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
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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The State Department cables show that the Palestinian leader was a key asset to the U.S. during the Kissinger years