Islander grad is now Israeli soldier

Kayla Mogil, right, leans on a fellow lone soldier after spending an evening in a bomb shelter overseas.  - Contributed Photo
Kayla Mogil, right, leans on a fellow lone soldier after spending an evening in a bomb shelter overseas.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Upon first glance of Kayla Mogil’s Facebook page, one will see a beautiful, young American woman. Her profile picture is simple, featuring the cheery, youthful smiles of Mogil and her boyfriend, Hen. She looks the part of a former high school cheerleader, which she was at Mercer Island High School.

It’s not until scrolling through a few pictures that contrast sets in, with images of this seemingly girly-girl donning warpaint and holding a machine gun.

Last October, Mogil, a 2013 MIHS graduate, traded her cheerleading uniform for a military one, serving as a lone soldier with the Israeli Defense Force.

To Kayla’s parents, Denise and Scott Mogil, her decision to serve in the Israeli military did not come as a surprise. They describe their daughter as extremely outgoing with no fear. She was always involved in everything around her.

“When she was a little girl, she would run through the house and she had these little curls and I remember she’d say, ‘I do it! I do it, Mommy!’ We’d just say, ‘OK, you’re going to do it,’” says Denise. “You can not say no to her, she will find a way to make it happen.”

Kayla’s family, which includes her younger brother Noah, moved to Mercer Island from Southern California in 2005, when Kayla was in fifth grade. With her family joining Herzl-Ner Tamid, Kayla became involved with Mercer Island’s Jewish community and the SJCC, as well as Youth Theatre Northwest. Her parents say her military interest goes back to when Kayla was in middle school. When she attended Islander Middle School, she did a project on her grandfather, Ted, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

“Kayla and her grandfather were always very close, and through her research of the Marines, she decided she wanted to be in Marine Corps,” said Scott. His daughter even began working out with the Marines when she was a freshman in high school, as the only girl in the group.

During the summer after her sophomore year, Kayla took her first trip to Israel with the Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors program of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). On the six-week trip, Kayla had dinner with diplomats and talked to parents of people killed or kidnapped in previous wars. The trip piqued her interest in Israel.

“She came home from that trip and said, ‘I think I want to be a diplomat for Israel,’” recalled Denise. “She was fascinated, but we were like ‘OK, whatever.’”

The following summer, Kayla wanted to go back and found another leadership program, NCSY’s JOLT, that could take her to Israel. Only 50 students would go, and it was an expensive trip that her parents said she’d have to pay for. To her parents’ surprise, Kayla got a restaurant job to help finance the trip. It was after her second trip that her parents say Kayla decided she wanted to join the Israeli army instead of the Marines.

“She was just getting frustrated,” Scott recalls. “It was after the second trip to Israel when she realized she still had a passion to join a military service, but she wanted to give and make a difference in something she believed in. She didn’t believe in what [the U.S. was] involved with, but she definitely had passion for Israel and felt that was where she could make her difference. And that’s when she decided, and she was very clear.”

In a last-ditch effort, Kayla’s mother tried taking her on college tours to dissuade her daughter.

“I’m not arguing with her, but I’m trying to change her mind,” says Denise. “I’m taking her to schools, going on college trips to the East Coast, George Mason, Yeshiva University. I’m thinking I’m going to change her mind. And she thought the campuses were great, but she kept saying, ‘after my service, I’ll come back and go to school.’”

So in October 2013, a month after Kayla’s 18th birthday, Scott traveled with Kayla to Israel, as she embarked on becoming a lone soldier with the IDF.  Kayla started a blog chronicling her travels. She writes about the loneliness that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, struggling to figure out the bus system, getting lost in her new country and running out of currency shortly after arriving. Early on, she questions her decision to forego college for the cause. But with each post comes another small victory for Kayla, as she becomes more and more acclimated to her surroundings and reaffirms why she chose to come to Israel. On Facebook, Kayla calls her service the most stressful, exciting, scary time of her life, but she loves it. Her parents have been amazed with how well she’s hung in there.

“When she goes out into the field, they don’t shower for a week. They don’t change their clothes, they eat tuna fish for every meal. It’s just amazing to think that this girl who was such a girly-girl is now a totally different person and can do all that,” says Denise. “It’s a testament to her that she gave all that up to do what she’s doing now. But she doesn’t really complain about it.”

Kayla’s parents keep up with their daughter primarily through social media. Facebook is huge with Denise, where she can see all of Kayla’s posts. If she reaches them by phone, it’s usually a short phone call or text. “Just to know that she’s texting us, we know she’s OK. Even if it’s just ‘Hi, I’m alive, love you,’” said Denise.

Those short texts mean the world to Kayla’s parents because ultimately, their daughter is always on their minds. “We’re always thinking about it, everyday,” says Scott.

“It’s hard, it’s very hard,” her mom says through tears. “I’m very proud of her, but it is hard. And it’s been great, everybody on Mercer Island has been so supportive. Everybody’s asking about her, but it’s hard. Sometimes though I just don’t think she understands how dangerous it is.”

Her father is quick to disagree with that notion, but reading Kayla’s blog, it appears the danger registers with her differently depending on the context. Her family visited her in July, and Kayla writes comically about being able to have dinner at a popular Thai restaurant that was previously all booked until after a few rockets, “we got the pleasure of dining there that night.”

But her tone quickly changes, explaining how frightening it was after explaining to her family what to do when they heard a siren to the shock of one going off while her family was there.

“Now, thank God, my family is heading back to rocket-free America, and I head back to my army family first thing in the [morning],” Kayla wrote.

And the family trip was not without one last plea to come back.

“The last night we were there, I told her, ‘look, you’ve done your duty, we can all go now. It’s fine, we’ll get you into college.’ She said no,” remembers Scott.

There have been lighter moments as well. “It’s funny because some of the things she posts on Instagram, my friends will say, ‘it doesn’t even seem like Kayla’s in the army, she makes it seem like she’s on vacation,’“ says Denise.

Both parents say their views of American news media has shifted since their daughter has gone overseas. Denise thinks media coverage in the U.S. has been one-sided, and Scott adds there’s always more to the story. But it’s more attention than they gave before their daughter was serving, and they’ve both become more globally aware.

“You get in your bubble, especially here. We live in this beautiful place, we have great jobs and we’re very fortunate. You don’t think about this stuff that goes on in the world. It’s made me more aware. My parents who live in Kentucky who never knew anything about any conflict and are not Jewish, they’re keeping up on it. My extended family, people you’d never think would be supportive or interested in the world, they’re becoming more interested.”

Kayla is committed to serve with the IDF until next June, when the plan is to come home and start as a freshman somewhere. The hope is that Kayla makes it back in time for Noah’s graduation from MIHS. While not currently planning to join the Israeli army, Noah received an official invite to join the Naval Academy.

In the meantime, her family will keep their attention overseas and try and put things in perspective with her service. “You don’t try to think about ‘what if.’ You try to live in the now. It will drive you crazy if you do,” says Denise. “We’re lucky, we have two kids that are very good kids who know what’s going on in the world. We’re very proud of them.”


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