Officer who defied death prefers to recall soldiers' heroism

Lieutenant colonel and his wife dedicate refurbished Torah to Eshet Battalion's casualties.

IDF tank 88 (photo credit: )
IDF tank 88
(photo credit: )
Lt.-Col. Effie Deffrin was leading his troops through Wadi Saluki when his tank was hit by a hail of antitank rockets. He was rushed by helicopter to Safed's Rebecca Ziv Hospital in critical condition, and an officer was sent to his wife, who had given birth to their third child two weeks earlier. "They told her to bring the baby and come to the hospital to say good-bye to me," Deffrin told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. Wounded in the lungs and head, doctors were not certain he would live through the night. But two weeks later, the 35-year-old was back in command of the Eshet Battalion. "I came back quickly. I felt like I needed to get out of the hospital and back to the battalion. It's a battalion that feels like a family, and I knew they needed me." It was before a mission in the final days of the Second Lebanon War that Deffrin spoke to his men, and the veteran Armored Corps officer did not mince words. "I told them that this battalion was in the Palmah. And in every war since 1948, it has been in the vanguard. At Mitla Pass, at the canal in '73, on the Coastal Road in 1982. And now our turn has come to make history." The Eshet Battalion had been chosen to lead one of the final assaults of the Second Lebanon War, to cross the Saluki and move west. But by the end of the operation, Effie lay on the brink of death, kilometers from his destroyed tank, and three of his men had been killed. Early last summer, the battalion was operating near Jericho. But a week after the war began, on July 20, the 401st Brigade - including the Eshet Battalion - was ordered to the eastern sector of the Lebanese border. "It was a Friday when we were called up to the North; people were home on leave, but everybody rushed in and we had 100 percent reporting for duty. They grew up overnight. I never heard a word of complaint from a single soldier during that time. Not a single argument. It was as if they, 19- and 20-year-olds, suddenly rose up to meet the responsibility that had been placed upon them. They fought among themselves to 'go in' and join the operations in Lebanon." The battalion engaged in close combat operations, just north of the Purple Line security fence - until the second week of August. Their division was ordered to push west across Wadi Saluki, and the Eshet Battalion was picked to lead the attack. "The night before we went in," Deffrin said, "we were in the hills above Kiryat Shmona, and we stood and saw the entire Hula Valley burning below us from the Katyusha strikes. I told the soldiers that my father is a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor, and was afraid to sleep in his bed in Hadera at night because of the rocket attacks." The battalion made it safely as far as the village of Qantara, where Effie's tank came under heavy missile fire. Deffrin believes that the terrorists ambushing them recognized it as the commander's tank. After Deffrin was wounded, authority was handed over to Capt. Shai Bernstein, commander of the company leading the battalion. The tanks continued toward their goal. "I told him that he didn't have to lead the column. I knew that tanks would be hit," Deffrin said. "But Shai kept leading, with calm confidence." At Radoriyya, the terrorists once against struck at the lead tank. Bernstein and two members of his tank crew were killed. Only the driver escaped alive. "I was in the hospital when I heard who was killed... I can't remember the last time I cried. But then, I cried like a baby," Deffrin said. Effie speaks proudly about his soldiers' performance in the Battle of the Saluki. "As much as I try to be objective, I still have to conclude that this battalion did exceptional work during the war," he said. "I think it was a great privilege to command the battalion. These soldiers went in there knowing that they were going to die for their country. All those slogans that I thought were confined to the pages of history were proven relevant." Deffrin counts with pride the Medals of Valor that members of the battalion are going to receive for the battle. "There were incidents like the tales you hear from '73. Soldiers ran, exposed, from their own tanks to pull their comrades out of burning tanks, guarding the wounded without any cover for an hour. There were soldiers who collapsed because they had inhaled so much smoke saving others." One combat support soldier from the Ordinance Corps, Dimitri Kamishlin, "jumped out of the tank that he was in, ran without any cover into a burning tank nearby, and pulled out the entire crew," Effie said. "People don't realize the quality of this generation. We don't value them enough. People say that they have no ideology, no beliefs. But I saw otherwise." It was this pride in his men that led Effie to "run away from the hospital." He had trouble breathing when he first got back, but managed to complete more than two years as battalion commander. "I think that returning to the unit was the best medicine possible. I came back to be with my soldiers and to show them that everything would be all right." Last week, he and his wife dedicated a restored Torah scroll at their local synagogue, in memory of the battalion's casualties. The Torah, whose repair was funded by Deffrin and his wife, was written 180 years ago in Germany, and survived the Holocaust. "I think about the people who were killed, and realize that life doesn't - will never - look quite the same again. It takes different proportions," he said. Following the war, he had difficulty disciplining soldiers, especially those who had been in the battle, he said. He also began to come home more often. "Just the thought that I might not have seen my children any more" changed his outlook, he said. Now, he and his family are packing to spend a year in England, where Effie will spend a year at a British staff college near Oxford. "I need to deal a bit with myself. All year long, since the war, I've been dealing with the battalion's concerns. Now I can focus on myself, on my family." Nevertheless, Effie is more convinced now than ever, he said, that he will continue his career in the IDF. "After this summer, I see the career with the military as shlihut (a calling.) That once seemed like an empty phrase, but now it has meaning."