Unit 669 alum Bar Reuven spent years training to save lives, not take them

Humanitarians in uniform

A UNIT 669 soldier uses a rope to descend from a helicopter during a training exercise (photo credit: SHAY FINKELMAN)
A UNIT 669 soldier uses a rope to descend from a helicopter during a training exercise
(photo credit: SHAY FINKELMAN)
Bar Reuven isn’t your typical IDF combat officer.
For his first 18 months of service, he had to endure basic infantry training, rope rescue, free diving, parachute, counterterrorism and medic courses.
As a result, he’s now a master in navigating how to function in emergency situations on land, sea and air. While most elite combat units spend weeks or months training for a specific exercise – and even undergo custom-tailored simulations so soldiers have a sense of what to expect on the ground – when Reuven is dispatched, he has virtually no time to prepare.
That is because his unit, an elite search and rescue team in the Israel Air Force, is only dispatched when things go horribly wrong. The emergencies are unpredictable, and soldiers are given less than a five-minute warning before they’re sent to the field.
Take, for example, a harrowing incident last year, where an undercover operation in Gaza went awry and erupted in a firefight between the IDF and Hamas. Unit 669 parachuted onto the scene via helicopter, and in less than three minutes the unit was able to retrieve all IDF soldiers, including one who was killed in friendly fire and another who was wounded.
Unit 669 doesn’t just save their own: They also save civilians – and even enemies. Reuven cites a horrific mudslide last year on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea where 18 students were killed as an example of the unit at work. They were also on the scene in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident in Turkey, where they saved both Turkish activists and Israeli Navy Seals.
Although Reuven wasn’t involved in those particular incidents, these kind of last-minute scenarios defined much of his military career.
“I was accepted into the Navy initially, but then I heard and was intrigued by Unit 669,” Reuven explained, adding that only 50 of the some 10,000 applicants are accepted. Further, during the arduous training process, another 20 drop out.
“The training really tests one’s leadership skills and calmness under pressure,” he said. “A lot of what we do is how we handle pressure, and these scenarios are difficult to replicate.”
Each 669 soldier is a valuable asset to Israel. In addition to the government-mandated 32-month military requirement for all males, Unit 699 soldiers serve an additional two years. The army also pumps a myriad of resources into these soldiers, so much so that training each individual costs NIS 1 million.
After his service though, Reuven, like many 669 alumni, couldn’t shake off the need to continue to do good in the world, which is why he founded American Friends of Unit 669, hoping to spread the unit’s message of knowing exactly what to do when disaster strikes.
Reuven recalls an incident in a Brooklyn subway a couple of years ago, when he saw a woman collapse on the station platform. Given his extensive training, Reuven rushed to the woman’s aid to administer CPR, but onlookers gawked at him in shock. He realized then that most Americans don’t know what to do in emergency situations and, given the frequency of mass shootings and incidents of cardiac arrest in the country, Reuven believes his expertise can be useful.
The New York Times reports that 900 Americans die per day from sudden cardiac arrest, and a “victim’s chances of survival fall by 7% to 10% every minute the heart fails to pump.”
In a much more frightening scenario, such as when an active shooter is present, the statistics are even grimmer.
“During an active-shooter situation, it is estimated that law enforcement response times may be five to six minutes,” Steve Guerrero, director of security for the nonprofit Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles, told the Huffington Post. “And on average, an active shooter situation lasts anywhere between five and eight minutes.” That limited time frame, then, compels those on the scene to know what to do in order to save themselves.
Therefore, these troubling figures prompted Reuven to launch one of the organization’s first project, which will be first aid training for Jewish communities across the US.
“We want to start in Jewish communities such as San Diego, which suffered an attack in April 2019, or Pittsburgh, a year ago,” he said. “If – G-d forbid – it happens again, if people know what to do and have the proper tools, we hope we can make a difference.”
In addition to the training, Reuven wants to ensure that Jewish community centers and Chabad houses are all properly equipped with first aid kits, and that each of these institutions has one person in charge who knows how to operate them in an emergency.
His burgeoning organization is trying to make an impact at home as well. For example, Unit 669 alumni have given first aid training to Gaza Envelope residents, and the organization also holds an annual medical conference. In November, the organization will hold a festive gala dinner to raise funds for these initiatives – and for alumni, some of whom suffer from acute PTSD following harrowing events they witnessed in the field.
The nonprofit has also developed an app for 669’s alumni around the world, where they are notified if someone is in distress. If a 669 alum is on vacation in South America, for example, he will receive a notification that someone near to him needs emergency assistance, and if he is able, will rush to administer aid.
“We can put out an alert and ask people, if they are close by, if they can help in the case of medical need,” Reuven says. “If something really serious takes place, we can investigate whether we can put together a team and send them to that location. We want to be the humanitarian resource for Jews and Israelis who are in distress – wherever they may be.”
Hitting the pause button to insert oneself into an emergency is as natural as breathing to these alumni, who are hyper-vigilant, aware of their surroundings, and spend most of their life ready to spring into action should the need arise.
Reuven smiles while speaking of his recent honeymoon in Japan. Every moment of what was largely a romantic experience was spent with Reuven anticipating what could go wrong and how he’d protect his wife should something horrible happen.
Many alumni feel that same sense of hyper-awareness, and often they decide to parlay their expertise into careers in medicine or emergency relief services.
On another front, Reuven believes that his organization can help the IDF with its reputation around the world. That’s because Unit 669 shows a face of the IDF that many outside of Israel are not familiar with. While Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists relish painting the IDF soldier as a brutal, occupying force, 669 flips that narrative entirely, showing that Israeli troops save lives, regardless of one’s ethnicity or nationality.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is to try and counter the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish