Wounded paratrooper gives thanks

Lying seriously injured in a battlefield in South Lebanon, with a bullet in his head and another in his leg, 21-year-old St.-Sgt. Gur Nedzvetsky knew that his chances of rescue were receding rapidly. But as dawn began to break on the ninth day of the Second Lebanon War - making a landing by a rescue helicopter even riskier than usual - the sounds of an IDF Blackhawk hovering above him gave the young Russian-born paratrooper fresh hope. The pilot of the helicopter was Lt.-Col. Avner Balkany, 42. Unable to winch him aboard because he was in such critical condition, and unable to land because of Hizbullah gunfire and missiles targeting the helicopter, he hovered just 10 feet above the ground, enough to allow Nedzvetsky's comrades from the elite Orev paratroop brigade to push his stretcher directly into the aircraft. Despite damaging a propeller as the helicopter hovered so close to the ground, Balkany managed to take off for Haifa's Rambam Hospital, fully aware that the life of the seriously wounded soldier depended on his reaching the hospital quickly. Nedzvetsky, now 23 and applying to medical school, and Balkany, now serving as a military attaché abroad, met in June 2008 for the first time since the daring evacuation on July 20, 2006. The meeting - a surprise for the pilot - was their first, although they have spoken by telephone. It was the highlight of a dinner given by the UK Association for the Wellbeing of Israel's Soldiers (UK AWIS) at St. John's Wood Synagogue in northwest London, which raised almost £1 million for a range of projects and scholarships for IDF troops. Speaking shortly after the emotional reunion, Nedzvetsky said: "I don't know if I was preparing for the possibility of death. I remember mainly seeing bad pictures going through my mind. It was not a clear, reasonable thought, but rather something that I kept trying to push aside." Explaining the mission that took him into Lebanon, Nedzvetsky said: "We were sent, a group of 12 paratroopers, for an assignment to bring down several empty houses in this village that we knew were filled with Hizbullah's ammunition and weaponry. "We completed our mission and blew up the houses and the ammunition. But all of a sudden, a group of armed Hizbullah fighters came out of some houses and shot at us," Nedzvetsky recalled. "Three bullets were fired at me; one hit me in the face, the second in the stomach - but luckily the bulletproof vest halted this one - and a third bullet went through my leg. "When things calmed down a little bit, my fellow soldiers gathered around me, they put me on a stretcher and the paramedic kept talking to me, making sure I was conscious. My memories are vague from those moments because I lost a great deal of blood," said Nedzvetsky. According to Balkany, "I rescue people for a living and, usually, the person who was rescued wants to maintain the connection with the rescuer. For me, that would have meant three events a day. But this rescue operation was different. It changed me. "This event left a deep mental and emotional scar on me. The level of the risks were high and I was aware of them while I was preparing to land with intense gunfire and missiles being fired at us. The tail propeller was scrubbing a tree and I wasn't sure how long the damaged helicopter could continue to hover or whether it could fly us to the hospital." Nedzvetsky, who arrived in Israel in 1990 at the age of five, is now benefiting from a four-year scholarship awarded by UK AWIS. He said the funding would help him to achieve his dream of being a doctor - a dream he probably would not be pursuing without the series of intensive medical treatments he has undergone in the past two years. The complex series of operations - including taking a nerve from his leg to put in his damaged face - inspired him to pursue a career in medicine. "I guess I would have been in a whole different place if I wasn't wounded," he said. The original version of this article was was first published in The Jewish Chronicle.