Natalie says she’s been a dog lover from birth. “I had two dogs when I was younger,” she recalls, “then they mated and we ended up with six more, and we couldn’t give them away…”
She was talking to the Jewish Press while walking her current dog, Fedor, 2.5, who is just this side of a puppy. “Every little thing he sees, he goes crazy,” she says.
The Air Force needs dogs because its bases are a highly desirable target for a terrorist attack, as well as for simple robbers. Fedor, a Belgian Shepherd (Malinois), is a search and attack dog.
“You can hide anywhere you want and he’ll find you,” she says, laughing. “That’s as simple as that is.”
Natalie says she sometimes hangs a leaf in front of Fedor’s face and he stares at it until she removes it. “If I move it, it won’t leave his sight, and if I throw it, there’s no way he won’t get to it. There’ll be a million leaves on the floor and he’ll find that one.”
He’s also “such a lovie dovie,” she says, and hugs him.
A native of the San Fernando Valley, Natalie came to Israel in the eleventh grade, “because my sister decided to join the Army.” Both sisters, in turn, came over as part of Gar’in Tzabar, a group of Diaspora youths, including children of Israelis, who choose to move to Israel and serve in the IDF. Often they are adopted by members of the Israel Scouts youth movement for the duration of their Army service.
“When my sister told me she was joining the Army, I immediately had a heart attack,” she says. “And when she said I should serve in the Army, too, I told her, You don’t understand, I’m not a fighter, I’m the kind of person that people fight for…”
Born and raised in LA, Natalie says she had everything she wanted ever since she was a little girl. “All of a sudden, my big sister, who is also my best friend, who’s been taking care of me, told me she was joining this military force, to protect an entire country.”
“It sounded completely absurd, so I came with her,” she says emphatically.
Natalie attended school in Israel and followed her sister through her service. “I got a completely different view on what the Army was, what Israel was, and how the people were,” she says.
Coming back to America six months later, and enrolling once again in her high school in LA, “every decision that I would make just felt wrong. I had my car, my friends, but it felt different. My friends weren’t real friends any more. In Israel I had met so many people that impacted me in different kinds of ways, that brought out my true colors.”
She says that from being an American Valley Girl, all of a sudden she started feeling Jewish and out of place. Israel began to feel “like a calling for me,” she says. “And I came over.”
She signed up with Gar’in Tzabar, in preparation for IDF service. Her parents are divorced, and her father was not pleased. He had served seven years in the Army and “specifically came to America so that my sister and I would have a better life.”
Since then, “not a month goes by when he doesn’t tell me, Why don’t you come home, I’ll buy you a car, I’ll get you your own apartment…”
But her mother, an Israeli, is a free spirit, she says, willing to support her in all her decisions, and always letting her know how proud of her she is. “When she heard that I’m going to Israel, it lit up her whole future. It gave her another reason to come visit Israel every so often.”
In Israel she reconnected with her mother’s family. “I’ve made extreme efforts to spend time with them,” she says. “My little cousin is 10-years-old, and I call him every weekend just to make sure things are going good at school and Kratae class, yada, yada. It’s nice to be part of this new family.”
Serving as a lone soldier is something you get used to, Natalie says. “I went to a friend’s house. His sister was sick so they were taking care of her in the living room. His mom was preparing food, his dad was on the computer. In the middle of all that, I just started crying.”
We spoke on the eve of Passover, and Natalie told me she was planning to stay on duty, to let other soldiers go home for the holiday.
Her discharge is right around the corner. “I’ve been so nervous about it. In the Army, even though it’s stressful and you learn so much about yourself, you’re still somewhat of a child. The Army takes care of you. They feed me, they tell me where to go and when.”
“When I’m done with the Army, that’s it, I’m not a child any more, I’m an adult. I have bills, I have to worry about a place to live, how to eat, where to work, where to go to school. It’s really stressful.”
She may end up staying a little longer in the Army, working on a base nearby. The skills required will be lower than her current rank as dog handler, but she’d be commanding a team of canine guards.
“The Army has taught me that there’s no such thing as giving up,” she says. “There’s no such thing as I’m tired, so I’m not going to do it.”
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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