Every day, IDF pilot Noam Gershony copes with pain from the injuries he suffered when the Apache helicopter he was flying collided with another helicopter during the Second Lebanon War. The accident sent his chopper plummeting to the ground, killed his copilot, and broke almost every bone in his body.
Gershony spent many months rehabilitating but was determined to return to the sports and activities he loved before his devastating injuries. In 2012, after six years of hard work, Gershony was rewarded when he received Israel’s first-ever gold medal in the Paralympic Games by capturing the top spot in wheelchair tennis in London.
“I was injured protecting our homeland, and I would repeat any decision made,” he told those gathered at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick on Feb. 19 for an event sponsored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “Looking back years later, I would still do it all over again.”
The FIDF provides for the education and well-being of the soldiers in the Israeli military as well as the families of fallen soldiers. It also aids “lone soldiers,” those serving with no family in Israel. Gershony said the organization assisted him and previously brought him to the United States, treating him to a host of activities, like pro basketball games.
Gershony, who walks with crutches, said that the pain is worse some days than on others. “I used to be able to fly an Apache, and now I can barely get up four steps,” he said, as he gestured to the steps leading up to the bima.
On July 20, 2006, he and his copilot flew a successful mission into the Gaza Strip. Later that day, they were flying in formation north toward Lebanon when the accident occurred. Local residents heard the crash, and search-and-rescue teams were quickly called to the scene, initially believing, because Gershony’s injuries were so severe, that there were two fatalities.
He was airlifted to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where he awoke to find his broken jaw wired shut. He was later transferred to Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan for six months of rehabilitation. “Why did this happen to me?” he said he would wonder. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Gershony said he continued to wallow in self-pity until the day his copilot’s parents came to visit him in the hospital. “That changed my perspective,” he recalled. “I began thinking, why did I survive? Why am I alive?”
“I decided never to get depressed no matter what the mental or physical situation,” declared Gershony. “I decided to make the most out of my life. I’m not supposed to be here. It’s unheard of to fall 6,000 feet and survive.
“We can change our perspective if we make the decision to meet every challenge.”
Certain sports he previously had enjoyed, such as skydiving and bungee-jumping, were out of the question. So Gershony set out to find other athletic challenges, including waterskiing. At the invitation of the FIDF, he participated in a 35-mile ride, operating a hand-cranked cycle.
Four years after the crash, he took up tennis, which he had played before his injury, and in 2010 began competing at the international level. Two years later, at his first Paralympics, he struck gold, beating the favored American player.
“I flew to London with low expectations,” said Gershony. “There were people out there with unthinkable disabilities, and the things they were doing were simply breathtaking.”
He said he believed he gets his competitive edge from the combination of his disability and his volunteer work as a math teacher for underprivileged children.
However, there will be no repeat medals for Gershony at the next Paralympics in Rio de Janiero because he has left the competition circuit.
“Today I know I’m a very lucky guy,” said Gershony. “I’m lucky I survived. I’m lucky to have family and friends who were there for me. I live in the homeland of the Jewish people. I love to be Israeli and to be a Jew. I am proud of it.”
NJ FIDF director Howard Gases, a resident of East Brunswick, highlighted the importance of supporting Israel and its soldiers.
“Noam put his life on the line for the State of Israel,” he said. “But he didn’t just put his life on the line for Israel. He put his life on the line for the Jewish people because without a strong Israel our strength as a strong Diaspora Jewish community is in jeopardy.”