Rescue unit proves determination of Israeli youth

"We were eager to serve, but the army was not ready for us"

hessed 298.88 (photo credit: )
hessed 298.88
(photo credit: )
It was the beginning of the third week of the war. I was in a Kiryat Shmona community center, working on an article on volunteers in the Katyusha-stricken town, when I saw the number flash across my cell phone screen. I felt a flutter of anticipation in my stomach as I heard the voice on the other end, knowing that this was the phone call that I had been expecting for two weeks. I was to report to Nazareth in 14 hours - first thing in the morning - and begin my reserve duty. My backpack of army equipment had been packed and waiting since the first day of fighting. The medical company of the 983rd Search and Rescue Battalion is not exactly the typical IDF reserve unit. We specialize in first-response to building collapses, be they due to earthquakes or Katyusha strikes, and are supposed to operate in civilian areas. In training after training, we had been taught not to measure success by military standards of terrain covered or enemies neutralized, but instead by human lives saved. Like many of the reserve combat units called up during the five long weeks of war, the medics of the company reported for duty in unexpectedly large numbers, even surpassing the number of soldiers that we were expected to bring to the field. This unit of Israeli Generation Xers, most of whom were still in high school when the IDF pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, proved with their presence that the youngest generation of reservists was ready to drop everything when the army called. But for those of us raised on stories of IDF glory, the reality on the ground was far from what we had anticipated. Medics, returning to active duty after five or six years, were given a hurried 2-hour refresher course on care for trauma victims. No instruction was offered on such helpful points as identifying and addressing traumatic stress. Even after medics took the initiative and asked the instructor, we received no direction on differentiating between victims suffering from psychological trauma and from internal injuries as a result of shockwaves released from rocket strikes. In the field, we knew, both victims would demonstrate similar signs initially - elevated pulse, sweating, hurried breathing - and failure to distinguish between cases could result in death. Much has been written about the lack of supplies and logistical support during what is being called the second Lebanon war. And so the fact that we were never issued uniforms or army-regulation boots, and that when replacement underwear reached us after two weeks of service, it was all men's XXL (in a unit that was over 50 percent female) seems redundant and nitpicky in light of the lack of food and water reported in front line units. But in a company whose only role is to save lives, the insufficiency of medical equipment and training is as glaring a failure as soldiers fighting on empty stomachs. Ultimately, both will cost us in human lives. Our unit's ambulances, it turns out, were being stored in Beersheba, five hours away from our sector, which encompasses the northern quarter of the country. Some were last used in 1993, and at least one broke down and was rendered completely inoperable following the long drive to the North. There was no stable storage facility for the massive, combustible oxygen tanks that they needed to carry, and on some of the ambulances, the brackets to hold stretchers in place were broken. Much of the medical equipment was in similar condition - twenty-year-old backboards wouldn't open, stretchers' support splints were rusted in place and doctors' kits contained essential medications that had expired two years ago. The antique, torn, flakjackets that we were issued were so big that the women of the unit had to open them in order to bend over to care for a victim. Even worse was the equipment that we weren't issued. As part of Home Front Command, mandated to care for civilian populations, we were given minimal equipment for treating children and no medications for treating disease-related emergencies such as heart attacks and diabetes. Even equipment that exists in regular-service combat units was simply absent from our supplies. Perhaps most frustrating was the lack of a small machine called a pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygenation, allowing us to determine triage for hard-to-access victims trapped in rubble, and helping to make the ever-elusive differentiation between the symptoms of psychological trauma and internal bleeding. Combined with chronic uncertainty as to what role we were supposed to fulfill, with orders changing four times a day, the initial motivation wore down into a daily routine of frustration and disillusionment. When our officers complained, they received harsh rebukes from further up the command structure. And when we complained, our direct officers had no answers to give us. In the next war, one of my sergeants likes to say, he will be in the Ukraine. A veteran of multiple tours of duty in pre-2000 Lebanon, he says that he has had enough of the Israeli army for one lifetime. I can't, of course, say how many of us will report for duty next time, but there is a palpable feeling that the enthusiasm is gone. We were eager to serve, eager to participate and contribute our part to the war effort. But, apparently, the army was not ready for us.