Sergeant Or Bar-On, 20, was so afraid of dying when a missile hit his tank during the battle at Maroun al-Ras in Lebanon on July 20 that instead of leaving him despondent, the loss of both his legs has left him grateful for a new lease on life.
"Now I start my life anew, because it has been given to me as a gift. I won't take anything for granted," he said.
Sitting up in his hospital bed in Rambam Medical Center in Haifa on Monday afternoon, the young black-haired soldier with an easy smile recounted for The Jerusalem Post how an explosion rocked his tank early that fateful morning.
"I felt a kind of searing pain that I wouldn't wish on anyone. It was like being in hell," said Or. "I saw that my legs had been hurt, the lower part seemed to be gone. So I tried to crawl out using only my hands. I got as far as the turret when another missile exploded. I felt as if I had been wounded for a second time. I couldn't hold onto the tank and so I fell." He was evacuated from the scene and flown out within three-and-a-half hours.
Two other soldiers in the tank escaped unharmed, and a third is recovering from moderate injuries in Tel Hashomer Hospital.
It was only when he arrived at Rambam that he began to believe that he might pull through, but it was just then that his family began to fear for him.
Soldiers went to the Bar-On home in Netanya to tell his family that he was seriously injured and found only Or's seventeen-year-old sister.
Standing in the doorway looking at their son, Yehuda and Ronit recounted how they had been on their way back from Eilat when their daughter called them. She didn't say that Or had been injured, only inquired as to when they would arrive, but that in itself was unusual, said Yehuda.
"I had a bad feeling from that moment on," said Ronit as she put her hand on her heart, still upset at the thought.
The soldiers that greeted them upon their return told them only that Or had been seriously wounded, and arranged for a cab to take them to the hospital.
In the intensive care unit the doctors said that Or had lost an enormous amount of blood and that he was hanging between life and death.
It was only when he got out of surgery that his parents were told the danger had passed. Or said that when he set out for Maroun al-Ras that morning he hadn't felt particularly scared.
What seems unusual to him now, though, is that for a few months before the attack he was obsessed with the desire to play soccer, his favorite sport.
"Do you remember," he asked his parents, "that I played all the time as if I had a sense that I would lose my legs?" He added that "it was my dream since I was a boy to be a soccer player."
Since his admittance to the hospital, friends have come by non-stop and have even slept in his room. They and various volunteer organizations have left a variety of food baskets and gifts. Hanging from the machine behind him was a purple stuffed animal and hanging from the wall was a balloon of a yellow bird with the small sign on it that said "we will win."
Pointing to the newest basket of food on the floor Or said, "I've been given kilograms of chocolate. I can't eat it but I pass it on to my friends." As he spoke, soldiers arrived at his door with keychain that they were distributing to the wounded in the hospital.
Or said he still would be in Rambam for 10 more days, after which he would be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. While he recuperates, Or said that his thoughts are with his friends who are still on the battlefield.
"They should take care of themselves. I love them," he said.
While his time in battle has ended, lightly wounded soldiers in the hospital know that they will likely be heading back to Lebanon.
Sitting up in a hospital gown next to a bouquet of balloons, Liran Ben-Haim, 19, of Ashdod, who was lightly wounded in the face when a missile hit his tank in Taibeh on Sunday, said he is among those itching to go back.
He described smoke filling his tank after the missile hit. "I felt like I had been hit in the face. We got out of the tank from the top and jumped behind it for protection. We shot in all directions," he said.
At first he was afraid and wanted to flee. But now as he speaks of the incident, he is already dismissive.
Lying next to him was another soldier, injured in the same attack. Two others from their tank, moderately injured, were also recovering in Rambam. They were among 28 soldiers recuperating in the hospital.
Among Ben-Haim's many visitors on Sunday was Brig. Gen. Halutsi Rudoy, commander of the Armored Corps. Pausing outside one of the hospital wards, Rudoy told the Post that he tries to visit as many of the wounded men under his authority as possible - both to find out more about the incidents in which they were wounded and to offer them support.
Ben-Haim said that the gifts and visits, "have warmed my heart."
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