One of the biggest crises I experienced while serving in the Israeli military was being told I was useless during a war. It was the summer of 2014 when Operation Protective Edge broke out between Israel and Gaza; everyone in my unit was called to IDF headquarters to assist with strategic analyses—everyone except me, because I didn’t have my security clearance yet (long story for another time). Here I was, after spending years of training, ready to fight for my country—only to be told I was better off going back to my apartment in Tel Aviv to huddle in a bomb shelter.
To put this in perspective, I was an ambitious American serving in the Israeli military. I had a master’s degree in security intelligence from a prestigious graduate school. I had completed an internship in Washington, D.C. with sparkling recommendations, written piles of policy papers, interviewed combat soldiers and government leadership, and so on. I had also networked like a madwoman to get accepted into the IDF at age twenty-eight, triumphant at my victory in scoring a position in a respectable unit.
But when the hummus hit the fan and an actual war broke out, I was told to get out of the way.
So, I lost my cool. At first, I cried. Then I got pissed off. I even smashed a bunch of empty glass bottles against the side of my apartment building in Tel Aviv (man, that felt good).
Yeah, those are the little pieces of my soul right there
When I ran out of bottles, I slumped onto a park bench on the street in my uniform, face in my hands. I had thought grad school was hard, but it turned out that the real world was harder. I didn’t exactly miss the sleepless nights studying in the library, but I did miss the cushioned separation from the rest of the world provided by the cocoon of academia. School had been demanding, but at least I had been given a clear path forward for success: study hard, do the work, take the tests, you’re good to go.
In the real world, that cushion was gone, and if I was going to succeed in a demanding field—in a foreign country, no less—I was going to need thicker skin and a flexible mindset.
While sheepishly cleaning up the broken shards of glass next to my apartment in Tel Aviv that day, I realized that I was going to have to be more flexible in order to move past disappointment. I also realized that no matter how bad I was feeling, there were Israeli soldiers fighting for their lives on the battlefield who were probably having a worse day than I was.
So, I called a local soldier support center. I asked them what I could do to be helpful. They told me they needed external phone batteries, which would allow the soldiers fighting at the border to remotely charge up their personal cell phones and contact their families in between operations. Most people were donating toilet paper and socks; external phone batteries were harder (and more expensive) to come by.
Maybe phone batteries didn’t seem like a big deal in the overall war effort, but soldiers could be isolated for weeks down there in the tents without being able to communicate with their anxious families or friends.
That was all I needed to hear. For the next week, I was on a mission to secure as many external phone batteries as possible. I wrote up blurbs about the importance of soldiers getting these phone batteries and disseminated them across every media platform I could think of. I wrote up a poster for my parents to post in our synagogue back in the U.S. to raise money for the cause. I talked incessantly about phone batteries to my friends, to Azarya the tailor, to my dermatologist, to the cashiers at the grocery store. I was a one-woman phone battery machine.
Yeah, baby, let’s go get phone batteries!
When all was said and done, my living room was overflowing with so many boxes of phone batteries that I had to call several friends to come help me deliver them to the local center. I was so busy with the effort that I forgot to be depressed and angry about my situation as a so-called useless soldier.
I learned that day that you are never useless. There is always someone who needs you out there. If you feel empty, do something for others that will fill your life with meaning.
And herein lies the secret of using disappointment to fuel determination: you can’t sit around feeling bad for yourself, wishing things had turned out differently. If you don’t like your current reality, slap it across the face and then determine to create something new. You feel useless? Make yourself useful. If you want something, then go get it. All the more power to you.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.