From struggling immigrant to outstanding officer

Second Lt. Nira Lee

Lone Soldier 2nd Lt. Nira Lee receives President’s Citation of Excellence in a ceremony held in honor of Independence Day

Date: 16/04/2013, 3:28 PM     Author: Sahar Raz

Today (Wednesday, April 16), as Jews around the world celebrate Israel’s independence, President Shimon Peres is honoring distinguished soldiers who have displayed outstanding service to the defense of the State of Israel. Known as the President’s Citation of Excellence, the prestigious award is given once a year on Independence Day to 120 soldiers. One of this year’s recipients is 24-year-old lone soldier 2nd Lt. Nira Lee.

From struggling immigrant to outstanding officer

Second Lt. Lee was always a Zionist. She grew up in Tempe, Arizona, in a Zionist household, but she had no intention of making aliyah. Her first trip to Israel was in 2004, when at age 16 she attended a group discovery trip with the B’nei B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). “At that time, I did not feel a special connection to Israel nor a personal obligation to be here,” 2nd Lt. Lee explained.

On her second trip to Israel, during her first year in university, everything changed. She volunteered on a trip with Hillel to live in Akko and rebuild a school that had been destroyed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. According to 2nd Lt. Lee, “being in the periphery and not necessarily touring the popular sites of Israel helped show me the different side of Israel. It showed me the people who needed help, and that was the first time I personally felt connected to this country.”

Trying out life in Israel

After that experience, 2nd Lt. Lee decided to support Israel from the inside. At the time, she was studying International Relations at American University in Washington D.C., and decided to do a test run by studying abroad in Haifa during her third year. “I chose Haifa because I understood it to be a much more authentic environment, one that seems closest to normal life in Israel,” she said.
The test run proved difficult for 2nd Lt. Lee. She knew no Hebrew. She was also overweight and in poor physical health. “I decided that if I wanted to help Israel, I would have to make a few personal changes first,” she said.

In 2008, 2nd Lt. Lee was in Israel when the security situation in Gaza deteriorated and Operation Cast Lead was initiated. The IDF (Zahal) called up reserves, many of whom were friends of 2nd Lt. Lee’s. “Being there during Operation Cast Lead and feeling so futile made me want to enlist in the IDF (Zahal). Seeing my friends being called up while I remained in the comfort of my dorm room made me want to join them.”

Second Lt. Lee decided there and then that the next time Israel’s citizens would be called to defend the state, she would be among them. Following her year abroad, Nira learned to speak Hebrew fluently and, through personal determination and strength, lost 55 pounds on her path to physical health.

Finding her way in Israel – and in the IDF (Zahal)

On May 25, 2010, 2nd Lt. Lee made aliyah, and the following October she enlisted as a lone soldier in the IDF (Zahal), the first and only soldier in her family. At first, the transition was difficult. “No one knows the difficulties of being a lone soldier,” she said, adding that finding a place to live and setting up her life were great challenges.

Fortunately for Lt. Lee, her commanders noticed that she was struggling and made great efforts to help her. “My commanders made it possible for me to have normal soldier concerns, rather than concerns such as where I would sleep that night or if I would have food to put on my plate. Instead of worrying about a place to do my laundry, and ending up washing my clothes in the shower at the base, I was able to focus on the reason I was there: my job in the army,” she said.

Second Lt. Lee began her service in the IDF (Zahal) working with international organizations in Judea and Samaria. She completed the IDF (Zahal) Officers Course in 2011 and became the deputy liaison officer to the international community in the Gaza Strip. She is currently responsible for assisting in foreign access and the transfer of medical supplies into Gaza.

From struggling immigrant to outstanding officer

Medical supplies entering the Gaza Strip following Operation Pillar of Defense

Recognized for her outstanding service

Next week, 2nd Lt. Lee will be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. She has been in the IDF (Zahal) for almost three years and is signed on for another six months. After completing her military service, she plans to earn a master’s degree in security and diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.

When asked what the most meaningful part of her service has been so far, 2nd Lt. Lee quickly responded: “Operation Pillar of Defense, without a doubt. Knowing that I made a difference during Operation Pillar of Defense made it all worth it.”

Looking back on her service, 2nd Lt. Lee has nothing but appreciation for Israel and the IDF (Zahal). “My best friend in the army is Druze, and somehow he understands me better than anyone, and that’s the amazing thing about the army,” she said. “We grew up on opposite sides of the world, celebrating different holidays, speaking different languages, and eating different foods. There are so many differences and yet when we’re together none of that stuff matters. It’s ironic, but it’s beautiful and it shows a lot about Israel and the IDF (Zahal).”

From struggling immigrant to outstanding officer

Second Lt. Lee is proud of her contribution, particularly in the help that she has been able to provide to other lone soldiers. “I’ve had the challenge and honor of being a commander to several lone soldiers and helping them learn things I wish I had known when I was in their shoes. More importantly, teaching my fellow commanders how to understand lone soldiers and what we go through was even more rewarding because I alone can only influence about five lone soldiers, but if I influence five commanders and each of them influences five lone soldiers, than I have helped a lot of soldiers,” she said.

Second Lt. Lee’s outstanding service to the IDF (Zahal) and State of Israel is being recognized today, as she receives the President’s Citation of Excellence on Israel’s 65th Independence Day.”It’s a huge honor for me to receive this award,” she said. “Being a new immigrant, there are certainly times you feel you do not fit in, but the army is the epitome of how this country unites people. Yes, it is difficult at times to live here, but when I’m in a place like this with people from Ethiopia and Canada to Belgium and Argentina, it’s amazing. Being accepted this way is an incredible privilege not just for me but for my unit, my commanders and my base.”