A few weeks ago, my wife Didi undertook a major project: the long overdue clean up of our building’s storage room. As she waded through piles of discarded treasures, she discovered a burlap bag buried beneath the clutter.
The bag contained an old paratrooper’s helmet adorned with a nasty hole – the product of a Syrian shell that had pierced the metal.
“What’s this?” Didi asked.
“That’s Akiva’s helmet,” I replied
“Who is Akiva?”
At that point, I realized I had never told her about Akiva’s bravery, so I sat her down to tell her the tale.
I first met Akiva in 1974 when I was the adjunct company commander for the IDF platoon stationed at Beit Jann, 40 kilometers from Damascus. Between April and May, we absorbed a seemingly never-ending hailstorm of mortar shells and Katyusha rockets from the Syrians on a daily basis.
From Beit Jann, we organized raids on Mount Hermon and Syrian enclaves. Akiva had served as commander of the post for two weeks, until shrapnel from a Syrian shell penetrated his helmet and struck him in his head. When we extricated Akiva, he was in critical condition.
I held on to his bloodstained helmet as a reminder. I often looked at the helmet and prayed. I promised that if Akiva lived, I would return the helmet to him as a gift.
Forty years had passed since then, and I had not thought about Akiva in quite some time. I knew that Akiva had pulled through, that he underwent rehabilitation and recuperated fully. But the intensity of life, and the many losses I endured along the way, including my dear brother Eran and so many friends, repressed the memory of Akiva’s wounds and my promise.
“Now, it’s time to find Akiva,” I told Didi. “It’s time to return his helmet.” I called Leon Regonis, previously of the paratroopers’ brigade, and asked him to help me track down Akiva. Leon assured me that he would give it his best effort.
Earlier this month, on October 3, the paratroopers’ brigade organized a large rally to mark the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and pay tribute to its many heroes.
As the ceremony came to a close, I gave and received hundreds of hugs from friends, commanders, and soldiers.
The crowd dispersed, and we were among the last people still in the Ramat Gan Park. Just then, a gentleman approached me, smiling from ear to ear.
“Do you recognize me?” he asked.
“No, I can’t say I do,” I answered.
Overcome with emotion, I grabbed him and we embraced.
“I have your helmet!” I told him. “I found it in my storage room just two weeks ago. I want to return it to you.”
“You keep it,” he said. “After all, it’s not mine. It’s yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I came to you because I hardly had any supplies. I didn’t even have a helmet. So, you took your own helmet off of your head and gave it to me. The helmet that saved my life – it was yours.”
My brother, Eran, was killed in the Yom Kippur War. He was injured in the Golan Heights and bled to death after sitting untreated for seven days. Immediately thereafter, I was given the choice of leaving my combat unit as a bereaved soldier. However, I chose to remain in the military in order to make absolutely sure that no soldier would ever be left behind again.
Akiva is living proof of that.
Later in life, my time with another Eran – our son who was diagnosed with severe physical and cognitive disabilities – allowed me to develop my philosophy even further, and I became committed to changing the way society views the disabled.
For all these years, Akiva’s helmet lay next to a picture of my brother Eran like a pledge to an impossible mission: to bring Eran home. I only find comfort in knowing that at ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a home for the disabled that we founded and that bears his name, I am able to make sure that these wonderful children don’t get left behind.
As I see it, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, and making sure that they are given every opportunity to excel and reach their greatest potential, is the most fitting tribute to Eran and the many other heroes of the Yom Kippur War.
Major General (Res.) Doron Almog is the founder and Chairman of ALEH Negev – Nahalat Eran, a village named in memory of his son, that provides a continuum of residential care for children with severe disabilities as they grow from adolescents into young adults. Learn more about ALEH at www.aleh.org.