Blood brothers

A year later, soldiers wounded in last summer's war are still grappling with their disabilities - and recoveries.

By ERICA CHERNOFSKY
July 12, 2007 09:56
lebanon war 88 298

lebanon war 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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It was 3 a.m. on Saturday, August 12, 2006 and very dark when the 931st battalion of the Nahal Brigade arrived at the village of Randuria near the Litani River in southern Lebanon. The three platoons entered the village slowly and quietly, each one responsible for capturing a house and eliminating any Hizbullah terrorists hiding inside. Roy Grilak and his platoon approached the third house, with Grilak, his commander and two other soldiers leading the way through the large front yard. Walking down the path to the door, Grilak realized he and his partner were overly exposed and as they moved to find better cover, bullets whizzed by his commander, missing him by less than a meter. "Was that you?" His commander shouted at him. "No," replied Grilak. A few seconds later, a second round of bullets shattered the air, and pulling on his night vision goggles, Grilak saw two terrorists hiding in the yard. Second Lebanon War - A year later: JPost special: The Second Lebanon War

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  • Shortcomings fixed but much work remains "Like a trained soldier, I took the safety off my gun, got down on one knee and started shooting," says Grilak, who in just a few months was due to finish his third and last year of army service. "I shot something like 30 or 40 bullets at them, and everyone was shooting, and then all of a sudden there was a loud boom and I felt a strange heat taking over my legs." Two bullets had struck his right thigh, and as he fell to the ground, dropping his weapon, he was shot again in the face, shattering his lower jaw. His gun out of reach, he managed to hide behind a few trees, his back to the fighting. But as his company commander rushed to his aide, he was shot again, in the back and right arm. "For a few seconds I thought, 'I'm going to die here,'" Grilak recalls, "and then I got a grip on myself and decided there was no way I was going to die here, in this yard in Lebanon at the hands of these terrorists." Later, he found out he had killed the first terrorist who shot him in the yard, and mortally wounded the other, whom his platoon found dead the next morning. Unable to speak clearly because of the injury to his jaw, Grilak shouted to his commander while his platoon anxiously searched for him in the yard. But Hizbullah had taken up positions on the roof and in the house next door, and one of his comrades, Elad, was shot in his upper thigh, directly through his femoral artery, and was bleeding profusely. His platoon evacuated him from the yard, along with others who suffered shrapnel wounds, and found cover against the outer wall surrounding the property. Grilak's sergeant found him in the midst of the chaos and attempted to pull him out through an opening in the wall. "We were still under heavy fire, and I told him to get out," says Grilak, who because of all the bulky equipment on him was stuck between the walls. "He said, 'I won't leave here without you,' and again I told him to leave, and a third time, until finally he left." Thinking quickly, alone in the yard and under fire, Grilak took off his flak jacket and managed to drag his body outside the yard, where another soldier pulled him toward the rest of his platoon who were gathered near a short outer wall facing the main road of the village. Across the road, another terrorist spotted them and began shooting, and Grilak was hit by shrapnel in his arm, chest and leg and another soldier, Doron, was shot through the hand while trying to pull Grilak out of the line of fire. Thomas Shoroch, the platoon's medic, was meanwhile placing a tourniquet on Elad, who was quickly losing blood. "It was the first war wound I was dealing with," says Shoroch, "and I remembered learning that if you lose three liters of blood, you're very close to death, and I acted on instinct and stopped the blood flow to the wound, which saved his life." After trying to wrap Doron's hand, Shoroch placed another tourniquet on his wrist, and then turned to Grilak to evaluate his wounds. "It was crowded and difficult to get to him without exposing myself completely," Shoroch recalls, "but I tried to do it anyway and I just felt someone behind me, aiming at me, and then suddenly there was an intense heat emanating from my hip down to my legs." Shoroch was shot in the left hip, and the bullet exited through his right buttock, ripping up everything in its path. "I was in horrible pain and I knew I was bleeding internally, but in between the pain I was wondering if I would die, I was thinking about my family and I was worrying about the other wounded soldiers and Roy, who couldn't even speak because of his gunshot wound," he says. The battle was still raging as their battalion was ambushed from all sides by gunshots and grenades. Another medic arrived to place a tourniquet on Grilak's leg, and when the time came to evacuate the wounded, they placed him on a stretcher and brought him to where a helicopter was supposed to land to take them back to Israel. Other soldiers provided cover fire, and Ya'ar Ben-Giat, 19, was shot and killed while trying to protect his wounded comrades. On the way to the helicopter, Hizbullah continued to bombard the convoy of wounded soldiers with bullets and RPGs. "My bleeding wasn't staunched," says Grilak, "and they put another tourniquet above the other one." Two hours later the helicopter came, and as Grilak's stretcher was carried toward it he heard someone shout, "There's no more room!" "I wanted to say, 'No, I'm badly wounded, I need to get to the hospital,' but I couldn't speak," he says, "and that helicopter left without me." Two hours later, another helicopter came and took Grilak and some 30 other wounded soldiers to Rambam Hospital in Haifa. "When we got there I kept trying to tell them to take off the tourniquets, because we learned in basic training that if you keep it on for four or five hours you get necrosis, and I was so scared I would lose my leg," he says. Shoroch had made the first helicopter and was at Rambam by 6 a.m. He had been shot through the large intestine and had lost two liters of blood, which pooled in his abdomen. Grilak was shot five times and suffered numerous shrapnel wounds. His right femur was shattered, as was his jaw. The bullet that hit his back miraculously exited his chest without hitting any vital organs. "For two weeks I couldn't speak at all, and my sergeant called my mom, asking to speak to me, and I wrote down something on a piece of paper for her to tell him, and it said I didn't regret anything for a second," says Grilak. "If I could go back three and a half years to when I was drafted, I would make all the same choices, even if I got hit again, because I'm proud to serve my country. I'm proud to defend it." THAT DAY, 24 soldiers were killed in the worst day of fighting since the war began just one month before. In total, 119 soldiers were killed in the Second Lebanon War, but more than 700 others lived with moderate to serious wounds, some blinded, others missing limbs and still others paralyzed from the fierce fighting and accidents that occurred on and off the battlefield. Many soldiers were still too traumatized to even be interviewed for this article, but Grilak, Shoroch and US-immigrant Ron Weinrich shared their stories so that we would not forget those wounded in the war. In his ground-floor house in Ramat Hasharon, Weinrich, 21 is confined to a wheelchair, after a technical error left him paralyzed from the waist down. On August 10, four days before the UN-brokered cease-fire took effect, Weinrich was leading a tank convoy out of Lebanon when another Israeli tank convoy suddenly materialized, traveling in the opposite direction. Stuck on a small road in front of the Lebanese village of Rav a-Talatin, west of Metulla, Weinrich attempted to move his convoy to the side to allow the other to pass. Standing with half his body outside the tank's turret, he gave commands to the tank driver to reverse through a headset connected to the tank's internal communications. "I was his eyes," he explains. "The driver couldn't see anything from inside the tank." At the entrance to the village stood an enormous stone archway decorated by Arabic calligraphy which made it more difficult to maneuver the bulky tank out of the way. "I remember the archway clearly, because it was very beautiful," says Weinrich. He commanded the driver to continue reversing, but when Weinrich saw they were nearing one of the legs of the arch, "I told the driver to stop, but the tank didn't stop," he recalls. "I yelled stop again and it still continued reversing. We were getting too close to the arch, and I knew nothing stops a tank." Bending over inside the turret, Weinrich realized the cable connecting his headset to the internal communications had disconnected, a common glitch, and as he quickly tried to reconnect it, he felt a hard shake against the tank. It had hit the arch, and all the large stones came crashing through the turret, and onto Weinrich's bent body, fracturing his spine, collarbone, shoulder and a few ribs. "I was completely conscious and I heard a big crack," he says. "When I opened my eyes, all I could see were stones, and I felt pins and needles at the tips of my toes and thought, 'Oh, shit, this isn't happening to me.' I could barely breathe, I couldn't really speak and I tried moving my toes, my feet, my knees and nothing worked, I couldn't feel anything." Only his right arm, intact, protruded from the debris. "I heard one of my crew members shouting, 'He's dead, he's dead,' and I moved my arm and gave a thumbs-up to show them I was alive. He found me and started screaming, 'Everything's going to be okay, we're going to get you out of here.' I wasn't scared, because I knew I wouldn't die, but I told him I was probably paralyzed, and to hold my head to make sure it didn't move." The crew, joined by tank crews from the other convoy, rushed to remove the rocks piled on top of Weinrich so they could evacuate him from the tank. But the stones were too heavy, and the soldiers were forced to pull him out through the bottom of the tank, a messier procedure that could have exacerbated his injuries. The medic had no painkillers left, and the crew had to cut Weinrich's equipment and uniform off his body before placing him on a stretcher to bring him back to the border, where he was flown by helicopter to the hospital. The vertebrae that suffered the main part of the hit were totally destroyed by the large rocks, which crushed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down. "My only goal at the moment is not to be confined to this wheelchair," says Weinrich. "All I want is to have what was taken from me given back." But when asked if he would do it all again, his voice doesn't waver: "I wanted to be in a combat unit, and I wanted to be in a tank. When I went into the army, when I went into Lebanon, I knew anything could happen, and I wouldn't change a thing." ONE YEAR after the war, of Grilak, Shoroch and Weinrich, only Shoroch has begun walking again, albeit without feeling in the backs of his upper legs. He has undergone a complicated rehabilitation process, losing four centimeters of his large intestine and having to live with the entire organ outside his body for four months, attached to a bag, so he could go to the bathroom. "I couldn't leave my house much," he says, after spending two months in the hospital, "but I was just happy I could walk." During a second surgery, his intestine was placed back inside his body cavity, enabling him to relieve himself normally. But the numbness in his legs might never go away. "It's very uncomfortable," he says. "It's like when you go to the dentist and he puts your cheek to sleep, except it doesn't go away." After living on a respirator for a week in Rambam's intensive care unit, Grilak endured 13 operations in the past year, spending the first five months after the war between Rambam and Sheba Medical Center's rehabilitation department. About a month ago, the metal ring surrounding his leg and the pins holding it together were replaced with a plaster cast, which just a few days ago was changed to a plastic one. In a few weeks, he is due to receive a special boot that will allow him to walk with the help of crutches. Following a few more months of rehab, his doctors hope he will be able to walk again on his own. While Grilak is able to speak again, his entire chin was crushed by the gunshot. Four months ago, doctors took bone from his hip and transplanted it to his jaw, an operation that was also done to his leg, but rehab for his jaw is due to take another year and a half while they wait for the bone graft to heal. Only then can he have teeth transplants - he lost five - and extensive dental work to correct the inside of his mouth. Because of the bullet that hit his back, he has shrapnel in his chest that is too dangerous to remove, and it hurts him to lift his right arm. But worse than his physical pain, Grilak says, are the deep emotional scars. "It's not easy. I'm very moody, I still have many nightmares and post-traumatic stress symptoms, but I go to a psychologist and I'm trying very hard to overcome it," he says. "But at night, when I'm alone, it hits me the worst, because of the nightmares, and the pain, and my thoughts. I have trouble sleeping because the pain is so bad. I can only sleep for an hour or two at a time. And I always think about the battlefield… about my friends who were killed and wounded, about what happened to me. I haven't slept all year." After living in Sheba's rehabilitation department for six months, Weinrich is now living with his cousin, who helps him around the house with daily chores. He's working hard on thinking positively, though the effects of his injuries can often be very frustrating. Even going to the bathroom is a struggle that requires a manual removal of wastes at pre-planned times of the day. "Out of not being able to walk, function sexually or go to the bathroom normally, the worst part is that my freedom has been taken away from me," he says. "If my friends want to go for a walk in the forest, I can't go. If I want to find a girlfriend, if I want to be intimate with someone, if I want to go anywhere or do anything, it always has to be planned out." Weinrich was one of 38 soldiers from last summer's war who was rehabilitated at Sheba, where a staff of 100 treated some of the most seriously wounded. Nineteen of the wounded were sent to the neurological rehab department with severe spinal cord and brain injuries, and many were paralyzed or in a minimally conscious state. "Here, the meaning of improving is very different than you think," says Dr. Gabi Zelig, head of neurological rehabilitation. "I'm not talking about being cured - someone who is paralyzed will never be able to work again, but they will be able to go home, take care of themselves and function. The first day, all they can do is lie in their beds. "Every day is a fight. You never become habituated to the injuries," continues Zelig, who still sees patients who were wounded in the 1948 War of Independence. "We really understand the meaning of being disabled, the value of being to drink by yourself and pee by yourself, all these things that we take for granted. And hopefully, we see them become happy again, get married and have children. That's the satisfaction we have." But it takes a long time, especially for young men at the prime of their lives, to get used to their current status. Early on in his stay at Tel Hashomer, Weinrich, normally motivated and optimistic, admits he was in a deep depression. "I was totally broken. All I did was lie in bed and watch TV with everyone around me sad and feeling bad for me and I kept thinking, 'I'm never going to stand up and pee again, I'm never going to make love with my girlfriend, I'm never going to run ever again,'" he recalls. "I cried for about an hour, which is extremely rare for me, and I looked at myself and realized this was the lowest point of my life. From then on, I decided it could only get better, and I started doing the best I could to get better." He spends a lot of his time at a nearby Beit Halohem, a rehabilitation and treatment center for sports and culture run by the IDF Disabled Veterans Association, which Weinrich calls "an amazing country club." There, he has a tight schedule of bike riding, weight lifting, physical therapy and acupuncture. His treatments and medications, like those of all wounded soldiers, are completely financed by the Defense Ministry, whose medical committee evaluates each wounded soldier's level of disability, and determines the monthly financial compensation he receives for the rest of his life. The ministry also pays for psychological care for the soldier and his family, arrangements in the home such as wheelchair accessibility and even university studies. As part of his compensation, Weinrich also has a special car that allows him to be more independent. When at home, he's busy setting up a recording studio in his house for young artists like himself - he plays the guitar and piano and used to play the drums before the war. Though his doctors are hesitant to give him any false hopes regarding his recovery, he is fiercely determined to get back on his feet. "I believe in mind over matter, even if conventional thought is that I'm wasting my time," he says. "I believe it's just a matter of time." In fact, Weinrich has regained control of some of his stomach muscles, and he is now able to wiggle his toes and bend his right knee. But he stresses that even if he never walks again, it's not the end of the world. "It's important to say that it is possible for [someone like me] to live an amazing life and be as happy as everyone else," he says. "Everything in the world is relative, and not being able to walk is not the worst thing." FOR SOME of the broken heroes who came out of Lebanon last summer, the worst part of their injuries is that if another war breaks out, as many defense officials have warned, they will have no part in it. "Both my older brothers were officers," says Avshalom (Ashi) Erez, 21, from Kiryat Gat, who is blind in his right eye from seven pieces of shrapnel. "All my life I've wanted to be a combat soldier. We live in a country where the reality isn't easy. We're fighting for our existence, and I can't say someone else is going to do my work for me. I have to go out and do my part for this country, it's my responsibility, but it's also my privilege." After intense combat in Maroun a-Ras, Erez and the rest of the 101st battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade continued on to Ayta a-Shab on August 1. There, an RPG hit the house where he and his squad were stationed; a fierce gunfight ensued and, as Erez stood next to the window shooting back at the terrorists, a bullet hit the frame and shrapnel flew into his eye. For 10 hours he sat on the floor of the house, hand over his eye, while his comrades fought on. Three of his friends, Yonatan Einhorn, Michael Levin and Ilan Gabbai, were killed, and many were wounded. When the battle ended and Erez was taken to Rambam Hospital, he had no idea of the extent of his injury. When the doctors told him he had lost sight in his right eye, his dominant eye, it was a shock. "At first it was hard, I had difficulty seeing, I was upset," says Erez. "But I suddenly realized it could have been so much worse, I could have never seen my friends or family again, I could have died. I was one of the lucky ones." After successful surgery to save his eyeball, it's impossible to tell there is anything different about Erez upon first glance. His eye moves along with the other, he is able to play basketball with his friends and even drive. "My life is basically the same as it was before," he says, smiling broadly. "The only thing that's changed is my military profile. Even though I don't have to do reserve service now, I think I'll volunteer. But I can't fight in a war anymore… that's the worst part of it all. It's unbearable to think there could be another war and my friends will fight and risk their lives, and I won't be there with them." Grilak, too, feels indebted to his friends from the army, who not only risked their lives to rescue him, but who have supported him throughout the past year. "I really wouldn't be here without them," he states, and recounts that while preparing equipment right before his unit went into Randuria that night, they got into a discussion about the unique bond that only exists between soldiers. "I was talking with Elad, and we remembered that in basic training we had said we were willing to take a bullet for each other, and so that night I told him I was still willing to take a bullet for him. More people joined our conversation, including Ya'ar, and we talked about the brotherhood and friendship you can only find in the army, and then a few hours later, I got shot, and they got shot trying to save me, and Ya'ar was killed," he says. "Later, when I was in intensive care in the hospital and couldn't speak, Elad came to visit me in his wheelchair, and I wrote to him asking if he remembered that conversation, and he started crying. The only thing that kills me is that he took a bullet for me - if I could, I would take all the gunshot wounds my friends got while trying to save me on myself. Because that bond, that friendship means everything to me. It makes it all worth it."

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