A Very Different Veteran’s Tale

This year for Veterans Day, I thought I’d share a few of my own military experiences.

First, I have to tell you that I didn’t serve in the US military. As a born and raised Israeli, I served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). But since Israel doesn’t have a Veteran’s Day (mostly because everyone in the country is a veteran), and since I am also an American citizen, I thought I’d share a little veteran’s tale from a very different place.

A few months ago, I appeared on SOFREP Radio where, for perhaps the first time, I publically discussed my military service as a tank commander in the IDF. After the show, the host, Jason Delgado, criticized me a bit for not having written about my military service in more detail in the autobiographical chapter in my book. I told him that the reason I didn’t do it was because I felt it would distract from the main topic of the book—corporate surveillance detection and covert special operations. I also felt it would take an entire book just to describe my military service, and that even then, most people would still not understand it. But I realize that the actual main reason was that like many other Israelis, I’m a bit uncomfortable discussing my military service. It’s almost as if there’s some weird unwritten rule that you just don’t talk about stuff like that, at least not with people outside of your former unit. And to me, it feels even stranger talking about it in English. So much of the experience simply gets lost in translation.

That being said, I decided to take a chance, give it a try, see how it sits and take the opportunity to tell you a tiny bit about my IDF experiences, focusing on my two deployments to Lebanon.

Though my deployments to Lebanon were relatively short, to understand the IDF experience, it’s important to realize just how tiny Israel is. I was born on a small Kibbutz called Gesher Haziv in the northwest part of the country, only three miles south of the Lebanese border. For my entire life (it actually started five years before I was born), my kibbutz, along with the rest of northern Israel would be attacked from Lebanon by any number of Palestinian terrorist organizations. After 1982, these were replaced by Shiite ones, predominantly Hezbollah. In some cases armed militants would penetrate into the country, but much more often than that, we’d come under short-range rocket fire. We colloquially called the various rockets that were fired at us Katyushas (after the old Soviet rocket launchers). Most of what made it over were 122 millimeter Grad rockets.

Growing up on my kibbutz meant that you were very used to ducking for cover and running to the bomb shelters. By the time I was drafted into the IDF in 1994, I had lived through two wars and countless rocket attacks and terrorist rampages. It’s crazy to think that I was targeted and shot at so many more times before my military service than during it. And though military service is mandatory for Israelis, there was never any doubt in my mind as to why I needed to serve.

Israel is a place where you’re never unaware of the fact that the IDF literally and physically defends the country. The distance between my kibbutz and defensive combat operations across the border was literally shorter than my daily commute today.

Compared to US military vets, the minimum mandatory IDF service of three years might seem pretty short. But keep in mind that US vets, even after two, three or four deployments, eventually get to come back home to America. Israelis on the other hand, still stay in the Middle East, still in the line of fire.

Though I only spent a relatively short amount of time in Lebanon, I got myself sent to two of the most dangerous outposts, Aaichiye and Rayhan, during one of the most dangerous periods up there, 1995-96. Coming under fire was a daily occurrence (oftentimes multiple times a day) and we would go out on nighttime ambushes and daytime road-clearing and overwatch missions.

Since there’s no real way to cover everything I experienced over there, let me just tell you a few random stories, accompanied by some photos I took, while I was there with the 82nd battalion of the 7th armored brigade.

I took these two photos in 1995 from the loader’s position of the Merkava Mark 2B tank I was in. I was deployed as a fill-in crewmember but since I was already a tank commander at the time—trained and certified on all crewmember positions (loader, gunner, driver, commander)—I would alternate positions in order to give different crewmembers some well needed rest. On that day, I was serving as the loader, positioned to the left of the commander.

These photos were taken (very quickly, I might add) during a road-clearing operation between the Aaichiye and Rayhan outposts. You can just make out the scouts and the Oketz unit EOD K-9 in the front. A few moments after these photos were taken, screaming through the radio comes what everyone dreads hearing during situations like this “MISSILES! MISSILES! MISSILES!

Adrenaline pumping, we bolt into immediate anti-tank missile defense mode. Safety switches off, all triggers on ready, the driver veers the tank off the road (careful not to run over the infantry guys around us). The acting tank commander and me, with our upper bodies sticking out the top of the turret, furiously scan for incoming missiles while he violently spins the turret from side to side in order to aim the main canon at possible sources of fire. It took us a few long and very scary moments to notice that the infantry guys just kept walking slowly ahead as if nothing was going on. And a few seconds later we realized that indeed nothing was going on, at least not for our force. Only the radio in our tank blasted the alert. This was because we were also tapped into the radio frequency of the tankers in Rayhan, where one of the tanks in overwatch position was attacked by anti-tank missiles. In the panic of the moment, the commander of that tank must have flipped the external broadcast switch on his helmet and was shouting “MISSILES! MISSILES! MISSILES!” for all the tankers in the region to panic along with him. Luckily, his crew’s quick response saved the tank from getting hit, the incident ended well and everyone had a good chuckle about it when we got to Rayhan that day.

Lebanon 7

Safe in Rayhan later that day (I’m standing on the right).

Lebanon 4

I took this photo from the Aaichiye outpost, looking east at an overwatch position that was codenamed Cricket 19 (Tzar-tzar 19), at the end of the narrow trail to the right of the trees. We would go there for nighttime ambushes and for overwatch missions when IDF convoys would be on the main road.

A few months before I got there, my friend Yossi Vainshtock got killed in that exact spot. We were friends since we got drafted together, and were best buddies during the prep-course the 7th brigade conducted to determine who it would send to tank commander school. At the end of the prep-course, I was sent on to become a tank commander and Yossi was sent back to be a loader. A few months later, I was a tank commander in the Golan Heights and Yossi’s battalion (the 77th) was deployed in Lebanon.

On July 30th 1995, Yossi’s tank posted at Cricket 19 in order to cover for a convoy that was coming up the main road. Their overwatch coverage was mainly focused on the road to the south and south-west, and that’s when their position was attacked by anti-tank Sagger missiles from the north-east. It was an unexpected angle since they were more worried about the convoy than about the tank that was covering it. The first missile missed the tank. Jonathan, the tank commander, and Yossi, the loader, both had their upper bodies sticking out of the turret in order to locate the sources of fire, and that’s when Yossi took a direct hit from a second missile. Yossi’s upper body was literally blown off, Jonathan was injured and the tank somehow managed to retreat to safety.

On a terrible night a few months later, my tank got rushed over to Cricket 19 in order to engage an enemy force that was reported to be in the valley to the east of the position. I remember bolting over there, adrenalin rushing, all pumped up to possibly eliminate the same bastards that killed Yossi. I was filling in for the gunner that day, and fueled by feelings of revenge, I was happy to be the one to literally pull the trigger on them.

For various reasons, I can’t go into the details of what took place that terrible night and what I saw through the thermal night vision scope. There were multiple forces involved in the incident and quite a bit of firing took place. Till this day, I’m relieved that I never fired a shot that night because the incident involved a case of mistaken identity. But my relief is also mingled with feelings of shame because of how badly things ended and because I was so hell-bent on firing that had it been up to me, no one in that valley would have survived. The only reason I didn’t fire was because our tank wasn’t given permission—thankfully.

It’s been twenty two years since that night but I can still remember every single detail I saw in that olive grove. I can even remember the ammunition type I was about to fire, along with the ranges to the targets.

These photos were taken during down-time in the Aaychiye outpost. One of the most surreal things about being deployed to Lebanon was that it felt like you were a world away from your home, and yet, in reality we were only a few miles north of the Israeli border. This paradox hit me hard one evening in Aaishiye when my kibbutz came under Hezbollah rocket fire.

I remember how enraged I felt about it. Here I was, a legitimate target if ever there was one, deployed in Lebanon to literally protect my family. And there was the Hezbollah, practically shooting their rockets over my head in order to reach my kibbutz.

I scrambled to get a turn on the one external phone we had in the outpost and called home to see if my family was OK. The situation was made even weirder by the fact that as I was talking to my mother, she had no idea where I was calling from. It was quite common, even customary, for guys to not tell their parents when they were deployed to Lebanon. The thought was that there was no use in worrying them. I did however tell my father (a veteran of three wars) because I wanted to borrow his camera, which I used to take these photos. But I made him swear not to tell my mother, who didn’t find out about it till much later.

Lebanon 9

In 1996, I spent a bit of time in Rayhan, which was even crazier than Aaichiye. I took this photo from the west side of the outpost looking east, with the snowy Hermon mountain range in the background.

On one sunny day, another tank from the outpost got itself stuck way up the mountain on the overwatch ridge, west of the outpost. The report said something about a burned out engine. Our tank was also not doing too well (the Lebanese winter would wreak havoc on tanks and heavy equipment), and we were afraid we’d get stuck up there too if we tried to tow them. The other option was to send up the armored D9 Caterpillar to tow the tank back to base, but orders were orders so up we went in our tank to do the job.

The broken-down tank was accompanied by a heavy armored personnel carrier, but that was deemed too weak to tow a fully equipped Merkava tank through the Lebanese mud. The APC and the tank had gone up the ridge together the day prior in order to conduct a multi-day ambush. The infantry guys who went in the APC were camouflaged in the bushes down the other side of the ridge, facing enemy territory, and the tank had pulled back to what we called day-positions, protected on our side of the ridge.

After our beleaguered tank got up to the ridge, we hooked up the towing cables to the even more beleaguered tank and started towing it. Not ten seconds into it though, our tank engine let out a roar and belched out a huge cloud of black smoke. Fuck! Now we were stuck there too. Unhooked from the towing cables, our tank could still move around but only very slowly, and it was now deemed unsafe for us to return to base on our own. We called it into base and requested the D9 Caterpillar, which now had to tow two tanks down the mountain rather than just one.

As we waited for the D9, our two tank crews were hanging out, chatting and eating. It was a beautiful sunny day and I remember us half-jokingly saying that with two tanks stuck on this damn ridge, the Hezbollah is sure to start firing at us at any moment. Well, southern Lebanon is a region where the hills quite literally have eyes, and what do you know, a few minutes later, mortar rounds starts raining down on us. By that point, I had gotten very used to mortar attacks but this was the worst barrage I’d been in. We were exposed on the ridge, the bastards knew exactly where we were and they were firing everything they had at us.

As bad as things looked for us, we at least had our tanks to protect us, and we had the ridge protecting us from direct line-of-site fire. The infantry guys on the other hand, camouflaged in the bushes just over the other side of the ridge were getting it way worse. As concealed as they were (or as concealed as they thought they were), the enemy knew exactly where their position was, and started firing heavy machine guns and RPGs at them, in addition to mortar rounds. I can still remember them yelling over the radio as they struggled to return fire.

I was filling in for the gunner that day, and the commander (who was an officer) ordered the driver to take us over the top of the ridge so we could return fire. As our crippled tank slowly and painfully started climbing the short but steep ramp that would take us over the top, I remember being 100% certain the Hezbollah fighters were waiting for us with multiple anti-tank missiles aimed at the spot we were about to go over. Tanks had been shot at before at that exact location. Hezbollah fighters knew very well how to trace the tank’s exhaust smoke in order to locate it behind the ridge and pinpoint where it would pop up.  And our tank was belching out enough black smoke to make sure that every Hezbollah Sagger missile in the region would fly towards us as soon as we pop up. Adrenaline pumping, all safety switches off, all triggers on ready, we slowly went up the ramp to engage.

Then, just a few meters before the top, the engine completely gave out. Screaming and belching smoke, it was no longer able to even move forward slowly. I remember the commander furiously yelling at the driver to pump it: “Push this fucking tank over the top! I don’t care if you burn this fucking engine, get us up there!” But it was no use, the engine was fried and the tank was going nowhere.

Frustrated about our not being able to cover for the infantry guys, we ended up firing the only thing we could from the wrong side of the ridge, our useless little 60 millimeter mortar. We sent out as many rounds as we could towards the locations the infantry guys were giving us but I’d be shocked if we hit anything more than trees and bushes.

The IDF was always superior to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but on days like that we felt more like flightless turkeys than fearless hunters. They eventually had to call in the air force to end the firefight and save our asses. We all miraculously made it out of there that day, and with the help of the D9, we staggered back to base with our tales firmly tucked between our legs.

Sustained guerilla warfare of the type we had to deal with in Lebanon is extremely frustrating. Incoming fire always had the right of way but as soon as you started returning fire, it felt more like you were shadowboxing rather than actually fighting anyone. Stuff just seemed to come at us out of nowhere, and in most cases there was no one there for us to shoot back at.

The only damage my tank managed to inflict on the enemy was when we fired at an enemy position on an adjacent ridge (which could have been a random pile of dirt for all we know), and when we blasted a suspected IED that was waiting for us in our ambush position (which turned out to be an empty cardboard box). All the while, my kibbutz kept on getting shot at and a whole lot of my friends, comrades, commanders and subordinates got killed or injured.

I hope you found this tiny collection of stories interesting. They don’t really have any purpose or direction (at least none that I can detect) and at least to me, they convey some of the random, confusing, frustrating pointlessness of much of what was going on back then.

For me, there was something a bit therapeutic about writing down and sharing these anecdotes. But if you’re interested in learning much more about the IDF experience in Lebanon in the 1990s, please check out the amazing book Pumpkin Flowers, brilliantly written by Matti Friedman.

Lebanon 2

Lebanon 1

3 thoughts on “A Very Different Veteran’s Tale

  1. Fascinating how similar the experience is, no matter what part of the world you live in. Well written, thanks Ami.

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