Dr. Itzhak Brook was accustomed to interrupted sleep. Living then with his wife and two children in Rehovot, Israel, he learned how to sleep fast and deeply even withstanding the noise from outside traffic or the sounds of aircraft flying overhead.
He never knew when the phone would ring from the Kaplan Hospital pediatric ward needing his emergency help. But the pediatrician remembers that the sounds coming from Israel’s air power and the Tel-Nof Air Base, just south of Rehovot, during the early morning hours of Oct. 6, 1973, was not occasional. The thundering noise of the Israeli Air Force penetrated this doctor’s deep sleep. It came in continuous waves. Something, he sensed, was wrong.
Just hours later, he was jostled out of bed by his wife. Brook was to report immediately to his battalion’s staging area. He was a physician and lieutenant in the reserves. His battalion provided medical care and supplies to Israel’s 162nd Armored Division, also known as the “Steel Formation.”
Brook was familiar with the awful of war. He served as a nurse at Hadassah Hospital just six years earlier during the 1967 Six-Day War. He was finishing off his medical school education when that war started.
In his book, In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War, Brook, a Washington, D.C., resident, and a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown Hospital, intricately explains the almost desperate straits the Israeli Defense Forces faced on fronts opposing Egypt in the south and Syria to the north. Brook talked about how the country was caught unprepared, of all days on Yom Kippur, finding itself under attack. But Brook also writes of how the United States probably saved the very existence of the Jewish State as it supplied jets, tanks, ammunition and other essential tools of war.
Speaking almost 40 years to the very day of the surprise attack, Brook recalls the experiences only a soldier who has seen the results of combat can discuss. Yom Kippur is the most holy day on the Hebrew calendar. But for many surviving veterans, said Brook, Israel’s very existence became inextricably tied to the Yom Kippur symbolism of the Book of Life.
“I remember that I was so tired from being on-call for the hospital,” Brook, who was 26 when the war started, said. “I heard the noise of the jets in my sleep. When the call came, I think I was prepared for that call all of my life.”
When the jets would fly out of range, the only sounds heard on the otherwise silent streets were the Yom Kippur prayers coming from nearby synagogues. He had hugged and kissed his wife and two small children not knowing when he’d see them again. Of all the feelings he was feeling, he thought, “I better come back alive.” Early in the war, he said the attitude was different than in 1967. “I had to make sure my medical unit survived.” There would be no talk of quick, miraculous victories this time around. The war would end on Oct. 25. Israel would suffer over 3,000 fatalities. He and his four medics provided care to a battalion of 700 soldiers. These were largely the forces that under enemy fire would bring fuel to the frontline tanks and troop-carrying trucks. The battalion would move into the forward positions to refuel tanks and replenish ammunition. Food, drinking water and other supplies came from the battalion. When a driver of a tanker truck headed to the front, he was possibly more vulnerable than the very tanks he was supplying.
Brook and his medics operated out of a van equipped with medical supplies it would need as his battalion headed south to meet the Egyptian attack. By the war’s end, Brook’s comrades had not only defended Israel but pressed the attack just miles from the Suez Canal. As a physician, Brook said perhaps the newest condition of his patients was the psychological wounds of battle.
“We were caring for wounds,” he said, “but we just weren’t expecting the level of anxiety among many of the soldiers.”
In his book, Brook, 72, writes about one particular driver who quite literally asked for valium to help face the dangers of the battlefront.
Even though he was a doctor and was caring for his patients, Brook always carried his Uzi submachine gun and extra magazines of bullets. He said that in Israeli society it was unusual for a soldier to admit fear, going against the macho image. But he admitted that he would have been lying if he said he wasn’t afraid at times.
“In Israel’s macho society, the word `fear’ does not exist,” he said. “But I told my patients that it was OK to be afraid. But we could be afraid and still do our jobs. I told them that the Egyptians were afraid to. I would tell them that the side who is going to win is the side who does its job better than the other side. Our soldiers’ mission was to do their jobs even if they were afraid.”
Brook’s description of what a war looks like from the standpoint of a physician was both unique and scary. There was always fear that the enemy would strike. Egyptian commandos would target Israeli supply lines as would Egypt’s MIG jets. Enemy commandos also effectively used shoulder-held missiles to destroy or disable Israeli tanks.
There was something, however, “not right,” about this war said Brook.
“Even though the signs of an imminent attack were noted by Israeli intelligence, the Israeli government decided to ignore them for political and strategic reasons,” he said. “Consequently the country’s borders were very sparsely defended, creating a dangerous void on the front. We were outnumbered by a ratio of more than 100 to one in manpower and 10 to one in artillery.”
It took the IDF two days to get its forces on the battle line. He said it was the air force that held the line against the Egyptians and Syrians in the early hours of the war.
Brook described the war as a “wake-up call” for Israel. The IDF, he said, was dangerously low on ammunition, jets and tanks. “[President Richard M.] Nixon came through.” The Israelis saw U.S. jets with a Star of David painted over the U.S. stars and stripes emblem. Even rations came in boxes with an American flag painted on the box.
When the war came to a close, Brook returned to his home. But that was only for a relatively short time as he was accepted for a medical fellowship in America. He served the medical corps of the U.S. Navy for 27 years before retiring. But when he thinks each year at this time of Yom Kippur, he says, “We almost lost Israel.”
“I hate wars,” he continued. “There is no glory in war. It was the worst experience of my life. You are in battle to survive and defend yourself. Israel always needs to be able to be ready to defend itself.”
Brook, was himself wounded, taking a leg wound and breaking a bone near his left eye. He would be removed from the front and brought back to Israel, learning of a cease-fire while in the hospital.
Brook spoke in a whisper for the entire interview. There was another, personal battle he had to win, the diagnosis of throat cancer that resulted in the removal of his voice box. He has a prosthesis for his larynx which re-routes the air in this throat so that he can talk clearly even though it sounds almost like a whisper.
Forty years ago, the “shofar” that would deeply influence his life was the unsettling sound of Israeli warplanes faced with a surprise attack. When he hears the shofar or fasts or listens to a sermon at Adas Israel Congregation, his mind goes back to what was supposed to be a prayer-filled Day of Atonement. Only the shofar blasts of this holy day have a chance to drown out at least temporarily from his memory the sounds of war.
“For Jews who lived through the Yom Kippur War, the holiest of the High Holidays will never be the same,” he said. “For us, it stands out not only as a Day of Atonement but as a day of gratitude to God for the miracle of survival.”
“It is also a time,” he continued, “for remembering those who paid the ultimate price for preserving and protecting Israel, and will always commemorate a renewed commitment to prevent Israel from ever experiencing such a peril in the future.”
In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War can be purchased at local book stores or on Amazon.com and [email protected].