Always on call

Dan Nemet, who heads the medical unit of the IDF’s national emergency team, talks about life on the job.

DAN NEMET 370 (photo credit: Courtesy IDF Spokesman’s Office)
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF Spokesman’s Office)
After years of trying to convince his wife to attend a soccer match, a few years ago Major (res.) Prof. Dan Nemet finally succeeded in taking his wife to a game at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, only to have his emergency response beeper go off right before kickoff.
“That was one time when she wasn’t that upset; I told her it was her lucky day,” Nemet said on Monday.
The head medical officer of the IDF’s National Emergency Response unit, the 47-year-old Kfar Saba father of three always carries his beeper and has his emergency kit on hand.
“You never know when they’ll call you. Usually most soldiers and reservists know when they have an exercise coming up and when they have training, but we are on call 365 days of the year,” Nemet said. Members of the unit have to be ready to fly to any corner of the world within a few hours, without knowing where exactly they’re going or when they’ll be back.
“It demands a lot from you but also from your children, your family, your friends, your work. It requires a very supportive environment and if I didn’t have that I probably wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Nemet was given a commendation by the IDF General Staff this year for improvements he made to the army’s emergency response capabilities, including training the Home Front Command’s medical unit, and helping train IDF units to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nemet drew a blank when asked how many rescue missions he’s been on since he joined the unit in 1995, or how many countries he has been deployed to with the unit. In addition to responding to crises in Israel, he was among the first responders at the Taba Hilton bombing in Sinai in 2004, and was part of two earthquake rescue missions to Turkey in 1999.
“Someone who has never seen a real natural disaster in their life doesn’t understand the power of it.
We help to train the rest of the home front to deal with disasters, and when I do, I try to explain to them what it’s like to fly for hours and everything beneath you is destroyed,” he said.
The unit is often one, if not the first, of the response teams on the ground when natural disasters strike across the world. With the national flag on their uniforms, Nemet said the unit helps Israel’s image.
“I am convinced that we do presents [a good face for Israel]. When someone calls for help and you come, it does excellent PR for the State of Israel,” he said.
The deputy head of the children’s medicine department at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Nemet has also found the time over the years to become the Israeli national Multisport champion in the shot put, javelin toss and hammer throw.
Nimet laughed, “I have to always be busy; it’s very hard for me to sit still and not do anything. I think this is just the way I am. Sometimes it’s nice to sit at home and read a book, but then it gets old for me.”
Nemet said that treating sick children is, in a way, easier than dealing with the horrors of search and rescue work, because there is an air of hope to the work.
“Treating sick children is difficult, but I have to say that children’s medicine is an optimistic field, because most of the children if you treat them well, they’ll be fine... If you see a child is sick and you do everything for him, the second he feels better you see it, you see the smile, you see them jumping and running and you realize they’re OK. It’s very difficult work, but it’s very rewarding.”
Lying on the Syrian-African Rift Valley fault line, Israel lives under the specter of an earthquake that could happen anytime. With older buildings not built to withstand a strong earthquake, most talk of such a disaster includes scenarios of thousands of deaths and colossal damage. Nimet knows such damage well.
“Earthquakes like they had in Turkey or in Haiti [in 2010] are on a totally different scale. There’s no country on earth that can tell you they’d be ready for something like this. Every time I finish [an earthquake rescue mission] I pray that we never have to deal with something like this.”
The rescue team is an all-volunteer unit of 400 soldiers split into three companies, each of which can break into three platoons made up of medics, engineers, nurses and an officer.
As a small volunteer unit, many of the soldiers invite their friends to enlist, helping forge an especially close-knit team, he said.
Each of these soldiers knows that he or she can get the call-up at a moment’s notice, a burden he said they readily carry.
“We’ve had cases where there were call-ups while members of the unit were abroad and they flew from their vacations directly to the scene,” Nimet said, adding that if it were a soldier’s wedding night they would not call him, but “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d get angry about that.”