On April 1, Ambassador Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, opened his private residence to members of Unit 669, the Israel Air Force’s Airborne Combat, Search and Rescue Unit. Jewish leaders in attendance joined with members of the New York fire department, reinforcing the strong bond between Israelis and Americans in uniform who face common challenges.
Ambassador Dayan began his remarks describing the origin of the unit’s name. “The unit number 669 was chosen in dedication to the rescue operation of 669 Jewish children in Czechoslovakia under Nazi occupation who were transferred to Britain during World War II by British humanitarian Nicholas Winton as a part of the ‘Kindertransport.’ The unit consists of life-saving values and skills that enable them to continue contributing to society even after they are released from active service,” explained Dayan.
Bar Reuven, founder and CEO of the CAT Association, the alumni association of Unit 669, began his presentation detailing that each year, of over 1000 IDF soldiers apply to the training program, only 50 are recruited and only 30 typically graduate. One hundred eighty soldiers are serving in the unit at any given time. The special training course, which includes varied extreme settings, lasts 18 months.
In the last 40 years, this highly specialized unit has rescued over 10,000 people and has received several commendations from IDF chiefs of staff for its operations. The unit does not just aid Israelis. They have been dispatched on many international search-and-rescue missions in disasters. Unit 669 provided assistance in Nepal after the earthquake of 2015. Ten Turkish sailors were rescued after being caught in a typhoon in 2003.
Reuven explained that the unit’s official symbol is the cat. Like a cat, the unit can operate in secrecy and with agility, but when necessary, knows how to act aggressively in a hostile environment, and always lands on its feet. These rescuers are on alert all year long and are ready to jump to any mission within a few minutes.
“The CAT Association is the alumni association of Unit 669 working to empower the unit’s graduates to continue to make significant contributions to Israeli society,” described Reuven. “Since its inception, CAT 669 has played a significant role both in Israel and abroad, through bystander first-aid awareness training, academic scholarships and combating PTSD. These soldiers were the safety net of the Jewish people, coming to the rescue of soldiers and civilians alike in the most dangerous scenarios possible, and now they need your help. They are travelling the US visiting Jewish communities and telling the heroic rescue stories and building partnerships to help continue their work.” Reuven stated that the vision of the association is “to serve as the axis linking all veterans of the unit in order to maximize the impact of the human capital embodied in them, for the better good of themselves, the unit and society in general.”
Guy Melamed served as a 669 combat paramedic. Melamed described his very first mission, where they rescued a severely injured soldier and had to administer life-saving procedures on the helicopter bringing the victim to the hospital. Melamed also described one of his last missions, in Israel’s Zafit Stream, where devastating flash floods tragically claimed the lives of 10 Israeli teenagers last spring. Melamed detailed the lengths his team went to in dangerous conditions trying to save as many children as possible. Melamed’s team saved over 20 teenagers from the rising waters.
The keynote speaker of the evening was Omri Assenheim, a correspondent of the Israeli equivalent of ‘60 Minutes.’ Assenheim’s specialty is investigating the IDF. He became the youngest recipient of the Sokolov Award, the highest award for outstanding journalism in Israel. One of his most memorable missions occurred during a rescue of soldiers across the Lebanese border. In a very smoky scene, the soldiers’ severely injured team leader, a recent Ethiopian immigrant, asked them to save his men first. The leader eventually died of his injuries. Years later, Assenheim sought out the soldier’s mother. In addition to providing comfort to the bereaved mother, they also arranged a Torah dedication in their community in his memory.
Unit 669 was founded in 1974, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when unorganized med-evac units made some 5000 extractions. The unit was initially formed to rescue pilots who abandoned their aircraft over enemy lines. In the decades since, its areas of responsibility have expanded significantly.
By Judy Berger