Samuel Barnett, a 27-year-old Portlander, served for two years in the Israeli military as a special forces paratrooper stationed in the West bank and on the Syrian and Lebanon borders.
Barnett always felt a strong calling to Israel, but he never dreamed he would end up in the elite 202 Battalion of the paratrooper unit in the Israeli Defense Force with a sergeant rank in the field intelligence and reconnaissance unit.
Barnett grew up in Portland as an active member of the Jewish community – participating in BBYO and becoming a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. But he believes his love of Israel was truly sparked during a Young Judea trip his junior year of high school. “While I was in Israel the first time, we got to meet Israeli soldiers and I was inspired. That was when I realized I might want to make aliyah and join the army,” says Barnett.
After high school, Barnett received a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Oregon where he studied psychology and joined the Hillel. Barnett’s desire to move to Israel never went away. After he graduated from the University of Oregon, Barnett made the leap in 2009 and accepted a six-month internship at ECI Telecom through Career Israel, a program that helps college graduates who want to experience professional life in Israel.
“I loved living in Israel, and while I was there I made friends who had been in the army. I knew I had to do it, no matter how hard it would be,” explains Barnett. In the spring of 2010, Barnett got into the Lone Soldier Program, or Garin Zabar in Hebrew, which supports soldiers without family in Israel. Barnett was amazed at the support he got from Israelis and his new adopted family. “They put you on a kibbutz, give you housing and truly include you in their family. It was wonderful,” he says. But Barnett had some major challenges ahead of him. If he wanted to join the army, he would have to complete a basic Hebrew course, make it through IDF’s extensive army tryouts and keep his soccer-injured knee in shape. Barnett describes the rigorous process for IDF: “We got our draft in October, and if you want to try out for an elite unit, you have additional tryouts that are extremely competitive.” Barnett aimed high. He wanted to get into one of the most elite units –the Israeli Paratroopers. Barnett had to compete in a daunting 30-hour tryout of physical and mental testing. Barnett couldn’t go into details, but he shared a glimpse of the demanding conditioning. “We did sprints, army crawls and missions in the desert. It was very hard because my Hebrew was nowhere near where it needed to be, so I was trying to keep up physically and with the language.”
Barnett estimates that about 1,000 people tried out for 100 spots. “I got my acceptance letter on the kibbutz a week later, and I was ecstatic and so honored. I was also extremely nervous,” shares Barnett. He still had one more test to gain entry into the elite unit within the paratroopers.
“I figured I would keep trying to get into the top unit. This one was a four-day test, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” says Barnett. This tryout had difficult mental capacity tests and more extreme physical challenges involving running with gear and completing missions with a team on two to three hours of sleep for four long days. Despite the language barrier, exhaustion and Barnett’s recovering knee injury, he was offered a spot.
“I wish I could have accepted the offer, but they wanted me to sign up for a third year since the training itself takes over a year. I was already on the older side as a 24-year-old and couldn’t give them another year. So I went into the regular paratrooper unit, which is still a huge honor,” says Barnett. Barnett excelled in the paratroopers and received his sergeant rank while stationed in the West Bank and on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. “I saw some amazing and terrifying things. We had several riot control situations, dealt with terrorist and Hamas operatives and weapons smugglers,” he says.
The most terrifying moments Barnett experienced were in refugee camps where his troop was greatly outnumbered. “In those situations, you go in at night and you get in and out as fast as possible,” he explains. In one instance Barnett and his troop were stranded during a call to prayer in a refugee camp. “A small riot started and they started throwing rocks. It got very scary. Luckily, we got out.”
Barnett says his experiences in the army gave him immense pride in Israel and a completely new perspective on the conflict. “It is hard to know what is going on from the news. When you are there, you really get an inside view. It has been really humbling.”
When Barnett finished his service in October 2012, he received a full scholarship to a master’s program in counterterrorism and conflict resolution at the Inter-Disciplinary College
in Herzliya. After graduating at the end of September, Barnett plans to come back to the Northwest and find a job in corporate security or intelligence.
Barnett hopes that sharing his story will encourage other young people in the Northwest to explore the idea of going to Israel and joining the army. In his own words, “I know it seems intimidating, but I want people to understand that it is an amazing experience. As Jews, it is important to feel and protect our ties to Israel.”