Yom Kippur War: The veterans who heal

Meeting challenges through change and adversity after the traumatic Yom Kippur War.

PROF. NATI KELLER working at a field hospital in Rwanda in the early 1990s.   (photo credit: ALMOG’S PERSONAL COLLECTIONS.)
PROF. NATI KELLER working at a field hospital in Rwanda in the early 1990s.
The Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was a turning point in Israeli history, one of those before and after events that changes and shapes destinies.
Following Israel’s lightning-quick victory in the Six Day War in 1967, a different way of seeing the world developed. Militarily, the conceptzia – or conception – began to take hold. Israel’s domination of Arab armies in just six days proved that its might, know-how and weaponry would provide the Israel Defense Force with a significant advantage for years – if not decades – to come. The surprise combined Egyptian and Syrian attacks on Israel’s borders altered everything.
Prof. Nathan (Naty) Keller, director of the Department of Clinical Microbiology and management adviser on drugs at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, remembers well the day war broke out.
“I enlisted in 1970, and my regular military service should have ended on October 8, 1973. On October 5, I was with my company in Acre and decided that I would go home after breakfast. The alert caught me, and we were told to go to our base.”
By 2 p.m. on October 6 – Yom Kippur – the Golan was “on fire,” according to Keller. He was transferred to the South, however, trying to keep the Egyptians from penetrating too deeply into Israeli-held Sinai. His unit was sent to the Suez Canal, and he recalls people showing the soldiers the “V for Victory” sign as they passed them, confident that the IDF would quickly overcome the Egyptians.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Keller and his unit were caught in an Egyptian paratroop ambush in what would be known as the Battle of the Chinese Farm. They managed to enter a huge, neglected Israeli fortress, and shortly after received orders to cross the Suez Canal. For a time it was quiet; then the Egyptian planes bombarded the fortress.
Keller witnessed many wounded and killed soldiers, an experience that was to change the course of his life. “When I came home I decided to change my degree from mathematics to medicine. After the war I applied to medical school – it was the biggest decision of my life to make that switch,” he said matter-of-factly. “We understood that war is not glorious – it is an ugly thing and everyone who participated in it was changed by it.”
When Keller first went to work at Sheba, it was not a popular destination for young, newly qualified physicians. “Many professors worked hard to change the culture,” he remarked.
It must have worked, because according to a recent Newsweek article, Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer is now considered one of the top 10 hospitals in the world. “Sheba’s main function is to serve the country, whether that is military or civilian,” Keller explained. “It was the same during the 1991 Gulf War.”
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Sheba began to champion both the orthopedic rehabilitation of wounded soldiers as well as establishing a burn unit. Due to the groundbreaking work that was done then, it is the IDF’s routine location for wounded soldiers. Keller downplays his own role in Sheba’s rise to one of the world’s best hospitals today, but stressed that without those experiences in the Yom Kippur War – which changed the course of his life – and then as a chief medical officer in the Golani Brigade, he would not be where he is today.
DORON ALMOG (Maj.-Gen. [res]) had a similar experience to Keller, as his participation in the war and certain aspects of it fundamentally changed him. Almog acknowledges that not only was fighting the war traumatic, but the military, social and political earthquakes were equally so. The fabric of society that had been almost taken for granted in the 25 years since the state’s establishment was seemingly being picked apart at the seams.
Almog identified confidence as one of the key areas that the war helped to shatter – and it started at the very top.
“We lost confidence in Prime Minister Golda Meir,” said Almog. “We lost confidence in Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. We lost confidence in IDF chief of staff David (Dado) Elazar. We were satisfied with what we had achieved at the end of the war, but all of us were highly disappointed.”
Almog’s military service is one of the most storied in the annals of Israel’s history. Prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, he was one of the soldiers whom Golda Meir ordered to hunt down the terrorists or terrorist leaders of Black September, who had perpetrated the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972.
Subsequently, he was also the first commando on the ground at Entebbe in 1976, when Israeli forces rescued more than 100 Jewish and Israeli hostages. Similarly, when Israel carried out Operation Moses – the airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had fled the civil war in their country and made it to Sudan – he was there.
Like Keller, Almog fought in the Sinai theater and was a member of the units that surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army at Ismailia toward the end of the war. However, it was events in the North that would help shape Almog’s philosophy.
His younger brother, Eran, was in the Golan fighting in a tank battalion to repulse the massed ranks of Syrian armor swarming over the border. Toward the end of the war, Almog discovered that Eran had been killed during the fierce battle at Tel Saki. It wasn’t just the loss of his brother that caused him distress, pain and rage. It was the manner in which he died. Eran had been wounded in the leg when his tank was hit, and he was also thrown clear. What sickened Almog is that his brother was left there, bleeding and alone, dying from his wounds.
After the war, Almog found his brother’s tank, interrogated soldiers who had fought with him, and pieced together the events. He vowed – after making a makeshift, although still-standing memorial to his brother from pieces of his tank – that he would never permit a wounded, dying or dead soldier to be left behind.
Almog’s life would change indelibly again in 1984, this time with the birth of his son, Eran, named after his fallen brother. He and his wife, Didi, expected that Eran would be more successful, more talented than them and a constant source of pride. However, after eight months, Eran was diagnosed with a severe form of autism as well as severe retardation.
“We were told that it was unlikely that he would ever speak,” recounted Almog. “Psychologists told us that mentally he would probably stay a child forever. My wife and I asked ourselves, ‘How do we continue to manage our lives if our child has no future?’” It transpired that although Eran was, in fact, non-verbal, he was able to teach Almog some of the most valuable lessons of his life. “He taught me that even the most so-called limited people have much to offer.”
Eran’s diagnosis and Almog’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War – including having his mother sound surprised to hear from him after she had been told that both her sons had been killed in the fighting – pushed him to question how Israel as a society dealt with these two seemingly opposite extremes.
Almog’s solution was to set up Aleh Negev – Nahalat Eran. His guiding principle and philosophy was a synergy of not being prepared to leave anyone behind, whether on the battlefield or because a person is disabled.
“When Eran was born, I was probably on-track to be a future chief-of-staff of the IDF, but instead I dedicated my life to build Nahalat Eran to provide an integrative community center for children with severe disabilities.”
Almog was at pains to stress that Nahalat Eran is not an institution but an integrative village, where children and volunteers without disabilities interact with all people – Bedouin, Jewish, Muslim, Christian – who do have disabilities. Prior to building Aleh Negev, Almog visited institutions for people with disabilities and was horrified and ashamed with what he found.
He was disappointed again, distressed to find dirty and stinky institutions seemingly treating the most vulnerable, without humanity. He was also aware that some of Israel’s luminaries – legendary figures of the early state who had children or grandchildren with disabilities – had them hidden away from public view, sometimes even overseas.
“I grew up in a generation of new sabras,” says Almog. “We were part of a new ethos, heroic and strong, and there was no place in that concept for children like my son.” Almog identified a causal link between the arrogance and hubris that led to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. “I saw the same hubris that would take children like Eran and treat them as nothing.”
So he turned it around. “We become more humble and less arrogant by working and walking with the disabled,” Almog maintained. “The strength of social change is measured by the weakest link – the more we do to strengthen it, the better we will become. [We must avoid the] psychology of arrogance in our daily and social life, and ultimately, we have to take care of each other.”