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Reflections of a Battalion Physician

September 11, 2013 By:
Itzhak Brook, JE Feature
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Itzhak Brook learned to confront his own fears while treating and counseling soldiers on the battlefield.

The 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War is now upon us. The war was launched in a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, posing 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 loss of the citizenry’s confidence in their leaders and themselves.

I was a battalion physician during the war. Like thousands of Israelis, I was called up to my unit, which had been assigned to supply the armored corps division with ammunition, fuel, water and food. These soldiers risked their lives, replenishing tanks with fuel and ammunition under often heavy enemy fire. I watched them overcome countless difficulties and perform their missions despite constant danger. Many paid the ultimate price, with more than 2,600 Israeli deaths by the end.

It was a daily struggle for survival, requiring resourcefulness and strength despite the presence of fear and anxiety.

In addition to caring for my soldiers’ physical wounds, I unexpectedly found that helping them cope with fear under fire was one of the most acute and difficult problems I faced. And I found that not only did I have to counsel my fellow soldiers — I also had to deal with my own battle anxiety and fear.

Within hours of the war breaking out, my reserve supply regiment was thrown into combat, open to direct fire and bombardment. This psychological strain was immense. We were not used to being passive and having to absorb the blows inflicted upon us. The realization that this war could have been avoided if we had been mobilized earlier made it even more difficult. Not everything we heard over the radio was true, as we experienced firsthand how desperate our situation was. We soon realized that the survival of the country was in jeopardy.

Soldiers under strain came to me for counseling. Some wanted medication, others wanted to talk and a few could not cope with the pressure. I felt ill-equipped to deal with such problems. As a reserve medical officer, I was never trained to deal with battle stress. Besides, in the “macho” society that characterized Israel at that time, it was heresy to admit one’s fear.

My instinct — and, indeed, the way I initially dealt with those soldiers —was to deny them the right to admit fear. I used what might be called “the John Wayne model of response,” which I saw the actor use in his movies about marines. I told my soldiers to be tough and strong and to go back to their duties. It didn’t work, of course, and I failed to help these individuals.

It gradually dawned on me that I was just as frightened as they were. How could I not be? Shells were falling, airplanes were strafing us and missiles were flying in our direction. It is natural to be afraid. This was an utterly new revelation for me and difficult to admit.

But eventually I discovered that fear can actually be your friend as long as you use it to be cautious and responsible. It also occurred to me that our adversaries were probably as afraid as we were. The outcome of this conflict between two frightened armies would be decided by those who could perform their jobs despite the fear.

I started changing my approach to counseling. I shared with my soldiers the fact that I, too, was afraid. “It is OK to be afraid,” I told them. I observed a relief in their faces when I admitted my own fear. I told them they were not less manly by admitting such emotions. Most of the time a short talk was enough to relieve their burden, and almost all felt able to go back to their duties. A few needed some anti-anxiety medication, and a handful had to be evacuated.

I discovered not only that I was able to help others but by legitimizing their fear, I also was able to help myself each time I counseled them. I discovered this method of coping out of sheer necessity.

This war almost brought about the destruction of Israel — but our country was saved by the bravery of those soldiers. They compensated for the lack of manpower, equipment and supplies with improvisation, resourcefulness, courage and determination. These ordinary people became unwilling heroes who saved Israel.

And this war helped formulate my personal definition of courage: the performance of one’s duty despite one’s fear.

Dr. Itzhak Brook, a graduate of the Hebrew University School of Medicine, is a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University and the author of the book In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War. Contact the writer at: ib6@georgetown.edu.
 

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