A home for broken soldiers

"People don't want pity. They just want to learn how to be comfortable with themselves."

ilan egozi 88.298 (photo credit: )
ilan egozi 88.298
(photo credit: )
A thin scar runs down the center of Ro'i Yablochnik's forehead, and the bridge of his nose seems like it has been busted up a few times. But otherwise, the 26-year-old from Efrat doesn't look too shabby for someone who took a grenade to the face. "My wife would say it actually improved my looks," Yablochnik jokes while spooning strained bananas into the mouth of his infant daughter. It was July 2002. A raid on a hidden explosives lab in the West Bank city of Kalkilya turned into a bloody stalemate, and a company commander, Capt. Shlomi Cohen, was dying on the third floor of a building, his troops unable to reach him. Listening to the grim reports over the field radio, Yablochnik rounded up eight soldiers for a rescue mission. However, as they climbed to the second floor of the building, a grenade rolled down the stairwell and exploded. "The shrapnel hit me in the face," he says, "and I lost sight in both my eyes for a short time." When his vision returned, he saw a medic working on him and a young sergeant standing guard at the doorway of a side room - but not for long. The soldier soon gave way to a new, shadowy figure. Acting on instinct, Yablochnik and his medic riddled the figure, a Palestinian gunman, with nearly 30 bullets. "The terrorist shot me in the left shoulder," he says, "but I didn't feel anything because of all the adrenaline. I lost a lot of blood, though." When he got to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikvah, he was listed in critical condition. Yablochnik spent 12 hours in surgery and seven weeks in the hospital, to be followed by a prolonged stay with interim visits to Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein-Kerem Hospital for physical therapy. He would eventually recover, but it would be a long and arduous road. For thousands of wounded soldiers like Yablochnik, help in making it down that road comes from the IDF Disabled Veterans Association. Founded in 1949, the IDF Disabled Veterans Association provides soldiers with the tools they need to put their lives back together. Today, the group runs three Beit Halohem rehabilitation centers in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem and is currently building a new one in Beersheba. As one would expect, the Beit Halohem center at 49 Rehov Shmuel Barcay in Tel Aviv has all the requisite physical therapy units, but there are no morose, elderly patients in gowns being led around by nurses. Rather, the rehab center seems more like an upscale social club than anything else: Wheelchair-bound veterans twirl with lithe dance instructors in the auditorium while the more athletically inclined sweat it out on the basketball court. Members also go sailing, horseback riding and hand-cycling. "Therapy is focused on the family unit," explains Col. (res.) Ilan Egozi, 63, who heads the association's charity fund. "The handicapped person won't come to Beit Halohem alone, but if we provide activities for his girlfriend or his wife and his children, he will." Egozi says that an emphasis on sports, be it at the gym or on the tennis court, is part of a larger plan to strengthen the handicapped person both physically and mentally. Physical therapy alone is too passive, he says, while competition builds self-confidence. "They are not here to be protected," he says. "We are just trying to give them a soft landing, to learn from others in the same situation, to feel like they are just like everyone else." Ultimately, Yablochnik just gave a lecture at the Beit Halohem in Jerusalem, but he was impressed by what he saw. By bringing together so many wounded vets, the association provides an environment where no one stands out as a curiosity, he insists. The children of the handicapped see there is no shame in having a father who might be missing an arm, while someone who has not yet started a family is reassured that his life is not over. "Someone who has lost both legs can see someone else in the same situation and see that he has a wife, a family, etc.," says Yablochnik. "People don't want pity. They just want to learn how to be comfortable with themselves." Two years after his injuries, Yablochnik returned to his old infantry unit in order to fill the shoes of the slain company commander: "I had to continue Shlomi's legacy. He was a very positive figure, very ideological," he says. Today, Yablochnik is a captain and his battalion's operations officer. That's the sort of attitude that Egozi likes to see. A former naval commando, he continued with his military career despite being taken prisoner and tortured by the Egyptians in 1967. Six years later, he lost his hand when a grenade thrown at a PLO compound in Tripoli rolled back to his unit, yet that too did not stop him from going on missions. Walking down to the center's pool, he comes across a young, ex-Golani infantryman with a missing leg who is toweling off on a bench. Egozi grills him about his swimming routine and, patting him on the back, says, "I want to see you more often or I'll take the other leg." DESPITE using "IDF" in its name, the IDF Disabled Veterans Association includes Mossad, police and Shin Bet handicapped on its rolls. This puts the association's membership at nearly 50,000, making it one of the largest non-profits in Israel. Of those members, 2,600 are women with their own special concerns. "To be a woman is hard, and to be a handicapped woman is twice as hard," says Frida Huli, 38. "I raised my first child while I was in a wheelchair and my husband was away in the army." In May 1988, Huli was a promising young officer serving on Baha"d 4, a training base once in Ramallah. But all that came to an end when a 9-mm. hollow-point bullet, misfired during an exercise, drove through her right calf, pulverizing the bone and severing a main nerve. She underwent multiple operations to repair the damage. "It is not easy being 20 and having to go for surgeries while all your friends are getting out of the army, traveling or getting married," she says. "I didn't know anything other than hospitals." Yet as fate would have it, Frida met her husband, a Golani officer, while the two were at an army rehabilitation center in Haifa. Together, they have two children, Amit and Sahar. Today, Huli volunteers for the Women's Forum, established in 1998 with the support of IDF Disabled Veterans Association's national chairman Moshe "Mutz" Matalon. The forum has 21 members and meets once a month at the Tel Aviv Beit Halohem to discuss issues affecting handicapped women. "There are going to be some things that a handicapped woman will be embarrassed to discuss with a man, such as sexual function and childbirth," she explains. ALL IN ALL, it costs some $10 million a year to run the IDF Disabled Veterans Association. Of that amount, $1.8 million comes from the government and $2.5 million from membership fees, while the rest is given by foreign donors, says Egozi. (The association has a number of support groups in the English-speaking world, Holland, France, Switzerland, Bolivia and Argentina.) Then there are the privately funded scholarships. In mid-October, Matalon oversaw the distribution of $450,000 in academic and arts scholarships. Two months later, in a ceremony kicked off rather unexpectedly by a drum and a didgeridoo, another $100,000 was distributed to 53 athletes - including a blind golfer - and 12 coaches. "The money is really marginal. It doesn't cover the cost of the training," says pistol champion Eli Havra, 50, who was wounded in the thigh during a live fire exercise in 1975, "but it's recognition for all the hard work you've done." It would be nice if the sports scholarships could be larger, but there are other competing costs. For instance, construction of the rehab centers is not provided for by the government. "The municipalities provide the property for Beit Halohem centers," Egozi says, "but the money for the construction of the buildings comes from private donors. The new center in Beersheba will cost $14 million." THE ASSOCIATION helps raise awareness - and just as important, cash - by sending missions abroad to Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Last summer, Shani Kotev, 26, traveled to Vancouver and told those he met his own harrowing story. On April 20, 2002, Kotev's paratroop battalion arrived in Bethlehem to seal off the Church of the Nativity, which had been taken over by Palestinian terrorists. Unfortunately, one of the church windows looked out onto an army position, so Kotev was sent up a ladder with a piece of tarp. He had just about finished covering the church window when a gunman armed with an AK-47 assault rifle appeared right in front him. "He beat me to the draw by half a second," says Kotev. Three 7.62-mm. bullets punched right through Kotev's left and right shoulders while another two bullets snapped his ceramic bullet-proof vest in half. Kotev fell off the ladder and had to be dragged away by comrades. The Palestinian at the window was killed by paratroopers. After four surgeries and a year and a half of physical therapy, Kotev has gained 70 percent function in his left arm, but his right arm remains paralyzed. Still, he has not let this handicap stop him from finishing up his bachelor's degree in Hebrew literature and from going horse-back riding three times a week with a group from the Beit Halohem in Jerusalem. "People have to realize how important it is to support this organization," he says. "These handicapped soldiers have defended the Jewish State and paid for it in the most personal way."