Former IDF soldiers backed in the battle against disability


IDF officer Itay Erenlib was 23 when he was ordered to lead a group of paratroopers on a raid on a West Bank property thought to be a bomb factory.

His sniffer dog failed to detect a home-made bomb detonated by a terrorist who watched the carnage from afar.

Erenlib was the most severely injured of his 35-strong division, losing both legs. For a time, doctors feared he would die.

“I was more dead than alive,” he recalls. “My parents thought they were going to lose their child. I felt pain in my legs, my hands, my stomach — but I just wanted to know if my soldiers were OK. I kept asking the doctors how they were.”

After two months in intensive care, Erenlib started to recover. But his IDF career was over. Then Beit Halochem came into his life.

Literally meaning House of Warriors, the organisation’s four centres — a fifth is on the way — have supported more than 50,000 wounded Israeli veterans. It experiences a surge in demand after major conflicts.

The centres offer physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and counselling and a range of classes and social activities.

It was at the Beit Halochem centre in Tel Aviv that Erenlib first picked up a tennis racket.

Now, aged 31, he is one the top disability players in the world, representing Israel in wheelchair tennis at the Rio Paralympics last summer.

Talking on a coach bound for a ceremony at the Jerusalem residence of President Reuven Rivlin, he reflects that for those in his situation, “the easy thing to do is sit back and think: ‘I’m disabled. I’m going to stay at home and sit in my chair. But my mentality is different. I think: ‘If you can climb a mountain, so can I.’

“I competed in the Paralympics because Beit Halochem gave me the opportunity to play sports. If you believe in yourself, you can make the impossible possible.”

His sentiments are echoed by Eilat-born Einat Malka, a 38-year-old single mother-of-three. Twenty years ago, she was enlisted by the IDF to train male soldiers in martial arts. “I showed them I don’t just have pretty eyes,” she laughs.

During one session, she twisted her right-ankle and developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a chronic condition triggered by an accident.

For years she refused amputation, sleeping with one leg off the bed, unable to bear the water or cotton sheets touching her skin. Eventually, she accepted medical advice and, with the support of an artificial foot, is able to run again.

As well as assisting veterans who have competed internationally, she has used her experience to train and encourage Beit Halochem service users.

Men and women who were injured, or captured and tortured, during the Yom Kippur War and other distant conflicts still use the organisation’s centres.

The son of Auschwitz survivors, Amnon Sharon, 69, is a well-liked character at Beit Halochem Tel Aviv. Tall and broad, his handshake is painfully firm. Beit Halochem has brought out the sensitive artist in him.

His story is best told through the sculptures staff have encouraged him to create.

One particularly harrowing piece represents “me, tied up inside a car tyre. That is blood down my legs. That is a blindfold. That is what they did to me.”

Another shows his Syrian captor with a gun. Another depicts him lying, bare-chested and tied down, in his cell.

He was taken as a prisoner of war after being ambushed in the Golan Heights during the 1973 conflict. He was beaten regularly, sleep-deprived and stripped of clothes in cold conditions.

After his release, he struggled for years with flashbacks. But art has helped him cope. Part of the increasing demand on Beit Halochem services is recognition of mental health needs that were formerly overlooked.

Golf has been an invaluable outlet for Kuchel Yoram, 67, who lost an arm serving in the air force during the Yom Kippur War. “A rescue vehicle tipped over and I was in it,” he recalls. “I saw my arm hanging off. My first thought was: ‘How am I going to play basketball again?’” Instead, he learnt golf, determined not to let his injury dictate his life. “I have never asked for help from anyone,” he says.

“The first day back from hospital, my car broke down. I said to my wife: ‘Don’t worry.’ I got the tools, sat on the floor, and using my legs, changed the tyre.”

His involvement with Beit Halochem has extended to supporting injured veterans seeking employment.

In the organisation’s Jerusalem pool, 10 men sing and clap. Some have lost limbs, others still battle with severe mental health issues. But together they find solace and support.

Moshe Mizrahi is showing off his archery skills in the courtyard. Although his sandals reveal missing toes on his left foot, he’s not here because of his army experiences.

The 64-year-old from Jerusalem —who offers watermelon and Bulgarian cheese to friends — becomes subdued as he recounts the story of his son Shacher, who committed suicide in 1995 after being relieved from army service for medical reasons. Six years later, his 21-year-old daughter Idit was shot and killed by a terrorist as he drove the family to a wedding.

“I don’t work anymore,” he says. “It’s not because I’ve reached retirement.It’s because my brain retired a long time ago.

“It’s never been the same since my daughter was murdered in front of me. She was just out of the army. They shot at our car, they shot me in the foot, they murdered her.

“I am past the bereavement, the crying and the pain,” he adds, stressing his gratitude for the refuge Beit Halochem has provided.

Gadi Sharlin, 69, was found alive in a Haifa morgue after being shot in the head during the Six Day War. Paralysed from the neck down, the former Golani soldier remembers having to “learn the aleph-bet right from the beginning”. After completing an economics degree at Haifa University, he worked for the Bank of Israel.

“I never missed out on anything,” he says, before leaving for a hydrotherapy session. “I have a wonderful wife and children. I didn’t let my injury hold me back.”

Erenlib, meanwhile, expresses frustration at negative portrayals of the Israeli army. “[The enemy] wants to kill us. Look at the stabbings, look at the explosives they have put in shopping centres. The army is the most important thing for Israel. Without it, Israel would not exist. Sometimes you need to pay the price.”

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