Retired IDF general says soldiers need more than military hardware

When you talk about the time a grenade blew up in Yehiel Gozal’s face, you have to be specific. Was it the first time or the second? Or, for that matter, was it the third?

In the Israel Defense Forces, said Gozal with a chuckle, they have a saying — “Acharai.” That means “follow me.” Even as a major and a commando leader, Gozal, now a retired brigadier general, put himself in the front of the pack — you know, the place where people get hit by grenades.

It was during a battle in the Lebanon War that Gozal had the rare opportunity to be grenaded for a second time when shrapnel tore into his eyes and shoulders and ricocheted off his bulletproof vest.

He kept going. “Like Moshe Dayan they put a bandage on my eyes, but the next morning I was wounded again. The Syrian special forces commandos, they threw to me a grenade and it exploded near me,” he recalled in a surprisingly chipper manner for one retelling a story of dodging dangerous explosives.

(Incidentally, if you were wondering about his first grenade attack, Gozal almost nostalgically recalled that it was in 1978 during a lightning raid across the Lebanese border. A Fatah fighter managed to nick Gozal with a rocket-propelled grenade — and Gozal killed him.)

Gozal knew he was hurt pretty badly, but he desperately wanted to wait the three hours until a ceasefire before being airlifted out. And it was on his way to the helicopter that he had an encounter that would change his life.

Across the Lebanese border and just a few hours after the firefight, an older volunteer from the Friends of the IDF handed him, of all things, crisp white pairs of underwear and socks. Given the situation, it was as incongruous as being given a pineapple cocktail sporting a magenta paper umbrella.

“It was the first time I changed my underwear and socks in seven days. And after they evacuated me to the hospital, they asked ‘How can you be so clean? You’ve just come from the battlefield!'” recalled Gozal, 48, with a laugh.

“When somebody gives you candy or underwear or socks, that is something I cannot forget. It’s not that you really need it, but you feel somebody is thinking about you.”

Two decades later, handing out creature comforts to young men and women who’ve just gone through hell is Gozal’s job now. He’s the New York-based national director of the Friends of the IDF — and while boxers or briefs are still the organization’s staple, he’s pushing to hand young soldiers a bit more than drawers.

New programs provide college tuition and living expenses to underprivileged IDF veterans, or provide housing and funding for impoverished soldiers and their families. There are also programs for soldiers who have no family in Israel as well as organized trips for the families of fallen soldiers or entire combat units.

Gozal has overseen the construction of gyms and recreation areas and, in fact, he was in Gaza during the disengagement as the Friends of the IDF set up recreation tents for the soldiers and police officers stocked with drinks, games and, most importantly, air conditioning.

“If you ask soldiers, they are very modest, they say they don’t need anything. That is why I am here. I know what they need,” said Gozal, in the Bay Area in April to raise funds and speak with individuals who may soon found a local office for the organization.

Gozal meets with plenty of people who say they’d like to help the soldiers — can’t they donate a rifle or a parachute or something? The answer is a resounding no.

“Some people want to buy a missile which will be used to kill the head of Hamas. A lot of donors want to give military support. But we can’t accept it. It’s against the law and Israel does not need it,” said Gozal with ever so slight a shake of his head.

Between threats from Iran and the electoral victory of Hamas — which Gozal believes could “set us back 10 years” — there’s no end in sight for the stressful days of an IDF soldier. But that’s all the more motivation for the general to undertake his current mission.

“A combat soldier is feeling the mission not just of protecting the state of Israel but Jews everywhere in the world.”

For more information about Friends of the IDF, visit

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.