We were exhausted. The whole night had been consumed by our assault from the beach. Now it was daylight. We were stationed in one of the houses we had attacked and conquered. Although the house was relatively large it simply was not large enough for all the soldiers inside to sleep comfortably. My attempts to doze off a little between watches were unsuccessful. I went into a little girl's bedroom trying to find a comfortable place to nap. The whole house had been all but destroyed. Shards of glass and pieces of plaster littered the floor. I examined the lines of bullet holes scattered throughout the walls. Then I noticed an enormous, orange, stuffed rabbit, almost like a giant Care-Bear with long ears, sitting on a large shelf.

"Hey, Shaft! Look, you monster! You killed it!"

Sure enough, the giant rabbit was riddled with bullet holes from his MAG 7.62 mm machine gun. The stuffing had been tossed about the room. The rabbit hunched over, its eyes cold and lifeless.

War is an ugly thing.

There was another doll on the shelf. This doll was unharmed, but its head was positioned against the wall exactly between two bullet holes.

While marveling at the good fortune bestowed upon this toy, Captain America called me and Axel to the top floor. We had enemy contacts. Four Hamas terrorists attempted an assault from a nearby house. We set up defensive positions and prepared for a counterstrike.

I set up my M4 with Trigicon scope in a window, functioning as a relatively short-range sniper. I scanned the doors and windows with my finger on the trigger. Meanwhile the tanks surrounded the three or four-story building they occupied. Likewise a demolitions crew moved in. They no longer needed me to snipe them. We were going to blow up the entire house.

I sat back and watched, covering the approach of the demolitions team. Numerous tanks sat in the streets and alleys, with the cannons aimed at the house. The demolitions crew placed charges on the corners of the house.

The demolitions crew set off the explosives in conjunction with a massive salvo from at least half a dozen tanks. In a matter of seconds there was very little left of the house or terrorists.

To my surprise we continued pushing forward, but now in broad daylight. We usually prefer to operate at night. Our platoon moved from house to house, mansion to mansion, checking for terrorists and weapons.

We entered another Hamas house. This one was by far the most affluent that I had seen. It had marble floors, impressive white pillars, and gold plating in the bathroom. We entered the house shooting and lobbing grenades. As I entered I surveyed the damage to the marble pillars and expensive statuettes. To my surprise in the living room was an aquarium full of exotic fish. The fish tank was unscratched despite the excessive damage all around it. One of the soldiers even fed the fish before we left.

Searching the house I entered another little girl's room. Judging by the photos of her as well as the size of her clothes she couldn't have been more than seven years old. In her room we found the ultra-violent computer game, Grand Theft Auto, a collection of Steven Segal movies, as well as a collection of sharp barber-style razors.

Who gives their seven year-old daughter these kinds of movies and video games, and what's up with the razors? I have yet to figure that out.

I moved to the roof of a neighboring house to cover the approach of Platoon 8. I surveyed the view. In the distance I saw a large mosque toppled over and destroyed. I remembered hearing about it a few days previously. Hamas had used the mosque to store massive quantities of weapons and had booby trapped the thing to the point of making any entry suicidal. We placed charges on the mosque to take out the weapons. But there were so many munitions inside that the entire mosque collapsed on itself. It was now reduced to a pile of rubble with the gigantic dome rolled off to the side.

We continued to advance. I went up ahead, shooting out locks and kicking in doors. Evening drew near and we entered a new mansion and prepared for nightfall.

It was about 10 pm and suddenly we began hearing rumors from the medics and doctors. They began making preparations to evacuate the house. There were rumors of a cease-fire. I didn't believe it. Even if there would be a cease-fire it would take time to implement it and finalize the deal and the removal of Israeli forces would be not be a simple process.

I was wrong. At midnight we received orders to prepare for a full and immediate withdrawal. We were to move out in two hours, at 2 am. And we would be walking the entire distance from the edge of Gaza City to the Israeli border, and then to the nearby IDF military base where it had all began.

The attitudes and responses to the cease-fire were varied. Some of us just wanted to go home, and didn't care what that meant for the overall picture. Some of us were disappointed, disagreeing with the cease-fire and finding it a weak decision. I sat in a corner of the Hamas mansion. I asked Smirnoff for a cigarette. I don't smoke, and it had been one of my first cigarettes in a year. It seemed like an appropriate time, but it didn't really help. I was upset. I was very upset. I am not a politician, and it is not my purpose to delve into politics here. But it seemed like failure. We were winning. Hamas was unable to stand before us. Before me. I watched terrorists flee from me in horror. Those that didn't soon became carcasses in my path. I felt unstoppable. We were in a position to destroy fifteen years of terrorist development and weapon smuggling. In my opinion we would have been able to get Gilad Shalit back with no negotiation.

We were in the position to SMASH Hamas. To wipe a murderous terrorist organization off the face of the earth. And now we were being told to stop. To pack it all up and go home.

It is a severe violation of my over-inflated ego to admit it but I will.

I actually cried.

I thought about Cocoa Puff, my friend shaking in the bomb shelter. I thought about Sgt. Obama and his family trying to live in Ashkelon, even after a missile had landed on their block. I thought about the lieutenant with shrapnel in his brain, lying half-conscious in a hospital with his newly-wed wife sitting in a chair next to him. I thought about my apartment, and wondered if it was even still there. I thought about all the people I had killed. I thought about all the people that had been trying to kill me.

Had it all been for nothing?

It felt like failure. It felt like betrayal.

No one else in the platoon reacted as strongly as I did. Those of us with a little broader perspective were also unhappy, including Axel, Shaft, and the officers. Captain America and Sgt. Obama both pulled me aside later. They gave me a speech consisting of patronizing baloney. Yeah, yeah. We hit Hamas hard and all that. The final score card was tallied up with over 900 Hamas terrorists dead and roughly 150 civilian casualties. Less than ten Israeli soldiers had been killed, and most of them had died from friendly-fire. That meant we had a kill ratio of 100:1. But I wasn't stupid. I knew we had hit them hard but it would only be a matter of time before they would start firing missiles and rockets again. I expected a month or two of calm. (It turns out that they waited even less time than that, seriously violating the cease-fire repeatedly within a few mere weeks.)

I tossed the cigarette away and we began marching the 8 km back to the border.

We followed a route on the beach, where the water met the sand. Several times a freak wave danced on the shore and filled my red boots with salt water. The entire army marched silently in double-file. It was surreal, listening to the waves crash in the darkness. I hoped that the D9 bulldozers had successfully cleared all the mines.

Walking along I spotted an odd shape in the water just past the breaking waves. I peered at it through my Li-Or night vision scope.

It was a dead body.

I had heard a rumor about a certain special forces mission that took place on the beach. (For security reasons I did not write about it.) I wondered to myself if the corpse had been from that operation.

We moved on. Just before the border we took a brief break. I leaned back against my equipment and sat on the sand. The entire war I had been saving a single can of Coca-Cola for the end as a celebratory treat. I had actually jerry-rigged one of my magazine pouches to hold the cola can and protect it from puncture. This was hardly the way I had wanted the war to end, but I guessed it was over anyway. I sat next to Sgt. Obama. He heard the unmistakable "hiss and pop" of a can of Coca-Cola being opened.

"No way..." he whispered. I took the first sip, smiled with satisfaction, and passed it to him. The single can of Coca-Cola made its way down the line through the platoon. It was worth its weight in gold.

Nothin' like the real thing.

We crossed the border and re-entered friendly territory. The press was there and numerous "jobnik" girls taking photos. Most of the guys in the platoon tried to make it look good for the camera. I ignored them and kept walking. I still felt like we had failed, given up, and saw no point in celebration.

Finally we arrived at a large parking lot just outside of the base where it had all began. For the first time in over two weeks I was able to take off my combat vest and body armor. I felt so light. I also realized that I was in desperate need of a chiropractor. I took off my helmet. I was still wearing the purple bandana.

"Hey, Yared," a friend of mine called from a different company in the paratroopers. "What's up with the bandana?"

I examined the bandana. The nice messages were still there, semi-blurred from mud and sweat. I thought about all my friends back home.

"It's a long story..." I responded quietly. I was tired of explaining it.

I looked about the parking lot. All of my friends were there. We were all coming back. It was so good to see the faces of them all. Some were better, some were worse. All were tired and dirty.

I saw a group of religious soldiers pray. It was their first morning prayers back on friendly soil, without the danger of being bombed.

I saw The Glowing. He somehow had gotten hold of a cell phone and called his parents back in the States. They hadn't heard anything about him or from him the entire war. I found out later that they first found out that he was in Gaza because of this blog.

We listened to a speech from the head colonel, commander of the entire Paratrooper Brigade. I am sure that it was timely and inspiring, but I honestly have no memory of what he said. I was too tired to pay attention. I hadn't slept in days, and had been fighting and marching for the past two nights.

I returned to the area where we had left our equipment. I lay down on the hard asphalt in the warm, early morning sun. I had never felt anything so wonderfully relaxing. I immediately passed out, waiting for the army buses to take us back to our main base.