Last Friday, Swiss Air Force Deputy Commander Colonel Stefan Balsiger received an urgent phone call. "Be prepared to immediately leave for Israel in order to help extinguish a fire," his military commander said on the other end of the line.
Balsiger was filled with excitement – not because of the extinguishing operation, but because it was an opportunity for him to see his two greatest loves – the State of Israel,
and his Israeli girlfriend.
Balsiger, 50, is an F-18 pilot and former commander of a combat squadron in Swiss army. Two years ago, he was sent to Israel on behalf of the Swiss Air Force to receive counseling from an Israeli security firm.
That's when he first met Vered Azoulay, who works for the company. The two quickly fell in love, and in the process Stefan also became uniquely attached to Israel.
From the first moment in the Holy Land, Balsiger – who is not Jewish – felt right at home.
Since their first encounter, Stefan has divided his time between Interlaken and Rosh Haayin, where Vered lives. He frequently travels to Israel, while his sweetheart visits him in Switzerland every few months.
"He loves Israel, the Israeli people and the culture," said Vered. "He feels that he belongs here and that's why when he participated in the fire extinguishing operation I
was so proud of him because I know how dedicated he is to Israel," she noted.
When Balsiger was called to Israel to help extinguish the fatal Carmel forest fire, he was excited not only to meet Vered and visit Israel, but also because he finally had the opportunity to help and contribute to Israel.
Stefan landed in Israel Saturday evening, and was greeted by Vered who waited at the airport. However, the emotional meeting was cut short, as Stefan had to rush to work.
Balsiger headed a team of 21 Swiss pilots and rescue experts. His task force included three large choppers, each containing up to 2.5 tons of fire retardant chemicals, as well as a Hercules plane with fire extinguishing equipment.
The elite airborne rescue and evacuation unit is the mountainous country's parallel to Israel's Unit 668, and often helps evacuate injured people from the Alps and extinguish fires.
Stefan and his team quickly joined the extinguishing efforts and went on dozens of flights, dumping massive amounts of fire retardant materials over the Carmel mountain range.
"I felt a special sensation participating in this operation; after all, this is also my home," said Stefan, adding that "no country in the world could have extinguished a fire of this size by itself.
"From above it is an amazing sight. Don’t feel badly – any other country would have asked for help," he said.
"I was very proud when he went on the Carmel mission," Vered noted. "I was deeply excited. He always speaks enviously about IDF Air Force pilots and how they always have action, as opposed to Switzerland, where everything is so calm and there are no enemies," she added.
In the upcoming May, Stefan plans to pursue his great love for Israel – he decided to leave the Swiss army, marry Vered and move in with her and her two children.
On Tuesday, Stefan and the other team leaders received an accolade from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in a special ceremony honoring the members of foreign rescue teams that helped extinguish the greatest fire in Israel's history.