'How the heroes have fallen'

Family and friends of fallen soldiers speak of heroes who fought a just fight.

fallen.soldiers.4.090106 (photo credit: IDF)
(photo credit: IDF)
Reuven and Sarah Stern believed they had heard the voice of their youngest son, Nitai, 21, for the last time on Saturday night when he called to say he was heading into Gaza. "I love you 'Mamush'" he told Sarah. As she stood sobbing after Nitai's funeral at the capital's Mount Herzl Military Cemetery on Tuesday afternoon, she relived that last conversation. Her voice broke as she repeated her son's words. "I knew then there would be bad news," she said. "He was my flower, and now he has been cut down." Scores of friends hugged and kissed Sarah as she spoke with them about Nitai, a native of Jerusalem's Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood, who was killed by friendly fire in Gaza on Monday, along with Maj. Dagan Wertman, 32, from Ma'aleh Michmash and Cpl. Yousef Moadi, 19, from Yirka. They died when an IDF tank shell destroyed a house they were using for cover. In a separate friendly fire incident, Capt. Yonatan Netanel, 27, from Kedumim was also killed by an errant tank shell. Stern, Wertman and Netanel were buried on Mount Herzl in separate ceremonies in which flag-draped caskets were marched in by their comrades in arms. Family and friends spoke of heroes who had fought a just fight. Yisrael, a friend of the Stern family, told the hundreds of mourners who huddled in their coats against the cold, that Nitai's father, Reuven, had also suffered when his son called to say he was going into battle. "You said that you feared that something would happen to him. You said that your family had fought in all of Israel's wars and survived, and that as a result, the statistics were not in your favor," Yisrael said. According to Yisrael, after hearing that his son, the youngest of five children, had been killed, Reuven told one of many who telephoned to offer condolences, "What can we do? Many have paid this price. Now it is our turn." Nitai's older sister, Shira, said that a true eulogy would take the family the rest of their lives. She recalled how she had rocked Nitai to sleep on her stomach and bathed him when he was a baby. As he grew older, she made him hot chocolate, and took him to restaurants and the movies. In the last few years they had both been busy, she with raising a family and Nitai with the army. Even when they were together for Shabbat, she could tell that he was always thinking of his comrades. "You always knew what your path should be in life. Everything seemed to come easily to to you. You gave all that you had to everything that you did," Shira said. "You did that yesterday as well." "When we last saw you, you seemed calm and you had an easy smile on your face. Now you are gone from us. I feel like my words are nothing compared to the great void that is about to overcome us," she said. When her parents heard the news, they asked, "How can we go on?" "We told them, 'We are all together and we love you very much. We are with you and with Nitai," Shira said. Nitai's friend Yaniv said he had never imagined he would be eulogizing a friend who had been like a brother. In the past he had seen such heartbreaking eulogies only on television. Now that he himself was standing in the cemetery to bury a friend whom he would never see or speak with again, he knew that "at this moment your heart doesn't break, it shatters into small pieces," Yaniv said. In a voice that boomed out across the cemetery, Nitai's father, Reuven, said his son had worked hard to achieve his goals, even as early as kindergarten. "How the heroes have fallen!" Reuven declared. Then he asked all the mourners to join him in a song of prayer. "This hour should be the hour of mercy and goodwill before you." Then Reuven added, "My dear son Nitai, rest in peace." As Sarah and Reuven walked out of the cemetery, they paused to look at their son's wreath-covered grave. After a few moments her husband took her hand and told her it was time to leave. As she stood she pointed to the mourners. "See, they don't want to leave him, and neither do I." As they left the cemetery, mourners entered for the funeral of Dagan, who was also one of five children. Two of his three brothers are currently in the army. Dagan himself had taken a two-year break from the army, but returned to participate in the Gaza operation. Family and soldiers spoke of Dagan's commitment to his soldiers. One officer said he was the kind of commander who worried that his soldiers had enough money and who stayed up all night talking with them. He would go around for days with red, swollen eyes from lack of sleep, the officer said. OC Chaplaincy Corps Brig.-Gen. Rabbi Avihai Ronsky said that on Monday night had glanced over the shoulder of a soldier who was jotting down the list of the wounded and the dead. When he saw Dagan's name he became so upset he left the room. Ronsky recalled how before the start of Operation Cast Lead he and Dagan had spoken of the special spirit of bravery that lay within the soldiers who were heading into Gaza. Dagan's brother Shahar stood at the podium with a torn shirt, as is traditional for mourners, and cried. Dagan was modest and would not have wanted so much attention focused on him, Shahar said. "You taught us that we do not have to be together physically to feel close to one another," Shahar said. His brother taught them that it was not the details of life in and of themselves that were important, but rather the way they expressed the inner soul of a person. One of the central tenants of Dagan's life was study of the Torah, said Shahar. Their father, Eli, recalled how he would sneak up on Dagan and cover him with a blanket when he fell asleep still dressed. "But I didn't take off your shoes, because you would not let me," Eli said, his voice broken with tears. Then he rallied and said, "We are asking that the message that goes out of here is one of strength." He was certain, he said, that his family would be able to move forward. "But I want to say something else in your name. We will rebuild our lives in a better way, if we listen to each other and we try to hear what the other one is saying. "Everyone who has the ability to unite should unite. When there is more unity at every level, then we will see how our suffering will lessen. I have no doubt of this. "Dagan, we will continue to live with you. God, give us the power to continue in Dagan's path." As darkness fell, mourners gathered bid farewell to Netanel, who moved to Kedumim from Jerusalem last year after he and his wife, Ziona, were married. Three months ago, Ziona gave birth to their daughter Maayan. A day before he died, Netanel sent his wife a text message from Gaza saying "Everything is OK. There is no reason to worry." Before the funeral, Yonatan's father, Amos, said that his son had believed in the importance of the mission in Gaza. When his company commander asked him if he was afraid, Netanel answered: "We have been waiting for this." Amos added, "We want to strengthen the hand of the army to continue what it started. That is our request and it would also be Yoni's." He said he understood it was possible that Yoni had been killed by friendly fire. "It important to stress that a war is a war. Enemy fire and friendly fire are part of the battle in which those who die do so to sanctify God's name," Amos said. At the funeral, Amos said he had gone to sleep the night before with a heavy heart. He thought of the war's importance and of the sacrifices it would likely demand. The next morning Amos learned his son's life would be part of that price. He thanked God for the privilege of having a son like Yoni. "I hope we were worthy of that gift," he said. Outside of the family home in Beersheba's Ramot neighborhood on Tuesday night, two of St.-Sgt. Alexander Mashevizky's friends, Diana and Gal, spoke to reporters. They said that they had known him for several years and, fighting back tears, Gal said he was the "salt of the Earth." "He began pilot's course, but after he fell out he still wanted to serve in a demanding combat position. Then he decided to go the Yahalom unit, where he served," Gal said. "He did a few training courses for different elite units and then decided on Yahalom, a elite joint Golani-Engineering Corps unit. "He loved what he was doing and he loved the country," Gal said. Diana said Mashevizky liked to travel around Israel. He had been to every nook and cranny of the North, which he especially loved. He didn't say anything about being worried before he went into Gaza, "but that was his way, he took everything on his own," Diana said. "We're going to miss him very much," she said. Mashevizky is survived by his parents, a brother and a sister. His father is a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His brother is one year older than him and his sister is in the third grade. The Mashevizkys made aliya the former Soviet Union. Abe Selig contributed to this report.