ISLAND LAKE — Two days after returning from the central West Bank, Kale Mayberry, 29, was still very much processing everything he had experienced.
The Island Lake resident, who said he's rooted in Christianity and ministry, remembers wanting to go to the Middle East at 5 years old, but he didn't book a trip until almost 25 years later.
He left last Wednesday for Tel Aviv, then Bethlehem, and returned home Tuesday, hours before the Federal Aviation Administration issued a Tel Aviv flight ban after nearby rocket fire.
"I've always been drawn to the Middle East," Mayberry said, when asked what prompted the trip. "There's always some level of conflict, but when I booked the trip in March, there wasn't a war."
Throughout the month of July, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified with rocket fire, retaliation, a ground invasion by the Israel Defense Forces, and a death toll totaling more than 600 people.
As a licensed pastor — most recently he took classes at McHenry Community College while looking for work — Mayberry said his intent going into Bethlehem was to observe and learn. He went with an undisclosed pro-Palestinian peace organization for a month-long trip, which was cut short due to issues with his prosthetic leg.
His week in the West Bank involved staying with a host family, a Palestinian couple who provided food, shelter, and conversation.
While he didn't experience any direct violence, he described many moments of the trip as "startling."
"One night, I saw a ball of fire fly off in the distance," Mayberry said. "I physically responded before I mentally responded … I started shaking."
Efforts to sleep were futile after that. He later said a single thought frequented his mind throughout the rest of his time there — "What the hell am I doing here?"
Still, now that he's back, Mayberry said only half of him is happy to be home. The other half misses what he called the "small town feel" in Bethlehem.
"From my experience there, the people are peaceful — most of them — loving and helpful," he said, citing an instance where a man stopped to offer a ride after seeing Mayberry's prosthetic leg.
His left leg, which he said was lost to bone cancer about 12 years ago, caused an early departure after the prosthetic unexpectedly broke, hindering easy mobility.
After hours of security checks, the half-hour seizure of his prosthetic leg by airport officials, and the news of rocket fire hours after he left, Mayberry on Thursday said he was still dazed and exhausted.
From an outsider's perspective, he said the historical conflict is even more of a quandary to him.
"From seeing more, I know less," Mayberry said, adding he and his wife have agreed upon a "no war zone" rule for the future.