A rare glimpse into the recovery of wounded soldiers

Naor, who was shot several times in Gaza, is steadfast about fulfilling his dream of establishing a space industry in the Negev. Yonatan, whose bulldozer was hit by an RPG, smiles as he takes his first step on his remaining leg.

By Adi Rubinstein | | Topics: Hamas, Gaza
sraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits a soldier who was wounded in Jenin, June 20, 2023. Photo by Nicole Laskavi/Israeli Defense Ministry.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits a soldier who was wounded in Jenin, June 20, 2023. Photo by Nicole Laskavi/Israeli Defense Ministry.

Dry figures show that around 2,000 Israeli civilians, soldiers and police officers have had limbs amputated or become disabled in other ways since Oct. 7. In the Yom Kippur War, for comparison, that number stood at 7,200.

This figure is going to change Israeli society, and as is usually the case with other issues, has caught Israel off guard, raising questions about treatment and, of course, the future.

Regarding treatment, one can safely say that the wounded receive the highest quality care at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer. Since the Hamas attack on Israel and the outbreak of war in Gaza, the hospital has received about 900 wounded with various degrees of disability. Here is a glimpse into the personal stories of some of them, and their recovery process.

Naor, 26, an Israel Defense Forces reservist, is working with his physical therapist on a large stability ball to restore function in his injured leg. Slowly, slowly, there is movement and the hard work begins to pay off. Naor has surgery scheduled in a few days.

“I was shot several times in the stomach, chest and leg,” he said. “I was pulled to the triage area for the wounded and I could feel what was happening to me at all times, so I was able to tell my fellow soldiers exactly what I was feeling at any given moment and describe the situation.”

Naor is from Even Shmuel, a religious village in the south. Before the outbreak of the war, he was due to begin his third year at Technion Institute of Technology to fulfil a dream he has had since childhood.

“I’ve always wanted to establish a space industry in the Negev. Now I have to see how I recover from the surgery and how I’ll deal with my studies. I need to find a solution. I can’t sit on Zoom all day. Despite everything, I will recover and return to fulfil my dream. Our industry will succeed, I’m sure of it,” he said.

We were not allowed to photograph some of the recovering soldiers, and several we were not even allowed to speak to, given their classified positions. They smiled when we entered the room and only said to let readers know that despite the heavy price, they were destroying Hamas. They felt the need to send words of encouragement to readers, despite the fact that it is they who are in wheelchairs.

The sounds of frustration and effort are sometimes heard from the physiotherapy and occupational therapy rooms. The weights are too heavy, the body no longer functions the way it used to.

Suddenly, from one of the rooms, a cello and violin could be heard. A duo were playing “Kol Nidrei” by the German composer Max Bruch. On violin was First Sgt. Mordechai Shenvald, who had already earned the nickname “the wounded fiddler.”

Shenvald was hit by a missile that crushed 11 of his 12 pairs of ribs. Although his lungs were punctured and everyone was sure that the injury was fatal, he miraculously survived. “I live in a truck, I travel around Israel,” Shenvald said when the music stopped for a moment.

The cello was played by a young officer who asked not to be named or photographed. Her playing brought dozens of people into the small room.

The music was suddenly interrupted by screams. It took a few seconds to realize that these were screams of joy. One of the soldiers in the next room had gotten out of and managed to take a few steps after great effort.

Knesset member Matan Kahana, of the National Unity Party, entered the room. “Do you know that I used to play the trumpet?” he announced, and to everyone’s surprise, Shenvald pulled one out from under his bed. Kahana began to clean the trumpet while telling everyone about his son who is fighting in Gaza. The two play together and again the corridor is filled with curious onlookers. A soldier and a Knesset member, a former fighter pilot himself, playing together.

They had been playing for a few minutes when smiling female soldiers burst into the room carrying heavy bags. “Yesterday you said you didn’t have iPhones and tablets, so United for Israel’s Soldiers took care of it for you,” they said. The soldiers respond with shouts of joy. Shenvald, who is already experienced at such events, told Kahana, “Could you wait a minute? I will make a thank-you-video for them in English and Hebrew.” He looks at the camera and begins to record.

“Did you know that the average time such a video is watched is three seconds? So you need to be concise, otherwise they won’t watch,” Kahana advised. having discovered that his lungs are still strong. “In recent years I’ve been playing the flute more, but you gave me a trumpet and now I want to play it again. Well, it’s good that I came to visit you.”

A star patient in the physical therapy room is 22-year-old Yonatan Ben-Hamou. The young officer, who was on the first bulldozer to enter Gaza to help clear the way for other troops, filmed himself as a rocket-propelled grenade hit his tractor.

The impact set Ben-Hamou’s bulldozer on fire. Resourcefully, and “even though I already felt the heat in my legs,” he jumped from the narrow window to the ground, an action that may have saved his life. He then pulled out his cell phone and filmed injecting himself with morphine. His left knee was amputated below the knee. Yonathan’s right leg was hit with shrapnel and the toes are still broken.

Meanwhile, more wounded entered the room. Many still seemed not to understand what had happened to them and were somewhat withdrawn. Yonatan was not representative of the group; he does not express frustration even for a single moment. He projects strength all the way.

The fact that Ben-Hamou is proud to share his story has made him a known figure. Visitors often ask to take selfies with him.

“Everyone wants to take pictures, I’ve become someone special,” he said, while being pushed in his wheelchair by his smiling parents.

A special moment occured when Ben-Hamou succeeds in standing on one leg. Excitement and worry mixed in his mother’s face, the physiotherapist smiled from ear to ear and others present in the room tried to hold back tears.

Before we part, Yonatan had just one request.

“My building and apartment are not accessible, so I’m forced to stay here on Friday and Saturday because I cannot enter my building and my house. You know, in the army, when you do something bad, you stay in on Saturday. I stay here because I did something good. I lost, I sacrificed for the country and fought for it. I think the minimum that should be done for us is to help us with the apartment.”

His father told him not to worry, and that the’ll move into a rented house. “Why, father?” Yonatan asked. “Why do we have to pay more, have we not paid enough?”

With this question, he touched on another problem Israel is going to face in the coming years. Largely inaccessible, Israel is the only country in the Western world that had to run a campaign to prevent people from parking in handicapped parking spots.

While the stumps of the hundreds of wounded men and women are slowly healing, while they wait to be fit with prosthetics, the state needs to quickly do what it can so that Ben-Hamou and his fellow soldiers can return to their homes and to a public that understands their sacrifice.

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