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Americans joining Israeli army through loyalty, obligation

Noam Sohn was an eighth grader in Westchester County, N.Y., when he started to feel a certain responsibility to help protect a country thousands of miles away.

"I felt that if I got to go to Israel and feel safe then I should also help the next generation feel safe," said Sohn. "In one way or another Israel is a homeland for me and I started to feel that this might be a better place for me to begin my life as an adult."

At the age of 19, Noam Sohn was ready to leave the comfort of his home and his family to enlist in the Nahal Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He is not alone. Roughly 1,000 American citizens serve in the Israeli army, according to IDF estimates. They are called "lone soldiers" - citizens from other countries who choose to volunteer for the IDF.

Noam Sohn in IDF uniform CBS News

Most of the lone soldiers are in their 20s. Last month, two of them lost their lives in Gaza - Max Steinberg, 24, from Southern California and Sean Carmeli, 21, from Texas.

Sohn, who is now 21, remembers the day he landed in Israel.

"It was a complete shock to my system," he recalled. "I was really nervous. I didn't know what unit I was going to get into. If I was going to make new friends like the friends I have in the United States. If I was going to miss my family too much."

"It wasn't peaceful," said Sohn's mother, Nora Anderson. "Because you're going to sleep knowing that your child is in danger."

For Sohn, the biggest challenge was learning Hebrew. "That is the biggest struggle because I want to communicate, I want to express to people how I'm feeling or what I need or what I want."

CBS News interviewed Sohn while he was home on leave for 30 days. This was his third time home since joining the army almost two years ago. He served four months on the Lebanese border and nine months in Ramallah. "We haven't been together as a full family in a very long time because he's never here for Thanksgiving. He's never here for major events," said Anderson.

Sohn's unit entered Gaza two weeks ago at the peak of escalation between Israeli army and Hamas militants.

Group photo of Nahal Brigade, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) CBS News

"All loss of human life is difficult to swallow," said Sohn. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is. A human's life is a human's life and if the person is not relevant to the conflict they shouldn't have to pay their life."

The war in Gaza is far from over. A ceasefire that was supposed to last 72 hours was broken. More than 1,600 Palestinians and 63 Israelis have been killed in 25 days of fighting, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Sohn returned to service this week, but hopes for a brighter future in Gaza. "I really do believe that like many other conflicts of the world this conflict too will be solved and in our generation you will see Palestinians and Israelis living in a much calmer world.

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