Izzy Ezagui had just finished his initial military training in the Israel Defense Forces when Operation Cast Lead broke out in December 2008. A few weeks later, while guarding the border between Israel and Gaza, Ezagui absorbed a direct mortar hit, which ripped his left — and dominant — arm from his body. He was rushed to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, where he underwent emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and close his gaping wound.

For most young men, that would have been the end of their combat careers, if not their military service altogether. But for Ezagui, it was just the beginning.

In fact, his life-altering injury turned him into more of a fighter than he had ever been. Defying doctors’ orders and slashing through military red tape, Ezagui has become, as far as he is aware, the only IDF soldier with this specific disability to return to full combat duty.

Speaking to the Times of Israel from his home in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, Ezagui, now 24, insisted that he is just “an average Joe.” But once he begins to tell his story, it becomes clear that his fortitude and determination are far from ordinary.

In August 2007, Ezagui moved to Israel with his family from Miami, where he had grown up in the Chabad community after his parents became religious, about the time Ezagui turned 8. While his mother, father and three younger sisters did not become Israeli citizens right away (they are now), Ezagui made aliya upon arrival, and immediately enlisted in the army.

Six months after his injury, Ezagui unilaterally announced that he was taking himself off medication for phantom-limb pain

The idea that he would join the IDF began percolating when he visited the country on a Birthright Israel trip in December 2006, and had the opportunity to meet some soldiers. “It felt like the right thing to do,” he recalled. “As a young Jewish person growing up in the States, you learn Jewish history . . . and, honestly, I look at it as a privilege to do something for the Jewish people.”

He admits he wasn’t fully contemplating the risks. “’Naïve’ is not even the word for how I was,” he said. “I was stupid. I was an 18-year-old kid… I didn’t really think much about it, and I was definitely not scared. I didn’t overthink it.”

Nevertheless, Ezagui’s family was supportive.

“My parents are very special in that sense,” he said. “They stand behind their children and support them even when their ideas seem crazy. They knew I was doing it for the right reason, and they knew it was important to me.”

He jokingly blames his family for depriving him of official “lone soldier” status by being with him in Israel. But he goes on to discuss how important it was to have them close by when he went into the army — and later, when he re-enlisted.

Ezagui has a history of bucking convention. After high school and before making aliya, he moved to New York to work, rather than to attend university or yeshiva. Later, he talked his way out of an army ulpan, or intensive language course, despite being unable to speak Hebrew.

Consequently, it wasn’t entirely surprising when, six months after his injury, he unilaterally announced that he was taking himself off heavy, mind-numbing doses of medication for phantom-limb pain. “If it was up to the doctors, I would still be on those drugs. But I decided from day one I wanted to go back to the army, and back to combat,” he said.

To return to combat duty, Ezagui taught himself to shoot, climb rope and even do pushups with just one arm. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Izzy Ezagui)

To return to combat duty, Ezagui taught himself to shoot, climb rope and even do pushups with just one arm. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Izzy Ezagui)

The decision, he went on, was as much about proving himself and seeking closure as about serving his country.

He still has pain, but insists he would rather suffer than “be blanked out and not myself all the time.”

Being medication-free, however, was not an automatic ticket back into the army. “Not only did the army not want me back, but they told me I couldn’t come back,” he said. “They were very tough on me, and didn’t want any part in my crazy dream.”

Crucially, however, Ezagui had Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant on his side. The pair met when Galant, then the head of Israel’s Southern Command, came to visit Ezagui and other wounded soldiers in rehab. “The first thing I told him was that I wanted to go back to the army and to combat,” Ezagui recalled. “It was the same thing I told all the generals and politicians who came to visit, but he was the only one who said OK.”

The young infantry corporal stayed in touch with the general during the following six-month period, during which he continued his rehabilitation on his own in New York. When Ezagui felt he was getting into satisfactory shape, he informed Galant, who started paving the way for his return to the IDF.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90/File)

Matt Melendez, a US Army sniper, can attest to how hard Ezagui worked to prepare for that return. A personal trainer at the time, Melendez met Ezagui when he joined a sports club in Manhattan. The two worked out together for several months, and became friends. “I was shocked that Izzy was telling me he was going to re-enlist,” Melendez said. “An injury like his in the US Army would be a career-ender.”

Melendez, 22, recalled his new friend’s high motivation and positive outlook while on a recent tour in Afghanistan. “He never doubted and always gave 110 percent,” Melendez said. “He’s given me a different outlook on life, and is an inspiration to me.”

By mid-2010, a year and a half after his arm was blown off, Ezagui was back in the IDF — this time in the Givati Brigade. After retraining, he went on to serve in Hebron, and later progressed to command school.

‘It was obviously tough because I wasn’t only switching over to using my non-dominant hand, but also because I had only one hand to use’

But first, he had to pass all the tests required of combat soldiers, including shooting, reloading guns, unjamming rifles, throwing grenades, charging hills, climbing ropes and even doing pushups. By himself, Ezagui figured out how to do all of these things.

“It was obviously tough because I wasn’t only switching over to using my non-dominant hand, but also because I had only one hand to use,” he said.

Ari Orzach, a 21-year-old soldier who served under Ezagui, recalls questions that circulated before Ezagui arrived on base.

“How can he tie his boots? How can he shoot a gun?” the soldiers wondered. “But once we met him,” Orzach said, “our first impression was that he was self-confident and really knew what he was doing. He clearly had to rethink how to do everything, and that wasn’t easy. But he always had a smile on his face, and lots of energy.”

Ezagui inspired both his American friend and his soldiers, and now that he has been discharged (with the rank of first sergeant) and returned to civilian life, he’s focused on doing the same for others. He gives motivational speeches for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and other organizations. In addition, he spends time with young people on Birthright Israel trips, just as soldiers did with him on his fateful trip. He is also writing a memoir, with the aim of demonstrating the potential for anyone to overcome challenges.

Ezagui is no longer religiously observant, but claims that this is not a direct result of losing his arm. He says he feels lucky to be alive, and is proud to have succeeded in his quest. “Why me?” he said, is not a question he asks.