(photo credit: Channel 1)
"The IDF was blessed with soldiers and commanders who love this country," Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said at Tel Aviv's Cultural Hall as he opened Sunday's ceremony honoring IDF troops who participated in the Second Lebanon War.
One-hundred and forty-two soldiers who fought in last summer's war will receive medals of valor and citations of excellence for the courage they displayed during Israel's war against Hizbullah.
Both Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who spoke after him, repeated messages of gratitude to soldiers who fought in the war, condolences for the losses of troops and hope for the return of kidnapped reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, as well as Cpl. Gilad Schalit.
Families of two troops who were killed in the war were the first to receive medals on behalf of their sons.
Ashkenazi addressed the bravery, courage, devotion to the mission and level-headedness displayed by the navy, air force and ground troops, both in their compulsory, career and reserve services, who he described as "the best there are," adding that the army "leans on its soldiers and commanders."
Ashkenazi admitted that the country has had "to pay a heavy price in order to protect our home," and that this price was "heavy, bloody and painful."
"I salute you, my brothers in arms, heroes of Israel," the army chief said, promising that all of Israel "carries the scars left by those who fell." Ashkenazi reminded the audience that the IDF strives to "protect Israel's borders, day and night."
Israel, Barak pointed out soon after the chief of general staff finished speaking, is a "cheap" country, in the sense that it does not give adequate gratitude to those that deserve it. "The uniforms of our soldiers are not overly decorated with ribbons, buttons and medals, like those of other countries' militaries.
"That is why this evening is so special," said Israel's most highly decorated military man turned politician. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. There are no words to describe what the country owes you. Such awards, however, are no compensation to a family who has lost their son... or to a brother, who the only thing left of him, is a photo in an album.
"This is the price of freedom that Israel must pay. For more than 60 years we are trying to turn this country into a home with a safe roofâ€¦ but they will not let us live in peace.
"Not one of Israel's wars went by the book," Barak said. "Even in more successful wars, there were still losses. The latest war was filled, we admit, with not a small amount of failures.
"If, God forbid, we are forced to go to war again, these people sitting in front of me are proof that we can overcome itâ€¦ your spirit and your might will lead us," said the defense minister.
"In the name of Israel's government, I thank you. I wish us a happy new year, one that will show the return of Eldad, Ehud and Gilad," Barak added.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.