If an IDF soldier dies, this unit identifies them, notifies families

The IDF casualty unit was founded in 1948 but only became an active unit two years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It offers support for wounded soldiers and grieving families.

 COL. REUT KOREN: Giving the soldiers her all. (photo credit: NIR KEIDAR)
COL. REUT KOREN: Giving the soldiers her all.
(photo credit: NIR KEIDAR)

In Israeli culture, getting a knock on the door has become code for receiving the worst possible news. The thought of someone knocking on your door is enough to set you off thinking about the pain and fear that come after a loved one has died.

“To this day, I’m still in touch with the families I’ve assisted. Some of them even came to my wedding. The bond between us is extremely strong, since I was the one who was there with them during the most difficult moments in their life,” says Col. Reut Koren, who is 39, has four children and lives in Yesud Hama’ala in the Upper Galilee. Last summer, Koren took up her position as head of the casualty unit in the IDF’s personnel directorate.

According to Koren, she recognized her calling in 2005, when she was serving as a young officer in the IDF Adjutancy Corps. “I remember that on my first day there, my battalion commander at the time, Col. David Oberman, taught me what it means to serve in the casualty unit and how to interact and help the bereaved families, as well as families of wounded soldiers and disabled IDF veterans. He was the first person to guide me in this position.

“The first time I was involved in dealing directly with the families of fallen soldiers was following a suicide attack on soldiers from the Nahshon Battalion, which is part of the Kfir Brigade. I think from that very first event, I immediately felt a deep connection with the bereaved families. It was a defining moment in my life. On the fifth night of Hanukkah, December 29, 2005, IDF intelligence received a high security alert that a suicide bomber was attempting to infiltrate into Israel, and so the alert level was raised.”

As a result, Lt. Ori Binamo and his soldiers set up a temporary roadblock along the southern end of Tulkarem. Soon after, the soldiers stopped a taxi carrying suspicious-looking passengers. At that point, Binamo ordered his soldiers to move away, and then demanded that the passengers open their coats. Two of the passengers were wearing concealed explosive belts, which they then activated.

 OBITUARY ON the front door of the Peles family home, 2014, for Roy Peles, 21, who had been killed the previous month in combat. (credit: DANIELLE SHITRIT/FLASH90)
OBITUARY ON the front door of the Peles family home, 2014, for Roy Peles, 21, who had been killed the previous month in combat. (credit: DANIELLE SHITRIT/FLASH90)

Binamo was killed on the spot. “Ori died while using his body to protect his soldiers and prevent these terrorists from entering into Israeli territory,” Koren explains. “His soldiers were wounded in the bombing. It was at that moment that I began my real training. I learned how to handle an extremely difficult situation. I was stunned at the intensity of the situation I was expected to deal with, and I was amazed that I came out the other side intact. I was not even 21 yet.”

Was that the moment you realized you wanted to remain in this position and help bereaved families?

Yes. I look at it this way: These soldiers gave the State of Israel their all, and that is why we need to reciprocate and give them our all. It’s true that it comes at a personal cost to myself and to my colleagues in our unit, but I believe it is my duty to put my own and my family’s needs aside, as long as I can handle the situation. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I actually draw strength from the families I work with. I will never forget Lt. Ori Binamo’s family or the eight other families of his battalion with whom I was in contact.

THE IDF casualty unit was founded in 1948 but only became an active unit two years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the war had claimed the lives of thousands of Israelis, and an even larger number of soldiers were wounded.

The IDF quickly realized it was not prepared to assist all the grieving families and provide services for all the wounded soldiers. The casualty unit began offering initial care for wounded soldiers and support for families during the initial grieving period. The soldiers serving in the casualty unit remain in contact with the grieving families for years afterward as well.

“There’s no doubt that a family is never the same after they receive that knock on the door,” Koren solemnly says. “That’s why it is so important that before we set out to inform a family that their loved one has died, that all the details are accurate and that we’ve reached the correct home.

“In the back of my mind, I am always thinking of how to make this easier or better for the family receiving the horrible news. Transparency, sensitivity and equality are of the utmost importance. We approach this work with respect and reverence.”

And still, in the age of social networks and information leaks, this work has become extremely difficult. “We are even more pressured in this day and age to reach the families of fallen soldiers before the family members  hear about it through social media,” continues Koren.

“When a situation arises surrounding the death of a soldier, information is quickly generated and circulated. Sometimes, however, it takes time for all the information to be collected, and my team works arduously so that we can reach the family in a timely manner.

“Our team, which includes people who are part of the IDF reserves, are all incredible people who give their heart and soul to their IDF service. The way it works is when an incident takes place, I call up one of my reserve soldiers, and in that instant, he or she goes from being a private citizen back to being a soldier.

“They don their IDF uniform, which they keep in their car for just this purpose, and then set out to inform a family that their loved one has unfortunately died. These reserve soldiers put their life on hold for eight days to help a family in this deeply sad time of grieving.”

Can you think of one story that was especially heart-rending for you?

That’s an unfair question, since each and every time it’s incredibly difficult. My eyes water when I talk about these situations, as we’re talking about a person who has just disappeared in the blink of an eye. I always say to my soldiers that we are never to say to a grieving family that we understand the pain they are experiencing – because we don’t.

None of us can understand this pain, and I pray that none of us ever will. I can show that I understand there has been a great loss and to let them know that I am here to help them, even though I am not experiencing the same thing they are.

How do your soldiers cope with so much suffering?

Each branch has a professional guiding them, supporting them and helping them to keep their own mental health strong. I am that person in my unit. It’s my job as their commander to always be alert to each of my soldiers and aware of what everyone needs.

I make the decision to allocate resources and keep everyone strong. We all work together to make sure the grieving families feel taken care of, but also that all the soldiers in our unit feel taken care of as well. One of the greatest joys is seeing the gratitude from the families, who appreciate our hard work. That’s what keeps me going when it gets tough.

What do you specifically do for the families?

We are like a life raft for them. We are mostly there to give a hug and to listen to them carefully and sympathetically. We continue reaching out to these families on a regular basis for many years. This continuity helps people work through their grief, and I believe we are fulfilling an extremely important role.

Does every family welcome your help?

Sometimes people have an extremely hard time accepting that their loved one is gone, or they may be dealing with extremely difficult extenuating circumstances. I always tell my team that our job is to be there, no matter what. We will never abandon a grieving family. Even if they say they don’t want us to be there, we will find a way to help them that is appropriate for them.

FOR KOREN, whose last role was as the human resources officer of the division, the connection with the bereaved families is one of the main pillars of the IDF. There is a plethora of programs for members of these families, including trips overseas and day camps for IDF orphans.

“For example,” Koren explains, “one day I was sitting with a girl who had lost her father, when one of her camp counselors from the previous summer walked by. The expression of happiness that lit up her face the moment she recognized her counselor, and the huge hug she got from her was really something to watch.

“I have four children, and I was thrilled when we brought a new baby into the family, but the strength I see sometimes with our bereaved families is out of this world. It is a blessing for them to have a place to go where they feel comfortable letting it all hang out. We provide a safe space where they will not be judged and where they don’t have to explain anything because we already understand.”

In addition to helping bereaved families, these units also assist wounded and disabled soldiers and their families. The Eitan Unit is the military authority for locating IDF soldiers who are missing in action, and maintaining contact with families of soldiers who are being held prisoners of war, are missing or whose place of burial is unknown.

“Our unit is made up of regular duty and reserve soldiers who work around the clock,” explains Koren. “It’s very important to me to ensure that a soldier who has been accompanying a certain family is able to continue that connection even after he or she has completed his/her mandatory military service – for bereaved families, as well as for wounded and disabled soldiers. One of the best ways we can support families on their journey and in the healing process is for their contact person with the IDF to remain constant.”

In 2021, a new service was created for wounded and disabled IDF soldiers: a telephone hotline (1111, extension 6), which will put them in direct contact with soldiers from the casualty unit. “We are constantly getting calls from soldiers who are able to engage in long and deep conversations with our team. I know that there is a lot of criticism of the Israeli government and the IDF in the way wounded and disabled soldiers are treated, and I am the first to admit that we still have plenty of room for improvement, but we really have come such a long way in this field. And I believe that the close connections we have formed with bereaved families adds to our resilience and the strength of the State of Israel and its citizens.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.