The Second Lebanon War: How I turned old under fire

I write this article in honor of friends and brothers in arms, who committed themselves, body and soul, in the defense of the State of Israel. I do so in solidarity with those families by whom our fallen are survived and remembered to this day.

Ten years ago, I huddled together with several young officers, to receive my final orders before assuming command over a segment of the Israel-Lebanon border.

That meeting room, unremarkable in every way, was about to play host to the most remarkable moment of my life to that point. For into that room, unannounced, a scrunched up note clenched in his fist, burst a young soldier, his face filled with anxiety. Verbally, he declared “An emergency situation has occurred to our west. We must relocate there immediately,” In reality, unwittingly, he was declaring that my role within the Second Lebanon War had begun. I, a young Captain, was about to traverse the line of fire that leads one from the status of commander, to veteran.

That realization escorted me throughout the two hour journey to the site of the emergency. Every man and every weapon by which I was surrounded suddenly appeared ever more necessary and precious to me. I understood more than ever that the fate of both weapon and soldier depended upon the reliability of each.

There, looking at the faces of my men, I understood as never before, that we members of the IDF do not go out to war. War comes to us. It does so in different shapes and sizes, in different costumes and guises, but it comes to us.

It came to me that day in the form of a battalion commander, injured, gasping for breath and responsible for the area to which we had arrived. He called me urgently to his side, pointed to a village inside Lebanon and told me to lead my men forward, seal off that village and destroy the artillery emanating from there. Somebody in that village was guiding Hezbollah artillery to our position. My task was to block that channel of information. I stood ready to carry out the mission. I, and my men, were equal to the task. That much I knew, immediately.

Of course, as with all matters military, every individual mission is part of a different mission, which, in turn is part of a different mission yet. This was no different. Yet if the task of cutting the artillery fire was one characterized by military considerations, my next task took on an altogether more personal dimension.

Prior to moving out, I was charged with evacuating infantrymen who’d been wounded as they provided cover for a tank that was hit and bombarded by artillery fire. The commander of their platoon was an officer named Re’em; a dear friend and mentor of mine. Re’em was the man responsible for holding the area. Now I was responsible for the safety of those beneath his command. The bond of the IDF truly is a bond of brotherhood.

I rushed to the fence to meet the injured. My team and I quickly assessed their status. Some of those hit could still walk, but one was immobile, severely injured and already on a stretcher in dire need of a medical evacuation.

I transported that soldier to the ambulance, his stretcher clenched in my fist. I looked back at him, assessing his status once again and realized that he was already gone. He was lost to us. I could not save his life. My eyes met with those of the soldier on the opposite side of the stretcher, and we nodded silently to one another confirming that awful truth. Not a word was spoken. Instead, we listened to our own thoughts, understanding all at once that the lives of those who loved that soldier had been forever changed. I struggled with the thought that I knew of his passing long before his own parents.

The next time I saw Re’em was as I arrived to the Battalion Commander’s briefing. He looked into my eyes as I embraced him. “Those sobs.” he said, over and over. “Those sobs.”

Both he and I became older in that moment. Much older. Our youth was over. It went with that soldier on the stretcher. Such is combat. In an instant it cuts short the lives of those it kills, and yet it piles years upon the shoulders of those who outlive it.

I am relocated to Yiftach, ordered to ambush and intercept Hezbollah fighters seeking to infiltrate. Yiftach is noisy and chaotic, with one of our artillery batteries stationed to our rear. For two days I watched the reservists who operated that battery descend to their weapons of war, clean and clear; only to return hours later with blackened faces, filthied uniforms and cigarettes so well smoked they seemed to be almost chewed.

It was there, looking up at the evening sky, that I noticed two fireballs above me, like nothing I had ever seen before, and while pondering what they might be, a call came through to my cell phone.

“Two choppers have been downed in your area. Take your team. Find the survivors.”

I moved out toward the incident. One of the choppers had already been located. The other was still missing. My goal was to find that second chopper. The cause of the downing was a mid-air collision. I later learned that three of the four pilots had survived.

My prayer as I searched was that the soldier who died on that stretcher would be the last casualty of war that I would ever have to carry.

My realization was that I was now part of Israel’s history, caught up in the seminal events of my time, and all that I could do was try to steer those events in the most favorable direction possible.

My first week of war was underway and I was already changed forever.

I was 24 years old, with some 90 men beneath my command.

I had not yet studied – and neither had they.

I had not yet married – and neither had they.

I had not yet known what it meant to be a father – and neither had they.

Those soldiers were my sole responsibility and their ability to realize the aspirations I just mentioned rested upon the choices I was about to make.

I was in the midst of this battle; one waged for their future, my future and for the future of our people entire.

We soldiers of the IDF do not go out to war. War comes to us, and to those we love and by whom we are loved. We have no option other than to meet it at the gates

About the Author
Born in 1982 to loving parents in Migdal, Israel, Major (Res.) Matan Horvitz was accepted into the prestigious IDF Junior Command Preparatory Boarding School in Haifa at the age of 14. He was drafted into the Nahal Brigade thereafter. He served from 2000 - 2007, attaining the rank of Captain. Matan continues to serve as a combat officer today, as a reservist. He holds a B.A. in Business Management, and lives in Netiv Halamed Hei with his wife and two young children -- or, as he likes to say, his wife and two future IDF officers.
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