The Wound Within

After the Yom Kippur War, his life began to disintegrate. He couldn't sustain family relationships, nor could he hold down a job. But it wasn't until 2001 that Ofer Idan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Last month, he voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric ward.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

When he called me, about once every five years, it was to tell me about the corrupt and scandalous doings that he'd unearthed as part of his indefatigable struggle against the forces of evil. Once it was, "I have a thick criminal file on the mayor." Another time it was, "The school principal hired teachers to build his villa." On one occasion, it was "Pre-school children are being deliberately poisoned with rat poison." Not a word about himself and his life. He sounded odd, haunted, glum, practically lifeless at times - the total opposite of the gregarious, gifted young man I first met in 1972 when I frequented his rented apartment at 29 Motzkin Street in Tel Aviv, which was party central.

In a booklet that he wrote, a copy of which arrived in my mailbox in January 1997, I found sentences that left me totally flabbergasted. "I am appealing to the foreign legations of freedom-loving nations. I need protection. I am seeking political asylum to escape being harmed by the authorities in my country ... All my life, I have fought for the sake of the environment in which I live. Because of this, I lost many friends. Some of them are leery of my presence and others turned their back on me in more subtle ways. Another person would have committed suicide, but I chose to keep pushing stubbornly ahead ... To right the wrongs in this country, I am willing to pay the full price and to live inside the four walls of a prison. It wouldn't surprise me if someone were to haul me off to the district psychiatrist, who would decide that I am a danger to the public - because the public good requires that the truth be buried in silence. To me, a lunatic asylum or prison is preferable to false freedom."

I hadn't heard from him since, for over seven years - until two weeks ago, when Ofer Idan called me from the psychiatric ward of Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon and told me that he'd decided to commit himself because he couldn't take it anymore. Last week, we met on the lawn behind the ward and talked in the shade of the cypresses. Just before I arrived, he'd come out of a group therapy session, and he looked better and more cheerful than I expected. "The way they treat me here is terrific," he said. "They take me by the hand, they don't overload me with medications. The real strengthening has to come from the inside, not through chemicals."

Battle in the grocery store

"Why do I fight with people I don't know? Why do people stay away from me? Why do the people closest to me ignore me? Why are the nights so long and dark? Why do my children shake their heads over me? Why do I fail at every job? Why am I so lonely? What am I living for at all?" An embittered Idan wrote these questions during one of the many times when he felt that the walls were closing in on him and he couldn't breathe. "Why were all the others killed? How am I better than those that fell? What value does my life have, if any? Why was I left whole? Why do my fallen comrades give me no peace? Why did I come home from the war?"

Twenty-eight lost years passed from the Yom Kippur War until Ofer Idan was first diagnosed, in June 2001, as suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD for short. The medical committee of the Defense Ministry's rehabilitation branch classified him with 30 percent disability, and later, 20 percent. To give me just a little idea of what goes on in his tortured soul, he suggested that I read through his "bible" - Judith Herman's book "Trauma and Recovery." One point Herman makes is that society wishes to forget and suppress the memory of its wars - and other violent actions - and so it often expresses skepticism about the authenticity of PTSD, insinuating that it may be a put-on.

But Ofer Idan's nervous system is behaving as if the war did not end 31 years ago. "Every time I leave the house, even if it's just to go to the corner grocery store, or the market, or the post office, it's like I'm heading into battle," he says. "I coil with tension in the face of the mission. For me, going into a place where there are people is like taking up firing position." He has an extremely short fuse. If someone butts ahead of him in line, he'll erupt in a furious outburst. If the clerk at the counter misunderstands his request, the whole store will hear about it.

"If someone accidentally touches my back, I come undone," he says. "I have a friend who beat up a guy on the street for the same thing. I'm a mild case compared to him. In the supermarket, if a busty Russian woman bumps into me from behind, I put my baskets down on the counter and go home without them. I have no control over it. Touch in general and unanticipated touch in particular drive me crazy." If a hostess were to offer him coffee and be told no and then persist in asking "Are you sure?," she'd find herself on the receiving end of a loud, angry rant. "When I think back on the fusses I cause, it's no wonder that people aren't comfortable being with me."

He constantly feels under threat. "Every plane that passes overhead makes me jump ... Maybe it's an Egyptian plane that's preventing us from getting the rolling bridge to the Canal." He goes back to the 18th of October, 1973, when eight Egyptian MiGs attacked the force that was hauling the bridge. Idan, who was the driver of the battalion commander's tank that was leading the convoy, felt like a sitting duck, even though the IDF Phantoms shot down five MiGs and chased the rest away before they could strike.

The end of boundless happiness

He is 54, the second of three children, and grew up in Ramat Gan. His father, Hans Kozminski (who later changed his name to Haim Idan) had been a member of the Habonim movement in Germany before fleeing Berlin in late 1939 and circuitously making his way to the shores of Mandatory Palestine, arriving on the illegal immigrant ship "Hilda." The British seized the ship and brought the refugees to the detention camp at Atlit, where they were incarcerated for six months. Hans' parents, who'd declined to make the journey, were killed by the Nazis. His wife-to-be, Rivka Birman, a native of Tel Aviv born to parents who'd immigrated from the Ukraine, was serving in Egypt at the time, as a nurse in a British military hospital there.

When Ofer was 10, the family moved to Ashkelon when his father opened a locksmith shop there. They lived in Block Three of the big housing project there; future Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter lived in Block Two and was Ofer's playmate. "Ashkelon was a wonderful place then," says Idan. He and a friend from Block One used to go to the antiquities site in Afridar to scavenge treasures from the sand; the old sycamore tree was their community center.

After graduating from high school, a year after the Six-Day War, Idan enrolled in pilot training. He didn't last long there and soon after, inspired by Shabtai Tevet's book "Hasufim Batzariah" ("Exposed in the Turret"), he enlisted in the armored corps. His compulsory service coincided with the War of Attrition. But for the latter half of his service he was close to home, working as a communications instructor at the Julius army base, and he made use of his ample free time to complete his matriculation exams. After the army, he moved to Tel Aviv, enrolled in the university and began attending law school at night. To earn a living, he worked as a companion to a paralyzed IDF veteran.

That was also when he found love. He married in the summer of 1973 (his wife shall remain anonymous). "It was the last summer of boundless happiness and optimism. All of my dreams were on the way to fulfillment and within reach," he says.

Deadly combat

On October 6, 1973, Idan was called up to go to war and had to leave behind his new bride less than two months after their wedding. Idan's Battalion 410 was part of Reserve Brigade 600, and in the war, operated as part of the Sharon Company, under the command of Ariel Sharon. The battalion's Patton tanks made their way from the Sde Teiman camp near Be'er Sheva to Tasa in the western part of the Sinai. The force lost precious hours due to a technical malfunction that disabled the tanks' batteries.

"It kept us from making contact earlier," says Idan. "In those hours that were lost, on Sunday, October 7, at 10 in the morning, Nimrod Gaon was killed. His death was one of the greatest traumas for me. He'd attended the military boarding school in Tel Aviv, but during vacations we spent a lot of time together. We were part of the same group of friends in Ashkelon. Somehow I felt responsible for us not having arrived in time to stand alongside him when he was fighting desperately near the forward positions."

A review of the timetable shows unequivocally that even without the delay, the battalion would still have been far from making contact when Idan's friend was killed - but this doesn't soothe Idan at all. To him, the symbolism of the thing supersedes the cold facts.

The combat encountered by Battalion 410 proved extremely lethal: 61 dead, 129 wounded, 15 taken prisoner. After the battalion's initial baptism by fire, on October 8-9, "tank personnel refused to board the vehicles," reports a document reconstructing the unit's experience in the war. "Morale is low at all levels. The commanders are no different from the troops in this regard."

The battalion commander was wounded, and he was followed by two replacements, until on the morning of the fourth day - October 10 - a new battalion commander appeared, Major Yehuda Geller. His leadership breathed life into the exhausted troops. "He talks with the officers and then with the soldiers. He brings the fighters into the big picture, requires all of them to shave and to look like troops. After these talks, the men's fighting spirit comes back," the aforementioned document says.

The chick's crow

On that same dramatic day, Idan, who was part of L Company from the day of its inception, was summoned to be Geller's tank driver, after his predecessor became hysterical and had to be replaced. "I ran from tank to tank under fire, threw my gear into the turret basket and jumped into the driver's compartment," Idan recalls. "I didn't know anyone in the crew that I'd joined and I didn't see the three of them who were together in the turret. Not Yehuda or Yaron Hamal who served as the loader-signaler or the gunner, Hugo Gevirtz, who's now called Yishai Michaeli. I sat all alone in my compartment and followed orders, and the whole day I couldn't stop wondering: Will they rescue me if I get wounded? I'm a total stranger to them." Only when they parked for the night and he finally emerged from the driver's seat and met the men whom he'd so far identified only by their voices over the radio was Idan able to relax a little.

Talisman, Spider, Hamadiya, Lexicon, Television - names of IDF positions, names that appear on the code maps for the Central Sector in the Sinai, opposite Ismailiya - are very familiar to Idan. He can talk endlessly about those battles. He is well-versed in all the maneuvers as they occurred from a bird's-eye or general's eye-view. But more fascinating by far are the descriptions from the perspective of a simple soldier swaying between fear and courage, paralysis and determination.

He was a participant in and witness to some of the most lethal battles that took place in the Sinai. On October 12, 26 tanks from his battalion took part in the assault on the so-called Missouri Compound; the attack ended in withdrawal and only four tanks returned unscathed. But if any one incident can epitomize the many harrowing events of those days, it must be that which occurred on October 14:

"Sukkot. We were three tanks charging at 60 commandos. We got as close as from here to that tree," he says, pointing at a tree that is maybe 10 meters from us. "Suddenly, a little to the left of us, right before my eyes I saw an Egyptian soldier with an RPG on his shoulder. He was aiming for the vulnerable spot between the turret and the body of the tank - right at where I was sitting, it seemed to me. I froze. I accepted my fate, I cried out for my mother, I called out to God. In those same fractions of a second, the battalion commander fired his Uzi at the Egyptian while Yaron kept thrusting more ammunition at him. `Ofer, turn left, run him over!,' I suddenly heard the battalion commander shouting to me over the internal communications system. That's when I woke up from the paralysis that had gripped me. I turned the steering wheel and a hundredth of a second before he pulled the trigger, I ran him over" - he utters the last few words in a whisper.

Three days later, at the Tartur Axis - a scene of unforgettable horror - the battalion passed by the corpses of 50 paratroopers and armored personnel, casualties of the Chinese Farm battle. "At first we thought they were Egyptians," Idan recounts. Four days later came Battalion 410's "suicide battle for the Missouri position" - like the Chinese Farm was for Yitzhak Mordechai's Battalion 890.

In March 1974, after five straight months in the Sinai and on Egyptian territory west of the Suez Canal, the time came for the men of the battalion to bid each other farewell and scatter back to their homes. Six months had passed and Idan was now the father of a daughter. He abandoned his legal studies, to which he'd devoted himself until the outbreak of the war, and went into teaching and youth guidance, and also volunteered for the Civil Guard.

He explains the reason for his dropping out of law school in a 64-page booklet that he produced at the time, entitled "The Chick's Crow" ("Keriat Hatarnegol shel Ha'efroah"): "It's hard to concentrate on studying when outside there are children who are hungry or wearing rags. We haven't yet reached the stage where we can sit quietly and study. An honorable livelihood can only be found in carpentry and industry ... People aren't ready to roll up their sleeves and do the kind of work that respects its masters."

The booklet was written during many a sleepless night. Ever since coming back from the war, Idan had difficulty falling asleep. At the heart of the immature book was a declaration of intent to run for election to the Knesset. "I have no aspirations of becoming prime minister," he wrote. "That's too big for me, but I will stand at the head of the list because I live very modestly, I earn my keep from an honest salary and no one has anything against me. But don't make the mistake even for a second of thinking that everything will work out one day if I attain some decision-making position. It would lead to wounds in the society - the healing wounds of surgery, with the scent of anesthetics, for pain relief. But we will certainly have to operate. We're done once and for all with all kinds of little wheeler-dealers."

The response he got from people close to him was skeptical and chilly. In December 1975, his wife took the baby and fled north to her parents, never to return. Idan sent Gevirtz, the gunner from the tank crew, to try to persuade her to come back. "He's not the person I loved," she explained. "I don't know what happened to him, but he changed. He scares me."

44 jobs

Both at home and outside Idan began sliding down a steep slope. Wherever he worked, he constantly clashed with his bosses and was compelled to leave job after job. He is sharp and articulate. He has an amazing, almost frighteningly clear memory for dates. A sparsely attended protest he took part in two decades ago, his first call-up notice for reserve duty - mention any event to him and he can instantly name not only the year and month, but the exact day as well.

In 1980, he was chosen via a tender for the job of director of the youth department in Arad. This was his finest hour, the job in which he lasted longer than any other. Two years. He worked tirelessly around the clock; the motivation driving him - apart from his love for the work - was to be surrounded by other people all the time, not to be all alone in bed, because loneliness was unbearable to him. He had three breakdowns. When he reported for reserve duty, he went to the battalion doctor and told him about it, but a series of comprehensive tests at Soroka and Hadassah hospitals turned up nothing. "You're as healthy as an ox," he was told. "You just need to slow down a bit."

With great regret, he informed the people in Arad that he was quitting his job. This time, for a change, the end came at his initiative and not because he was fired for getting into trouble with others. "There were signs all along the way that something inside me wasn't right, but there was no one to put their finger on the problem," he says. "Once I had eczema on my head and I went to the No. 1 dermatologist in Ashkelon. `Look me in the eye for a moment,' he told me. `You're very stressed. Do you have any idea why?' he asked. He was a dermatologist, remember, not a psychiatrist, and he saw distress that he was unable to define. I myself, even with all the psychology books I read, wasn't aware of the depths of my distress."

The next station in his wanderings, both as a teacher and a youth counselor, was Kiryat Gat. He moved there after marrying a Jewish woman from France whom he met when she accompanied a youth group from Arad to Lyon. Over the years, he stumbled from one job to the next, to 44 different workplaces in all, by his count. Among other things, he was a locksmith, a sandwich vendor, a mechanic, a truck driver, an electrician, a security guard, an English teacher, a camp director, a salesman in a clothing store, an air-conditioning technician, a telemarketer and a car-alarm salesman. The only place he found a little peace was in reserve duty.

"I served until age 45," he says. "For me, reserve duty was an island of stability. I changed jobs three or four times a year. Compared to that, the unit was always a permanent thing. Meeting up with the guys really recharged my battery."

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