June 26, 1997
The Good Lieutenant
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Cheli is a lieutenant in the Israeli army's Nachal Brigade, and when one of the young soldiers in her unit is killed, she goes to his parents, tells them how their son died, and tries to bring some comfort.
"Every family reacts differently; I knock on the door, and I never know what they will say," she says. "Sometimes, they yell at me; sometimes, they don't want to see me; sometimes, they will tell me, 'It's better you shouldn't have children; they will only be killed in the army.'"
How does Cheli react? "First, I don't say anything -- whatever you say is the wrong thing. I look in their eyes; I touch their hands. Then they see that I wear the same green brigade beret that their son did; they start talking about him; slowly, we make a connection."
The last few months have been particularly difficult. In February, when two Israeli helicopters collided and 73 soldiers were killed, 30 were "her" boys from the Nachal Brigade.
Then there was the case of Sharon Edry, a soldier who hitched a ride in a car with men later identified as terrorists; he disappeared.
For eight months, nothing was heard of him until his mutilated body was found. During that time, Cheli saw his family almost daily.
"I became part of the family; I became their own child," she says.
Cheli, who lives in Moshav Hemed, near Tel Aviv, joined the army at age 18 and volunteered for her present assignment. Why?
"I felt that here were people who deserved everything because they had lost everything," she says. "I can't bring back their son, but maybe I can make it easier for them, maybe I can make them smile for a moment."
The most important thing for the family is that their son will not be forgotten. "They will set aside a memorial room or some memento -- it is important that people pay attention to this when they visit Israel," says Cheli.
How does she cope with the emotional and mental stress of her job?
"There are about 40 officers in the army who do the same job, and we are like a support group," she says. "We meet every two weeks with a shrink and tell him what we are feeling. You know that you're not the only one with these experiences."
One effect of her work has been that it has drawn Cheli closer to her own parents and brother. "You realize how short life can be," she says.
Cheli was in Los Angeles recently during an official visit by Israel Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and thereby hangs another story.
Shortly before Israel's Memorial Day, Mordechai had met with the army's 40 or so bereavement officers to thank them for their difficult work. Cheli spoke about her experiences at the meeting, and Mordechai was impressed by her words, as well as by impromptu letters he had been receiving from "her" families, who praised her sensitivity and dedication.
In recognition of her performance, Mordechai invited Cheli to join his entourage for the trip to Los Angeles, and later to Paris.
After visiting Universal Studios and Disneyland, Cheli bubbled over like any young woman in her early 20s on her first big trip abroad.
"I can't believe I'm here and having fun," she says, happily.