Physician recounts surviving war and illness
Itzhak Brook, who served in Israel’s Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, finds a strong correlation between his own recovery from throat cancer and surviving the brutality of war.
In both cases, survivors witness the traumatizing effect on family and friends, and experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When I got cancer eight years ago it brought back the memory of war, how to deal with survival and invincibility,” said Brook. “When you survive you have a greater appreciation for life.”
Brook, a physician and author, spoke Feb. 9 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. A pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, he is the author of My Voice: a Physician’s Personal Experience with Throat Cancer and In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War.
Speaking in a low raspy voice, Brook devoted most of the program to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a near disaster for Israel, which was taken off-guard by the attack on the holiday from Egypt and Syria. Although ultimately victorious, Israel lost almost 3,000 soldiers and suffered 10,000 wounded while the Arabs lost as many as 18,000. Brook himself was wounded by shrapnel.
“I can only tell you war is ugly,” he said. “There is no glory, but sometimes you have to fight and you have to be prepared to fight.”
Brook recalled that during the 1967 Six-Day War, amid the joy of recapturing Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan, he could not fully enjoy the celebration. Instead, his thoughts were brought back to the sight of dead soldiers lying on stretchers in the hallways of Hadassah Medical Center, only their military boots sticking out from beneath the blankets covering them.
In 1973, Israel was ill-prepared to fight, suffering initial devastating setbacks before ultimately winning. It suffered shortages and loss of military equipment and supplies. Leaders ignored intelligence reports about enemy forces amassing on the borders, which were sparsely defended.
The war’s aftermath left Israelis traumatized and with such distrust in their government — “people didn’t even look each other in the eye,” said Brook. It also ended the career of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the hero of the Six-Day War, who, Brook said, proved ineffective. Prime Minister Golda Meir accepted blame for the debacle and resigned eight months later.
Helping Israel regain the upper hand on the battlefront was the massive infusion of tanks, airplanes, and supplies authorized by then-U.S. President Richard Nixon.
The only “silver lining” was the peace accord with Egypt, which realized that while it could score some victories “it could not defeat” Israel, said Brook. That resulted in the 1978 Camp David accords, which have since kept peace between the two countries.
That Yom Kippur morning Brook recalled hurrying to the gathering place for reservists, passing others walking to synagogue. A few hours later, he arrived at Gedera, south of Rehovot. He was assigned to a supply battalion servicing a tank division, whose more than 700 soldiers were somewhat older than the average fighter. Many were parents concerned about the safety of their families. His own children were three and five at the time.
“They drove 12 hours toward the Suez Canal,” said Brook, transporting flammable tankers of gasoline or ammunition. “A lot of drivers never came back. They were the unsung heroes in many ways.”
Although Brook, now a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, said he sometimes has trouble remembering what he did two weeks ago, “my memory of war, every day of it, is still vivid. I will never forget those 17 days.”
As a medical battalion leader, Brook experienced “firsthand the cost of war,” treating the dead, dying, and wounded. Panicked soldiers came to him for help suffering from what is now called PTSD.
“At that time the word ‘fear’ did not exist in Israeli society,” said Brook. “The men were very macho. Today people are willing to accept these fears, but then it was taboo. I basically told them to just deal with it. It dawned on me I was lying to them because I too felt fear. The Egyptians were after us all the time. We were under fire day and night.”
Brook also treated captured Egyptians.
“We treated them like another human being,” said Brook. “I could see the amazement in their eyes at how they were being treated. But I knew as a Jew and human being that everyone is made in the image of God.”
With medical supplies, ammunition, and equipment virtually gone, Brook recalled trucks suddenly coming in filled with “shiny boxes [of supplies] with stars and stripes on them.” Soon refurbished U.S. Marine Corps tanks, now with stars of David on them, appeared, as did American Phantom jets. The American-Jewish community sent other essentials, including socks and underwear.
The memory of those shiny boxes stayed with Brook, who had come to UCLA to study infectious diseases when he received “an offer I couldn’t refuse” from the U.S. Navy, joining in 1980 and remaining 27 years.
“I realized I would serve the same purpose in a different uniform,” he said. “The memory of those boxes made me feel comfortable and among friends.”