Published On: Tue, May 10th, 2016

220 knocks on the door: an exclusive interview with the head of the Casualties Administration

After 28 years of service, Col. Yaffa Mor shares her experiences maintaining relationships with the families of fallen and MIA soldiers: 'It's a part of me.'

IDF Col. Yaffa Mor offers condolences to members of Oron Shaul's family (Photo Elad Gershgoren)

Facing the desk of Col. Yaffa Mor, head of the IDF Casualties Administration, is a large photograph of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. Whenever Mor sits in her chair, Oron’s face smiles at her from the picture. “I look into his deep, blue eyes, and that’s how I start my morning, ” said Mor.

Shaul, a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade, was killed during Operation Protective Edge in the “APC of Death” (an armored personnel carrier that was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing seven Golani soldiers) in Saja’iyya. A short time later, he was declared a slain IDF soldier whose place of burial is unknown.

Mor was with his family in the first days after the tragedy. It was she who performed the “kriah” (the ritual Jewish rending of garments at a funeral) on Zehava, Oron’s mother, after her son was declared dead and the decision to ritually mourn him was taken.

The picture of Oron was photographed on Independence Day, two months before he was killed, at a ceremony for outstanding soldiers at the President’s Residence. Oron’s parents, Zehava and Herzl, gave the picture to Mor only recently.

“The APC incident took place on Sunday, and I got to their home on Monday, ” Mor recounted. “I remember seeing this photo of Oron, which is now in my office, in the living room. Oron’s eyes are exactly the same as Zehava’s, his mother. I looked at the photo, I looked at her, and I had this feeling that we had come and turned their lives upside down. What would happen now? Would they manage—would we manage—to get him back, and when?

 

Oron Shaul honored by then-president Peres at ceremony for outstanding soldiers (Photo Yosef Avi Yair Engel)

 

“Nothing can prepare you for something like that, ” she said after 28 years of service, 20 of which were spent dealing with IDF casualties. “You know that you need to tell the family everything that you know and also everything that you don’t know—you have to tell them that.”

And then you did the kriah for Zehava?

“The rabbi did the kriah for Herzl, and I did it for Zehava. The rabbi explained to me how, and I did it for her.”

And…?

“And what? My heart broke together with hers.”

“I had 67 casualties in Protective Edge, ” Mor said. “There are two slain soldiers whose missions need to be completed; they need to be brought home for burial in Israel. Hadar (Goldin) received a (partial) burial, but the task to bring his body back still stands. And Oron. We have an obligation to bring them back.

“It’s a daily part of my thoughts and of my daily life. I sit at dinner on Friday night, and I think about them. And I make the meatballs that Zehava taught me how to make, and I think of them. On Friday, I visited Zehava and Herzl. You leave there, and you say, ‘Let it happen already.’ The IDF, the defense establishment, and the political echelon are really working on this all the time, on bringing Hadar and Oron back. The families are updated on everything.”

Do you find yourself imagining the day when Oron will be brought for burial and Hadar’s burial will be completed?

“Yes. I hope we reach that day. I hope that the Goldin family can have closure. And I image Zehava and Herzl having a grave to go to on Memorial Day when the siren is sounded at 11am. I imagine this, too. Last year, they stood by the memorial to Oron. I really hoped, and I still hope, that we’ll complete this task before I leave this position.”

 

IDF Col. Yaffa Mor (Photo Eli Attias)

 

220 knocks on the door

Mor, 48, will finish in her current position and be discharged from the IDF this summer. She was appointed head of the IDF Casualties and City Officers Administration three and a half years ago. Since then, 220 families have lost a relative in the IDF and thus become “bereaved families.”

“220 messages, 220 knocks on the door, ” Mor elaborated, “220 families whose lives were turned upside down, who need to learn how to live with loss, with longing, with incomprehensible pain.”

“I estimate that I’ve had hundreds of thousands of meetings with bereaved families, ” she shared. “I remember perfectly the first time I entered each home. I remember perfectly where I sat the first time, where every member of the family sat, what we talked about. It’s a part of me. The faces, the names.

“When you go to visit a widow who gave birth after her husband was killed, and she lets you hold the baby. Or when a bereaved father dies, and you’re updated on that, and you can’t bring yourself to delete his number from your phone.

“You become a part of the family. You go into the son’s room; they want you to know him. They show you his uniform, ironed and handsome in the wardrobe, ready, as if he’s just about to leave for the army, even though he was killed 30 years ago. And they hand you his clothes to smell.”

And what do you do?

“I smell them. There’s a scent, even after all those years.”

Until now, Mor refused to be interviewed. Even now, she is uncertain. Her fear was mainly that she would take the attention away from the bereaved families. No difficulty, she emphasized, is comparable to their pain. In the end, she acquiesced. We met twice. The first time, she barely spoke. She almost backed out.

“You have the hardest job in the army, ” I told her. That’s something that senior officers and commanders tell her. Mor didn’t agree and even protested, “How can I say that this is hard? Who am I, anyway? Everything pales in comparison. I don’t think that you can really talk about what we in Casualties feel, because the real pain and difficulty is felt by the families, and their coping.

“We accompany the bereaved families. We hold them and try to make it a little bit easier on them, but in the end, that unimaginable pain is entirely the families’. Only theirs.”

Once, she recalled, bereavement struck the same small moshav twice in a few months. She was the casualties officer of the Nahal Brigade at the time. “I came to visit the first bereaved family immediately after the shiva (the week-long initial Jewish mourning period), and a very impressive woman was sitting there. She told me that her son was serving in Nahal, too, ” Mor recounted.

“Three months later, he was killed, as well. I can really remember our arriving at the second family’s house, the battalion commander and me. This was after they had been notified. And you already know the way to the moshav and know who is going to speak from the local council. And people were standing on the sides, and we walked in, and somebody said, ‘The Angel of Death has arrived.’ I heard him; I remember that they said, ‘The Angel of Death has come to the moshav a second time.’ I didn’t feel that I was the Angel of Death. And we really try to deliver the news in the most sensitive way possible.”

 

IDF Col. Yaffa Mor comforts Oron Shaul's mother Zehava at a monument in memory of Protective Edge casualties (Photo Efi Shrir)

 

When the phone in the operations room rings

Mor was born and raised in Haifa. She was drafted at 20 to the Intelligence Corps. She became a career officer. Five years later, she was sent by the army to study social sciences at Bar Ilan University. There, she met the woman who was the Navy’s casualties officer at the time. That meeting led her to become a casualties officer herself.

“I felt that it was my mission, ” said Mor. To the Casualties personnel who interviewed her, she said she was bringing mostly herself to the position and promised that she “would learn while doing.”

At that time, Mor was already married and had a daughter. Because the Intelligence Corps’s casualties officer position was filled, Mor was offered the role in the Ordnance Corps, which would serve as “a trial.” She ended up staying in the position for four years.

“The first bereaved family that I visited was the family of a non-commissioned officer who died of cancer and who left behind a wife and two little girls, ” Mor remembered. She stayed in contact with the family. Recently, she met one of the NCO’s little daughters, currently an IDF soldier, when the latter came to be a guide at a day camp that the army provides for IDF orphans. “Coming full circle, ” said Mor.

Shortly after Mor took up the position, the 1997 helicopter disastertook place. Four of the soldiers who died in the disaster were in the Ordnance Corps.

“I remember where I was sitting in the living room. And I remember the newsflash on TV and the phone calls, and I started trying to ascertain if there were deaths from the Ordnance Corps. Collecting crumbs of information. I was pregnant at the time with a seventh-month belly.

“I went into the family’s house, and I was wearing civilian clothes, so I had to explain who I was. And I sat with the widow who had gotten married just a few months earlier. Just a young girl, really. And I was flipping through a photo album that was passed to me. It was her wedding album. And I was looking at the parents who had only just seen their son married and who now, insanely close to his wedding, had to bury him. It was incomprehensible. And that young widow, she was the first to send me flowers, two months later, when I gave birth.”

What happens when you go home after something like that?

“I once came home from a bereaved family’s home, and that very same night had to take the kids to Luna Park. You can’t do that. The transitions are very sharp. You need to breathe a little.”

In 2002, when Mor was the Nahal casualties officer, the Hebron ambush took place. Twelve Israelis were killed, including three Nahal soldiers. “I got to Hadassah (Medical Center) at night. A female soldier came up to me and told me that parents had arrived, and they were looking for their son. And I knew that their son had been killed, that the news was on its way to them.

“I went to them, and I sat with them, and I held their hands. And I told the notifiers where we were, and I waited for them to come to the hospital so that they could tell them what happened.”

 

IDF Col (res.) Varda Pomerantz,   center,   at her son Daniel's funeral (Photo Ido Erez)

 

Later on, during the Second Lebanon War, Mor was the head of the infantry’s casualties branch. “Out of 121 fallen soldiers, ” she counted, “51 were infantry.”

She later became the head of the Casualties and City Officers Branch, then she went to a position in the General Staff (secretary for the high command) and returned three and a half years ago to be the head of the Casualties Administration.

The apparatus for which she is responsible includes the Casualties and City Officers Branch (which deals with the families in the initial stages, including notifying them), the Family Liaison Branch (which supports bereaved families for their entire lives) and the “Eitan” (“Missing Persons”) Branch. She was at the head of the administration during Operation Protective Edge a year and a half ago.

Mor shared what she felt during the operation: “You sit in situation assessment meetings, and you understand that something’s coming, that there could be a difficult price in human life, and there’s a kind of suspense and assessments of what’s going to happen. And you say a prayer of sorts that maybe, maybe this time, it’ll end without casualties.

“During the operation, I got up every day with a stomachache. My stomach turned with every notification to a family. And the operation continued. And I knew that it was very likely that there would be more deaths and more injuries. And every time that the telephone in the operations room rang and we got the name of somebody who was injured, I felt like there was a knife in my stomach. I imagined the family and the home and his girlfriend and his parents. Even when I didn’t know them. Your brain and your thoughts go to them.”

Twice during Operation Protective Edge, she sent the notifiers to houses that she knew, to families that she knew.

The first time was when Staff Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz, the son of Varda Pomerantz, was killed in the APC incident. Col. (res.) Varda Pomerantz was one of the architects and founders of the casualties network. Like Mor, she also was the head of the Casualties Administration in the IDF. Nimrod, another son of Pomerantz’s, was a soldier of Mor’s.

“Your stomach always turns over before you send the notifiers, but when you know the house, like Varda’s, and you know exactly where you’re sending them, then your gut gets even more mixed up, ” said Mor. “Because you can imagine it much worse and much more painful.

 

IDF Funeral of Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar (Photo Eli Mendelbaum

 

“I knew that Nimrod knew the entire process because he served here. When we got the message, he called his commanders and the soldiers that served with him. They didn’t answer him. It was clear to me that he knew exactly what was happening at that moment. How we verify the names and how we send the notifiers to knock on their door. He had done it himself in the past. He knew how it worked.”

When did you go to their home?

“After the notifying phase. I remember that on the way there, I was thinking, ‘Varda, Varda, Varda, ‘ ‘Varda, Varda, Varda.’ That’s what was going through my head. ‘Varda, Varda, Varda.’ I kept repeating her name to myself. I saw her face before my eyes. And I came, and I remained silent. Because I had nothing to say. I just embraced her and was beside her.”

Since the disaster, the two have gotten very close. “Varda was a source of advice before Daniel was killed and even now, ” Mor explained.

The second time was when Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, the commander of the Gefen Battalion in the Officers’ Training School, was killed. The two had met during previous assignments, when Mor was secretary for the high command and Keidar was the deputy chief of staff’s bureau chief.

“Suddenly, the regular pain had a name and a face, and I knew exactly how to picture Michal, Dolev’s wife, and their children, ” said Mor. “I was in the operations room. I asked them to leave me alone for five minutes, and then I continued.”

A lieutenant general next to a private

Every report of the death of a soldier comes to the administration’s operations room, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the main Adjutant Corps base in Ramat Gan. That’s also where Mor’s office is. “There’s a crazy amount of pressure to reach the family’s house as fast as possible, ” said Mor. “We know that we can’t make mistakes.”

The notifications are for anyone who dies during their military service, regardless of the circumstances. “Bereavement is bereavement is bereavement, ” she said. “We bury our dead one next to the other, no matter the circumstances and no matter the rank. A lieutenant general is buried next to a private. Everybody was in military service, everybody came to defend the country and to protect it, and everyone is one of our soldiers.”

The operations room alerts the relevant city officer in accordance with the fallen soldier’s place of residence. At the same time, the “notifiers” are sent. Everyone volunteered for the position, which does holy work. At any given time, there are 140 casualties notifiers in a state of preparedness throughout the country. Every one of them went through special training. Three notifiers go to every family.

“Once we came to notify of the death of an NCO, ” Mor shared. “There were two (people with the same name) in the same building. So we called the NCO’s apartment, and I asked the notifiers to listen for where the phone would ring.”

City officers and casualties notifiers are with the families during the shiva. Only afterwards does the casualties officer come in. There is a “passing of the baton, ” as Mor puts it. The connection with the casualties officers is nicknamed “an eternal relationship, ” and it’s kept up even with veteran bereaved families. “For the families, their child forever remains a soldier and part of the unit where he served, ” explained Mor, “even when all his friends have been discharged or stop doing reserve service.”

Are there bereaved families who get angry?

“There are families who get angry at the army, at the commanders, sometimes at the casualties network. Some of them justifiably, and you have to correct or explain where possible. And part of this also comes from a place of great pain. We need to deal with it.

“There was a soldier who was killed (in friendly fire) from the IDF Spokesperson, and his father was angry. There was some kind of mistake there, and that mistake cost the life of his son. In the end, it’s the same army, and he was angry at the army, and we were there. Inside the house. And I felt his anger. But I contain it.

“I learned that you need to hear the angry families and listen to them. Sometimes what they bring up belongs to personal anger, and sometimes they point out things that really need to be changed.

For example?

A bereaved father contacted me, a returning resident (from abroad) whose son was drafted immediately when they got back to Israel, and he committed suicide afterwards in the army. He thought that things needed to be done differently. He said to us, ‘Pay attention.’ And really, today we understand that we need to give kids like that a year to adjust, and only after that do we send the initial call-up letter.”

Are there families that tell the casualties officer, “I don’t want you”?

“Out of thousands of visits, that’s happened to me once or twice. Still, the understanding is that we have to be there. It’s the only option. And once in a while, we try to contact them again and to go to them again.

 

IDF Col. Yaffa Mor on her way to deliver the horrible news to a family (Photo Gil Nechushtan)

 

“When I was the casualties officer of the Ordnance Corps, I had one family that said to me that they didn’t want contact. And then one day, I was speaking with my replacement who told me that she had just left the annual commemoration of their son’s death. I was extremely surprised. She told me that she decided to call them, and they didn’t remember that they had told me that they didn’t want any contact with us. They were shocked that nobody had contacted them for two years.”

In addition to the photograph of Oron Shaul, Mor has hanging on her wall a frame containing five small pictures of the five Israeli MIAs: Ron Arad, Guy Hever, and the three MIAs of the Battle of Sultan Yakoub: Yehuda Katz, Zachary Baumel and Zvi Feldman. “We deal with the subject of the MIAs all the time, ” Mor assured. “Just last week we had a status meeting at the head of the Manpower Directorate’s, and we presented everything on the subject of the MIA Guy Hever.”

Yosef, the father of Yehuda Katz, died during Operation Cast Lead. “I decided that I would go to the funeral, ” Mor shared. “I knew him. A Holocaust survivor. I had been in his home, together with the officer assigned to the family, and he told me about meeting his wife and how they raised their children and made a home anew, when suddenly, ‘Yehuda’s MIA.’ It was impossible not to connect to that man. And so I decided to go to the funeral. And I went. I left the operations room in the middle of an operation, I even turned off my phone, which was getting tons of calls, but I didn’t care. I decided that I wanted to be there. With Yehuda’s father.”

And what did you think?

“During the funeral? I was thinking that I wish we could have resolved this for him.”

She also feels an obligation towards the 179 soldiers whose place of burial is unknown, including Oron Shaul. “These are families whose loved ones we must bring to burial in Israel, to resolve this and allow the families to truly start their mourning process, ” Mor said.

She’s proud of the fact that over the past six years, the IDF’s Missing Persons Unit was able to replace 28 tombstones of unknown soldiers killed in the 1948 War of Independence with tombstones bearing their names. “Even after 68 years, the IDF continues searching for its dead and to really leave no stone unturned to find them, ” she said.

When her son enlisted in the Paratroopers

Mor is married to Nir, an Israel Electric Corporation employee. They have three children, and they live in Modi’in.

“I had two of my children during my service as a casualties officer, ” she said. “I was pregnant, and I came to the families with my big belly, and didn’t always feel comfortable with that, but the families were always very happy for me. And the amount of good wishes and phone calls I received from them after giving birth was very, very touching. I think about their thoughtfulness, and their mental strength to be able to send flowers to the casualties officer despite their pain and loss—sending the casualties officer flowers three months after their son had been killed.”

Mor’s eldest daughter, Yuval, 23, is an officer in the Air Force. Omer, a combat soldier in the Paratroopers’, enlisted last March, and her son Ido is a 10th grade student. Throughout the years, during “mass” events, as she calls them, like races in memory of fallen soldiers, her family and job came together. Her children and husband know some of the bereaved families. And yet, she hasn’t told nearly any of the families she remains in touch with that her son, Omer, had enlisted as a combat soldier.

Col. Yaffa Mor on her way to deliver the horrible news to a family (Photo: Gil Nechushtan)
Col. Yaffa Mor on her way to deliver the horrible news to a family (Photo: Gil Nechushtan)

“I’m there to listen to them, not to talk about myself, ” she said. “This is their place. If they ask me, I tell them that he enlisted.”

One of the mothers she did tell about Omer’s combat role called and asked Mor for her son’s phone number. “She called and told him that she was very proud of him for enlisting in a combat role. Afterwards, Omer told me, ‘That was the most touching phone call I ever received.'”

How did it come to be that a son of a casualties officer chose to serve in a combat role?

“I think with my job and the stories he heard at home about people who chose to serve in combat roles and worked hard to raise their army (medical) profile so that they could be accepted, he couldn’t allow himself not to have a meaningful service.”

“My concern for Omer is within the limits of the reasonable, ” she said when asked about her own feelings. “The level of hysteria in my DNA is not different to that of any other Israeli mother. Maybe it’s because he’s still in training.”

The curse of social media
When she first entered her new role, Mor wanted to maintain and increase the level of professionalism in the IDF’s Casualties Administration, strengthen her team’s relationships with the bereaved families and wounded soldiers, as well as families of MIA soldiers, and strengthen the involvement of the commanders on the ground, at all ranks, in the field of casualties and bereaved families.

Her predecessor had already established cooperation and training for casualties officers with NATAL Israel (an Israeli trauma center treating victims of terrorism and war), and today, all of the casualties officers attend weekly classes at NATAL over the course of two years. In addition, there is training within the unit given to all ranks, from the young officers to the head of the administration.

“We’ve bolstered a lot of fields, including lessons we learned from Operation Protective Edge, ” Mor admitted.

For example, the administration put an emphasis on procedures in cases of MIA soldiers. Lessons have also been learned with regards to social media. Earlier this week, the administration launched a campaign against “rumors” on social media.

IDF Col. Yaffa Mor (Photo Eli Attias)

 

“People just post information on social media and on WhatsApp, at times even false information, before it reaches the family, ” Mor said. “It became a very serious problem during Protective Edge. We realized social media was not going to go away, and what we could do about it was simply call on the public to act responsibly.”

Can you give an example?

“During the operation, after we notified all of the families of the soldiers killed in the APC incident, I received a phone call from a casualties officer. She told me a friend approached her, a military man, whose neighbors received a message that their son had been killed, and they even set up a mourning tent. That soldier was not on our lists.

“After consulting with the head of the Manpower Directorate, I decided to do something we’ve never done before. I called the family and told them I was the head of the IDF Casualties Administration, and while I couldn’t tell them who was killed, I could tell them that all of the families that were supposed to be notified had already been notified. And that their son’s name was not among the dead. And this was a family that was already sitting inside a mourning tent, while their son was alive and well.”

Over the past 20 years, there has been a change in Israeli society’s attitude towards bereavement and bereaved families. Nowadays, Mor said, there is a close and successful cooperation between all of the different bodies dealing with the issue: the IDF’s Casualties Administration, the Defense Ministry’s Rehabilitation Department, Yad LaBanim (an organization commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers), and the widows and orphans organizations.

“There is more of a conversation about needs that go beyond remembrance and memorials, ” she said. “Our job is to remember and keep the memory alive, but also to support the families. And that support should also be emotional and financial. At the end of the day, a bereaved family’s ability to make a living is affected by losing a son. When talking about bereaved families, no cost can be too high. We need to look them in the eye and see what we can do to help them, rather than worry about how much it’s costing us.”

What about the older bereaved families? For example, parents who lost their sons during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“The older bereaved families are a matter in itself. If I enter a room, and I know in advance that there is a bereaved family there, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room or how many years have passed, I would know exactly who the members of that family are. You can see it on their face: the sadness, the pain, the longing. You can see it.”

The Casualties Administration also deals with wounded soldiers. The news about wounded soldiers reach the same operations room. “When it’s a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital, if he can talk, we make sure he calls his family and talks to them, ” Mor said. When the soldiers are critically wounded, notifiers are sent to their families. “We want to make sure they get to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

While the wounded soldiers are discharged from the IDF, undergo treatment at the Defense Ministry’s Rehabilitation Department, and eventually receive recognition as disabled veterans, the casualties officers are entrusted with staying in contact with them on behalf of the IDF.

“To be recognized as a disabled veteran, one must first undergo a complicated process, ” Mor said. “This process is hard for the wounded soldier, but I know the Rehabilitation Department does everything it can to make the process as painless and quick as possible.”

The Casualties Administration’s personnel have a “Growth Group, ” as they call it, which is akin to support groups. Those who need are also given personal sessions. The conversation at the group mostly focuses on their role as a casualties officer, Mor said.

“I think casualties officers are also allowed to cry, ” she said. “We’re only human.

“Many times I ask myself why we chose this profession. But the very knowledge that you play a significant role at such a painful situation, that you are there to offer assistance, that you can participate and accompany the family and make it just a little bit easier for them—that fills you with a sense of satisfaction, ” she said, and then corrected herself: “Satisfaction is not the word. Accomplishment and a sense of mission.”

On the same day as our second meeting, she received an invitation to a wedding of a bereaved brother. His brother was killed 13 years ago. “I attended his bar mitzvah, ” Mor said. “They still remember me, even though I haven’t visited them in over 10 years.”

What do you think changed in you over the 20 years you’ve spent at the Casualties Administration?

“I think I know how to appreciate the good, small things in life. I can say that health is all that matters and mean it.”

A moment before Independence Day
She still doesn’t know what she is going to do after being released from the IDF in September. “I keep saying that I want to ‘give back a little, ‘” she said, laughing, mostly because people don’t really understand what is it that she wants to ‘give back’ exactly. She is very interested in working with at-risk youth.

Mor said she will definitely keep in touch with some of the bereaved families, “because it’s a part of me.”

On Memorial Day, she accompanies the IDF chief of staff wherever he goes; it is a part of her job. Afterwards, she goes to visit bereaved families. “I never plan in advance whom to visit, ” she said.

And then?

“I go home, a minute before the (Independence Day) fireworks begin.”

And…?

“I never go out to see the fireworks. I’m too exhausted.”

Via Ynet News

Read more about: ,

About the Author

Wordpress site Developed by Fixing WordPress Problems