Monday, September 13, 2010

(BLOG) 'The World's Best Soldier'

"Ynet special: Emmanuel Moreno a legend whose photo cannot be published even posthumously.

After several months in his presence, Maya Moreno already got used to not always knowing where her husband Emanuel heads to every morning. Is he on his way to another secret operation, deep in enemy territory? Will he find himself under a barrage of bullets or face-to-face with a surprised terrorist in a few hours? Will he arrive home very late, almost never in uniform but with 'the unit's' emblem above his left pocket, stepping gingerly as not to wake up the kids? Or will he again spend the night 'there,' involved in yet another operation that will likely never be publicized? One could only guess.

Maya knew well that she did not marry a nine-to-five man who proceeds to do the grocery shopping after leaving the office. Even today, most of Emmanuel Moreno's operations are unknown outside the defense establishment or are under a gag order. However, his name is whispered with great reverence within the 'unit' and among his commanders. 'The IDF's no. 1 fighter,' senior officers referred to him. 'The soul of Sayeret Matkal,' his comrades say. Meanwhile, religious soldiers refer to him as 'the man who followed in the footstep of legendary Jewish hero Bar Kochba.'

The operations Morano was involved in were so secretive and sophisticated that even today, four years after his death, censors ban the publication of his photographs. Hence, Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Moreno is believed to be the only soldier in IDF history whose photo cannot be published even posthumously.

The elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit engages in the most sensitive, complex IDF activities; Moreno's squad was tasked with the most sensitive, complex activities within the unit, and within this squad, 'Moreno was the best,' his comrades say. 'Emmanuel led highly complex operational activity, among the most important carried out by the IDF,' the unit commander says. 'Their contribution to national security is significant. The challenges he faced during his service required rare professional abilities, focus and sharpness, and exceptional personal responsibility.'

From France to Jerusalem

Only on rare occasions did Emmanuel share the details of secret operations with his wife, Maya. One of these times took place when he proposed. They met three and a half months earlier and that day went on a hike in the Lachish region. While facing the stunning scenery, Emmanuel suddenly grew silent. 'He started stammering there,' Maya says. 'He then said: 'Ok, I'll do it the proper way,' and then he got down on his knees and asked me: 'Will you marry me?' I was very touched, and immediately said yes.'

'We were both overjoyed but also embarrassed, because we were both religious and could not touch each other. We didn't quite know what to do. And then he told me about the Dirani abduction operation,' she says. 'He drew a map on the sand, where the house was and how it all happened. He told me the story in detail, from a very personal perspective…Emmanuel played a significant role in this operation, and actually sat there in the helicopter with Dirani.'

Emmanuel Moreno was born in France in June 1971 and made Aliyah to Israel with his family when he was one-year-old. He grew up with his four brothers in Jerusalem, and while completing his high school studies he started the grueling trial period for Sayeret Matkal.

Moreno was a member of the unit for 16 years. He was involved in numerous operations, always at the forefront. 'During his service Emmanuel became the fighter who took part in the greatest number of operations in the unit's history,' a comrade says. 'On more than one occasion, his level-headedness and courage made the difference between failure and yet another success story that shall remain classified. The squad commander once compared him to Bark Kochba, because we had not seen a fighter like him since.' These operations face a sweeping gag order. Moreno's own comrades in the unit are unfamiliar with some of them.

Moreno met his wife when he was 28. At the time he was considering ending his career army service and embarked on law studies. She was a 26-year-old newly religious woman at the time. They met in the former Gaza community of Neve Dekalim, engaging in long conversations and quickly realizing this was it. They had three children together, Aviya, 9, Neria, 6, and Noam-Yisrael, 4.

The disengagement wound

On top of his exceptional courage, Moreno was extremely creative in his field of expertise, his comrades say. 'He changed the reality at the unit and introduced a new, revolutionary way,' says one comrade. 'He had no fear and never feared entanglements in the field. He knew that even in such cases he will find a solution. We don't remember ever having a person like that in the unit, with such devotion, who was willing to go all the way like that.'

'I can count the number of people who knew his exact role in the unit on one hand,' the comrade says. 'We'll never be able to talk about his activity in the unit, but there is no doubt he was not just another regular fighter.'

The Gaza disengagement was a wound for him. During the evacuation, in the summer of 2005, Moreno and a friend got up on the roof of a Neve Dekalim house and refused to leave. During the disengagement, he took a vacation to help the evacuees pack their bags and relocate them to their new homes. However, his comrades say he never considered the option of quitting the army to protest the pullout. 'The IDF is ours and only ours,' he would say.

In the following months, Emmanuel prepared for a new role in the military offered to him. Yet then came the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006. As always, he was eager to head out to the field. 'A week before he died we met at the unit,' a former commander say. 'We spoke about the war and about how frustrated he was over the indecision and failure to utilize Israel's potential. He believed this war would lead the people of Israel to salvation.'

Another comrade, who took part in the operation Moreno was killed in, recounts their last conversation: 'We sat down and spoke about all sorts of things that may happen…suddenly Emmanuel asked me: 'What would you do if a missile hits us and we have five seconds left to live?' I told him I would close my eyes and wait for it to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible. He said that what we need to do in these five second is recite Shema Yisrael. He said that if a person has five seconds left to live, these are the most significant seconds of his life…if a person doesn't understand the significance of these final five seconds it means there is no meaning to his whole life. He believed that we should not be preoccupied with satisfying our desires and material needs, but rather, that life is one phase en route to the next stage.'

'He never gave up'

When Emmanuel was killed, Maya felt it hundreds of kilometers away. 'A month before his death, I kept seeing images of a funeral,' she said. 'I would wash dishes at home and imagine myself standing above his grave. I would clear these thoughts from my head, or at least try to. I wasn't worried about him my whole life, so what was happening now? Yet in practice, these images materialized.'

'It happened on Shabbat. It was supposed to be the last operation he heads to in that war. He shared the details with me. I knew what he was supposed to do and what his role was. I had a heavy feeling the entire Shabbat. I read psalms and kept on looking at the watch until I fell asleep. Emmanuel was killed just as I fell asleep.'

'I woke up in the middle of the night because my son, Neria, was crying. He was just screaming, because he couldn't find me. I jumped out of bed and he kept on screaming, as if he was saying something, some kind of message. I told myself: 'Maya, listen to what the kid is saying.' I woke up again at 7:30 in the morning and thought that Emmanuel was already back in Israel and that everything was fine. In fact, he was already sleeping an eternal sleep.'

Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Moreno was killed on August 18, 2006, at the end of the Second Lebanon War, following the ceasefire announcement. His squad operated in Lebanon's Baalbek region, the operation went awry, and the fighters were exposed. They came under heavy fire; the man who has known countless dangerous and operations sustained grave wounds. He was 35 at the time of his death.

It appears that the heroic stories about Moreno only intensified after his death. 'Emmanuel was the best soldier in the world,' his squad commander says. 'Why? The IDF is the world's best army, Sayeret Matkal is the top unit in the IDF, our squad is the best one in the unit, and he was the best soldier in the squad. He never lost and never gave up. In the last years I would follow him, metaphorically and physically. I knew that going with him meant playing it safe. He turned from a friend to something that safeguards you.'" (source)

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