Paratrooper thanks pilot who risked all to save him

By Shelly Paz, June 6, 2008

Lying seriously injured in a battlefield in South Lebanon, with a bullet in his head and another in his leg, 21-year-old Israeli Staff Sergeant Gur Nedzvetsky knew that the chances of rescue were receding rapidly.

But as dawn began to break on the ninth day of the Second Lebanon War — making a landing by a rescue helicopter even riskier than usual — the sounds of an Israeli military Blackhawk hovering above him gave the young Russian-born paratrooper fresh hope.

The pilot of the helicopter was Lieutenant-Colonel Avner Balkany, 42, who undoubtedly saved the life of the staff sergeant from Jerusalem.

Unable to winch him aboard because he was in such critical condition, and unable to land because of Hizbollah gunfire and missiles targeting the helicopter, he hovered just 10 feet above the ground to allow other soldiers from Staff Sergeant Nedzvetsky’s elite Orev paratroop brigade to push his stretcher directly into the helicopter.

Gur Nedzvetsky comes face-to-face for the first time with Lt Col Avner Balkany in London

Despite damaging a propeller as the aircraft hovered so close to the ground, Lt-Col Balkany managed to take off for Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, fully aware that the life of the seriously wounded soldier depended on his reaching the hospital quickly.

This week, Mr Nedzvetsky, now 23 and applying for a place to study medicine, and Lt-Col Balkany, now a Defence and Armed Forces Attaché, met for the first time since the daring evacuation on July 20, 2006.

The meeting — a surprise for the pilot — was their first, although they have spoken on the telephone. It was the highlight of a dinner given by the UK Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (UKAWIS) at St John’s Wood Synagogue in North-West London, which raised almost £1 million for a range of projects and scholarships for Israeli soldiers.

Speaking shortly after the emotional reunion, Mr Nedzvetsky said: “I don’t know if I was preparing for the possibility of death. I remember mainly seeing bad pictures going through my mind. It was not a clear, reasonable thought, but rather something that I kept trying to push aside.”

Explaining the mission that took him into Lebanon, Mr Nedzvetsky said: “We were sent, a group of 12 paratroopers, for an assignment to bring down several empty houses in this village that we knew were filled with Hizbollah’s ammunition and weaponry.

“We completed our mission and blew up the houses and the ammunition. But all of a sudden, a group of armed Hizbollah fighters came out of some houses and shot at us.

“Three bullets were fired at me; one in the face, the second in the stomach — but luckily the bulletproof vest halted this one — and a third bullet went through my leg.

“When things calmed down a little bit, my fellow soldiers gathered around me, they put me on a stretcher and the paramedic kept talking to me, making sure I was conscious.

“My memories are vague from those moments because I lost a great deal of blood,” said Mr Nedzvetsky.

Lt-Col Balkany said: “I rescue people for a living and, usually, the person that was rescued wants to maintain the connection with the rescuer. For me, that would have meant three events a day. But this rescue operation was different. It changed me.

“This event left a deep mental and emotional scar on me. The level of the risks were high and I was aware of them while I was preparing to land, with heavy gunfire and missiles being fired at us.

“The tail propeller was scrubbing a tree and I wasn’t sure how long the damaged helicopter could continue to hover or whether it could fly us to the hospital.”

Mr Nedzvetsky, who arrived in Israel in 1990 at the age of five, is now benefiting from a four-year scholarship awarded by UKAWIS.

He said the funding would help him to achieve his dream to be a doctor — a dream he probably would not be pursuing without the series of intensive medical treatments he has undergone in the past two years. The complex series of operations — including taking a nerve from his leg to put in his injured face — inspired him to pursue a career in medicine.

“I guess I would have been in a whole different place if I wasn’t injured,” he said.

Last updated: 4:28pm, June 6 2008