Three former members of the Israel Defense Forces who lost legs in combat but went on to become competitive athletes despite their injuries came to East Brunswick to tell their stories of triumph over adversity.
The three — David Peretz, Yuval Carmel, and Shmuel Desalei Mashasha — appeared July 22 at the home of Rick and Cindy Rollman in a program sponsored by the NJ Friends of the IDF.
“They are our heroes,” said Rick Rollman.
The former soldiers are part of the three-year-old Strides program, an FIDF initiative providing athletic prosthetics to injured veterans.
The program provides training in Israel, travel to and accommodations in the United States, and prosthetics from the A Step Ahead Clinic in Hicksville, NY. It arranges for continued maintenance of the prosthetics in Israel, psychological therapy for the injured veterans, fees for their entry in athletic competitions, and other group activities in Israel and the States.
“This is a great program that allows these soldiers to resume their lives,” said FIDF NJ director Howard Gases of East Brunswick.
The average cost for each Strides participant is $80,000. The East Brunswick event drew more than 40 people.
The veterans had represented Israel in the Wounded Warriors bike ride days earlier on Long Island. They also visited Camp Ruach at the Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center in Bridgewater.
Mashasha, who came to Israel at age one from Ethiopia as part of Operation Moses, lost his leg more than 10 years ago, a month before Israel disengaged from Gaza, when the mine-sweeping bulldozer he was operating was hit by terrorists.
“I never thought something like this would happen that would keep me from the rest of my life,” said the Rishon Letzion resident. He would later undergo more than 10 surgeries, but after rehab was determined “to finish what I started.”
After training as an officer, he returned to duty and served several years as a commander before leaving the IDF with the rank of lieutenant.
While the Israeli government provides prosthetics to injured vets, it doesn’t offer the more specialized ones needed for athletics. “In my dreams I’m always running,” said Mashasha, who now works as an equipment purchaser in the medical marijuana industry. “I found myself looking at cool legs rather than cool cars.”
Peretz, a London native whose family made aliya when he was 10, joined the military in 1982 as a combat engineer working with explosives, rising to the rank of lieutenant. During the first Lebanon War, while trying to pull another wounded soldier to safety through a minefield, he lost his leg during an explosion.
“But I’ve lived a full life,” he assured the gathering. “About five years ago I stopped smoking and began putting on weight — so I joined a running club near where I live in Rehovot.”
Peretz, who works in his family catering business, ran his first marathon in Tel Aviv and another this year in Tiberias.
“I’m very proud to say I ran it in under four hours, which is very good for my age,” he said.
He and Carmel also participated in a triathlon, taking on different parts of the running, swimming, and biking stages.
“Without your generosity I don’t think it would have happened, and I thank you all very much,” said Peretz, addressing the FIDF supporters.
Carmel, a former staff sergeant, is now a farmer in HaYogev, a moshav in northern Israel.
Carmel served as a head navigator in the Egoz Reconnaissance Unit until “I stepped on a mine — and it changed my life.”
“I gave up running because I thought if your target in life was to be happy, you have to give up some things you cannot do well,” he said. “Then two years ago, through Strides, I was able to run again.” Carmel said he hopes to become even more active after receiving separate prosthetics for swimming, running, and biking.
He described himself as having a “beautiful life,” rising at 5 a.m., making coffee for himself and sandwiches for his three children, and sending his wife off to work before joining his father and brother in the fields.
“The most beautiful gift I ever got was that I can run again after 18 years,” said Carmel.