ZAHAL DISABLED VETERANS
Between Darkness and Light
When I stepped into the office of Danny Layani, Assistant to the Chairman of the Jerusalem District of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, he was sitting across from his computer working energetically. “Hold on! You’ve gotta be kidding me”, I said without introducing myself. “I was told I was coming to interview a blind fellow”.
Posted In: 20/08/15 Avi Zur for “Halochem” Magazine
When I stepped into the office of Danny Layani, Assistant to the Chairman of the Jerusalem District of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization, he was sitting across from his computer working energetically.
“Hold on! You’ve gotta be kidding me”, I said without introducing myself. “I was told I was coming to interview a blind fellow”. Layani, a million dollar smile across his face replied: “I was waiting for you, so you finally made it here. Yes, I’m working on a computer with special software which translates what’s written into voice. You’d be surprised but the blind can practically do everything nowadays, including hi-tech”.
Layani was raised and educated at Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood. He was the eighth child in a family of ten children who had immigrated from Algeria, and the first to be born in Israel. In 1980, right after graduating high school he was drafted into the 12th Regiment of the Golani Brigade. The First Lebanon War caught him at the ‘Gladiola’ outpost on Dov Mountain (an area of Mount Hermon, occupied by Israel from Syria and which Hezbollah claims as Lebanese territory).
“I remember we were getting ready to enter Lebanon”, he recalls in an interview to “Halochem” those days that changed his life from one end to another. “I was right after NCOs course serving as the company communications NCO, working closely with the company commander. We entered Lebanon through the central sector and moved northward. During the first week of the war we weren’t really doing much fighting and had no casualties. We had to deal mainly with the mine fields and with ongoing security issues. It was a pretty crazy period of several months. On the one hand we were bombarded heavily and had skirmishes and on the other hand, we’d be patrolling all the way to Beirut right up to the coast line where you felt you were in a different, pastoral and peacful world”.
“The IDF was holding the city of Beirut under siege and my company arrived at the city airport on August 1st. I remember it was very exciting as an Israeli to be walking through the Beirut Airport Terminal and along its runways. The following day we got our orders to move beyond the airport. At the time we called it the ‘crawling siege of Beirut’. Two days later at night, our Regimental Commander Spiegel, led us onto a hill overlooking the two refugee camps Bourj al-Barajneh and Al Uzai at the outskirts of the city, a few hundred meters from the tall buildings of Beirut. My company, reinforced by three tanks from the 77th Regiment (Amiram Levin was commanding the Armored Forces in the region) settled there. The rest of the Regiment settled 300 meters behind us. The bulldozers erected defense ramparts around us. I remember Spiegel, the Regimental Commander telling us: ‘We’re expecting a horrific bombardment tomorrow’. Indeed, with first light all hell broke loose. RPGs, Anti Tank missiles and Sager missiles were all coming at us. Levin’s tank drove up to a look out position and was hit by a Sager. Levin was wounded and evacuated”.
“At the time, we didn’t know who was shooting at us. In retrospect we found out it was a Syrian force whose ground spotter was standing on the mosque minaret watching us as though we were in the palm of his hand. We were bombarded heavily throughout the day. On the radio we heard the guys in the battery near ours had received a direct hit and had casualties and wounded. Nimrod, the Company Commander and Boaz the medic took as many IVs as they could and ran over to help them. They returned after an hour and Nimrod the Company Commander updated me on the casualties: Tulik Vitzman the Armored Corps Company Commander was killed as well as three others from our company. After I pressured him he told me that my best friend Dori Levite, had also been killed”.
What did you feel when you heard about the dead?
“Thoughts run through your head. Suddenly, it becomes very tangible and real, it’s actually happening to us. Until that moment I had never lost any friends. I had seen casualties throughout the war, mostly dead terrorists but not amongst our forces and certainly not close friends. I didn’t have too much time to ponder the matter because a dreadful bombardment began. I ran towards the foxhole I had dug out next to the artillery battery and where I had left the communications equipment. I was about to jump in when I saw someone else was already laying in it. It was a horrific barrage. Everything around us trembled and filled with smoke. I couldn’t ask the soldier to get out of my foxhole. I took a folding shovel, dug a shallow hole and got into it”.
“Adjacent to me was a tank which I was sure had just received a direct hit. I remember the driver coming out of the tank, his helmet in his hand, his forehead bleeding. We called out: ‘Medic! Medic! and Boaz the medic jumped into my foxhole joining me. I remember the tank driver’s shell-shocked face. He was very pale. I looked at him and that was it, boom”.
“Darkness, silence. I didn’t understand what had happened. A few seconds went by and didn’t feel a thing. I had no sensation throughout my body which was enveloped by a kind of serenity. I was sure I had died. This is how you feel when you die. Today I say if this is what it feels like to die, I’m not afraid of death”.
“A few more seconds went by and I began hearing the sound of shells falling around. I understood I had been hit. I was coming to terms with my demise. I lay quietly listening to the whistling sound of the bombs falling. Pictures ran through my head. I could see my funeral, my mother standing by my grave weeping, I saw it all. I saw them lowering my coffin into the grave, all these scenes ran through my mind like a movie. Suddenly, I could feel my hand my leg. I realized I was alive! There was someone lying on top of me and I could him moaning. Shouts all around us: ‘Medic, Boaz, Medic, Nimrod, hysterical screaming, and I can hear Nimrod on the radio talking to Spiegel the Regimental Commander telling him: I have several wounded and dead, and I realized I am wounded but… alive. All at once the desire to live came back to me and with it the fear. It all comes back. You want to live”.
“I lay in complete darkness and someone lifted the soldier who had been groaning on top of me. I later learned it was a tankist. Boaz, the medic, had been killed immediately. Both of them actually, saved my life because they had absorbed most of the direct hit. I was really hit by the ‘leftover’ shrapnel. I felt someone dressing my eyes. It was a buddy of mine from our company. I held his hand and said: ‘Shimon, don’t leave me here. Take me away, let’s get out of here, let’s run, don’t leave me’. Today, he lives on the Golan Heights. We meet often and he reminds me of those words. My stretcher was placed on a tank and they began evacuating me”.
Did you realize you were blinded?
“It was clear to me I had lost my eyesight. I shouted: ‘I’m blind, I can’t see anything’. I didn’t dare feel my face. I was afraid. There was a lot of blood and I feared my face was gone. I thought it had become a pile of fresh flesh and blood. With me on the same tank were the two dead. On the way I could feel the tank digging into the ground, unable to move forward. I could hear shouts on the radio, but I just put my head down on my helmet and thoughts ran through my head. I said to myself: OK, it’s already happened to you, but at home they don’t know it yet. I was afraid of my parents’ reaction. At the same time I also thought that I’m finally getting out of Lebanon, I won’t be responsible any more for the radio equipment, the classified information; I’ll be out of this hell hole. I felt drained”.
Did they struggle to save your eye sight or was there nothing to be done?
“A helicopter evacuated me to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. One eye was totally lost. The other had shrapnel in it. They promised I’d see with it. For three months I was under the illusion I’d be leaving the hospital with the use of one eye. One morning, after three months of hospitalization, the doctor said to me: ‘You’re being released’. I said: ‘What do you mean? Where am I going? What are you talking about? He replied: ‘You’re going home’. I began to cry. All the tension from the difficult past months just burst inside of me. Just a week before that I had undergone surgery and everyone was still optimistic. Then I heard over the radio that nine friends from my company had been killed and my heart was shattered”.
“The hospital is a very protected environment for the wounded and the disabled. I all of a sudden found myself coping with the real world. The easiest tasks become complex. Going to the bathroom, making a cup of coffee, pouring water into a glass, eating with a knife and fork things one normally takes for granted. I had to learn them anew just like a new born child. Before my injury I had plans and now everything had turned upside down. I didn’t know what would happen to me and I began being consumed by self pity. I was a 20 year old who was blind”.
How does one deal with such a load? Where does your strength come from?
“I met one of the most wonderful women in the world – Ruth Begin, MK Benny Begin’s wife, who was at the time working as a social worker in the Ministry of Defense. An amazing person. If any good came of my injury it’s having met her. She accompanied me all along the way. I can say without a doubt that she helped me stand on my own two feet. She gave me all the time I needed to adapt to my new condition. I didn’t have to go to the Rehab. Department for talks, she would come to me and say: ‘When you feel up to it, you’ll come to us’. It took some time but after a while I began coming for consultations. I started thinking of the future and making plans”.
Were there crises? Did you ever say to yourself: the hell with this life?
“Of course there were crises, but I kept everything to myself. Back then I wanted to show everyone how strong I was”.
How does one begin living with this kind of a disability?
“I took my time getting acquainted with the darkness of my new environment. I completed my matriculation exams. At the same time I also became acquainted with Sonia who later became my wife and the mother of my children. She had arrived from France to study in Jerusalem. It was not a love at first sight because I didn’t actually see her, but I definitely fell in love. We got married in 1986 and I started began studying Social Work at the University. Later on I continued to study for my MA and we had four beautiful children”.
Did you come to terms with your disability or did you dream of seeing again some day?
“Throughout the years I deluded myself into thinking I’d see again some day. I purposely avoided using a stick, and walked with the help of friends, with Sonia’s help and that of the family. I refused to get a Seeing Eye dog. Only years later, after meeting blind people at Tel-Aviv’s Beit Halochem, did I decide to take a Seeing Eye dog and traveled for that to the USA. I discovered the world and rediscovered my independence. I would take the dog everywhere; we’d walk the streets on our own. What a wonderful feeling of freedom and independence”.
When did you come to terms with the fact that you’d be blind for ever?
“Somewhere I always hoped and believed that a miracle would happen and I’d see again. The doctors had given me hopes with respect to one of my eyes. Three years ago I was approached by a young doctor from Hadassah Hospital who said: Why don’t you try innovative surgery? Quite frankly I had feared this moment. The idea began to move forward. Consultations took place amongst all the doctors at Hadassah. Their conclusion was there’d be no point in operating and they recommended against the surgery. I said to myself: the young doctor had said there was a chance and I know myself better than all the doctors put together. I began consulting other experts around the country. At the end of the day, the doctors at Hadassah said it’s up to you to make the decision. All of a sudden I got cold feet. I asked them to decide for me. Finally, I ended up deciding to go ahead with the operation. I was told not to raise my hopes high so as not to be disappointed. However, I had faith. Three years ago I went into the operating room. It was a Thursday. On Friday morning they came to remove the bandages”.
“The moment they removed them I saw so much light I wanted to scream. What bright, clean light, how beautiful, it was amazing. I saw the doctor’s hand, his pants and light shirt. All of a sudden, after 25 years in complete darkness I could see. After 23 years I saw my wife Sonia for the first time, and my children! I recall Shimon Navon standing next to me. There was great excitement all around. The doctor hugged me. I spent an additional three days in hospital and got out to see the world. I walked out of the hospital holding Sonia’s hand. Looking at her I said: I can see your earring, I see the streaks in your hair, I can notice your smile, and you’re wearing red lipstick. My enthusiasm was unbelievable”.
“After a short period the field of vision grew smaller. Slowly but surely the light got dimmer and dimmer. I could see cars, I saw colors and I was thrilled with the beautiful world. I managed to take a trip to the USA with my son. I saw the twin towers. We went to Niagara Falls and took the boat ride under the falls. What an incredible sight that was. I screamed with joy that I could see it all!! I knew my eye sight was weakening but I repressed it all the time. It took a few more months and then the big downfall came. A thin membrane grew over the retina and pulled it to one side. They try to rectify it surgically but it was hopeless. After about half a year of seeing, I went back to total blindness. I then entered a difficult period with myself. Outwardly I showed everything was alright, but inside I was so frustrated. I said: I did everything I was told to do, I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t have done, I looked after the eye, but it didn’t help. I suppose I was just not destined to see, this is my reality and I must learn to live with it and to live well. About a year ago I came to terms with my condition. I feel a certain wholeness and am content with my life”.
Incredible. 25 years you saw absolutely nothing and suddenly you could see again then six months later you’re blind again. Must have felt like a 10 lb. hammer on your head. I think you must be made of concrete. “You can also look at it another way. Look at the beautiful gift I was given half way through my life. To be able to see my children and wife both of whom I had never seen before, to see the world again. Even if it was only for a brief period, it was a wonderful gift. I believe that having gone blind twice I can deal with it. It’s kind of a fatalistic outlook on life”.
How did you start working for the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization?
“For over ten years, Shimon Navon, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ZDVO and I visit wounded soldiers at the hospitals, cheering them and encouraging them. Giving them our own example and how one can rehabilitate even from the most severe injury and with the most difficult disabilities. In the recent elections held at the ZDVO I had worked closely with the group of candidates that ran for the Jerusalem District and the idea came up that I’d come and work at the Jerusalem District Branch Offices. Shimon was excited about the idea and spoke to Naim Azar, Chairman of the Jerusalem who welcomed it. The rest is history. Today, I spend my life trying to help other Zahal Disabled Veterans. I feel great joy coming to work every day. I solve problems for others and try and serve as a living example to many. Look, financially, I could sit home and live off of my monthly disability payments very comfortably. I choose to work here because of what it does for me, too. There’s a wonderful team of professionals working here who spend their time showing our members how to cope and grapple with life”.
Dan is a member at Jerusalem’s Beit Halochem. He takes part in many of its activities. He works out in the Fitness Hall and rides a tandem bike regularly.
Translated into English by Ora Seidner / Photos: Ariel Bsor