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Friday, January 29, 2010

How the IDF trained for Haiti

Lenny Ben David explains how his old IDF unit trained for its mission in Haiti.
First, let’s look at the background of the IDF team in Haiti. That was my unit. As an IDF reservist, I served as a medic on the medical rescue team, and we trained hard working with the engineers who lifted slabs of cement while we practiced inserting infusions and assisting doctors performing emergency operations in the dark, dusty conditions. Over the years, the unit was dispatched to natural catastrophes in diverse places such as Turkey, India, and Mexico City, and assisted in rescue efforts after the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.

The unit was originally formed after the first Lebanon war when an explosion in November 1983 pancaked a seven-story building in Tyre used by Israeli forces. Seventy-five Israeli soldiers were beneath the rubble, and the IDF was unequipped to rescue them. (Within a year, Hezbollah car bombs in Beirut brought down American and French barracks, killing some 300 soldiers.)

In my unit’s case, we were training for a contingency that we prayed would never come: Scud missiles raining down on Israeli cities. During the Gulf War 19 years ago, my unit was mobilized for the month-long war and bivouacked in an ambulance center. Whenever the sirens wailed, we threw on our chemical warfare gear and ran to the ambulances. Basically, our mission was: “If it’s bleeding, tie a tourniquet; if it’s breathing, stick it with atropine (to treat nerve gas), and then ‘scoop and run’ the victims to the hospital.” Our “front” was the Jerusalem area. No missiles fell in our sector, but 40 did fall, mostly on residential areas of Tel Aviv and Haifa. I will never forget the sense of terror while climbing into my ambulance and watching a Scud pass over my head as it headed toward Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

At home my wife responded to the sirens, scurrying the children into the shelter while putting gas masks on the older children and bundling the baby into a special sealed plastic coop. One son, who was in Jerusalem’s Old City at the time of one attack, recalls to this day the whistles and yelps of joy by Palestinians celebrating the fall of Saddam’s missiles on Israel.


The search and rescue unit was created to respond to attacks upon Israel’s homefront. They train for World Trade Center-type attacks on Israeli cities, or for a major earthquake, or an Iranian nuclear device that could deliver devastation on the scale of Haiti’s earthquake to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

War may be the cruelest of man’s creations, but the IDF has harnessed its medical rescue unit for peace. If only it could be mobilized permanently for that purpose.
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