Rona Ramon: He should have buried me

Rona Ramon says she feels angry as her son Assaf is laid to rest before thousands of mourners.

graves ilan ramon assaf 248 (photo credit: Channel 2)
graves ilan ramon assaf 248
(photo credit: Channel 2)
"You should have buried me here as an elderly lady with a million grandchildren," Rona Ramon said Monday in tearful voice as she stood over the grave of her oldest son, Assaf, 21. He had been killed a day earlier when his IAF F-16 jet crashed in the South Hebron Hills during a training flight. Thousands of mourners crowded into the small cemetery in Moshav Nahalal as Ramon was laid to rest next to his father - Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in February 2003. The sound of sobbing filled the cemetery as Assaf Ramon's body was lowered into the ground. Although the family never lived in Moshav Nahalal, Ilan fell in love with the area of the Jezreel Valley when he flew out of the nearby Ramat David airfield. Rona had always imagined that she would buried in the plot next to him and that it would be her four children - Assaf, Tal, Yiftah and Noa - who stood by the grave to mourn her passing. "Oh what a God," said Rona who for the second time in six years parted in that spot from one of the people she most loved in the world. "You have left me in such a bind," she said as she looked at her son's grave. "My Assaf, this is my grave," she went on. "I am angry, I am so angry." Although her husband was a pilot and she had lived with the fear that this entailed for 16 years, "I did not know what it would be like [to lose a son]. It is a tsunami of emotions." President Shimon Peres said her private loss was felt by the entire nation, for whom Assaf had become a symbol of hope and continuity in the aftermath of the tragic accident that had killed his father. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu postponed a meeting with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell until Tuesday so that both men could attend the funeral. Also present were Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan. "A whole nation is stunned and in a state of mourning. A whole country stands silent and weeps," said Peres, adding, "Today we are all the Ramon family." Peres felt so close to the Ramon family that he personally went to the June ceremony to pin wings on Assaf when he graduated as valedictorian from his pilot's course. At the time, Peres said, the words spoken by the angel in the biblical story of Isaac had flashed through his mind: "Lay not thy hand upon the child." He said those words to himself in a silent prayer as he pinned Ramon. "The heart that swelled with joy on this summer day, a day of celebration and flags, now contracts and threatens to break," said Peres. "He was the best of our sons. He carried with him a rich heritage of the love of the land, wisdom and the gift of giving," Peres went on. "Ilan and Assaf, both of them righteous, brave and bold, ready for any call. Ready for any mission. Both of them grew into outstanding individuals, and fell as the outstanding among all of the outstanding people." To the Ramon family, the president said, "You will be returning to the pictures in your father's album, and to the captivating smile of the strikingly good-looking Assaf - mostly to the memories, to the days of glory in space and in the sky, and to the shattering moments in the skies of Texas and the Hebron Hills. "To the wound that will never heal, to the pain that will never end. Our broken hearts are with you at every streaming tear, at every memory that generates a smile, at every moment of burning pain," he said. The commander of Unit 140 said that Ramon had been both outstanding and modest, a quiet man and a warrior. "It would have been natural to be jealous of you, but no one was," he said. Lt. Ido Ozeri, Ramon's roommate and close friend, said that the two of them had set out together on a training flight at about 12:30 p.m. He'd had no idea that this was the last time they would fly together. He returned, but Ramon did not. As the afternoon wore on, he said, he started to get the same feeling of unsteadiness that Ramon had once told him he'd felt when the Columbia shuttle disappeared from the radar screen. "My knees were buckling from under me," Ozeri said. He returned to their room, but stopped dead in the doorway when he saw Ramon's bed as he had left it. "I started to cry," said Ozeri. He recalled how they had jogged together just last Wednesday and spoken of how they would stay together throughout their service. It was a plan, he said, that had ended on Sunday with Ramon's crash. Sharon Fridrich, who had dated Ramon for four years and had returned from her South America trip just to attend his June graduation ceremony, said she wanted everyone to know how smart, funny, brave and charismatic he was. "When we started to hear of your accident, we did not believe it," said Sharon. As they'd gathered at his house, she said, "we thought any minute that you would walk through the door." Even when IDF representatives came to give them the official announcement of his death, even now at the funeral, she said, "it does not seem real." His girlfriend, Adi, who had seen him on his last trip home over the weekend, said she felt as if she was in the midst of a nightmare from which she wanted desperately to wake up. She would turn back the clock to Saturday, open her eyes "and see you in front of me. You will say, 'This is only a dream.'" She paused and added, "How were you plucked from me so suddenly, my flower?" The two of them, she said, had planned to go to the Arad Festival on his next break. "It is not like you to break your plans," she said. Ramon's ability to overcome adversity was something Adi had always admired in him, she said. "But you went away before you taught me that skill," she said. Given that he was in the air-force, she went on, she had gotten used to missing him. "But now, it won't be like the regular longing, which ends when you return, but rather a loss that will stay with me for eternity." Ramon's brother Tal, 19, whose voice broke as he recited Kaddish along with his brother Yiftah, 17, said that typically this was a prayer he had said for his father, together with Assaf. Tal Ramon said his oldest brother had been the kind of person to whom you could say anything, and he had shared everything with him. Rona recalled how when her son was small the teacher had said that the problem with him was that he was too perfect. To pass from kindergarten to first grade, she suggested, he should do something wrong. When he and several other children broke into another classroom and made a mess, his mother told the teacher, "Now you can pass him." Her son, said Rona, excelled at everything, always. He made history in June, because he was the first son of a valedictorian to receive the same honor. Maybe, she speculated, he should have excelled less, so he could still be here with his family. "You were an excellent son, brother, student and pilot. Assaf, I know that your father is watching over you and hugging you now. You were the king of the world," she said. Ramon's brother Yiftah, recalled how only Thursday, the pair of them had gone to the Shlomo Artzi concert and had gotten so excited when he played, "King of the World." The ceremony ended with the song, which came out over the loudspeakers as mourners left the cemetery. Earlier in the day, Gadi Ramon, Ilan Ramon's brother and Assaf's uncle, said that all along the family had had fears that his nephew might be killed while serving in the IAF. "We were familiar with the dangers involved in flying, due to Ilan; anyone with knowledge in this field knows it's a dangerous business," he told Army Radio. "I had this fear with me ever since he began the pilot's course. I discussed these fears with Rona, but this is what he wanted, and he went for it, with us backing his decision," he said. Gadi Ramon went on to describe the situation at the family home: "Everyone here is in terrible shock. It's difficult to grasp the dimensions of this disaster. We still don't understand what happened." He said that like Assaf's mother, he had found out about his nephew's death from the media. "I heard about it when a friend called me after the rumor spread. The moment I heard, I got into my car and drove to Ramat Hen," Ramon's uncle told the radio station. "We'll need many days to digest this news." Earlier, when asked about the dilemma faced by bereaved parents who have to sign consent forms for their children to join combat units, Netanyahu said, "I have brought up this issue with many ministers. I spoke with the defense minister this morning. It's a hard decision." However, he went on to say that he, his older brother Yoni, who was killed as the commander of Operation Entebbe in 1976, and his younger brother Ido, had all served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. "My parents didn't know [in which unit] we served, and about the risks we took, but no one stopped us," he said. Netanyahu told army radio, "There's something in the story of the Ramon family that symbolizes Jewish glory and the tragedy of this nation. The Ramon family is a symbol, and an example for the generations, that represents the Israeli identity." He said he had received the news of the crash while on his way to Egypt, adding that he had told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the sad tidings upon his arrival at the presidential palace in Cairo. "Mubarak said, 'I know how hard it is to lose a son, or a grandson,'" noted the prime minister. The Egyptian president's own grandson died suddenly in May. The prime minister had words of praise for both Ramon and his father, and said that he had called the IAF cadet's mother immediately upon his return to Israel later Sunday. He recalled attending Ramon's pilot graduation course in June this year, and said of his death, "It's very emotional." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.