Boaz, who served in Gaza in a wounded evacuation platoon of the Nahal, is finding it hard to get back to his routine.

Interviewer:  Moran Dressler

Boaz Ackerman, a 28-year old from Tel-Aviv (originally from Jerusalem), and a student in a mixed program (Philosophy, Economics and Political Science) who works in promoting policy, woke up on Saturday, October 7th, to the sound of sirens.

When he checked Telegram and understood the situation in the south, he packed his reserve duty bag and waited. At 8:00 Sunday morning, Boaz was called up for reserve duty in the wounded evacuation platoon of the Nahal Brigade, where he serves as a liaison in the Mobile Intensive Care Unit (MICU).

Here's how it works: The platoon, which is attached to the combat forces, evacuates the wounded from the combat zone under fire, and brings them to the border, where they receive more extensive treatment. In this war, evacuations were made using the 'Eitan', an innovative armored vehicle adapted to urban settings, that provides protection and enables treatment of the wounded while traveling. A team responsible for operating the vehicle sits inside the Eitan: a commander, a driver, a gunner whose role is to shoot to protect the passengers, as well as a medical team consisting of a senior caregiver (doctor or paramedic), a secondary caregiver (paramedic or medic), and a soldier. Since the beginning of the war, Boaz's platoon has evacuated over 70% of the brigade’s wounded.

As liaison, Boaz was in the first Eitan with a medical crew from Unit 669, which is the highest quality treatment force, "so basically, apart from the times I was off for after-hours, there was no evacuation that I didn't attend. You understand that if you don't do it properly, people will die." This is his story.

"איתן" צה"לי

When it becomes routine

“On October 27th, the ground operation began. Four days later, we went inside, and evacuating the wounded became routine. One moment you're playing cards, reading a book, smoking a cigarette, while in the background, the communication device is constantly on, and suddenly you hear about a clash and start responding. You work on autopilot, like a robot, you don’t even think about it.  You get used to it, and you live in between. I don't remember being afraid for my life. Ironically, the situations where we were in the most danger were the ones where we were the most active. We didn't fight, we didn't take over houses, we were always one step behind. It's not that there weren't terrorists around us, but it didn't feel dangerous because we were so busy with the evacuations.

You quickly get used to gunfire, bombs, everything. In the first days, there's more tension. I wasn't anxious, but I was on guard. The Eitan is an armored vehicle, completely closed. You only see through cameras. You’re a little bit disconnected from your surroundings, like when you play a computer game… You move the joystick to aim the weapon upwards. So the time I was most scared was when I was riding on a Hummer in a logistical convoy. It was a dangerous route, RPGs had been fired at another logistical convoy a week before. It was one of the few times I wasn't on the Eitan so I was exposed.

It was at night, and suddenly, when you’re outside the Eitan, you see the breadth of the destruction, it’s everywhere. And it's a logistical convoy, so we're driving slowly, for a long time, and all you see is endless destruction. We know terrorists could be hiding in some places, so I traveled with a loaded weapon. We load our weapons when we're evacuating the wounded, but we don't have a bullet in the chamber when we’re travelling in the Eitan to avoid accidental shooting. Although we evacuate the wounded under fire, you're so focused and the wounded are usually screaming, or bleeding, or their organs…you don’t have time to focus on the danger. It doesn’t interest you. So in the most dangerous moments, I simply didn't think about it."

My Skin is Tearing

The hardest moments

"There were a few very difficult evacuations. Evacuations where people died in our hands, evacuations under fire, bullets whizzing above our heads, and an RPG hitting nearby. But in the end, the toughest ones are where I feel I didn't behave properly. One evening, after a day of two or three evacuations, we sat at the border and tended to the vehicles – we cleaned blood, ate, checked our phones… Suddenly the commander heard on the radio, 'Flower,' wounded. He asked me to gather everyone. I said, 'Come on guys, put your phones away, get on the vehicles, there's a casualty…' I thought to myself there were other evacuation forces; I didn't think it was all on us. We were in the vibe of winding down, it was evening, the end of the day. Everyone moved slowly. After ten seconds, the commander started yelling at us, and I realized suddenly that I hadn’t understood the situation. I was so disconnected that on the way to the evacuation, I grabbed a sandwich and ate it while I was passing on the message. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t understood the event, that I didn't jump, and I even found the time to eat.

When we reached the casualty, he was already dead. It was the first time we had evacuated a dead body. It was the first time I had seen a dead person up close, but we still didn't treat him as such. He was already purple-gray because he had lost a lot of blood. His whole body was limp. He had an entrance wound from a bullet and his blood vessels were sticking out. When I lifted the stretcher, I felt like it was taking an eternity. I finished the event feeling totally disconnected. Although I was physically present, I wasn't really there. In hindsight, we know that he was dead before they contacted us, but if there had been something to save, our sluggishness might have killed him. We learned a lot of lessons from that event.

Another time I remember was on a rainy day. There was a lot of mud. It's important to understand that we live inside the Eitan and it's very uncomfortable with the mud, as every time we leave the vehicle it fills up with our equipment, weapons, sleeping bags… So I decided to take my shoes off before getting into the Eitan and leave them at the entrance. But then we were called out at night – and my shoe fell off.

I asked them to bring it to me, but no one listened to me because it was so crazy. They closed the door and started driving. We're in the mud, I have one shoe… I was so angry that I decided not to get my equipment. I thought, "Screw you all! I'm missing a shoe and I'm not taking part in this!" Meanwhile, the MICU of the medical platoon asked me to coordinate the evacuation. I did it angrily, shouting at everyone, and when we arrived, I announced that I wasn't doing the unloading. The casualty arrived, and someone yelled at me to get up and take the stretcher. I already understood that if I didn't do it, no one would. So I went out, without a shoe, and I lifted the casualty, and the doctor looked at him… It was from “friendly fire”. A tank shell hit a few meters above him, the shrapnel opened his abdomen, and all his internal organs were outside. There was nothing to save. There, when I realized that someone next to me was dying with an open abdomen, everything fell on me in an instant.

Fuck. Mud. Who cares about the mud. It’s true that he was dead long before we got there, but I was so ashamed of myself. Sure, it's annoying to be without a shoe, it's annoying that there's mud, but it doesn't mean you have to go crazy – and I went crazy. It was after ten days inside and many difficult evacuations. I was really at the edge, but I felt so ashamed. Of course, we quickly started laughing about it, because that's the only way to cope with it.”

בעז | תמונה באדיבות המצולם
Boaz

Coming Home

“Every time I came home on a break, I didn’t talk the entire first day.  I wouldn’t communicate with anyone except my girlfriend. For a full day I didn’t want to do anything, just to be left alone. I needed to digest, I felt suffocated. It was hard for me to breathe. Towards the end, when we realized we might be leaving Gaza, I thought to myself, 'Wow, on the one hand, I'm dying for this to be over, but on the other, I'm paralyzed by the thought of the day after… It's a different identity. It's a different reality, not like anything else.

It doesn’t end there. You have no control over anything and can’t make any plans, 24/7. Something can happen at 3:00 am, or nothing can happen for a whole day. It could be a day with four evacuations but no casualties, and it could be one evacuation where the injured person dies… It never ends and it's never expected.

And in between, you’re bored. If you're not working, there's nothing to do. If you are working, then it's a hundred percent. It's either zero or a hundred. In real life, you manage your time and prioritize tasks. Here, there's only one task and all that matters is the here and now. It's not just the pace, everything is different. I’ve lost my ability to manage. For three months, I killed myself over a task, and when there was no task, I rested. Suddenly it's terribly strange to juggle my studies, work, personal life, family. I’m feeling incapable, really. I feel like I no longer know how to multi-task.

My last day in uniform was a week ago. And everything is strange. Really. I don't even know where to begin. I'm trying to go easy on myself and do very small tasks that I can tick off and see a full checklist at the end of the day. Pay my bills, talk to that guy, change the sheets – the simplest things. I don't set myself a number of tasks to finish in a day. I even wrote down "watch an episode of …". I suddenly remembered that I haven't written in my datebook for three months… So even putting things in the datebook needs to be on a checklist.

I feel like everything has stopped, but actually, when I look back, I see that things have gone on as before. Studies, work, friends, family – no one waited for me. And I wouldn't want anyone to wait for me, it's just terribly strange because I feel like I was ripped away and suddenly thrown back and I'm supposed to readjust. I feel like I'm supposed to know how, but I don't.  I don’t even know how to go back to class. I know how to physically get to the university by bus, I know how to read a syllabus. I just don't understand how it relates to life. Even the technical act of picking up the phone, it's so far from me. So I just avoid everything, but I forgive myself.

The secretary at the university explained to me what to do to get academic support and maximize my rights. I only needed to make a few phone calls and say, "Hey, I'm Boaz." And I couldn't find the time to do it. It's not even about strength, it's about emotional time. Even on the level of sending a "happy birthday" message to a friend or having a video call with my niece… to motivate myself to get up, to do something active, I’m just not there yet. I get a phone call from someone and I feel like I just can't do it right now.

It's incredibly hard to come back. There are two completely parallel realities, at every possible level. And it's not just the reality and the people who are parallel… I'm a different Boaz. I have a video that my roommate filmed of me in May, sitting at home in style, drinking espresso and looking at my renovated apartment in Rabin Square. What do I have to do with Gaza? I was a different Boaz. And now I feel like I need to start over a bit and it's not fun… It's not terrible, but it's not fun."

לחזור הביתה. בעז | תמונה באדיבות המצולם
Boaz

Bridging the Gap

“I obviously need treatment. I don't know if I'll have PTSD, I hope not. For now, I don't wake up in the middle of the night, sweating from nightmares and screaming, but I feel like something has changed. I've been asked many times about a specific event – and there isn't one. We evacuated over 100 casualties. I don't even remember most of the events. We had a meeting with a psychologist last week, we sat with her for three to four hours and she put everything into a chronological timeline of what happened, when, where. I mainly remember moments of crisis, but remembering everything is too much. The army offered us treatment within the framework for reserve duty and will give us a refund of 1500 NIS for individual treatment and another 1500 NIS for couples or family therapy against receipts. I don't know why that's supposed to be enough… but there are people who benefit from short-term treatment.

On Thursday I have an evaluation to see if I need trauma treatment. I don't jump at every noise or wake up from nightmares, but I still don't know where it will catch up with me in life. I do feel slower, more out of it, less present, and less aware of my surroundings. Anytime something requires my concentration or attention, even if it's just a one-on-one conversation, I quickly retreat into my thoughts or deflect the conversation to myself. I take all the attention away from the other person, as if suddenly I'm the one who needs the attention.

I’m more apathetic. During this war, there were many times when I had tears in my eyes, but I only really cried once. It's not that things go by me, but they don't open up. If there are things that can get in and shatter, then they get in and stay in. I’m less emotional, less empathetic, and I've always been relatively open, finding it easy to talk about my feelings. I still talk about my feelings, but at a distance, as though I'm watching myself from the side and giving a diagnosis. There's a distance. And that scares me a lot.

The reserves made me impatient, intolerant and even aggressive. I'm a “sweet violent” guy. And that’s a terrible thing to say, because there's no such thing as a sweet violent guy. But whenever I see the guys from the platoon, I automatically punch them in the ribs. I feel like I have aggressiveness that comes out in specific places, for the time being. I'm more nervous, less patient, I'm on edge. I don't know if it's a result of a masculine environment or of warfare, where in this case run in parallel, but it's something that wasn't in me before. I wasn't like this. Even with my brothers, I wasn't like this. I feel like these reserves made me more 'masculine', and not in a good way. More aggressive, more short-tempered.”

"מוצא את עצמי יותר אפאתי" | תמונה באדיבות המצולם
Boaz

National trauma

“There's a welcome change in awareness of soldiers' emotional difficulties: The psychologist, the funds allocated for treatment, and mostly understanding that returning to life is a gradual process. I personally think that while soldiers are traumatized, so is the entire country after what happened, and certainly the people who experienced October 7th directly.

Today I don't feel that people expect me to be a strong fighter who handles everything that comes his way, nursing his wounds and coping. It seems like in any case these things come out, they simmer inside and if they don’t come out in the form of nightmares, then they can come out in the form of a short temper like with me, that if not treated can turn into aggressiveness and even violence. Right now, when the whole country is becoming armed and people are nursing their wounds, I don't know where this could lead, but it’s not a good direction.

It's very important for people to give more space to our psychological wounds after such an event. Without it, society becomes very closed and violent. I don't know if people who experience trauma and war are more dangerous, but I think Israel is a very patriarchal and militaristic society, and that's not a good combination for a violent outbreak. When you throw people into war right after such a terrible trauma, and then arm whoever you can, then yes, it contributes to violence, it triggers it.”

At the end of our conversation, I ask Boaz if he has anything to add. He says, "The most important thing is to bring back the hostages at any cost. At any cost. Even if it means stopping the war. After that, we need to take care of everyone who was evacuated from their homes, make them feel safe to return home. That's in the short term. In the long term, I think we need to seek solutions that even if they make us uncomfortable, will help us to look forward. I don't see an option that doesn't include recognizing the other side's narrative and perspective, and seeking ways to cooperate. Even a willingness to pay a heavy price.

In order for people to go back to their homes along the border with Gaza and in the north, and in order for us not to enter into an aimless and endless war, once the captives return, with help from God (or the sun – whatever works for them), we need to seize this terrible opportunity and turn it into a future, a brighter horizon.

To sum up, talking about events is difficult for me, they’ve haunted me since we finished. It's really important for me to say that there was no other place I wanted to be at that time. To be part of a life-saving force, to see an injured person being hoisted onto a helicopter, to be excited about breaking the record for helicopter time on the ground or reaching a rendezous point with the field forces with the wounded – it's amazing. And I did it with amazing people. Funny, serious, sensitive, wise, dedicated, inclusive. Being assigned to this force was a source of pride throughout my reserve duty, I truly felt privileged. There were tough moments. Quite a few, even, and naturally, they are the ones that stay with me. But looking back, it would be unfair not to remember the good things as well."

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