Lone Soldier: War

After three days of training, we crossed the border into Lebanon on foot, a week ago Sunday, and marched through the night, pushing deeper and deeper into Hezbollah's backyard.

By LONE SOLDIER
August 17, 2006 06:29

 
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After being called to emergency reserve duty two weeks ago and much indecision on the part of the officers of how we would be utilized in the raging conflict, my unit was assigned a complicated mission. We were to penetrate some ten kilometers into Lebanon and root out and engage Hezbollah guerrillas that were concentrated in bunkers on a mountain slope facing northern Israel. Intelligence and aerial photographs described a site that was heavily fortified and defended by several cells of well-trained and equipped jihadists. Despite a sustained aerial bombardment by the air force, Katyusha rockets continued to be launched from the area into Haifa, Nahariya, Tzfat. The decision was made that the launchers could only be destroyed and the guerrillas eliminated by ground troops. The problematic nature of the action foreboded heavy casualties on our side. It's like trying to pull a rattlesnake out of its hole without getting bitten. Mine is a demolition unit, so the mission fell on us. I was honored to be the heavy gunner that would be on the point team. After three days of training, we crossed the border into Lebanon on foot, a week ago Sunday, and marched through the night, pushing deeper and deeper into Hezbollah's backyard. At dawn, after the first long night's march, we rushed the small village of Quzah in a hail of gunfire, grenades and missiles, and blew down doors and commandeered homes where we waited out the day. Our orders were to only move at night. We tried to rest inside the home as best we could, considering the intensity of the fighting all around us. Heavy artillery being fired from the Israel side of the border rained around the blocky outcropping of hilltop villas. Knowing we were in the area but unsure of our precise whereabouts, Hezbollah operatives in the hills surrounding us launched missiles and mortars shells randomly into the homes in the village through the night. Automatic gunfire was everywhere and we had no way of knowing if it was theirs or ours. Early that morning we received horrible news over the radio: in a village half a mile to our east, an advanced anti-tank missile was launched into a window of a home where a unit we had been working with in parallel was hunkered down. The result was devastating; nine killed, forty wounded. We had been with those guys hours before, sipping Turkish coffee around the buses before we crossed over the border. Now we heard their cries for assistance over the radio. Our initial objective was delayed as we were ordered to take up positions on a hillside in order to secure the evacuation of the dead and wounded under the cover of darkness back into Israel. In the hours just before dawn, we assaulted the village again and entered into the homes where we laid on the bathroom floor and in other rooms that did not have exterior walls. Quzah would be our home for two long days and nights. In daylight hours, we peered out the kitchen window at a valley to the east of us and watched as volleys of Katyushas were launched from the brush into northern Israel to our south. It was surreal seeing the Israeli towns across the border from the same perspective as the enemy. It was terrible. It was beautiful. We did our best to direct the artillery cells and the F16s to the precise positions, calling in coordinates as we peered out of the wreckage of previously shelled homes. If we saw a missile battery that was close enough, we crawled into the streets and fired our own rockets into the brush. The valley was bombarded relentlessly by artillery shells, the cannons systematically sweeping the area, tearing up huge swaths of earth. Every so often a shell would strike something hidden amongst the trees and a secondary explosion would erupt and missiles would fly from the brush in all directions like fireworks on the fourth of July. The secondary explosions were identified by us, and by pilot-less aircraft patrolling the skies; we zeroed in, and F16s swooped in, dropping massive bombs. We watched as huge silent explosions left moon sized craters, and moments later the sound and the concussion would hit us. It was as if the atmosphere would rip in the tremendous blasts, shaking the homes violently. We remained in that bombed out village for two nights, all the while taking mortar shells and hostile gunfire into the windows of the homes. You could hear the whistle of the mortars as they came down, and you could do absolutely nothing but sit on the floor and hope that it would not fall in your lap. It sounded as if Cadillacs were being catapulted into the village and the explosions shook the already shaky building and chunks of red-hot shrapnel rained down in the streets. At night, we left the houses and commandeered different homes so that Hezbollah would not zero in on our exact positions. We monitored their radio transmissions and heard them directing their fire to where they thought we were. We slept in one-hour stretches, if at all. After the last of the casualties was evacuated from the adjacent village - an excruciatingly slow process in which another one of our tanks was hit and four more precious soldiers lost - we left the village and continued on our march deeper into Lebanon. After two nights of hard treks through impossibly difficult terrain, we arrived to a hillside a few kilometers from our objective. Different units commandeered small villages along our route and provided cover for us as Hezbollah cells fired on us from the hillsides. The artillery was constant, pounding any structures that were along our path a kilometer before we would arrive. As planned, we arrived to a hillside where we waited amongst the scorched brush and shattered terraces for supply helicopters that were to come and drop off water and additional explosives that we would use to destroy the bunkers. After receiving the supplies, we were to continue making progress on foot to execute our mission. We were exhausted, filthy, but happy for the brief opportunity to drop our packs. And then, the unthinkable. The helicopters arrived gloriously, six of them, flying low over our heads. We had thought the area was relatively secure and the helicopters landed in a field maybe two hundred yards from where we sat behind boulders. After making their drops, the helicopters roared away again one by one towards Israel, again flying low, directly overhead. Suddenly, as if in a dream, I saw a rocket rise up out of a field maybe a hundred yards to the left of us. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, To my horror, the missile struck the fourth helicopter's left side, maybe 40 feet directly over my head. There was a huge fireball, and I don't know if I saw it or if I imagined it, but I pictured the pilot struggling with the controls. We thought the helicopter would crash down on us and there were a few moments of indescribable terror, but the crippled aircraft flew another 50 yards, turned over on its side and fell onto the hillside. There was a mushroom cloud of black smoke that enveloped a huge orange ball of fire as the helicopter exploded. I don't remember if I heard the explosion, I just remember my captain next to me in the bush saying, "my God, my God." Immediately, Hezbollah mortar shells began to rain down on our position and we dove for cover as the earth boiled around us. The remaining helicopters banked away and flew off, shooting off decoy flares. A second land-to-air missile rocket narrowly missed a Black Hawk that arrived to survey the scene of the crash. It too deployed decoy flares and swooped away. Heavy gunfire ripped through the pitch-black night, but I was uncertain if it was theirs or ours. I saw from where the missile came but couldn't shoot for fear of hitting one of our own in the darkness. This continued for many hours, and when the barrage ceased we retreated back into the valley, leaving a small force in the area to search for and watch over the wreckage of the helicopter. Hezbollah was sure to try to take the remains of the pilot and crew for ransom. Later, we learned that five of the helicopter's crew died in the crash. The loss was more than any of us could bear, but we considered ourselves fortunate. The helicopter was struck after it had made its drop. Minutes before, it had been full with some thirty soldiers. Because of the crash, we did not receive the supplies as planned, a serious development considering that we were down to out last canteens of water. In the few frantic hours before daylight, planes parachuted crates of water to us, but we were unable to find them in the rough terrain, and as dawn broke we retreated back to our previous positions before the Hezbollah snipers and mortar men emerged from their bunkers. We quickly hollowed out and entered into bushes and waited for night to come. To sleep was impossible. I was struggling against exhaustion and dehydration following the previous night's frantic search for the supplies. I had slept maybe four hours in previous four days and the constant burden of the heavy machine gun I carried and my battle vest with some thousand rounds of ammunition had taken its toll. I received two saline infusions in the bush and tried to eat from the few battle rations that remained but was unable to keep anything down. Most of day, three other soldiers and I sat in silence, unable to sleep, each absorbed in his own thoughts, resigning himself to a singular and unforeseeable fate. Some day I will find the words to describe the thoughts that go through your head under such circumstances. To try now would be futile. When dusk fell, we again geared up. The officers were determined to carry out the mission without further delay, but we were down to our last drops of water. Over the radio we learned that the bodies of the helicopter crew had been recovered. The officers decided to divide the unit into two task forces; one to evacuate the wounded amongst us: three soldiers who had broken or sprained ankles and legs in the previous days' frantic marches over the harsh terrain. They would be airlifted along with the remains of the helicopter crew back into Israeli territory. The second unit was to search for the water that had been dropped from airplanes the night before. After, we were to reunite and make our final push to the mountain slope to put an end to the firing of rockets from that area into our cities in the north. I was placed in the squad to evacuate the wounded, and as we made our way to the landing site carrying the stretchers, a call came over the radio. A General Staff order was made to all forces operating in the area: immediately stop all proactive measures in observance of a cease-fire, a cease fire that we had no idea was even in the works. Just like that, the war was suddenly over, for now. With news of the end of hostilities, the decision was made to evacuate me in my weakened state along with the wounded. Again, I found myself in the same area where I watched a helicopter shot down the night before, preparing to board a helicopter myself. The Black Hawk emerged from the black depths of the valley below us. As soon as it landed we ran to it, carrying the stretchers and the sacks with the remains of the dead. We dove inside and immediately the helicopter rose sharply and banked away, shooting flares from its sides to act as decoys for incoming rockets. I found myself lying amongst the dead and injured as the flight crew trampled over us. I could only see the fire from the flares and could have no idea if the extreme banking of the helicopter was a defensive measure or if we had been hit. After a few moments of terrifying uncertainty thinking we would hit the ground at any second, the helicopter leveled off and we rose sharply out of the range of any Hezbollah rockets and flew back into Israel. I was released from the hospital a few hours ago after being treated for severe dehydration and exhaustion. I just wanted to let everybody know that I am fine. Sorry if I made you guys worry too much.


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