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The meaning of courage: A doctor’s lessons from the Yom Kippur War

A battalion physician in the thick of the Yom Kippur War learned the hard way to tell soldiers it's OK to be afraid

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which was launched in 1973 in a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Even though the signs of an imminent attack were noted by the Israeli intelligence, the Israeli government decided to ignore them for political and strategic reasons. Consequently, the country’s borders were very sparsely defended, creating a dangerous void on the front. The invading armies outnumbered the Israelis by a ratio of 100 to one in manpower and 10 to one in armor and artillery.

Since the bulk of the Israeli army is made up of reservists, it took two days for them to mobilize and deploy. During these critical days, only the vastly outnumbered soldiers on the front and Israeli pilots held the line and stalled the attackers. It was their heroism and determination that saved the country from being overrun. Their devotion and sacrifice compensated for the lack of sufficient equipment and supplies. The strategic depth of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights also provided the country the time needed to mobilize the reservists.

I was a battalion physician during the Yom Kippur War. Like thousands of Israelis, I joined my battalion, which was assigned to supply the armored corps with ammunition, fuel, water and food. We rushed to the front to head off the attack, hoping to protect our families and our nation. The war was difficult and trying.

The soldiers of my battalion risked their lives throughout the war replenishing tanks on the southern front with fuel and ammunition under enemy fire. I watched them as they overcame the many difficulties and performed their mission, despite constant danger, as they heroically conquered their fears and anxieties. Many of them paid the ultimate price doing that. I had to cope with my soldiers’ war injuries and battle strain. It was a daily struggle for survival in the war zone requiring resourcefulness and performance despite fear and anxiety and the loss of friends.

Itzhak Brook-group photo
Battalion physician Dr. Itzhak Brook (credit: courtesy of the author)

Coping with fear and anxiety under fire was one of the most acute problems I faced. Not only did I have to counsel my soldiers, but I had to deal with my own anxiety and fear. The sudden and unexpected circumstances that led to the war and initial setbacks increased the psychological strain. The realization that this war could have been avoided if we had been mobilized earlier and that the survival of the country was in jeopardy also aggravated the strain.

Soldiers under strain came to me for counseling. Some wanted medication, others wanted to talk, and a few could not cope with the pressure. The way I initially dealt with those soldiers was to deny them the right to admit fear. I told them to be tough and strong and to go back to their duties. It did not work, as I seemed to have failed to help most individuals.

I also shared the same feelings as these soldiers but was too embarrassed to admit it. It eventually dawned on me that it was natural to feel fear. This was a new revelation for me to admit that “yes, I am afraid as well.” I started changing my approach when I talked to my soldiers/patients. I shared with them the fact that I was also afraid as they were. “It is okay to be afraid,” I told them. I observed a relief in their faces when I admitted my own fear. I told them that they were not less “manly” by admitting fear. I told them that courage should be defined as the ability to perform ones duty despite fear and anxiety. Most of the time a short talk was enough to relieve their burden, and almost all felt able to go back to their duties. I found the method of coping with a soldiers’ fear the hard way, out of necessity.

One of the challenges I faced is the continuous exposure to the cost of war in human suffering, injury and death. The heavy cost of this war struck me every time I cared for a mortally injured soldiers and I experienced a painful sensation that I had lost someone close, like members of my own family. I trembled when I thought about the impending visit by the military authorities to the soldiers’ families and of their sorrow and pain as they learn about the death of their loved one. It dawned on me that not only are the soldiers the victims; it is also their wives, children, parents, grandparents and friends that were to be forever traumatized. Their lives would be eternally changed.

The Yom Kippur War posed the most serious threat to the existence of Israel in modern history. Even though Israel was eventually able to achieve a military victory, the country paid a steep price, both in lives lost and in the citizenry’s confidence in their leaders and themselves. Almost three thousand soldiers gave their lives; which is a ratio of one per one thousand Israelis; a steep and painful price for a nation of three million. More than 10 thousand were wounded in the 18 days of fighting. Almost every household and neighborhood was affected. The pain and sorrow was and still is very searing. Deep within the psyche of the nation, this conflict shattered conventional wisdom that the country was invincible. It also illustrated the importance of having secure and defensible borders and the need to prevent such deadly attacks. It also highlighted the urgent need for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. An important outcome of the Yom Kippur War was the creation of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that was signed in 1979 and ended 31 years of conflict between the two nations.

The aid provided by the United States was also very instrumental in helping Israel prevail. US ammunition, spare parts, armor and fighter jets reached Israel at a very critical moment, replenishing the heavy losses and enabling Israel not only to repel the attackers but go on the offensive, ending the war 65 miles from Cairo and 25 miles from Damascus. The political and military commitments by the United States also countered the Soviet Union who threatened to intervene to assist their Arab surrogates.

For Jews who have lived through the Yom Kippur War, the holiest of the High Holy days will never be the same. For us, it stands not only as a day of atonement but as a day of gratitude to God for the miracle of survival. It is also a time for remembering those who paid the ultimate price for preserving and protecting Israel, and will always commemorate a renewed commitment to preventing Israel from ever experiencing such a peril in the future.

About the Author
Itzhak Brook, M.D., M.Sc., is a Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. He was born and raised in Haifa, Israel and graduated from the Hareali Haivri High School, earning his medical degree from Hebrew University, Hadassah School of Medicine, in Jerusalem. Dr. Brook completed a residency in pediatrics at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, Israel. He served in the Israeli army as a medic in the Six Day War in 1967 and as a battalion physician during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Subsequently, he completed a fellowship in adult and pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine. He served in the medical corps of the US Navy for 27 years. Dr. Brook has authored publications in scientific journals and ten textbooks. He authored the books:" In the Sands of Sinai- A physician's Account of the Yom Kippur War" and “My voice - a physician’s personal experience with throat cancer.” Dr. Brook is a speaker for the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC on the Yom Kippur War.