This is the third in a series of stories told by former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserve duty soldier-students about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace. Sagie is one of 12 speakers traveling around the United States as part of StandWithUs’ 7th annual “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” putting a human face to the IDF uniform. Last names are withheld for security purposes. These stories have never before been told.

Sagie, 27, dreamed of becoming a basketball player, the first Israeli in the NBA! But in 2002-2003 Israel faced the second Intifada, suffering through hundreds of suicide bombings and terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

On November 4, 2002, a suicide bomber tried to enter a mall 200m from his home. The attack would have impacted dozens, but the security guard stopped the bomb, sacrificing his life. There was only one other fatality: 15-year old Gaston Parpinial, who had just made “Aliya” from Argentina.

Gaston joined Sagie’s basketball team only 2 weeks prior to the attack. He was en route to the gym for practice when the bomber attacked. It was then that Sagie “realized what is Zionism.” Gaston was an only child who convinced his parents to fulfill his dream of making “Aliya”. Only 4 months in Israel and he was randomly killed, “leaving his parents with nothing.”

Sagie maintains, “That story changed my entire perspective; it was in that moment, I stopped thinking about my own dreams. I thought about how I was going to survive, how I was going to keep my family safe. Though I was only 15, life stopped being something I took for granted. I began to study about our history and about the conflict. My dreams changed and now I wanted to make a significant contribution to the army.

How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?

Its a great honor for me to represent Israel in this way. I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet so many people who support Israel.

Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?

10 years after Gaston’s death, as a young platoon commander, I found myself leading a small operation to arrest a terrorist suspect. The operation took place in Qalqilya, a Palestinian city close to where the suicide bomber who killed Gaston came from.

That was the moment I reached closure. I felt as if I am helping to secure my friends and my family, who lived only a 10-minute drive from where I was.

Beyond that, I just realized how small my country is, how complicated the conflict is and how important is to remember the reason why I am doing what I am doing. Those insights accompanied me through my entire service and helped me to stay focused, determined and true to my morals and values.

In 2009, I was a young cadet in the Artillery officers’ course.

Every course has its’ organized schedule and syllabus, however, my course happened to take place during the Gaza war, and the plans changed dramatically.

After thousands of rockets were launched into Israel’s southern cities, the government decided to change the situation.

On Saturday, December 27, 2008, while I was on holiday, Israel initiated Operation “Cast Lead” against Hamas in Gaza.

We immediately had to join the artillery units surrounding the Gaza strip.

En route to the Gaza strip from the Israeli side, we stopped in one of the villages to organize our equipment. I remember seeing Israeli children running to their shelters with the awful sound of the sirens playing in the background. I felt a deep frustration – it was pure injustice for those young kids.

Only a few hours drive, and we joined one of the batteries.

One of the goals was to support the infantry that were fighting inside the terror bases of Hamas. Concurrently, we needed to neutralize rocket launchers. Yet, as we prepared for the order to fire, we instead received an order to postpone this target. The launcher was planted inside a residential area, and some observations discovered that there were kids walking nearby.

The IDF tries to minimize casualties and the decision was made to use a weapon that more accurately pinpoints the target instead of our cannons. This is the moral dilemma that makes this conflict so hard, especially for those in charge of making decisions.

What moment of your service are you most proud of?

During all the operations we had in the West Bank and every time we had any interface with Palestinian civilians, my unit always operated professionally without causing any unnecessary damage or hurt to the civilians. In such an intensive work, facing terrorists who are hiding among civilians, is not something that we can take for granted.

What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?

We’re talking about 18-year old teenagers who enjoyed a similar life to their American friends. They like go to the beach, to celebrate and to watch and play sports.

The difference is obviously, that the army service is mandatory in Israel – 3 years for boys and 2 for girls (3 years for combatant girls).

At first glance, it sounds really scary, but honestly it’s not.

Well, changing from prom tuxedos to a military uniform isn’t the easiest transition, but ultimately, years later, people can better understand how the army is a beneficial experience for them.

Leadership, maturity, teamwork, self-discipline, life perspective – those are just some of the characteristics one can receive in a meaningful army service.

After completion, soldiers have to be in reserves until the age of 40 (45 for officers). That makes the students’ life a great challenge because they are obliged to leave their studies at least once a year and put the uniform again in the reserves.