You have to be able to go from zero to 100 in a split second

Veterans of IDF search and rescue unit take battle of saving lives to the street

Alum of Israel’s elite Unit 669 unit heed the call to serve and train civilians around the world to take practical, immediate steps in emergency situations

  • Unit 669 simulates a rescue operation, January, 2010 (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
    Unit 669 simulates a rescue operation, January, 2010 (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
  • View of IDF drill display of an attack and a rescue operation by the 669 Unit, in Gush Etzion, on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash 90)
    View of IDF drill display of an attack and a rescue operation by the 669 Unit, in Gush Etzion, on Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash 90)
  • IDF special rescue Unit 669 rescue a 10 year old boy after he fell during a trip in Nahal Dragot near Jerusalem and flew him to Haddassah hospital, April 13, 2012. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)
    IDF special rescue Unit 669 rescue a 10 year old boy after he fell during a trip in Nahal Dragot near Jerusalem and flew him to Haddassah hospital, April 13, 2012. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)
  • A demonstration on Israel's Independence Day on the Tel Aviv beach. IAF airborne search and rescue Unit 669 performing a rescue from the sea. May 08 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
    A demonstration on Israel's Independence Day on the Tel Aviv beach. IAF airborne search and rescue Unit 669 performing a rescue from the sea. May 08 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Bar Reuven was in the subway in Brooklyn when he saw someone collapse on the platform. The 29-year-old Israeli moved instantly toward the trouble. He knelt beside the young woman, made sure she could breathe, and performed a quick medical check. He shouted to a bystander to call 911, but was surprised to see most people eager to walk — or run — away.

“After the medics came and took her to the hospital, I got back on the train, and people clapped for me,” Reuven said, shaking his head. “Like I was a hero. But all I did was respond. And I realized how many people are afraid to help because they don’t know what to do.”

Reuven knew what to do because he happens to be a former team leader of one of Israel’s most elite forces, Unit 669, the Combat Search and Rescue Special Operations group of the Israeli Air Force, where he spent five years.

Because the unit’s primary responsibility is the rescue of Israeli pilots behind enemy lines, every operator is not only a warrior, but also a combat medic. The soldiers of 669 are trained within an inch of their lives to fight their way toward the most valuable of prizes: a downed pilot and his or her plane. They may also have to fight their way out — all while administering medical care.

Compared with these rescues, helping the woman on the subway platform hardly caused Reuven to break a sweat. But it confirmed for him the importance of his new mission.

“My teammates and I have years of experience saving lives,” he says. “Once we leave the military, that experience is not fully utilized. How can we pay it forward and teach other people how to save lives too?”

The need is clear. Statistics show that in the United States alone, every year 350,000 cardiac arrests take place outside of a hospital. Only 10 percent of those affected will survive. If CPR is administered, however, rates improve by a factor of three. Every minute that passes without intervention reduces the victim’s chance of survival by 10%. And only one in six Americans know that the recommended technique for bystander CPR is chest compression alone.

With terror, gun attacks, and violent hate crime on the rise, everyone is well-served to learn from their expert Israeli brothers how to run toward those in need — and have the skills to know what to do once they get there.

To that end, four years ago Reuven created the Israel-based 669 Alumni Association, dedicated to mobilizing 669 veterans to teach civilians around the world the basics of life-saving first aid.

They have a “Heart Project,” in which they teach people how to treat heart attacks. They demonstrate CPR and how to use defibrillators. They even distribute the machines. Unit 669 alumni also teach standard first aid — how to top bleeding, apply tourniquets, make slings.

“Bleeding from the head, torso, and appendages can all be controlled with fingers, hands, and bandages,” Reuven says. Slings and tourniquets can be made from readily available materials.

Reuven has a built a board of former 669 doctors and jumpers, including Ephraim Sneh, a medical doctor, former 669 unit commander, retired brigadier general, and former Israeli Minister of Health.

Former deputy defense minister Efraim Sneh speaks at a conference in memory of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, on March 21, 2018. (Tamir Bergig)

He has rounded up corporate sponsors and donors, and he is discussing coordination with the UJA-Federation and various JCCs and synagogues. Through his network of 3,500 alumni, Reuven hopes to expand the group’s work in Israel and around the world.

Already, Reuven has reached more than 2,500 Israelis in bars, restaurants, and schools — “anyone who will listen.” He has given lectures in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Calgary and Vancouver. He runs a yearly medical conference on cutting-edge emergency medicine, and is also distributing a special first-aid kit modeled after the one carried by Unit 669 medics.

With more donations to the American Friends of Unit 669, the unit’s American non-profit, Reuven hopes to provide a kit to every Israeli family to store in their home and car. He would like to expand this effort to the US by engaging US veterans too.

“Let soldiers have the tools to save lives, which is as it should be,” says 25-year-old Sam Meyer, a 669 alum currently studying at Columbia University.

David Ben-Eli, a former doctor with 669, and now a division medical director for the New York Fire Department, says, “The 669 organization is just at the beginning of its life and there is a huge horizon for it to expand into. Just look at the dramatic improvement in cardiac survival rates in Washington, for example, after the state mandated the teaching of CPR in high schools.”

IDF special rescue Unit 669 rescue a 10 year old boy after he fell during a trip in Nahal Dragot near Jerusalem and flew him to Haddassah hospital, April 13, 2012. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

A flying cat lands on its feet

Reuven approaches his new mission with the zeal of an elite solder and the savvy of a seasoned entrepreneur. After finishing the army, he built a company, Mishlohof, that delivers fruit, drinks, towels, sunscreen, and more to beaches in Israel. (The Hebrew name is a combination of the words “deliveries” and “beach.”) He undercut the high prices of beachfront restaurants by renting spaces one block back, outfitting them with kitchens and storage areas, and delivering treats to his clients with electric bicycles and a native GPS application that is able to hone in to an area within two meters (6 feet) of the signal.

“It’s like the unit,” says Reuven. “You get a call, and you have to move out.”

Reuven developed operations in Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion, and Eilat, then sold the business a year ago. In July, he managed the annual startup competition for Tel Aviv University. Currently Reuven and his new bride Danna manage the mentoring program for alumni of the Merage Institute in Irvine, California — an effort by businessman Paul Merage to help Israeli entrepreneurs and startups break into the US market.

On a recent trip to New York, Reuven worked in the boardroom of a Midtown law office whose partners have helped him secure 501(c)3 status for American Friends of Unit 669 (AFU699).

A demonstration on Israel’s Independence Day on the Tel Aviv beach. IAF airborne search and rescue Unit 669 performing a rescue from the sea. May 08 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Every Israeli IDF unit has a logo, and the symbol for 669 is a feral cat with glowing green eyes. Members of the unit are referred to as cats or flying cats, “because cats are flexible animals, they have nine lives, and they always land on their feet,” Reuven explains.

At 6’ 2,” and lean like an 800-meter runner, Reuven doesn’t so much walk as glide. His exotic good looks betray his father’s roots in India and his mother’s in Libya. He has tanned skin, green eyes large as saucers, and lashes a girl might kill for.

This reporter can’t help herself: “You look like a cat.”

He smiles and lifts up his left arm, where, near his wrist, are tattooed two fluorescent green circles: the eyes of his unit’s cat logo. Unlike felis silvestris, however, 669 operators must undergo brutal training to assure they land on their feet in all circumstances.

Fellow 669 veteran Meyer graduated from high school in Toronto in 2011 and initially decided to volunteer for the IDF through the 14-month Machal program for Jewish youth who live overseas. He’s cheerful, with a muscular build, wild black hair and a beard.

At his induction, Meyer tried out for the paratroopers and made it. The testers asked him, “Why don’t you try out for an elite unit?” He had thought the paratroopers already were elite. He took more tests. He passed. Then they suggested he try out for a special unit. “How many units do you guys have?” he asked.

A soldier from Unit 669. (Courtesy)

“I saw these guys walking around wearing t-shirts with little cats on them, and they were real salt-of-the-earth guys. All Israelis. I wanted to be with them. But I thought there’s no way I can compete with these guys,” Meyer says. “After another week of testing, they told me that I got into 669. I looked it up when I got home, and finally realized what it did, and what it was.”

“More than anything,” he says, “it’s in your head. You find this gear you never knew you had.”

Through brutal tests and exercises, 10,000 applicants get whittled down to 50.

Meyer had to up his commitment to the IDF — the training alone in Unit 669 takes 22 months — after which the number of men finally selected for the unit (the rescue soldiers are all men, though women serve in the unit’s support teams) is 30.

Meyer would end up giving three-and-a-half years to the unit.

“We could be in the shower, or studying, or asleep,” says Meyer. “But when the siren goes off, you have to be ready and in the helicopter within 15 minutes. And you have to get your head focused and ready for the worst situation possible.

“You might be fighting in 10-foot waves in the ocean or in a crater somewhere trying to reach a soldier who fell down a cliff, or in the heat of battle in Gaza. You could be half-dressed and hearing on your walkie talkie that the rescue will be in the water, so you pack scuba gear. If on a mountain top, you bring ropes. You say ‘Oh, if it’s a rope rescue, there was a rope knot I had trouble with — let me review it while I pull on my pants.’ You have to be able to go from zero to 100 in a split second.

“In training,” Meyer says, “we never had watches on. We never knew what time it was. It didn’t matter. We just knew it had to be fast — as fast as possible.”

Unit 669 conducts rescue operations in a wide range of conditions. (Courtesy)

There are missions in which, through no fault of their own, they aren’t entirely successful. Ten Israeli youth were killed in April in a raging flash flood near the Dead Sea. The unit found 14 alive, but had the grim task of retrieving 10 bodies. In November, Unit 669 was also asked by the Jordanian government to rescue a school bus full of children caught in a flood on the other side of the Dead Sea.

Sometimes even successful operations are wrenching. In one evacuation of wounded from near the Gaza Strip, one of the IDF evacuees had been hit by shrapnel in his cheek. Reuven remembers that the soldier’s teeth and the root of his tongue were visible through the wound. In the helicopter on the way to the hospital, the soldier got a delayed rush of adrenaline and the 669 operators had to hold him down until the plane landed. This kind of reaction is not unusual.

“These rescuers are trained to operate in very austere environments and make life-affecting decisions without complete data, and without guidance up the chain of command. This goes for the doctors as well as the jumpers,” says Ben-Eli.

Search and rescue soldiers from Unit 669. (Courtesy)

Peak performance at all times

Strength, speed, fitness, and extreme motivation are required. Even after the soldiers have completed their training, they undergo regular tests to ensure they remain in peak shape.

“Every Thursday at 6:45 a.m., the common soldiers go out for a run, the worst run in the world,” says Reuven. He laughs. “No, I mean, the most challenging, led by the commander of the unit. Every Thursday, no matter where you are. Sometimes it’s on the beach in deep sand. Sometimes it’s one-on-one — [with a] man on your back.”

On one such run, Reuven carried a teammate who, along with his pack and weapon, weighed a total of 120 kilos — or 240 pounds.

“I carried 120 kilos on my back for 1.2 kilometers [three-quarters of a mile],” Reuven says.

“Why did they ask you to do that?” a reporter has to know.

“Nobody asks you,” he retorted. “They ‘allow’ you to do this, and you want to be good. I wanted to be the best, so I chose Rozen, the heaviest guy on our team. I decided to challenge myself.”

Once a year, Reuven says, officers must pass the Officer’s Competency Test. It applies to every officer from the youngest to three-star generals, and takes place on the Netanya beach. It entails navigating 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), completing running tests in full equipment, then in chest-high water, then out and up a hill in deep sand. Following this come ninja warrior exercises, rope climbing, and shooting after the exercise. All of this takes about an hour and 10 minutes.

The officers of Unit 669 fail if they don’t score 100%. One year, Reuven scored 92% because he hit four out of six shots post-exercise. He needed six out of six.

“I did it again a few weeks later and I wound up scoring the third-highest in the entire military. And I said, ‘Thank you for pushing me to the next level,’” Reuven says. “In our unit, they teach us to be the best in everything that we do.”

Meyer spoke to The Times of Israel in New York City, where he had made a presentation about the 669 Alumni Association to a synagogue, then run home to study for an exam at Columbia University. Two days later, The Times of Israel got in touch with him for a follow-up question: His return call came from Israel, where he was back on reserve duty.

Members of the IDF search-and-rescue Unit 669 prepare look for missing hikers in Nahal Og on November 9, 2018. (Israel Police)

“Yeah, yesterday I had a physics midterm at Columbia, and the next day I found myself right back on the base in uniform green,” Meyer explained.

Unit 669 veterans are called up to the reserves between two and three times annually, regardless of where they may be, and serve a minimum of 30 to 45 days. If there is a war, they go.

Meyer began courses at Columbia in the fall of 2016, two weeks after completing his army service. He will finish college in a total of two-and-a-half years, taking advantage of Columbia’s program for non-traditional students. He is majoring in English and neuroscience. Next year, he will pursue a master’s degree in global health in the UK. The year after, he hopes to begin medical school in Israel.

“I never thought I’d be a doctor. I didn’t take any science courses in high school — I thought law might be my track,” says Meyer. “But after we were given the tools to save lives and we did save lives, I realized our hands are capable of doing so much. In the end, there wasn’t anything else I could think of doing. My ultimate plan is to be a doctor in the unit and run some kind of trauma center in Israel, but that love of medicine and healing was found solely in the unit.”

Organized chaos in the medical jungle

Meyer is a representative of the 669 Alumni Association in the US. Already, he has set up a volunteer group for students and young professionals called Babayit (“At Home”). He has also opened up his apartment on the Upper West Side, with the help of the Zionist youth group B’nei Akiva, to sponsor Shabbat dinners, lectures, challah baking, and coordinate volunteer opportunities for young professionals. He says the idea is to keep alive the altruism of students as they make their way along their career paths.

“We have to make use of our human capital, our privileges, to pay it forward,” Meyer says. “When we’re working crazy hours on Wall Street, at a big law firm, or in school, we shouldn’t forget to do things for other people. It’s all tied back to Unit 669 — viewing yourself as someone who should always be running to the other person, no matter how busy you are or how tired.”

True to form (“You realize the day is really very long”), Meyer has already stumbled upon a project for American Friends of 669, after, to his great surprise, his pre-med advisor said that he needed some clinical medical experience.

“What?” Meyer asked. “Can I tell you what I’ve done?”

“No, this is America — listen to my words,” his advisor said.

So Meyer found a doctor at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx who would allow Meyer to shadow him. The only free time slots Meyer had was on Thursday night. At 10:00 p.m., he took take the subway up to the Bronx to look for Dr. Trevor Dixon in the ER.

“The ER was like a jungle — it was crazy. I’ve never never seen so much organized chaos in my life,” says Meyer.

Meyer tailed Dixon and learned a few things. It turned out that Dixon was born in Jamaica. When he was in medical school, he took a fellowship in trauma medicine in Israel. He was impressed by all the philanthropy he saw there — people donating money for hospitals, wings, fellowships, ambulances. And he saw that the donors were Jews from all around the world.

Search and rescue soldiers from Unit 669 participating in a helicopter exercise. (Courtesy)

He told Meyer that Jamaicans who live elsewhere don’t give back to Jamaica in the same way. So he created a foundation, Jamaicans Abroad Helping Jamaicans at Home, or JAHJAH.

On a trip to Jamaica to lecture on his specialty, trauma ultrasound, one of Dixon’s colleagues from New York suffered a heart attack. Because there is no emergency care in Jamaica, he did not get medical care for three hours.

Dixon vowed to create Jamaica’s first ambulance service. The night Meyer met Dixon in the ER, as he was managing the chaos, he was also juggling phone calls from England, where he was trying to negotiate the purchase of two ambulances.

Once he sealed the deal, he told Meyer ruefully that he didn’t know anyone who could teach the Jamaicans how to run the service.

Meyer’s eyes glowed green. “What do you mean?” he said. “I have 30 friends who just got out of the military who are looking for a way to continue with what they’ve learned.”

And this is the point where his story, Meyer fears, sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A Jamaican doctor and an Israeli soldier walk into a bar in the Bronx…”

“That was the first time I realized how powerful our network could be,” Meyer says. “I called a bunch of guys traveling around the world, asked who wanted to help, and a month from now the first fellows will be traveling to Jamaica to help them with training.”

“Why should a person who lives next to a well die of thirst?” he asks. “If we can save one person, why should we leave matters of life and death to serendipity?”

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