Those of us who keep an eye on current events know that things are starting to heat up once again in Israel. Last week, a barrage of rockets poured into the Jewish state from Gaza.
It was only a few days ago that an officer who I had served under, Ziv Shilon, was badly injured by an IED on the border of Gaza. He lost an arm and three of the fingers on his other hand.
Soon after hearing about the incident, I received a text message from Avi, one of the soldiers who was under my command before I finished my service.
“One of the officers in my unit lost an arm this week and a rocket exploded only meters away from me. Both incidents reminded me of you. Do you want to meet up?”
“Of course” I responded “I would be happy to.”
You may be wondering why these two events led the soldier to think of me.
In February of 2008 I was just another American kid living in the beautiful and tranquil city of Miami, Florida. A little less than a year before war broke out in Gaza later that year, I felt a powerful urge to volunteer for and join the Israeli Defense Forces. Shortly after the intensive ten month combat training period, I was called to the front to participate in an important mission in what later became known as Operation Cast Lead. Unfortunately for me, I was hit by a rocket as our unit was preparing to enter Gaza. The rocket severed my left arm from the bicep down. Of course, I am a lefty but at that moment that was the least of my concerns.
Waking up in the hospital after two surgeries and large doses of pain medication, I had an idea that would forever change my life and Israeli Military history. Against the advice of my doctors, the military, and close friends, I resolved to one day return to combat. After months of careful maneuvering around Israeli Military bureaucracy, I was finally given the opportunity to prove myself. Much to the surprise of my commanders, and dare I say myself, I once again completed combat training and was back on the battlefield. Shortly thereafter, I became a commander of my own squad of thirteen soldiers.
Soon after I had received Avi’s message, we were sitting across from each other with a beer in hand, staring out at the busy Jerusalem nightlife.
“What’s going on?” I asked him “Are you okay?”
He explained that a mortar had fallen only seven meters away from him and one of his soldiers. “His soldiers”; It is still hard for me to believe that the wide eyed boy who I had transformed into a warrior is now a commander.
“How are the others?” I asked him. I was referring to the other soldiers who I had trained alongside him.
“Ben almost died as well” he informed me. “He was supposed to be the one checking the fence when Ziv was hit.”
I can only hope that in some way my time spent training together with Ziv will help him realize that he can surpass the many obstacles facing him today. His path won’t be an easy one but I have faith in him. Ziv was the first officer I had after I had returned to combat with one arm. He didn’t show doubt for a single moment in my ability to succeed.
“Ziv is a tough man” I assured Avi “He’s going to be alright.”
“Trust me, I know” he replied “You need to hear what they are saying about him.” Avi told me that after Ziv had lost his arm he loaded his weapon and got off a few rounds.
Our conversation was interrupted by Ben, the very same soldier who was supposed to be in Ziv’s place. Ben happened to be in town and joined us for a drink. I gripped his shoulder and looked him in the eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I feel exhilarated” he admitted “I’m supposed to be dead.
“You and me both” Avi agreed. I could tell Ben wasn’t taking the incident too seriously. It’s possible the gravity of his experience will only sink in later.
“Is it true that Ziv got a few shots off?” I asked him.
“Nonsense” he replied. “I was there and we had nothing hostile to shoot back at.”
My face lit up. I loved that reply. Israeli soldiers care deeply about keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Ben began to tell his version of the story.
“I was right there and I saw the whole thing happen” he started. “After the explosion went off, Ziv’s severed hand remained attached to the fence. He ran the forty meters back to his squad alone. The medic was in shock and didn’t respond right away. Ziv who was basically missing both of his hands used his head to butt the medic in the chest.”
“If you don’t tie off my wounds with a tourniquet I am going to die,” Ziv had said, saving his own life.
Avi showed me a picture of Ziv in the emergency room. His body was draped with an Israeli flag. It was easy to see where the helmet had rested on his head. Everything underneath that line was burnt to a crisp and yet somehow he was smiling. Ziv had requested that every soldier see his face and receive his message.
“Keep your chin up and continue to stand strong.”
I had to fight in order to hold back my tears. After all a commander never cries in front of his soldiers. Ziv was going to be just fine, and I know that as long as we have heroes like Ziv, Ben, and Avi, “Never again” will stay just that.
With the exception of Ziv and Izzy, all names mentioned herein have been changed.
Izzy Ezagui is the only one-armed soldier in Israel who was injured in combat and returned to battle. Izzy continues to serve in the military reserves, is writing his memoir, and has become a sought after motivational speaker. You can contact him for more details at firstname.lastname@example.org .