March 22, 2024

‘The sky rained rockets': Wounded IDF soldier shares his story

By Barbara Sofer

Every single mission – and thankfully there are many from abroad – that comes to admire the new Gandel Rehabilitation Center on Hadassah’s Mount Scopus wants to meet at least one wounded soldier, to hear about the experience of these heroic young men and women in the unique above ground/below ground challenges of the war. They also want to hear about the process of rehabilitation and cheer the soldiers as they work so hard to regain the use of their limbs. Facilitating these meetings requires the approval of the IDF spokesperson’s central office. No photographs are allowed. Whenever possible, arrangements are made well ahead of the visits.

But then there are surprises. On the morning of a visit by delegates of the World Zionist Organization, it became clear that not one but two separate WZO groups were arriving at different times. In my public relations role for Hadassah, I promised to try to find a soldier who was available and willing to speak. So when a soldier, call him AZ, shared the elevator with me, it was time for an elevator speech – we were headed to the second floor from minus two, so I had a bit of time. To my delight, he immediately agreed. IDF approval also came through unusually fast.

I like to know the details of soldiers’ stories ahead of time so that I can help direct them about engaging a group, and also do a better job of translation from Hebrew to English. My nemesis is translating military terminology. Sergeant major is different from master sergeant; mem mem is a platoon commander (with 40 soldiers); and mem peh is a company commander (120 soldiers). The heralded “paratroopers 202” is the name of a brigade (600 soldiers). One Hadassah doctor is the medical officer for an ugda, which means she’s either the head of a division or divisional combat team. You get the idea.

There’s no time for a pre-interview this time. AZ and I sit down before this audience of strangers. He’s a staff sergeant and squad commander in the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion. That means AZ is in charge of about 15 recruits, which includes their discipline, weapons training, first-aid practice, and physical fitness. AZ is also responsible for the acclimation of the new soldiers.

Fighting and being wounded on October 7

We start with Oct. 7. AZ is on duty in the Sufa outpost near the southern Gaza Strip. He gets up early as he does every day. Part of his responsibility is to be awake at daybreak, called sha’ar gesher, the time just before sunrise when visibility is reduced and awareness needs to be increased.

AZ is feeling exuberant onOct. 7as the sun rises. Despite the name of the outpost, which means “storm” and refers to the dust storms that are frequent in nearby Kibbutz Sufa, the air is clear and the fields green from winter rain. A feeling of Gan Eden, paradise, he calls it. His three years in the army are coming to a satisfying end this week. The soldiers he commands are as close as siblings. On Saturday, they will celebrate not only Simchat Torah and Shabbat but also AZ’s last Shabbat in the regular army. AZ isn’t sure what he wants do afterwards. One option is to follow up his hobby as a pastry chef. Staff Sergeant AZ loves to bake.

Then the rockets begin falling. On this southern border with Gaza, they are accustomed to rocket attacks. “But this one is different,” he says. “The sky is raining rockets, a purple rain.” “Purple rain” is the Israeli army term for incoming bombs or missiles. (I looked it up afterwards.)

The first wave of terrorists are estimated as 60-strong. They are heavily armed and have the advantage of a surprise attack. They aren’t random terrorists but members of Hamas’s highly trained Nukhba commando unit.

AZ’s troops needed to get their weapons. They also needed to take shelter. The reinforced mess hall would serve as a bunker.

“I ran to get ammunition. Even then, we didn’t understand the magnitude of the attack,” AZ says.

From the mess hall, the outnumbered soldiers fight back. An additional wave of 60 terrorists attacks. The mess hall is protective from above, but not from the grenades and RPGs from the entrance. The fighting goes on for nine hours. AZ succeeds in moving wounded soldiers who were caught outside into the mess hall. Then one of the grenades blows up close to him. His arm bleeds profusely. He assumes he is going to die. “I could make peace with giving my life for my country, but I felt it was a shame that I didn’t have the chance to fulfill so many dreams,” he says. He writes texts to his friends, saying goodbye and that he loves them.

Reinforcements arrive from the (coed infantry brigade) Caracal and (usually sea-to-land) Shayetet 13 commandos.

Four members of his squad are dead. AZ is evacuated, listed as lightly wounded.

When he arrives at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, he is upgraded to moderately wounded.

By the time he gets to Jerusalem, at Hadassah Ein Kerem he is listed as seriously wounded because a bullet has been discovered in his skull.

“Half a centimeter over, I would have been among the dead,” he tells the group.

This is AZ’s story, but there is a story within a story. Three stories, in fact.

The real reason AZ so quickly has agreed to speak, it turns out, is his pressing need to memorialize his late comrades in arms.

He recites their four names: Segev Schwartz; Amir Lavi; Nahman Dekel; and Tal Levy. Zichronum l’bracha. May their memories be for a blessing.

A tall visitor in the audience leaps from his seat. With French-accented Hebrew, he asks AZ to repeat the names.

The group has just come from the cemetery at Mount Herzl. They have visited exactly those graves. The visitor shows AZ on his cellphone the photo of his comrades’ graves. The visitor has photographed them so he can remember them in his prayers.

After hugging ensues, AZ says that one of the four, Amir Lavi, was a gifted artist. His birthday is coming up on April 19, and AZ is helping to organize a fair to remember him on what would have been his 20th birthday. He’d like to publicize it.

Do I happen to know anyone who writes for a newspaper? he asks me.

So, my dear readers, if you are available on the afternoon of April 19 and want to visit the Har Tuv Industrial Area near Beit Shemesh, you can enjoy the music of some of Israel’s best musicians (and eat hametz out of the home). Amir’s drawings will be exhibited. Proceeds will go to supporting soldiers.

The third story will have to wait for another time.

In the meantime, next time you hesitate about an elevator speech, think of all the good that can come of it.