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Heroes: A Father’s Fears For His Son

July 2012

It is Monday, one week to D-day, when once again my family will have to drive south to the "bakum" (Tel Hashomer recruiting base), where we will give up our second son to the IDF. A song comes on the radio and floods me with deep melancholy. It is a song Harry Chapin wrote about his son Josh:

"The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man on the moon".

The song embellishes a boy's longing for his father's love and companionship.

"When you comin' home, Dad

I don't know when, but we'll get together then

You know we'll have a good time then".

I ask myself, is it too late or have I given my son enough time, understanding and love?

Even though my boy is now a strapping young man, taller than I am, the worry still exists about how he will cope with the physical and mental challenges of army service.

Hugging him farewell at the steps of the bus that will take him into army life, a wave of longing floods over me. I want to feel the hugs of the cute boy with his shy, dimpled smile. I want to sit reading him his favorite story and stroke his sandy-colored hair as he falls asleep. I want to stand next to him as he sings his parasha (section of the Torah), protecting him with my tallit (prayer shawl) from the hail of sweets thrown at him on his barmitzvah.

But I can no longer protect him from outside harm. At 18 years of age, he is a man who will stand tall in the face of adversity and be one of the protectors of the State of Israel.

I have given you the tools and taught you all that I know.

And he walked away but his smile never dimmed.

And said, 'I'm gonna be like him, yeah

You know I'm gonna be like him' ".

Fast Forward to November 2012

Operation Pillar of Defense is in high gear. Grad, Katyusha, Qassam and Fajer 5 rockets hail on Israeli cities. The country is on high alert. People down south have less than a minute to find shelter. 75,000 reserve soldiers have been called up. Tanks practice their maneuvers on the Gaza border.

My two sons are on the front line.

My wife and I do not sleep at night.

My youngest son, after just finishing his basic training, was called back to base near Eilat. His unit was given intensive training and placed on standby.

My eldest son had just finished officers' course at Bahd 1 and was stationed on the front to perform the duties that he had been trained for.

He was out of phone contact.

For three long days, I was on edge as if a spring was wound up in my gut.

At 21:20 on the third day the phone rings and I snatch it up. Lior said a casual "Hello, what's up?"

His flippancy threw me. Knowing that he had just been at the front, a million questions raced through my mind, but I knew he would not answer them. "I'll tell you all about it when I get home," is all he would say.

Waves of relief flooded over me and only then did I realize that my jaw was clenched in stress. As I put the phone down, tears of relief welled in my eyes.

Adi, my younger son, called an hour later and a peaceful feeling seeped into my bones.

Today's young IDF recruits are tomorrow's heroes.

Yoav Assa hails from Kfar Aviv in the Gderot settlements. When Yoav left his elite "search and rescue unit 669", he never in his darkest moments would have conceived that it would be his own trainees (chanichim) who would be there to rescue him.

Wednesday at 18:00: Yoav is leading a group of pre-army youths on an intensive training regimen, when they climb an artificial sand dune, one that has been made by the excavations of the water authorities. While descending the dune, he holds his metal sunglasses up above his head, to keep them from falling.

Wednesday at 18:03: The power grid dips and causes a power outage between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The reason – an arc of 160,000 watts of high voltage electricity has flowed through Yoav's body. A load crackling sound follows as sparks fly, his shoes explode off his body and the smell of burnt flesh permeates the air, his clothes charred to a cinder.

The place - Kibbutz Hefetz Hayim, Israel. The name of the kibbutz - seeking life - signified a milestone for Assa.

Assa and his youths did not physically touch the high voltage power cable but were close enough for an electromagnetic induction effect to allow the electric current to flow right through his body, just as if he had been struck by a bolt of lightning.

His comrades from the 669 elite unit landed their chopper and carried him aboard as if they were carrying him on the wings of an angel. Sedated and on life-support, within 15 minutes he was fighting for his life in Sheba hospital at Tel Hashomer. Assa is the lifeblood of the unit's finest young men, and his friends were devastated by the accident.

Yoav Assa had third degree burns over 80% of his body. The doctors in the intensive care unit fought around the clock to save his life. Three times his charred body almost succumbed. After three months during which his life was hanging in the balance he made a remarkable recovery.

At his release party from the hospital he was able to stand on his own two feet by virtue of his sheer willpower. He proceeded to "high five" all of the doctors and all the selfless people who had helped save his life on the chest, signifying the tradition of the IDF soldiers who finish their cruel punishing "masa" or trek, where they are pushed to their physical and mental limits to breaking point and come through surviving.

I would very much like to make a short trek to Kfar Aviv to meet Yoav Assa, photograph him and punch him on the chest, since he is a hero, a person whose true courage I respect and admire.

After reading this article a friend of mine asked me why I had classified Assa as a hero. I thought about this for a long, long time, but did not have any good answer. Then one weekend I was out for a bicycle ride along the Netanya boulevard with my wife and friends. It is a ride we seldom take, and looking for a place to stop and rest we came across two benches at the end of Nitza Boulevard that faced a stunning view of the sea. The four of us sat down and I glanced at the plaque affixed to the bench next to me. It had an English and Hebrew dedication to the memory of a man who came from Sunderland, England. After a few minutes, I got off the bench to get back on my bicycle when I noticed another plaque affixed to the bench that I had been sitting on. It was dedicated to the loving memory of Elaine Brewer from Sunderland, England.

The funny thing is that I had known Elaine. In fact I had known her extremely well. We had worked at the same company for many, many years. She was one very special person and I think of her often. Her strength of character, her bubbly laugh and her love for her fellow beings are still with me to this day.

Of all the hundreds of benches in Netanya, without knowing or planning it, I had sat on the one dedicated to Elaine - Elaine who had fought so bravely and eventually succumbed to cancer.

I now had an answer for my friend.

Heroes are all around us. They are also the brave and strong people who are no longer standing with us on this earth, but are still living in our thoughts.

We only have to be able to open up our hearts enough to be able to find them. 

 

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