In parshat Ki Tisa, Moses is instructed to take a census of the males aged 20 and older. In days gone by, a census was taken for two purposes: to levy taxes and to register an army. In Moses’ day, an army came together for a current war, then returned to civilian life, until the next time.
Today, the Canadian Forces consists of volunteers who serve fixed tours of duty. We demand that they risk their lives in our defence and, at other times, the defence of people far, far away, hence their presence in Afghanistan. What does that mean for our soldiers? Why volunteer to do it? What happens to them there? And what becomes of those soldiers when they return home?
I asked those questions of a young man, Vancouver’s Avi Barzelai, who recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan.
First, why did he enlist? “A personal decision,” he explained. “I wanted to serve my country and do something different!”
Both tours had a very positive effect on his life today. Barzelai served the first term as a “grunt” with the infantry. The combat zone was rife with the threat of small-arms fire and more sinister and hidden daily encounters with IEDs, hidden explosives buried in roads, hidden in vehicles and strapped to the bodies of suicide bombers. All in all, it’s a tense work environment, to say the least.
“Afghanistan is one big minefield,” Barzelai says. “Leftovers from the Russians, the Taliban, just everybody. Also the enemy knows when we’re coming.”
On his second tour, Barzelai served as a helicopter door-gunner – that is, inside an open door behind a machine gun. It gave him a better view of the enemy and a whole different perspective on the conflict.
Helicopters escort other aircraft and can spot the enemy planting IEDs or planning ambushes. “We could look into the compounds where families live, see women doing the washing. You can’t see that on the ground.”
But the closest connections troops made with Afghans came on foot patrols. While the Canadians travelled with interpreters, it was “more about presence, assessing body language,” Barzelai says.
“Afghans are very practical. They are watching to see who wins.”
“Our best connections were with the kids,” he says. “They are amazing, very resilient. It was no problem to establish connections. They liked the uniforms and the guns. They were hilarious, lots of fun, running in little wolf packs, boys and girls together, until the girls are 12 or 13 – then they cover up.”
That’s the why, where, how. But now soldiers are returning from Afghanistan. What happens next?
Barzelai has an answer.
“Returning soldiers are essentially on their own. Canada is completely unprepared for them. The skills they learned in the Forces are not recognized – for example, medics have training in trauma care, but have to start from scratch when they come home. For a combat soldier, the return is even harder.”
They can’t even readily qualify for security work.
In short, they often can’t find a decent job, and there’s little government help (unlike in the United States) in job retraining, education or skills recognition.
Post-traumatic stress “is a big problem,” Barzelai says.
So he’s started a construction company, Veteran’s Contracting Canada, that will employ former soldiers.
“They’ve learned leadership, discipline and teamwork, and they’ll show up, do a good job on a reno and work together. Returning soldiers have great potential to show positive results for Canada.”
It’s a soldiering family. Barzelai’s brother has made aliyah to Israel and served in the Israel Defence Forces. Our community feels great pride and ownership in the IDF and those who serve in it, yet we’re usually surprised when we hear of Jewish recruits in the Canadian Forces. Let’s correct our attitudes and embrace both ways of service.
Talking with Barzelai, I realized that in both countries, the military isn’t just about winning spectacular battles – which can be followed by a lot of disappointment – but in serving a country with pride. It’s also about coming back to a country that values the service and wants to continue to support its soldiers. In Canada, we may have a long way to go in this regard. Here is one young man determined to make that happen.