An IDF legacy of mercy from the ground up

Photo: / IDF Spokesman. IAF Unit 669 during a training exercise.

November 2012 | Israel. The month of November 2012 was a busy time in Israel. Southern skies periodically contained the streaks of incoming rockets from Gaza. Within days the Israel Air Force (זרוע האוויר והחלל) or “IAF” commenced targeted strikes (Operation Pillar of Defense) as part of an effort to reduce the manufacture and stockpiles of the missiles. Tons of aid went to the Gaza border, and a number of Gazans came to Israel for medical treatment. Elsewhere, exchanges of fire were taking place along the Syrian border. Furthermore, thousands of reservists were returning to active service. Amidst all of the foregoing, the “Austere Challenge 12” joint U.S. Military-Israel Defense Forces or “IDF” (“Zahal” צה”ל) exercise was underway.

Ecclesiastes 3:8 states that there is “a time of war, and a time of peace.” The introduction to Collins/Jane’s Warships of World War II mentions a Latin phrase that complements this biblical advice. A rough translation follows: “In times of peace, prepare for war.” With an emphasis on life, the IDF Medical Corps’ motto supplements the previous statements. The axiom is, “He who saves one soul, it is as if he saves a whole world.” Heeding the spirit and wisdom of such maxims, IDF Medical Corps soldiers and civilians went about their never-ending tasks at the medical support base during the author’s visit.

Addressing a group inside a meeting room, the base commander stressed that, “No job here is unimportant.” The “sgan aluf” (equivalent to the rank of lieutenant colonel) or “sa’al” (סא”ל) obviously knew that behind any successful operation one will usually find those who serve in unglamorous support roles. One example is in the book titled The War in the Air: The Royal Air Force in World War II. This volume contains a photo of two men in fatigues straining to free a Supermarine Spitfire from its muddy entrapment. The accompanying caption reads as follows: “They also served who only stood and pushed . . . .” Comparably, all around the IDF installation one could see Sar-El volunteers, under the supervision of Logistics Corps conscripts, eagerly contributing without expectation of any remuneration or reimbursement. Their motivation was simple: The IAF and other units within the IDF continually need medical supplies.

During a routine visit to the facility, the Logistics Corps “rav seren” (equivalent to the rank of major) or “rasan” (רס”ן) in command of the conscripts made a noteworthy remark. He stated that the “IDF has been at war since the nation’s founding in 1948, and the IDF gradually learned the best ways to aid the injured.” Over time two lessons became apparent: Aerial access to the injured and quick evacuation to medical facilities save lives.

The maturing of what eventually became known as CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) and MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) only came after bloody experience and technological improvement. The fact is that during the 1940s and 1950s the flying machines were inadequate. During World War II ill-equipped Americans drafted even the fixed-wing Piper L-4 for limited MEDEVAC and CASEVAC. However, the primitive Sikorsky R-4 Hoverfly helicopter, and Bell H-13 (Bell 47) during the Korean Conflict, demonstrated a realistic and beneficial potential for medical airlift.

Photo: Eric Van Gilder – A former IAF Douglas Dakota / C-47.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, young and financially strapped Israel also found that rotary-winged assets were invaluable and slowly obtained aircraft. These acquisitions included the Bell 47, Sikorsky S-55 (H-19) and S-58 (H-34). Fixed-winged Douglas Dakotas / C-47 Skytrains handled evacuations over longer distances. However, these types were still lacking.

In terms of providing an impetus for quick improvement, the year 1973 and the Yom Kippur War proved to be pivotal. As if on cue, the sounds of a Yanshuf’s (Sikorsky UH-60) engine and rotor blades brought to the author’s mind an engrossing Israeli film titled Kippur. This purportedly factually based story is about an ad-hoc IDF search and rescue team utilizing a Bell UH-1 (or Augusta-Bell 205) during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In some scenes viewers also see a Sikorsky CH-53 “Yas’ur” (Sea Stallion) joining the effort.

During the actual fighting, teams completed over 5,000 extractions, and the rasan emphasized through his talk that the “IDF developed many emergency treatments for airlifting wounded.” Thus, like their “Dustoff” counterparts in Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s, the Israeli military learned to expeditiously airlift patients using helicopters.

Not unexpectedly, the success of the airborne search and rescue teams demonstrated to the IAF the need for and value of organized and dedicated CASEVAC and MEDEVAC units. In April 1974, the first, known as “Airborne Rescue and Evacuation Unit 669” of the IAF’s Special Air Forces Command, came into existence. The men and women of Unit 669 established a fine legacy. In addition to military sorties, Unit 669 also rescues civilians who have become lost or injured in remote or areas possessing limited access.

Photo: Nehemia Gershuni ( All rights reserved. Unit 669 and CH-53 during exhibition.

Medical personnel naturally try to prepare for any and all contingencies. To this day, the extraction members, including physicians, nurses, and paramedics, undergo extensive paramedic training. Additionally, the IDF reports that each year IAF medics participate in a three-work course involving classroom study, and they complete a drill that simulates an evacuation of casualties aboard a Karnaf (Lockheed C-130 Hercules).

IDF Medical teams deploy via aircraft near and far. One depiction of an actual operation that included medical support is the 2004 film Operation Thunderbolt. This motion picture realistically recreates the 1976 Entebbe rescue. More commonly these days, long-range efforts take place in the aftermath of natural disasters around the world. To punctuate this point, the rasan noted several recent high-profile medical outreach missions. He explained, “One was to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, another to Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and a third to Turkey after an earthquake earlier this year.”

Photo: Author's collectionAn IDF ambulance in late 2002.
Photo: Author’s collection. An IDF ambulance in late 2002.

All service members connected in any way to the medical arts and sciences remain busy with their ongoing work. One thing is a certainty. The Medical Corps and IAF will continue to go about their efforts to maintain readiness and proficiency.

The author (John T. Stemple) sincerely thanks the Israel Defense Forces and IDF Spokesman in general, and Sar-El in particular, for their cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. He also thanks Eric Van Gilder and Nehemia Gershuni for permitting the author to use their excellent photos.

Sources & Suggested Readings

*Scripture quotation is from the Jewish Family Bible London Edition 1881 (as revised by Michael Friedlander, Principal, Jews’ College, London). Beautiful reprints of this classic English / Hebrew publication are available from Sinai Publishing in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Fire exchanges on Syrian border; IDF jeep damaged,7340,L-4307409,00.html

Operation Pillar of Defense: Summary of Events

Israel Air Force

Israel Defense Forces

IDF Medical Corps

Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings open for humanitarian aid to Gaza

Bernard Ireland, Collins/Jane’s Warships of World War II (The Jane’s Gem Series), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow, 1996, p. 21.

Gavin Lyall, ed., The War in the Air: The Royal Air Force in World War II. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Kippur, a Michel Propper & Amos Gitai film, Kino Video, 2000.

Operation Thunderbolt, a Menahem Golan film, Golan Globus Production, MP Productions, 2004.

Unit 669

IAF paramedics train to provide medical care in mid-air

The IDF will help those in need, even on the other side of the globe