Compelled to act: Army veteran tells of his volunteer efforts in war-torn Israel
Lodi News-Sentinel, Calif. January 25, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — After seeing the news that Hamas had attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Dr. Raphael Pazo wanted to do something to help people in the war-torn county, both civilian and military.
Pazo, a Lodi resident of 20 years, did some research and found a volunteer opportunity with Sar-El — The National Project for Volunteers for Israel.
After a 10-day background check and clearance process, Pazo booked a flight to Tel Aviv on United Airlines. Unfortunately, the flight was canceled, so he booked with Lufthansa. That flight, too was booked.
Both companies, Pazo said, planned to resume flights to Israel in January. Paza needed to report to Tel Aviv on Dec. 31, and was able to fly Southwest Airlines to Los Angeles, then get on an El-Al flight to the Israeli capital.
“Many of us who are Jewish or have an affinity for Israel felt very helpless, and felt very compelled to do something other than just writing a check to charity or whatever,” he said. “So I felt very moved to find out what I could do, and found there were many opportunities for volunteering, whether it’s doing agricultural work, or working with families that have been displaced.”
One of the services Sar-El provides to Israel is personnel for the military, and being a U.S. Army veteran, Pazo said volunteering seemed like the logical thing to do.
Upon landing in Tel Aviv, he learned that thousands of people from all over the world, and of a variety of faiths and backgrounds, had come to Israel to volunteer.
Pazo arrived a few days early so he could do some sightseeing, then reported at the Ben Gurion Airport, where he learned his assignment.
“Groups were about 30 to 35 people, but my group smaller, only about 11,” he said. “So we started driving south. And south. And south. And that’s when I said I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
His small group was dispatched to a military logistics base in Be’er Sheva, about 600 meters — or .3 miles — from the Egyptian border. The base focused on providing fuel, uniforms and food not only for personnel, but families displaced throughout the country.
“That first day, we get into the logistic tent, and there was a request to pack 4,000 boxes of meals,” he said. “Each box probably had seven meals, like a week’s rations. Things like tuna, Ramen, cereal, rice, garbanzo beans, cleaning supplies. Instead of 4,000, we did 10,000. That means from unpacking to packing, placing them on pallets, wrapping the pallets in cellophane and ready to be loaded into trucks, all in one (eight-hour) shift.”
Pazo served as a combat medic when he was in the Army, and one of his duties during the trip was to ensure the volunteers remained healthy.
“Making sure people washed their hands, making sure they were hydrating,” he said. “Because by the second day, you know people have different flora in their intestines, they had some GI issues. We had some COVID cases too. The rockets didn’t get me, the bullets didn’t get me, but COVID got me on the 13th day of 14.”
Pazo also served as a liaison to translate Hebrew to English and Spanish so volunteers knew where to place items for shipping.
His group left the base after a couple of days and spent some time at a nearby Bedouin camp, then a few days at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
“Because our group was so small we were assigned to different things,” he said. “One day we were assigned to pack medical supplies, things like fentanyl lozenges, gauze, antiseptic, antibiotics. Another time we were given a charge that they needed high-caloric snacks for soldiers, so we had to pack 12,000 calories of snacks in one package.”
One of the sights that amazed Pazo during his time in Israel was seeing the resiliency of the people and how it seemed like everybody was helping in one way or another.
“A plane of total strangers coming in from France, and they said they’re here to pick up the avocado crop so it doesn’t go bad,” he said. “That unity or that sense of ‘we’re here to make a difference’ was really inspiring. And also to see the contrast between the zest for life and helping one another versus the alternative, like the worshiping of death.”
Pazo and his wife had visited the country over the summer, and he said the atmosphere when he landed in December was like night and day.
During the summer, cities like Jerusalem were crowded with people standing shoulder to shoulder on the streets. In December, he said the city was deserted.
Prior to reporting for duty, Pazo said he stayed at the more than 20-story Park Plaza Hotel in Tel Aviv, and said there were many displaced families consisting of a handful of children and their grandparents.
Their parents, he said, had all been sent to serve in the Army during the conflict.
Many of the hotel’s rooms had been converted into classrooms or daycare facilities.
Before he left for Isreal, Pazo collected 128 hand-written cards from people and friends in the area to give to soldiers overseas. The youngest writer was 4, and the oldest was 98.
The gesture was inspired by something that happened to him when he was deployed several years ago.
“I had a particularly tough day,” he said. “It was Thanksgiving. I heard the sergeant say (mail) arrived for me. And it didn’t arrive for me. It was just an anonymous card from a 9-year-old girl named Amber somewhere in Texas, that said ‘You’re an American soldier and we appreciate what you’re doing.’ It just uplifted my spirits. I will never forget that, and I thought it would be a good idea to do that (on the trip).”
When not packing and loading supplies, Pazo and his fellow volunteers were allowed to venture around the country on weekends.
One night a battalion returned to the Bedouin camp from Gaza, and a synagogue in Jerusalem prepared a large feast for everyone. They even brought a DJ to play music so the soldiers and volunteers could dance and decompress.
When Pazo contracted COVID on his 13th day, he was taken back to Tel Aviv, where he quarantined at the hotel for four days. He spent a few more days sightseeing before returning home on Jan. 20.
He and his wife are planing to return to the country this summer for an interfaith tour. Once the tour is over, they plan to volunteer with Sal-El for a few days.
“Anyone who has fought in any war could tell you that war is terrible,” he said. “There’s no way of whitewashing it. It’s terrible on both sides. Sometimes things need to be done, and you have to tell a different story. I’m not saying my story is the only story or the right story, it’s just another story to counter what you hear on our campuses and in the media, because it’s really distorted.”
(c)2024 the Lodi News-Sentinel (Lodi, Calif.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.