February 23, 2024

While Israelis worry over the hostages, we must not forget the wounded – opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I wish I could show you their pictures and write out their names. Each wounded soldier is a bona fide hero. But in an effort to protect our soldiers wounded in action in Gaza from self-righteous courts and anti-Israel legislators, we have to obscure their identities. We live in a world confused over who are the heroes and who are the villains.

We are sickened and worried and feeling helpless about the hostages. But let’s not forget the war wounded. Over 3,000 Israelis have been wounded in Gaza.

I’m privileged to know some of them because I often serve as a liaison between them and the many solidarity missions that come to support them and to hear their stories firsthand while visiting the newly opened Gandel Rehabilitation Center at Hadassah-University Medical Center on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.

I mean it when I say “privileged.”

TAKE S., for example. He’s an immigrant from France, now 30, who was wounded in his regular army service when he was a paratrooper. He recovered, but his so-called profile, which measures in numerical form his ability for combat, fell considerably. He was never going to be called up. But his brothers and friends were serving in Operation Swords of Iron, and S was determined to join them.

“I drove the IDF crazy,” he tells me, smiling and charming. In his civilian life, he’s studying computer engineering.

Perseverance paid off. The IDF took him back. He’s a combat medic, so they found a place for him in the armored infantry unit, what the Americans call “cavalry.” He was in a narrow alleyway in Gaza when an explosive device was fired at him from an adjacent building. The blast was aimed at his head and was so powerful that it forced him back to a wall, which collapsed on him. Fortunately, he says, his sister had gifted him with a special helmet, which protected his brain.

That was about the only part of his body that wasn’t wounded. His arms and legs were shattered. His chest and back had big holes. His lungs collapsed. His lips wouldn’t recover for weeks because he bit them so hard against the excruciating pain, as he didn’t want anyone to know how much he was suffering. His assessment as a medic was that he was dying.
He was evacuated by helicopter to Hadassah Ein Kerem, where his brother is a senior physician.

Now he’s in rehab. After hard and painful work in rehabilitation, he’s walking almost normally and can use both arms. If his doctors allow him (they won’t), he’d like to rejoin his new unit.
Then there’s R. He’s only 21, a bookworm and history buff. He studied music and studied the clarinet in a conservatory. His grandparents are Holocaust survivors. He got home from weeks of regular army service only hours before the holiday of Sukkot started. He refused to let his mother do his laundry because of the religious restrictions on doing such work on Hol Hamoed, the intermediary days of the holiday. They could do it afterward, he said, when he had time off.

Little did he know that he wouldn’t be back home for seven weeks.

Despite the exhaustion of army life, R was up early and already in synagogue on October 7. A soldier comrade was his house guest.

A neighbor knocked on the family’s door to tell R’s mother that a war had begun. She figured the two soldiers in synagogue needed to know, so she ran to the synagogue.
She was right. They were called back.

R’s mother grew up in Austria. When she was in high school, her class went to visit Mauthausen, a slave labor camp in Upper Austria where some 100,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust. The class knew that his mom’s father had been interned there. The teacher said that, of course, this couldn’t happen again. R’s mother, the only Jew in her class, spoke up. She disagreed politely with her teacher: It might indeed happen again.

When R was called back on Simchat Torah, his mom told me she was worried about his safety, but she felt proud that she had a son who could defend the people of Israel.

R joined his team inside the armored vehicle called Namer, the Hebrew for “leopard.” It’s also an abbreviation of nagmash and Merkava, an Israeli armored personnel carrier based on a Merkava Mark IV tank chassis. The vehicle is so crowded inside that it’s hard to find room for all the soldiers’ long legs, but it’s strong enough to sustain multiple hits.

There was no contact from R for weeks. His parents had to be creative to get him the good news that his brother had become engaged to marry. Then one day the phone call came from an unknown number. It was R on someone else’s phone. He told his mother that he was wounded and had “a scratch on his leg.”

In this case, “scratch” meant the shrapnel had cut his bone and a main artery. He didn’t want to scare his parents.

For weeks, R underwent surgeries and vascular treatments. Last week, after working hard in rehabilitation, he finally got back home, climbing the 36 stairs on his own two feet to his own bed.

His laundry was washed and folded.

Or take A., 42, a yeshiva graduate who serves as a battalion commander. Six hundred soldiers are under his command. On Oct. 7, he had just finished a 70-day stint in the reserves and was glad to be home for a restful holiday with his wife and four children.

On Simchat Torah, he was going to be honored in his synagogue as “hatan hane’arim,” the person who stands with all the little kids under a tallit and says the blessings on the Torah.
He was on his way to synagogue in Jerusalem when a stranger on the street asked him if he knew there had been an attack on the South.

“I’m a commander in the South, and I figured I needed my cellphone,” he said. He turned around. Dozens of WhatsApp messages flooded his phone screen. And then the first siren sounded in Jerusalem. He headed south.

These days he serves in the Harel Brigade, which fought for the road to Jerusalem in 1948 and opened the road to the Old City in the Six Day War. He thought about that as he drove to gather his troops.

That evening, they entered Kibbutz Be’eri after apprehending terrorists on the road lined with bodies, wrecked cars, and stolen microwaves and toys. For three days he and his soldiers sought the terrorists who had infiltrated the kibbutz. When they finished, they got ready to enter Gaza. Theirs was a search and destroy mission in Khan Yunis.

When you’re the battalion commander, he explains to me, your tank has to be in the most effective position. You also have to get out of the tank to evaluate the logistics to make the tactical decisions.

A was assessing a tunnel shaft when a terrorist sniper shot him in the elbow.

A simple bandage wouldn’t help, he saw. Afraid he’d bleed to death, he told his deputy to use a combat application tourniquet on his arm. “The deputy warned me that it was very painful. I said that it couldn’t hurt more than my elbow.”

Then he took the radio and told his troops he was wounded but he would be all right. They’d be in good hands with his deputy.

After surgery, he’s working hard to get back full use of his arm.

THESE THREE rehabilitation patients told their stories to the Conference of Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations this week, all sending a message of optimism and resilience back to the American Jewish community.

When A was wounded, his fellow officers wanted to carry him off the battlefield. He refused.
“I wanted my men to see that I was walking on my own two feet. That’s how I’ll return to the field.”

He expects to resume his command position soon.