‘I still feel the sadness’: IDF reservists struggle to adapt after Gaza

Some find normalcy easier than others.

By Amelie Botbol | | Topics: Gaza, Hamas
IDF reservist Sam Sank on the battlefield in Khan Yunis, the southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 10, 2024. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Sank.
IDF reservist Sam Sank on the battlefield in Khan Yunis, the southern Gaza Strip, Jan. 10, 2024. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Sank.

“I am not exaggerating when I say that I lived through several near-death experiences, bullets went over my head, explosions near me. I am lucky to have come out of Gaza without being injured,” Sam Sank, 33, from Tel Aviv, told JNS on Tuesday.

“Even saying that makes me feel a little guilty because so many didn’t return alive, some I knew personally. While I am happy for myself, I still feel the sadness,” he added.

Sank, an only child born and raised in London, moved to Israel at the age of 18 and joined the Paratroopers Brigade. He was one of approximately 360,000 reserve soldiers mobilized after Hamas terrorists invaded the northwestern Negev on Oct. 7 and murdered some 1,200 people.

“I woke up to the sound of rocket sirens, turned on the news and quickly realized that Israel was at war. At 4 p.m., I was on base with my gun and equipment, ready to be deployed,” Sank said.

On Oct. 9, Sank was sent to Kibbutz Kfar Aza to fight the terrorists who had carried out a killing spree there and were still on the loose inside the community.

“Seeing the atrocities inflicted upon the kibbutz was a memorable experience for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

On Dec. 3, Sank entered the Gaza Strip. He would spend the next two months there.

“We started out on the outskirts of Khan Yunis, in a rural environment, and moved towards the center of the city. We spent the last week next to the refugee camps, a very dangerous and highly populated area,” he said.

From Oct. 7 onwards, Sank was able to communicate his thoughts to his friends and family members via a WhatsApp newsletter set up and managed by his mother, Jacalyn Sank DaCosta, 57, from London.

Sank left Gaza on Jan. 28 and informed the army of his desire to permanently hang up his boots.

“In the army, I was very open to my fellow soldiers and officers about wanting to end my miluim [reserve duty] career. I felt that way before Oct. 7 but experiencing being at war once is enough for a lifetime,” he said.

For Sank, the first few days after being released were particularly difficult.

“I found being in Tel Aviv to be overwhelming,” he said. “I left my day-to-day responsibilities for four months and when I came back I suddenly had to be responsible again.

“Inside [Gaza], I had to complete my mission, stay alive and take care of myself, but I did not have to worry about work, maintaining a home or caring for my dog Pablo,” Sank continued.

Upon his official release on Feb. 12, Sank decided to spend a month abroad.

“Being away helped with the transition. Immediately after being released [from reserve service], my friends wanted to see me. I just needed my space, I wasn’t ready to see anyone yet aside from my very close loved ones,” he said.

IDF soldier Sam Sank in Khan Yunis, Dec. 18, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Strange feeling

Now back in Israel, what he finds most strange is the feeling of normalcy.

“I may think of my time in Gaza every day or couple of days. I may see something and be reminded but I am otherwise focused on work, playing football or planning my wedding,” Sank said.

“It’s as if nothing ever happened. It’s not that I want people to treat me differently or ask about it all the time, but it’s how normal everything is that feels strange for me. What was it all for?” he wondered.

“It makes me think of a friend in my squad who was killed. I think of him more since I’m back than I did before. My head is here rather than with the rest of the soldiers in Gaza and it doesn’t sit right with me,” he continued.

Since the beginning of Israel’s ground operation targeting Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure in Gaza on Oct. 27, 249 soldiers have been killed in action. In total, 590 IDF soldiers and reservists have been killed since Oct. 7.

Sank said that most soldiers, himself included, did not leave Gaza feeling victorious. Instead, they are disappointed that 134 of the 253 Israelis and foreign nationals Hamas abducted to Gaza on Oct. 7 are still in captivity.

“It was our job to release them, which we were unable to do. We did good work and fulfilled our missions but overall we felt quite disappointed,” he said.

Sank said he could not understand the widespread criticism and misconduct allegations towards the IDF.

“I can only speak about my experience and the things I saw. My time in Gaza was recorded on my GoPro camera which I had with me the entire time. It speaks for the way I conducted myself,” he said.

Since Oct. 7, Sank has been vocal in the media, sharing his story and trying to depict Israeli soldiers as humans with real emotions going through the chaotic experience of war.

His media appearances led Sank to receive hate mail and be subjected to online abuse. After his release, he traveled to New York where he attended a Jewish comedy standup event with his girlfriend, Amit, and was ambushed by pro-Palestinian protesters.

“They did not know who I was or what I had done. If they did, it could have made them angrier. They followed us down the street, calling me a baby killer and a Nazi, saying they hope I die,” Sank said.

“I was genuinely more scared and felt more traumatized by this incident in New York than I felt in the entire time I spent in Gaza,” he added.

While he is concerned about the situation in places including London, New York and Paris, saying they do not seem to be safe places for Jews at the moment and even bring back memories of the Holocaust, Sank is not planning to retreat from his hasbara (public diplomacy) activities.

“I will keep on being an advocate for Israel in every part of my life,” Sank said.

IDF reservist Asaf Nissan and his daughter Danielle at home in Petach Tikvah, October 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Military intelligence

On Oct. 7, about 9 miles from Tel Aviv, Asaf Nissan, 34, a Channel 14 television producer and a reserve military intelligence officer, was spending the Simchat Torah holiday in Petach Tikvah, at home with his wife, Chen, 31, and baby daughter Danielle, also preparing to be called up for IDF duty.

“As an intelligence officer, I could not do much on Oct. 7. I was on standby. On Oct. 9, I left my car in Herzliya and was taken on an armored bus to Sde Teman, a logistical base [located between Beersheva and the Gaza Strip],” Nissan told JNS on Wednesday.

“We were updated on the situation. There was talk of entering Gaza once devastated Israeli towns and villages were cleared of terrorists. We needed to make sure that they did not leave any bombs, mines or anything they could use against us,” he added.

As an intelligence officer who assists combat units remotely, Nissan was providing intel to soldiers on the battlefield. Being at the intelligence post has its challenges in an environment that constantly changes; intelligence officers must be alert at all times. Nissan spent a total of 109 days on reserve duty.

“I could not come home at all at first. My daughter is only a year and 10 months old. My wife had to handle everything by herself. She was sleeping at her parents’ house, had to wake up in the middle of the night and keep the baby occupied during the day,” he said.

“Later, because they drafted more people, we had enough manpower to figure out a proper schedule. I could come home twice or sometimes three times a week,” he added.

Reserve soldiers receive their full salaries from their employer, which is reimbursed by the National Insurance Institute. Nissan said he even received a 40% bonus while being away.

As a television producer, he did not feel he could completely disconnect even when he left the base.

“I never stop being updated about the war. I live it day in and day out. There isn’t really any sort of distance,” Nissan said.

“In my mind, I am always ready. If something happens in the north, I will go back, it’s not even a question,” he added.