A leap for Israel’s independence

A leap for Israel’s independence

Col. Ra’anan Gissin stands in the open door of a C-130 jump plane as it thunders in slow circles above the Mediterranean Sea. Gissin’s knees are slightly bent, his hands pressed to the door frame, his dark eyes gazing steadily into the void as the huge aircraft’s four engines churn up a hurricane wind. He is the first man in our "stick" of paratroopers, I am third, and just behind me is Col. Charles J.F. McHugh, U.S. Army reserves. After McHugh, another 58 men and two women from 16 nations wait their turns to leap into a blinding morning above Ashkelon and descend into a churning sea. It is Israel’s 60th Independence Day and these paratroopers can think of no better way to salute the birth of the Jewish state.

Above, foreign paratroopers and Israeli jumpmasters show their exhilaration just after swimming in from their boats. At left, Col. Ra’anan Gissin is pictured at "jump school," where the paratroopers trained for the next day’s jump. Photos by Steve Hartov

From my perfect vantage point, I watch Gissin’s face, his rock steady expression, the slight ripple in his jaw. To me, his is the face of this country; born in struggle, raised in the army, he has a doctorate from Syracuse University and has served as an operations officer, government spokesman, and adviser to Ariel Sharon. I have no idea what he’s thinking as he faces death once again, but I imagine that his steely gaze is the very same one his younger brother had in October 1973, when he leaped from a burning armored personnel carrier on the Golan Heights and fought the Syrian commandos until he was killed. Compared to that horrible trial by fire, this is nothing to Gissin — the least he can do to honor his brother and more than ”,000 other Israelis who’ve died to defend the nation.

Gissin stands in that open doorway for a full six and a half minutes, the longest interval I’ve ever spent waiting for a jump. White knuckles grip the static lines above our heads and the wind whips uniforms and rattles parachute harness buckles. The C-130 holds in the pattern while a flight of Air Force F-16s make a roaring pass over the sea, followed by a squadron of Blackhawk helicopters. More than 150 paras will be making this commemorative leap from two aircraft, and between them I estimate more than 10,000 jumps recorded in logbooks, but most have never parachuted into an ocean. You can see it on their faces. Jaw lines are set hard.

"Don’t worry about the sharks," our female jumpmaster had quipped as we boarded the pair of jump planes at Tel Nof, "just make sure to get out of the harness and not drown." Like every one of the jumpmasters, she is a beautiful Sabra in her early twenties, full of humor yet extremely professional.

"Do you have jumpmasters like these at Fort Benning?" one of the Italian paras asks a U.S. Army ranger.

"Are you kidding me?" the American snorts in reply.

The red light above the jump door suddenly flashes to green. Then, Colonel Gissin is gone, and shortly afterward so am I. The opening shock is a violent yank, rather like a giant gallows, but then there’s the instant transition from vibrating steel and engine screams to utter silence. Green parachutes billow in the cloudless blue sky as the aircraft drones away, spilling more paratroopers. My shroud lines have somehow twisted nearly all the way up to my canopy, making my descent too rapid. I have the option of opening my reserve chute, but decide to "bicycle kick" instead until I suddenly spin like a top and it all unfurls perfectly. Less than 60 seconds later I’m plunging into the ocean and quickly unsnapping buckles to be free of my harness and avoid the collapsing nylon shroud. A black Zodiac rubber boat manned by Israeli Naval Commandos roars up beside me and the young warriors haul my waterlogged form into the boat.

For nearly another hour, we remain with this flotilla of commando vessels as the C-130s make pass after pass, expelling all of our sticks. Then, we race for the shore in the squadron of Zodiacs. A hundred meters from the shoreline, we roll off of our boats and swim the rest of the way in. The beach at Ashkelon is a slim strip of white sand, buttressed behind by terraced steps of rock. It seems that every citizen of the city is there waiting to greet us. They rise as one, cheering and applauding as we haul ourselves up the beach. Our faces are sunburned and soaked. For some of us, the seawater camouflages the tears.

There is always a certain euphoria after surviving another parachute jump, and perhaps it’s that incomparable cheating of fate that causes paratroopers to keep leaping from perfectly good airplanes. But in this case, the "high" has been transpiring all week. Our volunteers from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Finland, Belgium, South Africa, Singapore, Holland, Denmark, Canada, and the United States have been treated like the Allies entering Paris, from Sde Boker to Jerusalem. They’ve marched in parades, enjoyed kisses from comely girls, feted on humus and falafel, been sprayed with champagne. A young para from the Netherlands, whose grandparents were Righteous Gentiles and saved Dutch Jews during the Second World War, is stunned to be met and embraced by the grandchildren of those very Jews his grandparents rescued. The men and women who’ve come here to jump and rejoice in the birthday of an admired ally wander from event to event in a mild state of shock.

"It is such an honor," whispers my German paratrooper comrade Stefan Eicker, "such a gift."

It is indeed, and of course none of this makes the news in any major American television network. There are crews and cameras at the events, yes, but their tapes will remain on the cutting- room floor in favor of the latest rocket attacks from Gaza or the surging civil war in Lebanon. However, we’re all used to this. Good news isn’t news.

And still, Gissin, standing in his waterlogged life jacket, fatigues, and sea boots, offers his expert eloquence to a local camera crew.

"These people are like no others," he says, gesturing at another stick of paratroopers just up from the beach. They are back-slapping, high-fiving, and grinning down at Israeli children offering them flowers and small, strong handshakes. "These paratroopers come here to take high risks and show us Israelis what we mean to them. Here, their courage meets ours, their love of freedom is reflected in our dreams."

Gissin puts his fists to his hips, nodding as his expression turns from that hard-set determination in the jump door to a broad grin of satisfaction.

"Just 60 seconds in the air turns these paratroopers into lifetime ambassadors for the State of Israel."

The statement’s very true, and has been so for nearly three decades. Foreign paratroopers have been making the pilgrimage to Israel to jump with the IDF since the early 1980s, then return to their countries to tell of wonders never heard of in their lands. No, this one’s not going to make the news, but it really doesn’t matter. The Israel Defense Forces has cemented friendships forever, heart by heart, parachute by parachute.