Zionism is coming to Israel and living here. As much as donations help, my vision of Zionism is based on living and ‘working the land,’” he explained.

“When I came to Israel, I wanted to be in the best unit and give as much as I could because I have a lot to give to the army. Being a pilot in the Air Force is a job that will allow me to contribute the most to the nation’s security.”

While usually a male soldier’s time in the army ends after three years, this is only the beginning of the lieutenant’s service. Up to this point, he has undergone an intensive three-part training.

In part one, “they build you up as a human being and soldier,” he said. This grueling first year of basic training prepares future pilots for part two, where you learn how to fly and then master your own plane — Lieutenant G flies a fighter aircraft. Finally, part three is devoted to academics, and graduates of the course obtain an undergraduate degree at the end of training.

Less than 10% of the original class will be receiving their wings with Lieutenant G. With frequent eliminations, the years leading up to this monumental moment are physically and mentally exhausting, and only the best and most disciplined men and women make it to the end.

“It is the army’s job to physically train and keep me fit,” he said. “The hardest part is the mental challenge.” The lieutenant feels that being in the Air Force is a “bigger cause than you,” and that understanding has allowed him to keep the big picture of serving his country in mind during the course’s many challenges.

After only 10 flights, pilots in training are allowed to take off on their own. Seeing the landscape of Israel from above is the most thrilling part of flying for the lieutenant. “My Israeli friends in the army laugh at me,” he said. “They call me a North American-Birthright boy because I am always happy and constantly surprised to see Israel from this different point of view.”

While the lieutenant was not truly alone — his sister lived in Tel Aviv and his parents and brother moved back to Israel two months after he arrived — the pilot can relate to other challenges which define a lone soldier. For example, he said that he had difficulty in the beginning with Hebrew. “Even though I was born in Israel, my Hebrew was weak and I had to fight to get in line with the others. This was something which put up barriers in the beginning, but I was able to catch up,” he said.

Though there are additional obstacles that come with being a lone soldier, “It is definitely doable,” the pilot said. “I see many friends who come to Israel, fall in love, and then go back while others come to Israel, fall in love, and then decide to join the army. Programs like Garin Tzabar help lone soldiers by educating them on army culture, and putting them in a group of people like themselves where they live and work on kibbutzim together before going into the army. It takes out the ‘lone’ part of being a soldier because now you have a family.”

The ceremony took place at Hatzerim Air Base, and President Shimon Peres and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak were among the notable attendees.

Additionally, Lieutenant G will be surrounded by family and friends who have come from Canada and across the globe to celebrate this momentous occasion in his life. He said their attendance is indicative of the support he and other lone soldiers have received when choosing to join the army.

IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz spoke at the ceremony and congratulated the graduates. “We are facing a constantly changing and challenging region. These changes demand that we maintain the true advantage of the IDF; the quality of its soldiers,” he said.

Lieutenant G has nine years of active service to look forward to and he is ready for it to get off the ground. “They invested in me for three years, and now it’s time for them to get a return on the investment,” the pilot concluded.


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