They fought with courage and determination on the battlefield and sacrificed themselves while trying to save others. With the announcement of the names of those being considered for citations of valor, Ynet brings the stories of two of these soldiers.
Staff Sgt. Yehonatan Wolsiuk
Killed in battle on July 20th 2006 at age 21, nominated for Northern Command citation
Staff Sgt. Amichai Avraham, a combat soldier from the elite Egoz unit remembers the long hours the team spent searching for Wolsiuk under heavy fire in the village of Maroun al-Ras, not knowing if it would be worse to find him dead or to learn he had been kidnapped by Hizbullah.
"At first we thought of the craziest possibilities, maybe he was badly wounded and another force took him back to Israel," said Avraham, who was discharged from compulsory service several weeks ago. "About 24 hours later we heard the news. I remember the company commander said that it's not only a partial consolation; we should think it a full consolation that he was found dead. Only then did I truly understand how much the commanders feared that Hizbullah had taken his body."
Much has been said about the fierce battles in Maroun al-Ras where forces battled incessant gunfire, missile attacks and countless snipers. Avraham recalls the last time he saw Yehonatan: "At one point we saw someone badly wounded lying on a stretcher, Yehonatan, being Yehonatan, broke off the force and ran forward to help lift the stretcher. We didn't think of it at first, we were facing heavy gunfire and trying to evacuate another casualty from the front line."
Staff Sgt. Yehonatan Wolsiuk
The hours wore on, the force had completed its mission and Yehonatan had not returned. The force withdrew to a house several hundred meters back and the search for Wolsiuk began. In small groups the soldiers combed every inch of the village, despite the danger to their own lives, others began checking the casualty lists.
"The regiment commander said we weren't going back across the border without him, and that was very clear to all of us," recalls Avraham. Meanwhile the IDF's MIA unit had already been called into action and a drone was dispatched to search from above.
More than 20 hours after he'd gone missing, Yehonatan's body was found under a pile of rubble which had concealed it from view. The regiment commander gathered the unit and told them.
Still, said Avraham, it took hours for them to come to terms with the death of the quiet soldier who immigrated to Israel by himself from Ukraine and changed his name from Sergey to the biblical Yehonatan, through his unit affectionately nicknamed him Johnny. "We didn't cry, we couldn't allow ourselves to cry. But inside we were broken, shattered," said Avraham," we sat there in the dark and thought about him, this guy who came to Israel alone and made it to one of the IDF's top units…
It's hard to believe how much we're still learning about him, he was killed because of his bravery, because of his sense of sacrifice, it was in his nature."
Staff Sergeant Itai Steinberger
Killed in battle on August 12th 2006 at age 21, nominated for Northern Command citation
Before they went into battle Staff Sgt. Steven Friedland asked his friend Staff Sgt. Itai Steinberger to give his parents a goodbye letter he had written them in case he didn't make it back. In the end, it was Itai who never came home.
Both paramedics for the 401 Reconnaissance Unit, Friedland and Steinberger were known during the war as the 'iron twins,' moving as one, stopping together, helping each other. "During that time we talked about a lot of things, outside of army business too. Family, our plans for the future, our dreams – he was supposed to be discharged in January, wanted to go on a big trip, see the world," said Friedland.
Staff Sgt. Itai Steinberger
The day Steinberger was killed is etched forever in his partner's mind. "We managed to sleep for two hours in the morning; Itai woke me up because there were reports of casualties. We started moving towards a tall hilltop, I struggled on the way up and Itai immediately took some of the heavy equipment I was carrying and encouraged me to get to the top."
Their rescue team operated in the exposed terrain, Steinberger and Friedland had moved a moderately wounded soldier to a stretcher and were about to lift him when a whistle sounded. "Itai was hit and collapsed, I got to him, he had a pulse but he was in terrible condition. Half a minute later we had taken cover but by then I knew he was dead, the injury was very serious. I realized he'd saved my life, shielded me from the shrapnel. I fell apart, started to cry," said Friedland.
But seconds later the wounded began pouring into the makeshift site and Friedland didn't have time to mourn his friend. "For two days we (several other paramedics and two doctors) treated some 60 wounded men, 15 of them in serious condition. The supplies ran out, we performed surgical procedures in the field
conditions, it was very difficult," he said.
After the war Friedland couldn't let go of his feelings of guilt: "I kept thinking – why didn't I save him? Why him and not me? Those kinds of thoughts. Now I know that Itai, who held the values of camaraderie and friendship so dearly, saved me and so I remained there to save the lives of many other soldiers."