What lies behind an IDF soldier's mask of invulnerability?

The only thing that mattered was being under the stretcher

 THE IDF evacuates an injured person on a  stretcher for transport via helicopter to a  hospital, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015. (photo credit: Illustrative; Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)
THE IDF evacuates an injured person on a stretcher for transport via helicopter to a hospital, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015.
(photo credit: Illustrative; Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Where does man find the courage to fight for his country, his loved ones, his brothers in arms, and his survival? What is it that makes a real soldier? Max Levin’s account, Under the Stretcher, sheds light on the experiences of IDF soldiers during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, exposing the humanity behind a soldier’s distant and stoic mask of strength and invulnerability. Levin gives a face and name to the heroes that unfalteringly carried the weight of war on their shoulders, revealing the multifaceted character of men determined, courageous and proud, yet also scared, broken and alone.

Levin begins his war story by recalling his awe as a little boy watching IDF soldiers protecting their country. Born into a Zionist Jewish-American family, Levin vowed to one day join them. Keeping to his word, at 18, Levin moved to Israel, underwent grueling tryouts, and proudly joined the Paratroopers Brigade as a lone soldier.

The training Levin endured pushed his body and mind to the breaking point, with navigations and marches through Israel’s rough terrain, carrying heavy supplies on his back and a stretcher on his shoulders, scaling mountain after mountain for days at a time with not a moment’s rest.

Levin describes the loneliness and defeat he felt during one particular navigation on New Year’s Eve: “I wondered what my family and friends were doing right then. They were probably out on the town or maybe at home relaxing, having a barbecue, or watching the fireworks. Not me though. I was stumbling through the dark of night, scaling mountainsides, and trying not to get lost in the desert.”

In war, circumstances demanded that a soldier continue on despite hunger, thirst, pain and exhaustion, and Levin’s commanders forced his team to push past their physical and mental capacity, teaching them to fight with every ounce of their being to survive. Failure, Levin learned, was not an option; giving up might mean his dismissal from the unit now, but later, it was a matter of life and death.

“The goal was to be metachat ha’alunkah, or under the stretcher, for as long as possible,” Levin recalled. “The only thing that mattered, once under the stretcher, was getting your friend and teammate home alive.”

Though his training was grave and arduous, Levin admits that he and his team still found ways to lighten the mood and goof around as teenage boys always do.

“One of our favorite songs to play was Mulan’s, I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” he shared. “From the balconies, soldiers would jump up singing, ‘Let’s get down to business…’” Merely 24 hours after Levin and his team completed training, they were thrust into the prongs of war in a ground operation that sent them into Gaza to destroy a network of Hamas’ terrorist tunnels.

Levin summons to the page the doubt and terror that jolted through him as bullets whipped past and explosions rang loud; he conveys the weariness that threatened to overwhelm him as he waded through the unknown, carrying dying men across the battlefield and leading us, readers, to taste the fear on our lips and to tighten our grip on the pages.

“I had carried stretchers across sand dunes and mountains countless times… But this was the first time carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher... This man, my brother in arms, might actually be dying,” he wrote.

 Under the Stretcher by Max Levin (credit: Red Penguin Books) Under the Stretcher by Max Levin (credit: Red Penguin Books)

Levin witnessed despair alongside bravery as he and his team were caught in a fatal explosion that killed those closest to the eruption and dealt Levin a blow to the head. Levin remembers that “one of the officers… had tears in his eyes when he saw me… He went into the other room, slamming the door behind him.

I could hear him sobbing in anguish.”

Every soldier had his way of facing grief and persevering, Levin learned.

In the aftermath of the war, Levin felt as though there was a stretcher of grief, honor and responsibility resting on his shoulders and urging him to carry on under its weight. “Those people with whom I trained and went to war, whom I call my brothers, would lift me on their stretcher and carry me… Who will lift the stretcher and carry them?” Levin went on to complete his service and man the tryouts for his unit, coming full circle from the little boy who decided to fight for his values to the soldier deciding who will fill his shoes next.

Under the Stretcher is Levin’s riveting tribute to the real and brave IDF soldiers, who were also boys and men that fought, loved, joked, feared and never gave up. In his final pages, he dedicates the book to the fallen soldiers, in a crude reminder that his account is a true story and its heroic characters were real people.

His story offers a glimpse into the secret lives of IDF soldiers, making them accessible to English readers, advising and inspiring all to fight for what they believe in most. Under the Stretcher is reminiscent of every soldier’s journey through the fearful unknown, bounding through lonely fields in the dark of night, hoisting what they value most on their shoulders, up the steep and looming mountain toward the first light of dawn.