'I didn't want my troops to see me shaken'

Wounded paratrooper tells of ambush on way out of Gaza.

wounded soldier 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
wounded soldier 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As St.-Sgt. Avi Cohen, 23, tried to evacuate himself and another wounded paratrooper from a Gaza battlefield last week, he forgot the rifle in his hands wasn't working. "Before I left [the firefight], I had traded my weapon with another soldier, whose M-16 had been broken," the Efrat resident told Bnei Akiva volunteers on Wednesday. They had come from around the world to help children in Ashkelon who have spent day after day in bomb shelters. After finishing their work for the day, the volunteers were invited to Moshav Masuot Yitzhak to hear Cohen's story. "I knew I was going to be taken to the hospital, but that this particular soldier was staying in the field, and would need a working weapon," he explained. "So I gave him mine, and I took his." Moments earlier, Cohen had been shot in the leg by a sniper - one of a handful who had opened fire on his paratrooper unit as it operated deep inside the Gaza Strip. "I didn't want my soldiers to see me shaken," he said. "I have 20 young men under my command, and this was the first time they had come under real fire. The last thing I wanted was for them to think I was panicking." So, Cohen explained, he took the time to trade weapons with the soldier whose rifle was giving him problems. "I gave him mine, with all of the special attachments I've added to it," Cohen said. "And he's still got it now. My unit hasn't been home for a month, and they've been in Gaza for over two weeks." But after the trade-off, Cohen explained, he and another soldier who had also been wounded in the leg were escorted by other soldiers toward a tank waiting to take them from the battlefield. Then Cohen heard a pop, like a firecracker, and saw the soldier walking in front of him fall to the ground. "He was also shot by a sniper," Cohen said. "We were coming under a lot of fire and we had no way of seeing where they were. "I told the other soldiers to get on the ground and respond with heavy fire, you know, all of the different weapons - the M-16s, the MAG [machine gun], the Negev [light machine gun] - but they were in shock. They had just seen me get shot, along with another of their friends, and now a third one, and he was shot through the arm - the bullet entered into his rib cage. I thought I was going to lose him." With his soldiers holding their fire, and the sniper bullets still whizzing by, Cohen tried to respond with the M-16 clutched in his hands. "But it didn't work," Cohen said. "I realized that I had the other soldier's rifle, and I couldn't get it to shoot. So I had to snap my soldiers out of it. "They finally returned some fire, and we made it to the tank. All of us made it back across the border, onto a helicopter and to the hospital. The other soldier who was shot in the leg has already been sent home, but the third one is still in the hospital. I went to visit him the other day at Tel Hashomer, and he's going to be all right." "When we went into Gaza, we knew going in that our primary task was to protect the citizens of the South, who have endured endless rocket fire on their communities for the last eight years. We knew it was our job to help them sleep at night," he said. The moshav he's currently resting at - Masuot Yitzhak, where he has relatives - has been within rocket range since Ashkelon came under fire in early March. Sirens are heard often in and around the community, but there have been no direct hits on the moshav. "We also knew that part of our job was to deal a strong blow to Hamas," Cohen continued. "And we were ready to do it. But we never fired at civilians, nor did we damage their homes or fields. The last thing we wanted to do was damage their livelihoods." Cohen told the volunteers that his unit had happened upon a Palestinian family that had run out of food. "We gave them our "Luf," he said, referring to the loaf of canned meat that is a staple of every battle ration. "We hardly had any food ourselves, but we gave it to them anyway." Cohen can't wait to get back to the fight. "I really want to return to my unit," he said. "But in the meantime there are other ways to give." While soldiers are required to leave their cellphones on base before entering Gaza, some of their commanders have phones with them in the field. Cohen relays messages from them to soldiers' families, as he recovers from the bullet wound near his ankle. "I talk to a lot of moms," he said, smiling. "They all want to know how their boys are doing."