(Leer en español) A few weeks ago, I was with a friend and my brother wandering around a kibbutz somewhere in Israel, and you know how some people know someone that knows someone? Well my friend knew someone that I am really glad I got to meet. It is not a secret that I have a little obsession with Israeli soldiers, it started like 6 years ago, I admire them, and I feel protected around them.
The Unit 669 (יחידת החילוץ והפינוי בהיטס 669,Yechidat HaHilu’tz VeHaPinu’i Behethes 669) is one of the most elite units in the IDF, they specialize in search and rescue and as you will be reading in the following lines, their job is no joke. They have many expertise, they are pretty much everywhere, water, air, in combat, or as medics, evacuations, rescues, they can do civil cases that sometimes are very complicated and require army intervention.
They have treated and dealt with cases involving Palestinians and Israelis. They have also helped evacuate Syrian refugees, part of their job is humanitarian aid. Whether there is a war or not, their main goal is airborne rescue and evacuation from heavy circumstances, which makes them experts in saving lives anywhere.
For the purpose of not feeling like I am talking about a ghost but also to protect his identity, I am going to refer to this soldier as Lion, because after you finish reading this, you will for sure think he and everyone who has belonged to this unit are lions.
Getting into the 669
If the idea of joining the army seems hard, being part of this unit is on a whole other level since it is considered one of the hardest units to work with, only 50ish people per year make it. When Lion was in 12th grade, he began the process to know which unit he would be drafted to. “There is a lot of pressure to know what you will be doing for at least 3 years, and as a guy you want to be a big combat soldier, you want to get into serious stuff like the special units”.
First phase – a big test consisting of basic stuff such as an interview and medical and physical tests. If you wear glasses you won’t make it to be a pilot. If you are smart enough they will want you in intelligence. You want to do well; everyone does. If you do well enough and you are physically capable you get a high physical number that can go up to 97. Lion knew he wanted to do well.
Second phase – Lion started in the air force course but since that didn’t go well he decided to do tryouts for the special units. “It is very tough, just physical, running, rolling in the mud, just like in the movies”, after that day many soldiers drop out with the conclusion that this unit is too tough for them.
Third phase – if you are already sweating by the second phase (I am pretty much breathless), get ready because this phase is pretty similar to the previous one, except that it lasts 5 days. They wake you up with an alarm and you start running, you are the bottom of the army chain. They will try to break you down, but if you are highly motivated, they won’t be able to.
Despite the important and demanding physical difficulty, that’s not the only characteristic a 669-unit soldier must possess, they also need those good qualities that make people like them, such as having a good smile and being approachable in times of need.
Fourth phase – even though you are not expected to be Michael Phelps, the last part before the official drafting is swimming day. They need to see that you will not drown, that you know how to swim, whether in a pool or in the ocean. People will be shouting at you, pressuring you, just like in the other phases. This day will end with another interview, “if you pass and if all went well, then you just wait for the drafting day”. Our dear Lion also did a year of community service program, isn’t he adorable?
Last phase – the last but most exciting part is when you are finally drafted, during those 3 years, half of it will consist on a permanent hard training very similar to the try outs. The main point is that you can master the pressure and the knowledge necessary to be in the field.
During his training, Lion was summoned for tons of made up situations, he was sleeping and would be awaken by a drill and would have to drive/fly somewhere and do a whole exercise with his teammates, as good as the scenarios where recreated, reality is different, “is a big shock and you don’t have time to panic”. There are missions all the time, big and little ones, sometimes they end bad, others you succeed.
A state of mind
Of course, I wanted the detail version of every case he has been involved in, I am fascinated about what he and his unit did, but I will only tell you one of the few stories he shared with me.
A little airplane had crashed in a lake, the passengers were drowning and were entangled in some sort of parachute that was connected to the little airplane and was pulling them down. “there was a lot of pressure, they were drowning, exhausted and panicking”, you have to be quick and get them out immediately, the system of ropes was not helping much. They survived. After this experience – and many similar ones – Lion realised that “nothing in the book prepares you for this”
All the stuff a unit 669 soldier learns is very handy after their service is over, many companies need that knowledge about rescue, they look for that type of experience. It is not only the experience, says Lion, it is a state of mind. Even when he is off duty, that innate rescue instinct can’t be turned off.
If you ask me, I would never join the Peruvian army, no matter how much I love my land, I would not (although I would consider joining the navy – just because my dad did it), so I had to ask him what does it mean to be a soldier in Israel, how did it make him feel, his words were more than powerful and they explained how Israel in only 70 years of existence is far better positioned than older countries:
“There is no option. I wouldn’t imagine doing something else. We are lucky to have the army, being Israeli is being in the army. It’s part of our identity”