Wednesday October 7, 2015
Israel Hayom
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Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari

The most harrowing mission of all


On February 4, 1997, a few minutes before 7 p.m., time came to a standstill for 73 families in Israel. I was the commander of the Nahal Infantry Brigade at the time and the helicopter disaster that took place that night is still with me, 17 years later.

A few hours before then-931st Battalion Commander Yehuda Fuchs, who now serves as Nahal commander, broke the devastating news, I spoke with the soldiers, who had lost three of their comrades earlier that week in a clash with terrorists in Lebanon.

"I know it's difficult but we have a mission that we have to see through," I told them. Little did I know of the devastating disaster that lay just ahead, or how hard it would be to see the mission through in its wake.

After hours on the road, I finally arrived at Shear Yashuv in northern Israel, over which the helicopters collided, and then I continued straight over to the open field near Kibbutz Dafna's cemetery, where one of the helicopters had crashed. Together with then-Golani Commander Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, we began pulling the soldiers' bodies from the wreckage.

Next came the complex mission of identifying the fallen. The brigade's two company commanders had, by that time, provided me with the list of men who boarded the helicopters. At that point, it was clear no one had survived.

I will never forget that moment, or the next day, when I had to issue orders for the most harrowing mission of all -- the burial of the 30 Nahal Brigade soldiers who were killed. For the next three days, I traveled between cemeteries across Israel, as did the brigade's officers and soldiers. We attended every funeral, offering the bereaved families whatever comfort we could.

It was only at night, after the mission was over, that I allowed myself to finally think about the unspeakable scope of this disaster and the pain it had left in its wake.

Those difficult days taught me valuable, painful lessons about life. In the days that followed, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak suggested I send the troops on a week's leave at one of the military's recreational facilities. I told him right then and there that the Nahal Brigade's flag would be removed from the Dlaat and Beaufort posts only when our deployment in the area came to its end.

It did not bring back our fallen loved ones, but it was the only way to restore the Nahal Brigade's spirit, which still mourns the loss to this day, and carried out the mission its members were sent into Lebanon to perform.

Before entering the home of every bereaved family, I was tormented by the thought that these parents had entrusted me with their sons and I had brought them back in a coffin. As a commander, your commitment to a bereaved family that has lost a loved one on your watch is a lifelong one, and I am humbled by it.

Above all else, the disaster made the need to do everything possible to keep soldiers and commanders safe poignantly clear. That mission is my first priority even today, as I serve as the IDF's auditor. Then and now, we are required to spare no effort to ensure our troops have everything they need to safely return to their base.

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