“I am a bereaved commander”

Former IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. (Res) Benny Gantz. “I didn’t think I had any type of post-trauma. But the people, the situations, and the feelings stay with you forever, and they don’t disappear. I was determined however to get back to my life, to my missions and to continued normal functioning. Still, I know how hard it can be in this extremely sensitive world, and that people are not all the same or often ready for these challenges”

Credit: Tali Lipkin Shahak

 

From the window of his roof, on the 37th floor of one of the office towers in Tel Aviv, the chairman of NATAL’s Public Council, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the IDF’s 20th Chief of Staff, saw the white city from horizon to horizon, in all its ends; The borders of the north to south, the territories of both Judea and Samaria, and even the scene of the on-going political battles, which although are not always clearly visible, are still continuing behind the scenes.

“It is impossible to shake off and ignore 38 years of Khaki. The service, the command, dust and fire, and a long line of both faces and names. When asked if he remembered the first friend he lost, he answered immediately without a trace of hesitation: “Omi Goldberg, who was killed in Ein Zahlata, during his time as a reservist. Omi was part of the “Sivan Cycle” – those who studied in university and then during that time enlisted in the Army. He studied law for a year and then joined us, and as a result was a year older than the rest of us. He was an incredible man originally from Rechavia in Jerusalem. Still today, I am in close communication with his family and see them from time to time. So yes, Omi was my first friend who was killed… after that there were others, but that’s another matter”

What is the essential difference with your responsibility as a commander?

“Friends are a kind-of partnership of fate – it’s all about him and not about me.  Being a commander is something of great responsibility. Twice I was shot and communication between me and my fellow commander was disrupted. He was killed. It was an extremely difficult feeling that stuck with me throughout my service and until my last day as Chief of staff, and continued until Haggai Ben Ari, the last soldier who fell during Operation Protection Edge, was killed. It’s a weight that no-one will understand unless they’ve experienced it too. You can’t explain it at all”

You mentioned responsibility, but did not mention guilt. Do you sometimes differentiate between the two and suffer from any feelings of guilt?

“Guilt? No. Guilt needs to be direct, when there is communication and a direct line between something you do or something you did not do. I am responsible for 68 soldiers who fell in defending the settlements in the South of Israel. I do not feel guilty, but I feel responsible for the heavy price we were forced to pay as a result of this battle”

There was a moment of pause in Benny’s flow of speech and he continued quietly:  “I was commander in Battalion 890, in the north of Israel and was involved in a number of encounters where many soldiers were killed, and although am not to blame for their deaths, I am responsible for the task and mission that sent them there in the first place.

“Some of the people you may know personally, for example, Yonatan Baranes, who I was personally very close to. He was killed and I knew him since he was 14. Yonatan was an incredible and devoted soldier, who wanted to serve as a substitute for me in a time of need, when communication was down. There was a sudden clash and he was killed. I am of course in touch with his family. At his last memorial, 29 years later, I met his younger brother Adam, who was then two years old. Adam fought in the Second Lebanon war as a liaison with Battalion 890, in the same position and in the exact same place that his brother was killed. Today, Adam is a father with kids the same age as Yonatan when he was killed. Life is a circle, even if a difficult one”

He then continued, “every commander has two types of family: the families that lost someone and bereaves, and there are those that are extremely close. This is a painful mix on one hand, but when you succeed in deepening and strengthening the connections with them, both sides are strengthened. It is very difficult for the commanders, it’s hard for the friends, and without me being able to imagine – it is exceptionally difficult for the family”

“Between fulfilling a mission and preserving the lives of our soldiers”

 

Lieutenant General Benny Gantz was born and raised in Moshav Kfar Achim. He served in the Paratroopers brigade in 1977 during his service in the IDF. He served as a Commander of the Paratroopers brigade, Commander of the Shaldag Brigade, Commander of the Liaison Unit between Lebanon and Israel, Commander of the Judea and Samaria Division and Commander of the Northern commands that occur. He was later appointed IDF Chief of Staff in 2011. I asked him about the connection between his roles and the changes in the balance between the values of fulfilling his tasks, in relation to the value of preserving the lives of his soldiers.

“In all of us, the value of sticking to a mission does not change. But when you are thinking about what needs to be done and working on a tactical level, you’re not busy with alternative questions. Instead, you are focused strictly on the task and what you are doing.  When an order is given, it becomes the total force for the operation, and everyone’s focus, even at the cost of some kind of insanity”

There is no need to ask Gantz for an example to illustrate the idea due to the well-known story of Eran Shamir. Eran (z”l), from Mazkeret Batya, and son of Dasi Shamir and Dubi Shamir (z”l), was killed in training in 1977 while on reserve duty.

“I met Eran at a Paratroopers memorial service, where his mother Dasi, introduced us. Eran was 3 at the time when his father was killed. I was at the command pole talking to his father and the last sentence he said to me was “one hundred percent, I’ll do whatever you tell me”. Then he was killed. He wasn’t killed because of what I told him to do, but his last sentence just proved that you need to look at the matters and the consequences of them. Before fulfilling a mission, one must think about the soldiers and how is best to perform the task”

“Transparent Wounds”

We are talking a lot about the price of the dead, but what about the wounded?

“The wounded” he replies, “The wounded are whole other world. Mainly because the wounds are often transparent”

Are your wounds transparent?

“I think so. I am the commander of bereavement. A commander that lives with death on his shoulders, even though I don’t think I have Post-Traumatic Stress. Even during these events, you don’t cease to function. But the feelings, people and situations, stay with you along the way. Some people are hurt during combat or terrorist attacks, some are wounded physically and have to deal with injuries, and some are wounded emotionally. We are different people with components of various psychological factors. Therefore, there are many events that people come out of as if they never happened, and some that are extremely difficult to overcome.  I personally am someone who was determined to seek revival, receive new tasks and keep going in my position. But I am totally aware that we must understand this sensitivity, as it is not something built into our nature and it is difficult for people to grasp.

What does understanding sensitivity mean?

“People who are left alone are less able to see the perspectives and consultations of another, even if it is within a therapeutic situation which can help their needs”

Is this the reason you joined NATAL?

“I had no prior acquaintance with NATAL. The request came from their part and at first I hesitated a bit as it seemed that my military service was already behind me. But in fact, it didn’t really end. The fact that I was released didn’t mean that the mission was over – there are wounded people here, people who need assistance and support, and although I am not a professional, I understand the public value of this act. Therefore, we became partners for the Public Council – artists and business people, Jews and Non-Jews, secular and religious- from all political, social and cultural backgrounds, as well as the representatives of the younger generation. This cultural combination means that on a nationalistic background, there are various acts of terror and war, exposure on the home front of all the residents of the country in all its parts, to injury. And therefore we have set up a council that reflects this complexity and aims to help”