Losing a Friend at the Front
I don’t need Israeli Memorial Day to remember Alex Assaf, the kindest—and tallest—soldier I have ever known
It was a typically hot day in late August of 2006, but I was enjoying the breeze high atop Mt. Gerizim, almost 3,000 feet above sea level. I was taking part in a military course that was touring the West Bank. An officer was pointing out the Nablus casbah in the valley far below us where some of the fiercest battles of Operation Defensive Shield had taken place, but my mind was on other, more recent combat. While the Second Lebanon War was by that point officially over, my infantry unit, the Rotem battalion of the Givati brigade, was still in South Lebanon. I was two years into my mandatory service then, and those years had been mostly peaceful. But the summer of 2006 had been very different.
My unit had been called up north fairly late in the war, because it had been busy fighting the battles of Operation Summer Rains in the Gaza Strip. Those battles had started in late June, when the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas on the border with Gaza. Barely two weeks later, Hezbollah attacked an IDF patrol on the Lebanese border, killing three soldiers and capturing two more; Israel declared war. I had spent much of that summer on the northern border but hadn’t seen much action, aside from the constant barrage of Hezbollah rockets that I quickly grew used to. In mid-August the United Nations had brokered a ceasefire, but Israel was taking its time withdrawing its forces, and many of my friends were still on the other side of the border.
It had been an odd, lengthy war. On the border, as my unit received conflicting orders for operations that seemed to change several times a day, I would read in the newspaper about how the battles were progressing. The war was fought mainly from the air, and the Israeli leadership was torn between those who wanted to keep it that way and those who thought that only a massive operation on the ground would win the war. By war’s end, over 100 of my fellow soldiers had been killed—nearly a third of them, tragically, on the very final days of the war, when the U.N.-brokered ceasefire was clearly in sight and a ground operation finally authorized. Over 40 Israeli civilians had been killed as well, in Hezbollah rocket attacks on towns and cities in Northern Israel. And yet this hadn’t felt much like war, certainly not like the stories I’d heard from my father about the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The battles were scattered and the enemy mostly in hiding. Barely two hours’ drive from the border, in Tel Aviv, the cafés and beaches were as packed as ever. I saw this for myself the day the war ended and I got to go home for the first time in what seemed like forever; I didn’t know what to think. Whether or not Israel had actually won remained an unanswered question.
So, on that late August morning overlooking Nablus, I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. I was relieved that the war was over and that I was far from Lebanon and Gaza. But I also felt guilty for that feeling of relief. Was it luck that had kept me out of harm’s way throughout the war, or lack of it? After all, I was a squad commander, and ground combat was what I had trained for. At the very least, so long as my friends were still in Lebanon, shouldn’t I be up there with them? My thoughts were in Lebanon, and every couple of minutes I would refresh the Ynet news site on my cell phone. That’s why I was quick to spot the latest headline: 1 SOLDIER KILLED, 2 SEVERELY WOUNDED IN LEBANON. I immediately texted Kobi, a good friend since my first day in basic training and whom I knew was on the border with our unit: Was everyone alright? Kobi was quick to respond: Alex Assaf had been killed.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact that in July 2004, just weeks out of high school, I was joining the army. Military service here is mandatory, and while growing up, it was probably one of the most reliable facts of life. That I was to be kravi—that is, in a combat unit—wasn’t as obvious. Only about 15 percent of Israeli soldiers are fighters, but it was what I wanted. It wasn’t that I found combat so enticing a prospect; it was pure old-fashioned Zionism. Growing up during some pretty troubled years, scores of soldiers had defended Israel and allowed me to have a fairly normal youth. Now it was my turn.
I was to serve in Givati, the ground infantry brigade identifiable by its purple berets. The original 1948-era Givati was disbanded after fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. When it was reestablished in the ‘80s, Givati initially suffered from a bad rep, lacking the glamour of the legendary paratroopers who had freed the Western Wall in 1967, or the Golani brigade that had conquered Mt. Hermon in the Yom Kippur War. But by 2004, Givati had a heritage of its own: During the Second Intifada, the brigade was deployed in the Gaza Strip and saw some of those years’ most intense combat. By the time I enlisted, there was only one spot available for every two soldiers who wanted in.
After getting shots and learning how to tie our new boots in the IDF’s enlistment center near Tel Aviv, we were bused to Givati’s training base in Ktziot, by the Egyptian border, to begin basic training. It was there, on the first day of basic training, that I met Alex. We were in the same squad, which is to say that we spent about 17 hours a day together on our feet (we got six hours of sleep a night and another hour to shower, call home, and let off steam before lights out). At night, we shared a tent with the rest of our squad; a massive dusty green affair that also happened to afford a wonderful summer breeze. (I was nearly a year into my service before I got to sleep in a proper room, and that took some getting used to.)
Alex was the giant of our unit. To tower over me does not require particularly exceptional height, but at 6’6″, Alex towered over us all. After we had mastered our M-16s, we were each to specialize in one of several other weapons. Alex knew that his massive frame virtually guaranteed him the weapon soldiers dreaded the most: the FN MAG, a 26-pound Belgian machinegun equal parts unwieldy and deadly. His prediction was correct, of course, but he never let the MAG dampen his spirits. His plan did not allow for that. My first memory of Alex is of craning my neck up at him as he told me, totally off-handedly, that he planned on a military career. To say such a thing on the first day of basic training, when you are the lowest of the low, and when the furthest most can see is to the end of that day’s training, or the weekend at most, required some hubris or naiveté. But that wasn’t Alex. He had a special sort of calm about him, and it was only after he died that I realized how tough he must have been, and why basic training didn’t scare him.
Alex Assaf was born in Kiev in 1984, as Alex Yegushin. His mother Helena was hurt during the Chernobyl disaster and was unable to care for Alex properly. Chabad emissaries helped him make aliyah by himself, when he was only 6 and a half years old. His mother followed some years later, but after welfare authorities found them to be living in neglect, Alex was soon sent to a foster family in the northern town of Karmiel.
During my years in the army, I came to know quite a few lone soldiers, so-called because they had made aliyah on their own and had no close family in Israel. Many of them, like Alex, were from the former Soviet Union and had a foster home to go back to on weekends off. But Alex didn’t think of himself as a lone soldier at all. It took some time to piece together his story, because as far as Alex was concerned, the Assaf family in Karmiel was his family. He talked about his mom and dad—Tzipi and Meir Assaf—and their children, his siblings. When he was a teenager, he pressed his parents to allow him to change his last name to theirs. They thought it best to wait until he could legally make the change on his own, at 18. And so, on his 18th birthday, he did just that.
Basic training was something of a game. The night marches, the constant saluting, the very self-conscious role-playing by some of our commanders—a particularly devilish staff-sergeant comes to mind—all had a theatricality to them that held endless appeal to me. The Israeli army might be the only army in the world to hold “parents day,” when thousands of parents flood the base to get a first-hand view of their children’s training. The day’s grand finale called for all the parents to sit on bleachers overlooking an empty patch of desert. Soon, colorful smoke grenades were set off, the Givati theme song was piped through the loudspeakers at full blast, and out of the smoke charged their kids in full combat fatigues. Many parents were tearful. We were having the time of our lives.
But nostalgia plays tricks on the memory. Things were not always particularly enjoyable at Ktziot. Basic training was meant to toughen us, and toughen us it did. Guard duty lasted forever, and the days and nights we spent in the field practicing platoon and company maneuvers, often with live ammunition, were particularly grueling. But we were a spirited bunch. One of the other platoons in my company was made up entirely of yeshiva boys who chose to enlist together. On Friday nights they would teach us songs popular in yeshivot and religious youth groups, and we would change the lyrics to suit our esprit de corps. Thus, “the people of forever are not afraid of the long road ahead” became “The Summer ’04 Rotem Battalion isn’t afraid of the long road ahead.” And always, sometimes hovering in the background but often at the center of attention, there was Alex to rely on.
When we were through with basic training, we were sent to stand guard over Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Other soldiers were in charge of evacuating settlers and dismantling the settlements; our job was to make sure no terrorists got in the way. We were part of one of the most dramatic events in Israel’s history but so far removed from the action that it all still felt like a game. Even once all Israeli civilians were out of Gaza, we continued to man our outposts. Once those were dismantled, we manned armored vehicles. I spent one night with my squad lying on a sand dune, squinting at the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis through my night-vision goggles, completely exposed. Yet I never once felt that I was in any danger. I took my responsibilities seriously—we all did—but it still felt like a game.
After the disengagement I went to squad-commander’s course. Alex had completed it before me, and in early 2006 I joined him as a fellow commander by the Nitzana border crossing, near where we had first met during basic training. Gaza was quiet then, and Givati was guarding the Egyptian border. Our new enemies weren’t Hamas terrorists but drug smugglers. Alex had changed some: He was wearier and struck me as a particularly professional soldier. Yet he remained just as good a person, even when that meant losing a night’s sleep or a weekend’s leave in order to help a friend. Our shifts were “eight-eight,” which meant we’d spend eight hours on patrol, have eight hours rest, and then have to go back for eight more hours of patrol; our biological clocks were in constant haywire. But I could always count on Alex. He had soldiers of his own, now, as well as his old friends—and we all adored him.
Early on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006, Alex was part of a patrol by the village of Blida, just across the Lebanese border. The patrol accidentally wandered into a minefield that Israel had placed years ago. Alex stepped on a mine and was fatally injured. The complicated rescue mission, from the middle of a minefield, was carried out courageously, but Alex died then and there, at the age of 22.
I know Alex’s death to be a fact, but Alex is not dead to me. From the moment I received word of his death and to this very day, I have yet to wrap my mind around the idea that someone can be young and healthy and strong and suddenly be gone. I cannot deny his absence because I am constantly aware of it, but his death cannot, for me, be the end of his life story. Just as it could not have been the end of my own life story, even though I know it could just as easily have been me, or another friend of mine, on that patrol in Blida in Alex’s place.
Just as I knew from a very young age that I would be joining the army, I knew that I could die there. All Israeli schools have a memorial wall with portraits of young women and men who once sat at the same desks and in the same classrooms as us. Our teachers would tell us stories about them. And yet the army for me, up until Alex’s death, was a place full of life: full of young, idealistic people given their first chance to really fulfill themselves. Only when Alex died that day did I realize, did I feel in my gut, just how precarious it all was that behind the theatricality there were some very savage truths.
Just 20 miles from Blida, as the crow flies, is the town of Karmiel where the Assaf family raised Alex and buried him. We are all out of the army now and have gone our separate ways, but I still see my army comrades once a year, on Alex’s yahrzeit in Karmiel. The ceremony itself is somber, but before and after the ceremony it’s as if we’re back in basic training. The camaraderie is the same as it always was, and I know Alex would have loved that.
Alex was older than me when he died and now he is years younger. As the rest of us grow older and have children of our own, the tragedy and loss will only deepen, as will the guilt. Alex was better than most of us; he certainly worked much harder in life than most of us. Yet his potential, which should have grown larger every year, remains increasingly unfulfilled. Like so many of the other fallen soldiers we honor in Israel today, Alex died “before his time, his life’s song in mid-bar stopped,” to quote H.N. Bialik, Israel’s national poet. But Alex has a legacy far richer than that of many who outlive him, one of decency and kindness and friendship beyond measure. He died a completely unnecessary death, but his meaningful life, short as it was, surely outweighs that.
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