Israeli veteran seeks help at Walter Reed

Itamar Gat says Walter Reed National Military Center holds his best chance for treatment. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Itamar Gat says Walter Reed National Military Center holds his best chance for treatment.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

All Itamar Gat really wants to do is run around with his seven young children. But he was so badly wounded while fighting with the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon in 1995 that this simple goal continues to elude him.

An anti-tank missile landed two feet from him, sending shrapnel into much of his body, causing his right leg to be amputated at the upper part of his thigh and creating a hole in one hand. His left side was paralyzed, and he suffered burns and cuts all over his chest and face. He was unconscious for two weeks and spent months in a hospital and then a rehabilitation center.

Nineteen years after the incident, the soft-spoken man refuses to stop pushing himself. About two years ago, Gat moved to Silver Spring so that doctors at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore could help him grow new tissue. Meanwhile, they inserted metal screws in his bone that must be turned regularly, with the goal of lengthening the bone at the stump that is his right leg.

Because so much of the 41-year-old man’s leg had to be amputated, he has never been a candidate for a prosthesis. Gat has been told his mere 3.5-inch stump was not big enough to hold an artificial leg, but his doctor in Baltimore now believes Gat has a chance and that his next stop on his medical journey should be Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

His new problem is getting in there. The Army hospital is designed to help those who serve in the United States military service, not the Israeli army. Gat wrote to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer for help. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-Md.) staff also looked into the matter.

Gat’s two-page letter to Dermer in February outlined his medical history and stated, “I have been told that Walter Reed/Bethesda, the U.S. military hospital is the best place for such success.”

Dermer responded, promising to “do the best he can. I know I am not the high priority for him. I understand that,” Gat said.

Dermer said the embassy’s defense military attache is looking into the matter. The military hospital doesn’t want foreign troops there, Dermer explained, adding, “We are trying to break precedent.”

According to a spokesperson for Van Hollen and Cardin, the policy for treating those not affiliated with the American military is set by the office of the Secretary of Defense. It would require approval from either the secretary himself, the deputy secretary or the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Gat also can be admitted if someone from the Israeli government is successful in an appeal to the Department of Defense.

Meanwhile, Gat continues to try and overcome his ordeal which began about five hours before Passover was to begin in 1995, and less than six months before Gat’s required service in the IDF was finished. He was fighting in southern Lebanon.

“We were in the middle of an operation to find Hezbollah terrorists,” he recalled while sitting at his dining room table. He was “behind the red line. You go. The special forces go and do whatever they need to do.”

Then, “a very big missile. It’s a missile that explodes a tank” exploded about two feet away. “I was thrown and hit my head,” he said, touching a spot at the end of his kippah.

With so much fighting going on, a helicopter was unable to land and take him to a hospital. Instead, “my friends in the team, they needed to carry me over on a stretcher” to a nearby tank which transported him to a base in southern Lebanon where a helicopter finally could get him to a hospital in Haifa.

“That took a long time. I remember just a little bit,” he said. “They told me it was one of the most dangerous evacuations they ever did.”

Today, Gat gets around with metal crutches tucked around his arms, but tires easily. Much of his paralysis is gone, but he still experiences weakness in his left leg, making the fact that he has no right leg even more difficult.

With the same strength Gat uses to get around, he now is determined to be admitted to Walter Reed. When asked why he doesn’t go another medical facility that deals with amputees, Gat explains that he has been told Walter Reed holds his best chance.

He understands that it’s an American military facility, but notes that “there is such good cooperation between the two armies in intelligence, in working together, in sharing information so I thought they would help.”

“I’ve been trying to stand on my legs for 19 years. I think I tried it all, whatever I can do to stand, walk, to do everything,” he said, his mind drifting back to the days before his injury. “I was one of the best runners in my unit. I love to run. When I was a teenager I ran on the beach.”

Now, for his wife and seven children — the oldest is 10 years old and the youngest are 8-month-old twins — “I want to be a parent with two legs.”

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