Farewell Syria 1973-1974, Continued…

Late fall turned to winter and arrangements were made for my platoon to leave Syria for a few days.  It was December 25th, the eve of Hanukkah, and we were in a Guest House for some sorely needed rest, recuperation and relaxation.

We ate well.  We slept on real beds.  Many of us did not sleep at all because we simply could not.  There were too many demons chasing us, but the rooms were warm, and just to be away from the front lines for a while was wonderful.  The days were filled with sport and other recreational programs.  Every evening we lit another candle on the large Hanukkiyah in the dining room of the Guest House.

I received one of the greatest rewards.  I was honored and called to light a candle.

We were back on the Syrian front after a few days, and 1973 became 1974. January brought massive amounts of snow. Our forward operating base was completely cut off from any transportation.  The snow simply did not stop falling.  There must have been close to two meters of snow on the ground.  We melted snow in empty drums. Someone rigged one of these drums with a hose, attached it to the shower pipe, and as we melted the snow with the large gas burners from the field kitchen, we were able to shower and shave.  By this time all beards had disappeared.  Command had issued orders that in order for gas masks to fit properly no beards were allowed.

I recalled the RPG rockets I had found in one of the small villages.  The print on the packs and on the rockets themselves was not Cyrillic.  It may have been Chinese or Korean.  The same was true of the caches of ammunition we had found then.  There was some concern that some of those rocket-propelled grenades contained chemicals, and so the beards came off.

At last, when heavy equipment front loaders did manage to clear the roads, supplies began to come in again.  With the roads cleared of snow we could also resume a rotation to visit our homes on 48 hour passes.

It was almost as dangerous going home as it was on the Syrian front, 20 kilometers from Damascus.  There was one way in and the same way out.  I had to wait for the supply truck and then ride in the back, or else hitch a ride with one of the command cars that patrolled towards Quneitra.  With a great deal of luck and at least five or six rides I could arrive at my kibbutz after 12 hours.  Many of the Israeli roads were narrow then, and one took a serious risk riding with drivers who were unintentionally reckless.  The return trip was just as exciting.

Once back with my comrades-in-arms, my brothers of the 13th Battalion, Golani Brigade, the packages I had brought back with me were ripped open, the chocolate and the baked goods were devoured, and packages of fresh coffee, tins with fruit, jars with jams were quickly stored in empty ammunition crates that we had converted to cupboards and cabinets.  Any newspapers and magazines brought by those returning from their 48 hour passes were tossed on the bunks, and we read aloud to each other, and then read them again, and again.

By April 14th, 1974, the weather had improved greatly, and our base received a visit from the military’s rabbinical unit.  It was Passover.  They came to make sure that all of our cooking utensils, every pot and pan, every cupboard and cabinet of the platoon’s field kitchen was cleaned, and made KASHER for the holiday.

By the end of April I was certain that I would soon receive orders for my release from regular service.  My orders did arrive, but they were not what I had expected at all.  I was to report to a base in the vicinity of Ashkelon, and I was to return all of my equipment to the battalion’s quartermasters.  I was allowed to keep only my work and dress uniforms.  I kept the blood-stained jacket I had worn since the beginning of the war, hiding it in my backpack.

The base was a training base.  Along with hundreds of others, soldiers about to be released from the paratroop units, others from Golani Brigade, and yet more from naval and air units of the IDF, I learned that we were about to train on tanks.  Specifically, the very same Soviet T-55 and T-62 we had bloodied during the fighting.  Further, my former Golani commanders had recommended that I undergo tank commander training.

During the war itself, Israel had lost close to 2,800 of its soldiers, with more that 8,000 wounded.  Most of them had been from the various armored brigades.

And so it came about that I trained, and trained some more.  I learned how to drive, and load, and fire, and finally command this 36 ton monster that would become my home away from home whenever I was called up for reserve duty.  As we cleaned the inside of our new “home”, scraping away any reminder of either a Syrian or Egyptian who might have lived there, painting the interior, and then painting the interior again, I removed my flight jacket from my backpack.  It was the middle of June 1974.

I opened the envelope I held in my hand.  One of my new commanding officers had just handed it to me.  My release from service, my discharge had finally become a reality.  I walked towards a secluded corner of the base. I built a small circle of large stones, and cleared the area of eucalyptus leaves. I gathered small branches, pieces of wood and bark, and lit a fire in that circle of stones.  I placed the flight jacket that had carried me to that point in time atop the pyre.  I watched as the flames turned the material and blood to ashes.  As the last of the embers burned down I turned around, walked towards the gate and hitched a ride back home.

About the Author
Born in Israel, Yuval emigrated as a baby to Austria and then Canada. He returned to live in Israel in '71 until '91. His military service was in Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion (including Yom Kippur War) with reserve duty as a tank commander and later a liaison officer in the IDF Liaison Unit. He now resides in Pennsylvania, USA.
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