Tugging at my heart

How I regret the strings I pulled to help my cousin get a wartime assignment.

chinese farm 88 (photo credit: )
chinese farm 88
(photo credit: )
My cousin Shaul Afrik dreamed of becoming an Army Radio reporter. Instead, a poem he wrote was broadcast on Memorial Day this week, to music composed and performed by Evyatar Banai. Shaul even made it into Ma'ariv, with a picture, on page 16 of the May 1 magazine. An officer in the IDF's armored corps, Shaul fell in battle during the Yom Kippur War, on October 14, 1973. He was killed in an attack on an Egyptian commando team that landed at our rear. He was 20. As long as his parents, my aunt and uncle Adina and Avraham, founders of Kibbutz Sha'ar Hagolan in the Jordan Valley, were alive, I never dared reveal that I had used my connections to get Shaul the job that got him killed in the Yom Kippur War. I was afraid they wouldn't understand, wouldn't forgive me for helping him become part of Brig. Gen. Amatzia ("Patsi") Chen's combat team in Division 143 under the command of Maj. Gen. (Res.) Ariel Sharon. TWO YEARS before his death I had refused a request from the young, well-built Shaul to help him, in my capacity as military commentator for Ma'ariv during the War of Attrition, get into Army Radio as an army reporter; despite his asking me, with his captivating smile, if I could pull some strings. He showed me some stories and poems he had written. He was talented, insightful - a writer. Dear cousin, I told him: As a journalist, I often level criticism, sometimes cruelly, at the exploitation of "connections" in the military establishment and the IDF, at the benefits and corruption we sometimes see in this area as well as others. How can I now use my contacts with the chief education officer, or in the radio station itself, to help you get in? But everybody does it, he told me with childish naivet . It is corrupt, I responded. You are gifted. Try to get in on your own. Disappointed, Shaul left without saying another word. OCTOBER 7, 1973, in the afternoon, I arrived with Sharon at the division headquarters' mildewy concrete bunker in Batata, about 30 kilometers east of the Suez Canal. The bunker, which reeked of urine, was buzzing with officers; the army radios emitted cries of help from the outposts along the canal that had been taken by surprise by the Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal the previous night. "Aren't you going to say hello to your cousin?" said a second lieutenant whose features I could barely make out in the bunker's dim light. I couldn't believe my eyes. I hardly recognized the young armored corps officer, Shaul. Army Radio had not accepted him. He told me he'd been fighting all night; and now, once again, he wanted me to use my connections, this time in the battlefield. "You're a friend of Arik's," he urged. "Maybe you could get me a job where I can really fight." Perhaps my heart forewarned me. I was afraid for his life. I embraced Shaul and persuaded him to get a few hours of sleep. The war would go on, I told him, there would be plenty of time. I found some blankets to cover him with as he lay down in the corner of the bunker. When he awoke, he refused to give in. You need to talk to an officer they call "Patsi," he told me. This time, you have to help me. Patsi had established a special unit put together from what remained of other Israeli units that had been shattered by the Egyptians crossing the canal. It was an elite unit to which Arik gave the job of taking on the Egyptian commandos. All the positions in the unit have already been taken, responded the talented and daring commander. I have just one place left: driver of my half-track. How would it look for Second Lieutenant Shaul to be a mere half-track driver? Shaul didn't care. Being a driver was fine as long as he had the chance to see some real fighting. This time, my "connections" helped. A WEEK later, on a Sunday, following a large-scale tank battle, my heart warned me - just like that first time when I met Shaul in the bunker - that something bad was about to happen. I went out to look for him in his unit. My worst fears had been realized. A lone half-track stood on the side. In the front of the vehicle was a small hole the size of a ping-pong ball, right opposite the driver's seat. A weary soldier who recognized me told me, "Your cousin was killed this morning." Shaul was the only casualty in an attack on a compound containing about 80 Egyptian commandos - all of whom were killed. I didn't dare tell my aunt and uncle that I had used my contacts to help their son get the job. I was afraid they would blame me for his death. THEY DIED brokenhearted, albeit comforted by the rest of their flourishing family, who I hope will forgive me. Adina and Avraham never recovered from the death of their youngest child. However, neither did they, to the best of my recollection, wallow in their grief, claiming that their child had seemingly died in vain. After all, someone has to defend our country, each time anew. The poem Shaul wrote, broadcast on Army Radio for Memorial Day, is a clear testimony to how worthy he was of working there, without anyone using any connections. Better late than never.