IDF soldiers wounded on Oct. 7, in New York for medical treatment, say support from other injured troops crucial for recovery


(New York Jewish Week) – On Oct. 7, Yonatan Pinto was stationed on the Gaza border near the Israeli communities of Nirim and Nir Oz. At around 7 a.m., as Hamas terrorists launched their surprise attack, Pinto’s tank was hit by a missile, blinding him, spraying him with shrapnel and causing serious burns to his body.

Fellow soldiers from his battalion evacuated Pinto on an armored personnel carrier, but the vehicle hit a mine and stalled, and was then attacked. The assailants fired seven projectiles at the vehicle but were fought off by the troops. Pinto, still unable to see, then ran three kilometers, holding onto a friend’s shoulder for guidance, until he reached safety. He arrived at a hospital at 3:40 p.m.

“I remember everything,” Pinto told the New York Jewish Week on Monday at a gala for Belev Echad, a New York-based nonprofit founded in 2009 that supports wounded IDF soldiers. “An eight-hour journey of trying to survive, trying to escape, all blinded.

“When I got to the hospital bed I started to let go — the adrenaline started dropping and I started feeling a little pain,” he said. “The stress started to go away but it was a relief, a huge relief. I’m saved.”

Pinto, 20, still has a long road ahead. He has undergone a number of surgeries in recent weeks to remove shrapnel and treat his eyes, and he has also started physical therapy. But he remains mostly blind, wearing dark glasses indoors and struggling to navigate using a cane.

Pinto and two other wounded soldiers, Yarden Chamo and Daniel Zaidman, came to the U.S. this week to receive further medical and psychological treatment in the New York area. The men said one of the keys to coping with the attack and its aftermath were the bonds they had formed with other wounded soldiers, both those injured on Oct. 7 and others who had tread the same difficult path before them.

“It really helps me and strengthens me,” said Chamo, who sustained injuries on Oct. 7 to his arms, legs and face, pointing to his friend Zaidman. “He knows what I’m feeling and I know what he’s feeling.” Zaidman was shot in the arm while fighting in the farming community of Netiv Ha’asara on Oct. 7 and took shrapnel to his hand and face.

“We know exactly how to help each other because we experience the same pain,” said Chamo, 21, who is still using a crutch and coping with PTSD.

Belev Echad runs a house with amenities for wounded soldiers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kiryat Ono, and its activists visit the injured in hospitals, organize medical treatments and provide other services such as martial arts lessons. The group was assisting some 600 veterans before Oct. 7, and has added 500 more to its rolls since the attack, said Belev Echad’s director, Rabbi Uriel Vigler.

While in New York, the three soldiers, who had pink scars still visible on their skin, spoke at the nonprofit’s annual gala to raise funds for the group. Around 1,500 people, most of them Jews, packed into the the swanky Cipriani event space on Wall Street for the event, hearing the soldiers’ stories, pledging funds to the organization and sympathizing with the troops and their families. Some of the funds will go to a hyperbaric pressure chamber used to treat brain injuries, Vigler said. The gala and fundraising efforts surrounding the event raised a total of around $4.3 million. Orthodox singer Yaakov Shwekey performed and actress Swell Ariel Or of Netflix’s “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” delivered a speech.

The event was dedicated to Raz Mizrahi, a Border Police trooper whose back was badly wounded when an attacker rammed her with a vehicle in East Jerusalem in 2021. She recovered from her injury after four months of rehabilitation, rejoined her unit, became an officer and completed her service. After her release from the military, she joined the staff of Belev Echad, becoming the keynote speaker at the organization’s New York gala last year and connecting with local Jewish communities. She last visited New York in September.

Mizrahi, 21, was at the Supernova music festival near kibbutz Re’im on Oct. 7. She sought safety in a bomb shelter with two friends as rockets streaked out of Gaza, calling her family from the scene. She was missing after the attack as her panicked family scrambled to find information; her body was identified three days later.

“I sometimes think she’s on a trip and needs to come back. I have so many conversations with her. I think that’s what I miss the most,” her mother, Nirit Mizrahi, said in a video played at the event that brought some in the audience to tears.

“Raz is not an ordinary girl. She has a light in her face,” her mother said in the video, which showed Mizrahi in interviews, at the previous year’s gala, and then showed her funeral.

“She would like us to keep living and keep laughing and not fall into sadness,” her mother said. “If I could tell her something, it would be that I’m proud of her.”

Pinto’s mother, Carmit Pinto, was also struggling with the aftermath of the attack.

“We’ve been through ups and downs. Very optimistic, but still crying. It’s not easy,” she told the New York Jewish Week. “We try to focus on the present and not on the future. To go through the medical stuff and to pray that he’ll see again.”

Pinto took a lighter tone, joking that “I’m a little bit disappointed that my first visit in America or in New York is going to be when I can’t see anything.”

“There are times I remember suddenly, ‘Oh, I can’t see,’” he added. “But then I’m saying to myself, ‘No, don’t think about it, move on.”

Despite his optimism, doctors in Israel said Pinto’s vision may or may not improve, and if it does get better, it’s unclear to what extent he will recover. Pinto’s medical files were translated to English and sent to doctors in New York, who will also assess his condition and offer an opinion on a way forward. Details about the soldiers’ procedures in the United States were kept confidential.

Pinto’s mother also said support from other wounded veterans was a crucial part of his recovery. When Pinto was first released from the hospital, friends, former teachers and others came to visit him, but at other times, he was left alone, unable to read the news or use his phone. He was reluctant at first to leave the house for physical therapy, but found a safe space with others who had gone through, or were going through, similar experiences.

“It’s not just therapy, it’s also and most importantly the people,” his mother said. “The people that know exactly what he’s been through because they’ve been through the same thing. It makes him feel good.”

Pinto said he had connected with other soldiers who were injured in different areas on Oct. 7, and had pieced together the bigger picture of the attack, and his place in the story. “I fit here — it’s not like I need to play pretend. I don’t need to make a fake smile,” he said, adding that soldiers injured in past battles knew the way forward. “These people understand me better than I probably understand myself because they’ve been through the same thing and they already got over most of the things I’m going through right now.”

Chamo, a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade, was stationed on the Gaza border on Oct. 7 when he heard the first “red alert” rocket sirens at 6:30 a.m. He and eight other soldiers were told that terrorists had attacked the nearby kibbutz of Nir Am and headed to the community in an armored personnel carrier.

On their way there, attackers opened fire on the vehicle with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. During a running battle, one of the soldiers exposed himself to fire back, was shot in his eye, and fell back into the vehicle. Before the soldiers had time to react, an attacker hurled a grenade into the carrier. One of the troopers apologized to the others and jumped onto the explosive. He was killed, but likely saved the lives of the others, who were still wounded by the shrapnel. Chamo continued fighting, gunning down another terrorist, before another grenade exploded next to him, injuring his arms, legs and face. A gas grenade then landed in the vehicle, temporarily blinding them.

“I’m injured, I have one dead, another injured in the vehicle. The soldiers who are with me are in shock,” Chamo told the rapt audience while standing next to his mother, who also accompanied him to New York. “I’m looking death in the eye, but I didn’t give up. I opened the emergency door so the gas could get out. Another terrorist stood in front of me and I eliminated him.”

The terrorists had fortified themselves in the kibbutz by that point, and before going in, Chamo sent a farewell video to his family and close friends. After an hour and a half of fighting, he received medical attention for his wounds and survived. His mother recounted to the audience how she had driven south, through rocket fire, to find her son in an emergency room covered in blood.

Chamo pointed to Shuri Moyal, a Belev Echad staff member at the event who was injured by a rocket propelled grenade blast in Gaza in 2014, as a source of support.

“I met him a month ago and I feel like he’s my older brother,” Chamo said. “He experienced it 10 years ago and now he helps me get through it like I need to. He’s showing me the way.”