In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Israel Defense Forces encountered a significantly tougher enemy in Hezbollah than it had faced in its skirmishes with Palestinian terrorists armed with guns and improvised explosives.
Over the course of the 34-day war, 121 Israeli soldiers fell to the Shiite terrorist group’s anti-tank missiles, mines, rockets, and machine gun fire.
Some 44 Israeli civilians were also killed during the course of the conflict from the near-constant barrage of missiles that rained down on northern cities. In Lebanon, nearly 1,200 people died, though the civilian-to-combatant ratio remains highly contested. Israel says that more than half — between 600 and 800 — of those killed were combatants, while Hezbollah claims just 250 fighters died in the war.
The conflict began on July 12, 2006, when two Israeli soldiers — Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser — were kidnapped by Hezbollah gunmen near Zar’it along the northern border and smuggled back to Lebanon.
In response to the border crossing attack, which left three dead in addition to the two kidnapped, the IDF launched a failed rescue attempt, which turned into a limited operation, which became what is now known as the Second Lebanon War.
Veterans of the conflict have described the intensity of the fighting as almost cinematic, a Hollywood movie version of war.
Some 30,000 IDF soldiers took part in the fighting, and of those tens of thousands, 145 earned medals of honor or citations from their commanders for bravery.
A decade after the start of the war, The Times of Israel spoke with three of those distinguished veterans — Maj. Ariel Barbi, Staff Sgt. (res.) Steven Wailand and Maj. Dani — about how they kept their cool under fire, pushed themselves to the physical limit, and what it means to be a bona fide war hero.
Maj. Ariel Barbi
Today, Maj. Barbi serves as the deputy commander of the Paratrooper Brigade’s 202nd Battalion, responsible for hundreds of soldiers. He lives in Karkur, on the northern Israeli coast, with his wife and two daughters. But 10 years ago he was a staff sergeant who wanted to be an officer.
A few weeks before the war, Barbi was pulled out of his regular unit in order to enter a preparatory program for the army’s intensive officer’s training course.
But with the outbreak of the conflict, he was brought back to the paratroopers and made the radioman for a company commander in the brigade’s 101st Battalion.
Soon after he joined the 101st Battalion, Barbi’s company was called to the village of At-Tiri in southern Lebanon, from which rockets were being launched at southern Israel.
They set out at night, but along the way encountered a group of armed enemy fighters. “We lost our paramedic, Philip Mosko, may his memory be blessed, in a direct hit from a missile that was fired at his armored personnel carrier,” Barbi said.
The group fought off the Hezbollah fighters and reached At-Tiri at dawn, taking cover in a house in the village for a few hours.
From that vantage point, a member of Barbi’s unit saw a Katyusha rocket being launched toward Israel in an open field, just outside of the village. It was the middle of the day, meaning the unit would be clearly visible and exposed if they sought to act right away, but the soldiers made their way through the village towards the launch site in order to attack and destroy it with nightfall, Barbi said.
“Traveling in the light of day in Lebanon was dangerous, but there was a real threat to the State of Israel so you take that risk,” he said.
‘The clearest advantage that I had was that I had a radio so I could be in touch with the outside world’
As his unit approached the launch site, the soldiers came under heavy machine gun fire. During the exchange, his commander Arik was hit in the leg. Barbi fired back at the house the shots were coming from, but became separated from the rest of his unit.
“I crawled to cover and stayed there. The clearest advantage that I had was that I had a radio so I could be in touch with the outside world,” he said.
‘I told him that I was fine. I wasn’t fine, but I told him that I was. At the end of the day, “Okay” is a relative term’
During the ensuing firefight, Barbi updated his battalion commander about what was going on, telling him he didn’t need to be rescued, that he would rescue himself and that the commander should put his efforts into getting the rest of the soldiers of his unit out of a house where they had taken cover.
“I told him that I was fine. I wasn’t fine, but I told him that I was. At the end of the day, ‘Okay’ is a relative term,” he said.
“I was stuck there for 20-25 minutes but it was like forever. The time just didn’t move there. They were just shooting at me, shooting at me. Shooting at me with anti-tank missiles, with machine guns,” he said.
In the end, the plan was for him to run to a house in the village, where other members of the unit had taken shelter.
“But the moment I was going to stand up, an anti-tank missile was fired directly at me, hitting about three to five feet away,” Barbi said. “People who believe in God say it was a miracle that I wasn’t hit by shrapnel. I do believe, so I say it was a miracle I didn’t get hit.”
‘You just accept that you’re going to be hit. You hope that it will be in the leg or something, not somewhere essential’
Eventually, the 20-year-old staff sergeant got up and started running towards the house, shocking the Hezbollah fighters who redoubled their efforts after realizing they hadn’t succeeded in killing him.
“As you’re running, going from sheltered spot to sheltered spot, you just accept that you’re going to be hit. You hope that it will be in the leg or something, not somewhere essential,” he said.
Somehow he made it to the rest of his unit unharmed. But the fighting wasn’t over, there was no “cut” like in a movie, he said.
His unit battled in At Tiri for nearly six hours straight, from the early afternoon to sundown. “It’s important for me to say that there was no contact with terrorists that didn’t end with us firing the last bullet,” he said.
Barbi continued fighting throughout the rest of the war, and when it was over, made his way back to the preparatory program and then officer’s training course.
As an officer, he later served as the commander of a platoon and then a company in the 101st Battalion, fighting in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead and 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.
But that firefight in the Second Lebanon War tested his mettle and showed him he was a real warrior, Barbi said.
“It’s a question of your will to live. It’s about fight or flight,” he said. “Until you experience it, you won’t know how you’ll react.”
After the war, Barbi was awarded a citation from the commander of the 98th Paratroopers Division for maintaining “a cool head and professionalism” under fire and for “making correct choices and demanding to be evacuated last.”
Staff Sgt. (res.) Steven Wailand
Staff Sgt. Steven Wailand né Friedland was born in Houston, Texas, but at the age of ten, he and his family made the move to Jerusalem.
After high school, he joined the army and entered a 13-month paramedic training course. In 2006, he was responsible for the 401st Armored Brigade’s medical training, but towards the middle of the war his expertise as a paramedic was needed by the brigade’s reconnaissance company.
He was partnered with Staff Sgt. Itay Steinberger, who acted as both his “liaison” to the unit and was also responsible for protecting him, Wailand said.
Initially the reconnaissance company carried out some shorter missions, entering Lebanon for “24 to 48 hours” before coming back out, but about two weeks before the war ended, his unit was called in to carry out “the big mission” — Operation Change of Direction 11, the IDF’s disastrous final push of the war.
As they entered Lebanon, the gravity of the situation — coupled with dehydration — hit Wailand.
“About seven kilometers in, I threw up. My commander came over to me and said, ‘OK, when we get to the rendezvous point, we’ll be able to replace you,'” Wailand said.
“We never actually made it to the rendezvous point.”
But Wailand rebounded and his unit approached the Saluki Valley, where it would meet up with a column of 24 tanks from the 401st Brigade. Before they made it, however, Wailand received word that a group of soldiers had been ambushed and needed his help.
“We set up an area to treat the wounded. There was one kid” — Sgt. Maj. Aharon Yehezkel — “who was dead on arrival and had no chance, but everyone else we were able to get on the choppers and get them out of Lebanon,” Wailand said.
His team finished treating patients just before dawn, and Wailand propped himself up against his 66 lb. (30 kg) bag of supplies for a few hours of sleep.
“At 8:30 a.m., my partner Itay started shaking me. He said, ‘We’ve got injured. We’ve got injured. We need you,'” Wailand said.
With a heavy bag on his back and facing a steep incline, Wailand made his way up a mountain with Steinberger’s help to where a group of soldiers had been hit by a missile.
As he was hunched over his bag, retrieving the supplies needed to treat the wounded soldiers, he heard an officer yell, “Get down! Get down!”
Wailand dropped down on one knee, as his partner Steinberger, a budding photographer and poet, stood over him.
“The next thing I heard was a whistle, and I saw Itay get hit by something — the missile — and fall. I started checking Itay and saw that he had a very, very weak pulse and had lost a lot of blood,” Wailand said.
“My commander said if we didn’t get out of there right now, we were all going to die. I told them to put him on the stretcher, but by the time we did, he had already passed,” he said.
“Itay basically saved my life.”
That personal loss was just the prelude to “hell on earth,” Wailand said. “It was one of the worst days of my life.”
The column of tanks that Wailand’s unit was supposed to meet up with had to make its way through the Saluki Valley, where they were easy prey for Hezbollah Kornet anti-tank missiles.
Beginning at 2:00 a.m. on August 12, 2006, Wailand worked with two doctors and a small team of medics for nearly 24 hours straight — “not eating, not drinking, not sleeping” — to treat 60 wounded soldiers, conducting five field surgeries.
“My friend had died in my arms, and I had to keep treating (the wounded),” he said.
Once he got into the “swing of things” he was able to function on “autopilot,” Wailand said, not allowing himself to think too deeply about the situation around him.
At their improvised treatment center, five people, including Itay, were pronounced dead on arrival, but the remaining wounded were saved, he said. In total, 12 people died in the Battle of Wadi Saluki, as the skirmish became known.
‘I crossed the border and I got out of there, as quickly as I could’
Soon after that battle, Israel and Hezbollah declared a ceasefire. Wailand’s unit remained in Lebanon for two days after the armistice was put in place before they made their way back to Israel.
“It was about a 14 kilometer hike back to the border. We got there in the morning, and I said Shehechiyanu” — a Jewish prayer of thanks — “as I crossed the border, and I got out of there, as quickly as I could,” Wailand said.
After the war, he completed his degree in emergency medicine, but opted to leave the medical field for the high tech industry, where he works today.
Wailand, now 31 years old, lives in Zichron Yaakov with his wife and three-month-old daughter. “Life’s pretty good,” he said.
But the transition back from the war has not been entirely easy for Wailand, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m happy to say that I’m in treatment. I talk a lot about my story, and it’s not something that I’m trying to hide. Until today, I still go to therapy, and it’s very helpful,” he said.
“A song on the radio, a fighter jet, those will trigger something, or if someone says something and it sounds like something that Itay would have said,” he said. “It’s an emotional scar, inside. If you run your finger over a scar, you think about how you got it. That’s what those triggers are.”
After the war, Wailand was awarded a citation from the head of the IDF’s Central Command for “determination, professionalism and saving numerous soldiers while endangering his own life.”
In the Second Lebanon War, Maj. Dani, 42, served as a mechanic on board an Israeli Air Force Blackhawk helicopter, part of the elite Unit 669 search and rescue unit. (For security reasons, Dani can only be referred to by his first name.)
His unit operated throughout the war, but not always in Lebanon. In the morning, Dani and a team of paramedics, pilots and fighters could respond to a terrible car accident in the West Bank, while in the evening they could fly into Lebanon to evacuate wounded soldiers.
On July 26, 2006, Dani and his team were on call. Three days earlier, the army had launched the Battle of Bint Jbeil, a full-scale attack on a Lebanese town that had become a stronghold for Hezbollah.
Thousands of IDF soldiers took part in the fighting, but they were met by stiff resistance from Hezbollah terrorists armed with anti-tank missiles, machine guns and grenades. Both Israel’s initial attempt at conquering the city in July and its follow-up mission to take it over in August failed. Hezbollah retained control of the stronghold throughout the war.
In the midst of the July operation, several Golani Brigade soldiers were wounded and needed to reach a hospital. So at approximately 4:00 a.m., Dani’s team received a call.
His crew and another one took off from the Tel Nof Air Base, near Rehovot, in Blackhawk helicopters. They were later joined by two more helicopters when they reached northern Israel, Dani said.
For over six hours the teams waited on the border for the all-clear from ground forces to go into Lebanon and rescue the wounded soldiers. The helicopters hopped around the area, staying in the air for as long as possible to more quickly reach the injured, Dani said.
“They told us that there was a sizeable chance we were going to be shot down,” he said.
After a number of false starts, at 11:30 a.m., Dani’s team was given the go-ahead by air force ground control to cross the border and rescue the injured troops.
In total, more than 20 soldiers needed to be extracted from Bint Jbeil, but the constant fighting there prevented all four helicopters from reaching them. “In the end, they told us that either we go in alone and rescue five that were there or we wait and again have things heat up and postpone the rescue. We decided that one helicopter would go in — ours — and pick up the wounded that were available,” he said.
“At that point we were in touch with the forces on the ground to direct us. We crossed the border, flying very low with our window open and a machine gun ready,” Dani said.
From above the fighting, he said, the helicopter crew could see “tanks that no longer have their turret, the kinds of things that you normally only see on television or in movies.”
The area was covered in smoke, making it difficult for the crew to find their landing site. In the air and in broad daylight, the helicopter was exposed to the very real threat of a Hezbollah strike. Later in the war, a transport helicopter would be shot down in just such an attack.
After a brief scramble, they landed at the proper site and began the process of loading the five injured soldiers into the helicopter.
“Were they shooting at us? Were they not shooting at us? The only way I’d know if they were shooting at us, is if I got hit. You’re too full of adrenaline, too busy worrying about the status of the soldiers and distracted by the noise of the helicopter to know if they’re shooting,” he said.
Hezbollah had, in fact, been firing at Dani’s helicopter during the rescue operation, he later learned.
Unknowingly under fire, the helicopter took off from the field outside of Bint Jbeil, in the direction of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, where a team of doctors waited to meet them. More helicopters followed Dani’s lead, extracting the remaining soldiers from Bint Jbeil and delivering them to Israeli hospitals for treatment.
Two or three hours later, Dani and his crew were called to another incident, and then to another and another.
Initially, he said, the rescue mission in Bint Jbeil did not strike him as particularly noteworthy. But in the day or two following the operation, after debriefings and hearing news reports about the fighting, it dawned on Dani that he had done something special.
“You start to realize the size of the event. At first I didn’t think I was doing something that would earn me a citation,” he said.
He would cross the border into Lebanon four more times before the end of the war.
Dani still serves as a technician in the Israeli Air Force. In the decade since the conflict, he rose in rank from captain to his current position of major. He lives with his wife and three children in the Krayot, a cluster of towns just outside of Haifa in northern Israel.
After the war, Dani was awarded a citation from the commander of the Israeli Air Force for “sticking to his mission, setting a personal example and showing responsibility and professionalism.”