The armored ambulance pulled up at the entrance to the emergency room, stirring journalists from their sluggishness outside of the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. As armed soldiers opened the heavy rear doors and lifted their wounded comrade onto a stretcher hurriedly wheeled outside, journalists began filming and photographing, only ceasing their efforts once the casualty was brought inside.
“He’s dead,” one of the photojournalists asserted – before the young man, covered in a silvered blanket, moved his head and blinked. “No he isn’t,” another replied.
As one of several destinations for the IDF’s wounded soldiers, Soroka has become a campground for members of the media, many of whom went back to chatting, smoking and sipping coffee following the brief flurry of activity surrounding the new arrival.
Inside the reception area, several soldiers wheeled a young man in green combat fatigues, his left foot bandaged and dressed with a splint, up to the reception desk for admission. Another soldier, carrying an assault rifle and with a combat knife hanging from his belt, stood watching a nearby television next to a snack kiosk.
Despite heavy IDF casualties, including 25 deaths since the beginning of the ground incursion last Thursday and 30 wounded on Monday alone, the soldier, who had been in Gaza, said that his unit had so far come through mostly unscathed.
“So far it’s all right with us,” he said.
The tension ratcheted up at 5 p.m., the hour Hamas had threatened to send a missile barrage against Israel.
As time moved on, however and no alarms sounded in Beersheba, the listless feeling outside of the emergency room returned.
As the press continued their grim vigil, Menachem Kutner, the head of the Chabad’s Terror Victim’s Project walked past, approached the security guard and asked if there were any wounded soldiers inside.
Why do you want to know, the guard asked.
“I am here to cheer them up,” the black-hatted hassid replied.
Kutner said that his group, comprised of five two-man teams, is systematically visiting all of Israel’s hospitals handling the influx of wounded soldiers, bringing them religious texts and taking down their contact details for follow-up visits, and further gifts, later on.
Bustling into the emergency room, Kutner walked up to a soldier on a stretcher and asked him questions about his condition. The young man, barely out of his teens, replied as best he could, his weak voice muffled by an oxygen mask.
Laying on his back, his shirt open and his dusty combat boots still on his feet, the young man smiled as the hassidim wrote down his name so that he could be included in Chabad community prayers around the world.
“Thank you,” he wheezed.
“We will be giving many of these soldiers headphones,” Kutner told me, explaining that the follow-up gift would help the soldiers tune out their depressing surroundings.
The next soldier was slightly more mobile. Standing up next to his stretcher, he said that he could not take lying down any more and was itching to return to his unit. Posing for a smartphone picture with the Lubavitchers, he too smiled.
While many of the injured seemed appreciative of the visit, they were among the more lightly injured and despite their wounds, did not present a picture of the bloody mayhem of war certain to be exhibited by their worse off comrades.
There was less enthusiasm for the visit among the uninjured, waiting to see their friends in a seating area to one side of the ER. One young female soldier looked close to tears, while others, both men and women, seemed apathetic to attempts to cheer them up.
Upon exiting the emergency room, I saw the wheelchair-bound soldier smile at the hassidim, his gun still clutched tightly in his hands as he waited for medical attention and as I left the hospital, a helicopter flew overhead with another wounded soldier, providing a counterpoint to the temporary smiles of the “lightly” wounded and underscoring the nature of the organized carnage that is war.