A year after war, the road to recovery stretches far

For some wounded soldiers, the bleak national mood makes the pain and loss even harder to bear.

lebanon wounded 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
lebanon wounded 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
A year ago, David Shashar was an obstetrician. Today, his right arm twisted and mostly useless after it was nearly torn off by a Hizbullah missile last August, Shashar is treated at the same hospital where he once delivered babies. Israel's inconclusive war with Hizbullah has been over for a year, but it remains a painful reality for Shashar and the 665 other soldiers who were seriously wounded in the fighting. For many of those with the worst injuries, the daily battle to restore their shattered bodies and disrupted lives happens here at the rehabilitation section of Sheba Hospital, in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. On a recent morning, the soldiers were easy to spot in the hospital's lobby: young men in T-shirts with military logos, propelling themselves in wheelchairs or striding purposefully on prosthetic legs. Shashar, 38, who served in the infantry reserves as a doctor, left his civilian job at Sheba Hospital's maternity ward when war broke out and his unit was activated. Sent into south Lebanon as Israel pushed a ground offensive, he was taking cover in an abandoned house on the outskirts of the town of Debel at 1:23 p.m. on August 9, 2006, when a Hizbullah team fired an antitank missile at the building. The blast killed nine of Shashar's comrades and left him near death, his forearm dangling by shreds of tissue and his body punctured by shrapnel. Rushed back to the Israeli border on a stretcher, he woke 10 days later at Sheba Hospital, this time as a patient. Doctors reattached his arm, but it will take more surgery and at least two years before Shashar knows if it will function again. He praised the medical care he's received, but said the postwar mood outside the hospital had made recovering harder. "You wake up in intensive care, and you feel that the country has lost its way, its direction, and that makes the pain, the loss and the wound much harder to deal with," Shashar said. On the same day Shashar was wounded, a Hizbullah missile penetrated platoon leader Asael Lubotzky's armored personnel carrier and mangled his lower body, leaving his right leg nearly severed. Lubotzky, 24, remains in a wheelchair, his reattached leg in a brace, and is slowly learning to walk with crutches. He spends seven hours a day in rehabilitation. Over the past year, Lubotzky said, dealing with his new handicap had been easier than the memory of losing comrades. His battalion lost 10 during the war, and one of them, Lt. Amihai Merhavia, was a close friend. Lubotzky extricated Merhavia's body under fire in the town of Bint Jbail. Lubotzky also finds it difficult to hear criticism of the army in the war's aftermath. While the senior command and the country's political leaders might have made mistakes, he said, the soldiers did their job. "We feel that we won all the battles," he said. Experienced at handling the technicalities of tragedy after decades of war, the IDF has an extensive apparatus to deal with wounded soldiers such as Lubotzky and Shashar. Officers accompany wounded soldiers in hospital and remain in touch with them throughout their treatment, and often for years and even decades afterward. A seriously wounded soldier is typically discharged after his injury. The Defense Ministry then funds medical care and provides a monthly stipend for life. For many soldiers, dealing with a serious injury is easier at the beginning than it is a year later, when they begin looking ahead to life in a wheelchair or as amputees, often angry at girlfriends who left or afraid they might never be attractive to a woman again, said Lt.-Col. Oshrat Romano-Kandell, who heads the Armored Corps casualties office. "If they had hope that things would return to normal after a year, things didn't go back to normal," she said. "It's difficult, and it's a different kind of coping. At the beginning it's a struggle for life, and now it's a struggle for their place in life." In the months and years that follow, the wounded often develop psychiatric symptoms that need to be treated, she said. Many of the officers in Romano-Kandell's line of work, nearly all of whom are women, lost family members to violence themselves, she said. Her own father, Yossef Romano, was one of 11 Israeli athletes killed by the Palestinian Black September group at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Romano-Kandell said she found optimism where she could. "It's hard to tell a mother that her son is crippled," she said. "The mother understands that her son has no arms, or no legs, but he's alive - for us, that's a bright spot." A year after two Hizbullah missiles altered their lives on the same day last August, Shashar and Lubotzky are adjusting. Unable to deliver babies - work he describes as "great happiness" - Shashar is doing lab research aimed at discovering the elusive chemical that triggers childbirth. Lubotzky, inspired by his year in hospital and rehabilitation, will begin studying medicine in the fall.