August 12, 2022

Rehabilitation: A different kind of valor for IDF soldiers - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Operation Breaking Dawn hadn’t yet begun – or maybe it had. Maybe he knew but he wouldn’t say. Couldn’t say.

I’m in a Jerusalem mall café that specializes in sweet pastries, having breakfast with “B,” a handsome, brawny 20-year-old soldier. Friday morning. We’re still talking about Guardian of the Walls. May 2021, in case you don’t remember. The last short war with Gaza terrorists.
B was inside, a soldier serving in a special unit, identifying attack tunnels, counting his blessings for surviving constant close calls.

But I’ve asked to talk to him: not about fighting but about his rehabilitation.

How can you come back from a devastating injury as he has?

His injury happened in IDF training, not dodging exploding mortar shells.
Training for his unit was always grueling. One exercise required carrying your own gear, plus another soldier laden with his equipment, up a mountain. 220 kilograms on his legs. “It was hard, but I felt like a king when I completed it,” he says.

Actually, B had been training ever since he was 10 years old, when he started kick-boxing. Maybe his grandparents had implanted the Zionist gene when they told him about leaving North Africa and not minding living in an asbestos hut because they were living in Israel. Maybe it was his father, who served as an officer in an elite counter-terrorism unit, who inspired him. But B knew from the time he remembers himself that he “wanted to serve his country as a warrior.”

While in one of Jerusalem’s most prestigious high schools, he never stopped practicing. He learned Krav Maga, the Israeli martial arts. He lifted weights. When he went to the beach, it wasn’t to sunbathe but to run kilometers, pounding down the sand under the hot sun. The training and the attitude paid off. After graduation, he was selected for one of the IDF’s top units, one specializing in working behind enemy lines to identify high-value targets.
That’s what he did in Gaza during Guardian of the Walls.

A sudden injury in the IDF

TRAINING NEVER stops. One of their unit’s tools is camouflage. And so, after Guardian of the Walls, at night, during a holiday week when most of the country is partying in the wooden booths called Sukkot, B is hunched down in a field in the Judean Hills, making himself invisible. It’s the last practice of the night. The soldiers are working in pairs. B has been picked to buddy-up with the officer in charge. They quickly arrange their camouflage, and then B is dispatched to check his fellow soldiers.

He’s not satisfied with the concealment of one of the pairs; he’ll help.
B goes off to find bush to bring back and cover the soldiers. It’s still not enough. He goes farther afield to find better cover. And then, as he chops off the scrub, B feels the earth shift. Beneath the bush is a hole, smaller than a basketball hoop. The ground gives way and he’s free falling.

The soldier barely has time to scream.
B hits the ground, 12 meters below.
A bell cave, he tells me. “Probably from the time of Bar Kochba.”
Bar Kochba, 132-135 CE, military leader who led the revolt against the Romans. To get into his special unit, you had to cut down a tree.

Twelve meters, if you can picture it, is the height of a three-story house inverted in the ground. Archaeological excavations have been conducted nearby but this cave has been hidden for 2,000 years. Fascinating – unless you’re falling into it.

B figures he was unconscious for a few minutes, and then he woke up and continued screaming. Working with flashlights, at last his fellow soldiers find the cave. They stand helpless above him. All they can do is to shout encouragement and send down a device for him to measure his pulse.

Even with all their equipment and ingenuity, they are not prepared for a 12-meter-down safe rescue of a badly injured soldier.

This required the fire department and another special unit: 669, the Airborne Combat and Rescue Unit. “When they got down, my pain was so extreme, no one could touch me,” he said.
When B is finally lifted to the surface, four of his fellow soldiers carry him into the waiting helicopter.

ONLY THEN does the officer in charge call his mother. B is the oldest of their four children, and his mom has become a kind of den mother for the unit. She visits often, bringing boxes of home-cooked treats. At first, she’s delighted to hear the officer’s voice – maybe they need her to make food for a holiday party.

When she hears the news, she falls to the floor.
“They told me that when she recovered herself she became a lion giving the officers instructions,” B says, “She is a lion. She always has my back.”

His parents arrive around the same time as the helicopter at Hadassah Medical Center’s Ein Kerem helipad.

In the trauma center, they find a snapped femur, a broken arm, numerous pelvis breaks, a broken eye socket. His nose is broken, and he has a hole through his chin to his mouth. He was lucky to be wearing a helmet, but he still has a concussion.

He remembers some of the visitors. The mayor. The prime minister. The brigade commander. B has only one question: “When can I go back to my unit?”

The two months in a wheelchair are demoralizing. “Worse than the pain is the depression, nightmares and feeling of helplessness,” he says. B loses 13 kilos of muscle.

We’re here to talk about rehab because of the upcoming visit of John and Pauline Gandel, the Australian philanthropists who are the major donors to the fast-rising, desperately needed Gandel Rehabilitation Center on Mount Scopus. The young man at the café table looks fully fit, even though his injury was less than a year ago.

Rehabilitation, he says, requires a different kind of valor.

He describes the hard work of physical and occupational therapy, how the therapists have a way of making you laugh when you’re gritting your teeth. He was cheered when other patients, whom he shared the pool with in hydrotherapy, told him he was their role model and that they pushed themselves harder and made better progress because of him.

There are talks with the psychologists and social workers to help him deal with his reduced IDF profile. “The first day I ran on the anti-gravity machine, I cried with joy because I knew I was getting back to myself.”

B still gets headaches; he says he’s short-tempered. I don’t see it. The soldier takes a long time explaining things to me, insisting on doing it in English, even though I’m fluent in Hebrew. His muscle mass is returning. “I’m not ready to carry 220 kilos up the hill,” he says. “But I’m pressing 100.”
He’s back in his unit, for the meantime in a support position. Operation Breaking Dawn is about to break. His unit is returning to Gaza.
We can’t talk about that. Not yet.