Most freshmen enter USC straight out of high school with limited life experiences. Twenty-two-year-old screenwriting major Ilan Benjamin, however, is starting his freshman year at USC after spending 2 1/2 years in the Israeli army — and wrote a book about the experience.
Benjamin grew up in Oakland, Calif. His father is Israeli, and Benjamin’s family visited Israel many times throughout Benjamin’s childhood. On one such visit, they gave a soldier a ride.
The experience had a profound impact on Benjamin.
“To me, [this soldier] was the epitome of everything cool and important and meaningful,” Benjamin said. “At eight years old, I knew this was someone I wanted to emulate.”
When Benjamin took another trip to Israel at age 16, he was sure he wanted to serve in the army.
“Israel is surrounded by enemies. … It’s a miracle Israel exists,” he said.
Benjamin’s parents did not take his wish to serve seriously until he refused to fill out college applications, and instead chose to enlist in the army.
“I needed time to experience real life,” Benjamin said. “I wanted something to write about.”
During his years in Israel, Benjamin found inspiration for his writing. When asked to describe his experience, he said his time in the army was “every adjective you could imagine.”
“We got through the hard stuff with laughter,” Benjamin said. “I had a lot of fun, but it could be scary and intense.”
The Israeli soldiers were guarding the country against an enemy who “wanted to drive every Jew into the sea.”
Most of his worst experiences occurred when he was stationed at Har Dov, a disputed territory also known as Shebaa Farms.
Located in the mountains, Har Dov stood far from civilization.
“You could go a little crazy,” Benjamin said.
Har Dov is perhaps the hardest place to guard in Israel, because the enemy was extremely close.
“It was scary to see them, but scarier when the fog came in and we couldn’t see,” Benjamin said.
Not all the places Benjamin was stationed, though, were so trying. While serving on the Gaza Strip, Benjamin interacted with the people he was protecting. Observing children studying in bomb shelters made the experience “feel meaningful.”
“Everyone lives in constant fear of bombardment,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin wrote throughout his experience. All of his stories were written in the moment, based on his urges and the trials of the people he met.
“My stories were a way of venting. … Writing was like therapy,” Benjamin said. “Fiction guarded me. There’s a difference between saying, ‘He did this’ and saying, ‘I did this.’”
Benjamin never intended for the tales to become a book, but after his service, he noticed they all connected.
He could not, however, find a publisher willing to sell his short stories. Benjamin was told nonfiction sells much better. Benjamin, however, preferred fictional stories.
“Nonfiction is like a glorified diary. … It wouldn’t have captured the experience as well,” he said.
Benjamin started a campaign on Kickstarter to pay for professional editing, layout and distribution costs. The campaign has already surpassed its $3,000 goal.
“I’m grateful to everybody and everything,” Benjamin said. “My supporters mean the world to me.”
Thanks to help from family, friends and strangers, Benjamin’s book Masa: The Stories of a Lone Soldier will be available on Amazon in December.
For now, Benjamin has thrown himself into life at USC.
“Being accepted into the screenwriting program was a dream come true,” Benjamin said.
Already involved in several film-related projects, Benjamin cannot wait to “write like crazy” in the future. Ultimately, he wants to make a documentary using some of the footage he shot in Israel.
“Since I finished serving, my life has been amazing. I appreciate everything,” Benjamin said.
While being a 22-year-old freshman means he sometimes must deal with immaturity and “dumb questions” about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Benjamin said he loves living in New/North Residential College.
“I try to treat everyone as an equal and surround myself with more mature people,” Benjamin said, “But that’s not to say I can’t be immature too.”
Though he said he is enjoying his time at USC, Benjamin does miss aspects of Israel: the food, the people and even the army.
He also misses the “blunt” nature of the Israeli people.
“There is no political correctness in Israel,” Benjamin said. “It rubbed off on me; I’m a straightforward guy.”
Both cultures will always be a part of his identity: “Here, I feel Israeli. There, I feel American. America and Israel are two flawed but beautiful countries. Both are worth defending and being proud of.”