Let me do the job!

In another excerpt from his new book, Gal Hirsch drops the reader into 1993, when he had to weigh the importance of a mission against prevarications from his commanders.

Gal Hirsch on patrol in Lebanon in 1982 (photo credit: BAMACHANE)
Gal Hirsch on patrol in Lebanon in 1982
(photo credit: BAMACHANE)
We reached the bunker and Boaz peeked in, finding it to be more like a concrete cubbyhole than a bunker, with no one inside. But there was combat equipment on the floor, so we expected that sooner or later enemy fighters might return.
“Come on, Boaz, get everyone here and let’s get to work,” I patted him on the shoulder. “And hurry up, we haven’t much time.” The horizon was already showing vague signs of grayish first light. I was worried and knew that headquarters were extremely concerned, too.
“Gal, this is Nahum.”
“Nahum, this is Gal, go ahead,” I answered, knowing what was coming next.
“You are not going to make it in time for extraction, it’s almost dawn.”
Nahum spoke softly, but I could sense the tension in his voice. I knew he must be under much pressure from top brass.
“Nahum, I know it’s late, but we will execute the mission. Plan on getting us out of here at the break of dawn,” I said, doing my best to persuade him, as I saw my men working feverishly, digging in the hard soil and concealing the mines and charges.
“Gal, a guard is approaching from the left,” Tzur whispered over the radio. “Guy, be ready to take him out quietly.”
Boaz heard this conversation and immediately concealed himself on the side of the road, ready for engagement with the enemy, or preferably letting him pass.
The work had been stopped, hints of grayish first light were increasing in the east, and my heart was pounding violently.
I am not returning without performing the mission, I thought.
“Gal from Nahum.”
I delayed answering.
“Gal from Nahum,” came another, more emphatic call.
“Go ahead.”
“Abort mission. Disengage from the target. Repeat – abort mission.” I was shocked and felt a chill come over me.
“Gal, the guard is getting close,” Tzur warned. I alerted the operators and prepared my weapon.
“Nahum, let me do the job!” I begged.
“We will make it on time to the extraction point. Besides, we took this scenario into consideration during our contingency planning, so I can implement the preplanned solutions. Let me do the job!”
I knew he wasn’t the one making the decisions, and understood the pressure everyone must be under, having a small force in the heart of an enemy compound, under such extreme danger and marginal conditions, with nighttime running out and a soldier with a sprained ankle.
Oded’s voice came on the radio and reported that vehicles were approaching his position and that he was planning to disengage, but also preparing for the possibility of engagement. That’s all we needed.
I listened as he gave short and precise orders to his men, as well as coordinated with fighter pilots circling over the Mediterranean in case they were needed. I did not interfere – if he needed me, he would say so. Although they were only eight operators, they were – in Shaldag terms – a proficient and lethal fighting force.
“Gal, did you hear me?” Nahum demanded.
“I heard you, but still I...”
Boaz looked at me and motioned with his hand: What should I do? He had heard the order to abort, and understood the pressure I was under and the responsibility I bore. I touched my helmet with a clenched fist, signaling him to approach, and he quickly crawled to me.
“Hurry up and get the job done,” I told him. “Guy will take down the guards if they get close, and we will hide their bodies on the side of the road. In the meantime you lay all the mines and charges as fast as you can, and then we will run to the closest extraction point.”
As I said “run,” I thought of the steep cliff and heavy brush on the way down, while navigating a completely new route. And we had the guards to deal with, and Oded, and Nahum pressuring over the radio. This was going to be tough.
Tzur and Dror watched us silently from their positions. Surely they, too, understood what was at stake and were under immense pressure, as were the entire unit’s staff at headquarters and the rescue team inside the helicopter circling over the Hula Valley, ready to enter and assist us.
I was tired and sweaty, and felt the heavy burden of responsibility and accountability – to my commanders, to my men, to the mission and, for a fraction of a second, to Donna and Meori. Donna had surely stayed up all night at our home at the air force base, waiting to hear the sound of the Yasurs bringing us home and dreading the sound of attack helicopters scrambled to assist, or utility helicopters sent to evacuate casualties.
“Gal from Nahum, abort mission, repeat, abort mission. That’s an order!”
Boaz glanced at me again, while frantically digging into the stubborn soil. How much longer? I asked him, using hand signals. Fifteen to 20 minutes, he signaled back.
“Nahum, I need five minutes.”
Was I being disobedient, untrustworthy? Was I crossing the line of infidelity? Or was I upholding a sacred principle by which I was educated, and which I instilled in my soldiers and cadets at Bahad 1: devotion to the mission. We do not return without performing the mission.
“Gal, only five minutes and you’re out of there,” Nahum said.
I sent Adam from his position to assist Boaz, leaving one operator protecting the southern flank.
“What’s with the guard, Tzur?”
“Standing still at the moment.”
“Oded, how are you doing?” “Still preparing here. I will report.”
“Dror, report.”
“A group of enemy fighters are convening in a parking lot with a few vehicles. Still heightened alert at the LAF positions: there’s a tank moving and an antiaircraft gun turning.”
It seemed that everyone was on high alert.
“Tzur, cover me on the way down as you did on the way up. We will be moving fast, unprotected. Bring in fighter jets and attack helicopters if necessary.”
“Roger that,” he answered calmly.
“Dror, prepare to attack any terrorists who attempt to move into or toward the compound. If I get into trouble or get stuck on the way to the LZ, you assist me with observation reporting and with fires.”
“Got it,” Dror whispered. Why was he whispering? I wondered if he saw someone approaching but avoided telling me, not wishing to add to my pressure. He had earlier entered the area professionally and quietly with a small team, and was now injecting vital information and protecting me from the north.
I was full of appreciation toward him, and toward Tzur, Oded, Doron and the operators with me. A wave of warmth and love came over me.
“Gal from Oded, mission completed, enemy moving away, I am preparing my systems and about to make my way out. You won’t be coming my way anymore.”
“Good job,” I said. “Prepare for independent disengagement.”
“Gal, Nahum.” My five minutes were up. “Abort mission immediately. Get out of there.”
I assumed that Nahum had been criticized for the extension he gave, and I also knew that we needed more time if we were to complete the mission. My mind was calculating how to disengage, descend the cliff, cross the roads on the way, and reach the extraction point before daylight was upon us.
At this point I decided not to answer Nahum in the following few minutes, fully aware that this was a severe and serious decision.
“Gal from Nahum. Abort mission,” Nahum pleaded with me, but I did not answer, thinking that Nahum knew very well why. I decided to complete the mission, assuming that my plan was good and that I would make it on time for extraction at daybreak. I also fully trusted my forces, knowing that I would receive their utmost support. I also felt that I could count on the entire air force to assist, if necessary.
I fully comprehended the complications and consequences should my plan fail, and acknowledged that I was alone in taking this decision. There was no way I could share all my thoughts and considerations with headquarters.
I was fully aware that everyone was furious with me, and assumed that I would later pay a heavy personal price for this, but I felt confident with my decision. We were going to complete our mission. I did not have to take responsibility – for I had never given it away.
Time was ticking by, and the last checks were performed to see that all was in place and ready for activation.
Nahum wasn’t calling me anymore, perhaps because he understood by now that I wasn’t going to give up. I imagined that planning was under way for a big rescue operation.
Boaz came toward me, breathing heavily, followed by the entire sapper team.
“We’re done.”
“Show me five safety catches.” This was a preplanned protocol we had set, for verification that all mines and charges were armed and ready.
Boaz exposed the five pins attached to ribbons with phosphorous numbers on them.
“Excellent. Two minutes for wrap-up. Guy and Eylon, approach.”
The outskirt security team converged as we prepared for movement and made sure everyone was accounted for.
“Take everything from Roi except his Micro-Uzi.”
“Gal, all clear,” Tzur reported.
“Very good, moving out, heading to Mango LZ.”
Mango was relatively close, but required traversing rough terrain. We moved fast, navigating from memory, without opening maps.
“Oded, prepare for independent exit. Dror and Tzur, wait for me.” Then I spoke to the commander of the rescue team in the circling helicopter: “On the move, leaving the compound, heading down fast.”
I assumed that all other aerial assets were in place and eager to get us out safely.
“Noam,” I called the Apache lead pilot, who was escorting the Yasur.
“Noam here. Go ahead.”
“I’m running downward. Be ready to suppress enemy fire if we encounter trouble. Be advised: LZ changed to Mango.”
“Itay, do you copy?”
“Loud and clear, Gal.”
I could hear the sound of his rotor and knew he was airborne.
Excerpted from Defensive Shield: An Israeli Special Forces Commander on the Frontline of Counterterrorism, published by Gefen.