The latest crop of combat soldiers in the Paratroopers Reconnaissance Battalion finished their training course last Thursday and received their fighter’s pin at a ceremony at the Kochav Hayarden National Park. Among the parents watching their sons get their pins were Daria and Pinhas Yosefi, parents of Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, who was killed last month during a navigation exercise in which he drowned while crossing the Hilazon Stream. The Yosefis were called up to receive their son’s pin, but neither they nor the soldiers could hide their frustration over what they are calling a tragic blunder.
Testimonies gathered by Haaretz from soldiers, their families, and other sources involved with the exercise indicate that Yosefi’s death could have been prevented, and that there were those who had warned the commanders, who refused to listen. Many soldiers were disappointed at how the commanders behaved after Yosefi’s death, and believe that there is a concerted attempt to whitewash the incident, which one of the parties said has led to a loss of confidence in the chain of command.
“Today I know there were a thousand warning signs before and during the navigation, but everyone chose not to see them, or worse, simply decided to ignore them,” said one of the soldiers. “[The commanders] said they didn’t want ‘chocolate soldiers.’”
The exercise took place on the night of January 6-7. It was a stormy night, and the soldiers had to navigate on their own in the cold and unceasing rain. The exercise, which had been approved by battalion commander Yaki Dolef, was scheduled to start at 8 P.M. When the soldiers gathered at the starting point carrying backpacks weighing 40 percent of their body weight, a few participants noted that the rain was not letting up. One person decided to evaluate if the conditions allowed for the exercise to continue.
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According to testimonies, that evaluation led to a serious argument between medical personnel and the company commander about whether to cancel the exercise. At least one member of the medical staff vehemently objected to the exercise taking place, citing the expected flooding in the area, specifically at the streams in the vicinity of the navigation exercise. The commanders were also told that the cold and wet would hurt the soldiers and the mud would make it difficult to hike. The disaster last year at Nahal Tzafit, where 10 teenagers were killed in flooding, was mentioned. The company commander, after consulting with the team commanders, decided to continue as planned.
According to testimonies obtained by Haaretz, the commanders told the soldiers that anyone who didn’t want to cross the stream could take a detour around it in a safe area, some three or four kilometers from where Yosefi crossed the stream. But at no time were the soldiers given express orders not to cross the stream, nor was there a set location where all the soldiers were meant to cross, which would have helped the commanders oversee the course.
Despite the warnings, the exercise began at 8 P.M. At an early stage, one of the soldiers reported that he had sunk up to his waist into mud near the Hilazon; he remained trapped there for two hours and was rescued by the company commander. Soldiers recalled that the commander told the soldier to continue the exercise, even though he was totally exhausted. At that point the commander should have also noticed the strength of the Hilazon’s current, but chose to ignore it.
At 2 A.M., the soldiers began to cross the stream. Each soldier was equipped with a GPS that allowed the command staff to know where each soldier was at any given moment. When the commanders saw them starting to cross between 2 and 3 A.M., they were not told to withdraw, but the decision of whether or not to cross was left to them. From the moment the soldiers started to cross or try to cross the stream, they reported that they were falling into the stream and that the current was very strong. One reported that he had nearly drowned, while another said he had held onto a tree to cross due to the force of the current.
These reports led some of those in the vicinity of the commanders to demand that they rethink the exercise. Someone suggested that a commander be sent to the area to make sure the soldiers were indeed crossing safely, but the commanders ignored him.
“The commanders felt the soldiers were being crybabies,” said one source, who explained what was going on in the command room. He says he heard the company commander say, “Let them be strong and continue.”
At around 5 P.M., someone said on the communications system that “Evyatar’s been swept away.” The report on Yosefi was one of a stream of reports coming in, so the commanders didn’t realize at first that this was anything particularly serious, and the brief report was basically ignored.
The soldier who heard the call reported it to the company commander and argued that a medical team should be sent to the location. But no order to send a medical team was sent, because, as noted, the commanders’ attitude was that the soldiers were just complaining.
Despite the repeated requests by various sources, no order came to stop the exercise. Not from the commanders in the field, nor the company commander nor the team commanders. Neither did the battalion commander order a reevaluation of whether to continue the exercise, even after it was clear there had been some serious mishaps.
From the IDF Spokesperson’s statement on the night of the incident, it seems as if two additional soldiers suffered hypothermia while trying to find Yosefi. In reality, neither soldier’s injury was related to the rescue attempt. One was evacuated to the hospital by helicopter in critical condition early on in the exercise.
The other soldier called a commander on the latter’s personal phone to report that he was badly hurt while the commander was on his way to Yosefi’s initial location. Only then did the commanders begin to split up, with some continuing on to where Yosefi fell and others trying to find the other soldier. The soldier was found unconscious, suffering from life-threatening hypothermia, and evacuated from the scene by an ambulance.
The command to stop the navigation, the soldiers say, came only after a helicopter was summoned to search for Yosefi, when they understood that he was missing and that there had been two cases of hypothermia. The officers had difficulty summoning a helicopter, and had to prevail on senior air force officers in the Northern Command to send one for the search.
After an hour and a half of searching, the company commander located Yosefi’s body in the stream and ordered the helicopter to come extract it with the help of Rescue Unit 669.
“The soldiers felt betrayed,” said a parent of one of them. “The arrogance of the commanders to conduct the exercise at any price almost killed more fighters.”
Some of the fighters testified that their conversations with the commanders caused them to lose faith in the chain of command. They told Haaretz that the commanders told the soldiers in a closed conversation that since the company commander was about to be released from the IDF, their testimony would have an impact on his future.
They also told of a conversation in which the command staff presented what they said was the sequence of events, which some of the fighters perceived as an attempt to coordinate their stories for the investigation.
The Paratroops Brigade doctor says he was not informed of the two cases of hypothermia in real time, and only discovered that soldiers were badly hurt when he spoke to those in the field. He understood that there were attempts to end or shorten the exercise, but the commanders ignored them. There are also claims that as the two soldiers were being evacuated, personnel in the field asked that their assessment be changed to “possibility of hypothermia,” when it was clear from the initial assessment that they were in fact suffering from hypothermia.
Sources who spoke to Yosefi’s family said they intend to appeal to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a strongly-worded letter demanding answers for the army’s conduct. Among their demands is to remove the commanders from their posts for the remainder of the investigation.
“It is with deep sorrow that I did not stand by the mission of bringing every heroic soldier home in peace,” the battalion commander said to the Yosefi family during the pin-awarding ceremony. He then quoted David Ben-Gurion: “To the dear parents among us who have lost their darlings, I have no condolences. But this we can tell them: The young lions of Israel have never given their lives for anything more precious … and if the Jewish nation does not have the strength to return their children to them, it can save their memories in their hearts.