The bravado ends with the first sound of gunfire. The moment you realize this is for real. That someone is actually trying to kill you. Then, it is all business and the years of training kick in and you instinctively react to identify and neutralize the threat, though not before your body reacts with its own instinct—fear. The sinking feeling in the stomach that paralyzes every inch, every hair on your entire body. Your knees literally buckle and shake. You want to puke and your survival instinct says “RUN”. But you are a trained paratrooper. You switch to combat mode almost simultaneously.
Like every year in June, I am drawn back to that day 36 years ago. I open the dusty album of fading photos of my army buddies and me, and the memories flood my mind.
That day we embarked on an operation that was to end up being a war that was to last for 18 years. Dubbed Operation “Peace for the Galilee”, it would become the Lebanon war and then subsequently the “First” Lebanon War. The forgotten war.
Not forgotten for us, though. It defined our generation. We were after all, members of the elite Israeli paratrooper brigade, the storied 890th airborne battalion, with a reputation to uphold. And uphold it we did. Militarily the campaign was a huge success. We had trained for this for nearly two years. To remove the threat of PLO terrorists from Israel’s northern border. We fought the Syrian commandos and beat them in a maneuver taught to this day in infantry schools in the United States. In 10 days we made it to Beirut, and within three months took the capital of an Arab country and had the PLO expelled all together. The war was controversial, though, for political reasons.
But we weren’t politicians. We were just soldiers who had a duty to perform. More than that, we were just average young guys who were doing their compulsory military service. By the time the war came about, we had spent three intense years together. Basic training, parachute school, exercises and border patrols, noncommissioned officers’ course and finally the prestigious support company where we took part in combat operations against PLO terrorist positions and strongholds in south Lebanon. We had a cache of experiences between us that bonded us together in that unique brotherhood.
We met as teenagers out of high school, and matured into young men together. We could not have been more different than we were that first day we met. Udi and”Zliz” from Givata’im, Tziger from Petach Tikvah, Lerner from Ramat Gan, Kobi from Tel Aviv, Kikus from Kibbutz Kinneret, John—a lone soldier immigrant from England who settled in the Golan and hardly spoke a word of Hebrew—Ronen the moshavnik, the gentle farmer giant. And one Michael Oren, an American lone soldier older than us.
It was the best of times and it was the worst of times indeed. Mostly the best. We knew each other better than anyone else. Knew each other at our finest and our weakest moments; at our best and worst; our strengths and faults. We literally had each other’s backs. We had each other. There is no stronger bond between men than that forged in a combat unit. Those were the years that made us into the men we are today.
When I look back at that day so long ago, one more thing besides the fear we all felt sticks out in my memory. Though we clearly understood what the battle was about and what we needed to go to war over, we were not fighting for our people or for our country. We weren’t even fighting for the defense of our families, as much as that is indeed a noble reason. No, we were fighting for each other. That is what got us over the paralyzing fear, got us to move and go into action, got us to charge in the battlefield at the logic-defying manner. Not to let each other down. We trusted each other and our lives depended on one another.
War is nothing like the sterile version you see in movies. All human senses are on edge, at their extreme. I can still sense it all. We were dirty and sweaty. From the summer heat, the burden of equipment we carried, the gunpowder that covered us and stuck in the nostrils. We were tired and exhausted from extending ourselves. The emotional burden is heavy. You sleep any moment you can.
We had our usual dark humor to keep us going, and pranks and jokes we would pull on each other even in the midst of battle. There were the light moments when, while fighting Syrian commandos in a village, Lerner found the time to sneak a quick shower in a house we took cover in; then there was the silence when, while waiting outside another village as our reconnaissance unit fought, we watched as the wounded were evacuated. Each one of us caught up in our personal thoughts of that which we would not speak of out loud.
At night, while on guard duty, we would have long heart-to-heart conversations. Udi and I spoke about how we were mostly worried about how our families would react if, God forbid, they would receive the worst news. We hardly spoke of our mortality, but it hovered over all of us.
Zellinger bemoaned the fact that we were all single. All the prestige of the red berets and parachuting wings weren’t enough to hold on to relationships for the three weeks before we got home again. He said that the only thing he was sorry about was that “the only ones crying over my grave would be all of you assholes!”
Eytan was one of the guys who joined us in the support unit a few months after us. A kibbutznik, he was a member of Israel’s national water polo team. Tall and blond and with the swimmer’s body physique of a Grecian statue. He was supposed to attend the water polo world cup, but stayed on with us. He couldn’t leave his buddies.
He was the commander of the APC I was driving, and as we rode into combat in the city of Damur, he and I were on the com together. In my entire life I never said “Shmah Israel” as many times as I did during that two-hour battle, as our unit missed the planned route and ran smack into the city, taking gunfire and antitank missiles from all directions, Eytan kept giving me instructions, letting me know we are all fine and not hit. Any time I eased up on the “Shmah Israel,” Eytan yelled: “Seaman! eifo Shmah Israel? Where are the “Hear, O Israel” prayers?” Indeed, there were no atheists in the foxholes.
Thirty-six years later and unlike the photos, the memories haven’t faded. We see each other every so often and keep up with each other’s lives. We have grown older, have moved on in different directions. Got an education, have careers, started our own families and brought up our kids with the values we learned so long ago.
All of us that is except Eytan. Eytan Rotem was killed in action on Thursday, Aug. 19, 1982, ambushed while on patrol near Beirut. He was 21 years old. He was just a kid. We all were.