Two Lebanon wars, Operation Defensive Shield: A native Pittsburgher’s duties as IDF doctor
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ProfileDr. Shepherd Singer

Two Lebanon wars, Operation Defensive Shield: A native Pittsburgher’s duties as IDF doctor

Shepherd Singer left Squirrel Hill for Israel decades ago only to return with a new name, profession and as a decorated war hero.

Retired Major Dr. Roee Singer. Photo courtesy of Roee Singer
Retired Major Dr. Roee Singer. Photo courtesy of Roee Singer

When Shepherd Singer left Squirrel Hill and landed in Israel several decades ago, he “fell in love at first sight,” the 59-year-old IDF vet told the Chronicle while in Pittsburgh visiting his mother, Susan Singer, last week.

Singer was a student at Taylor Allderdice when he learned of the Mollie Goodman Academic High School, based in Ashkelon and established by the Zionist Organization of America. The institution provided students with “the benefits of a high standard of secondary education, together with a knowledge of Judaism and exposure to the pioneering spirit of Israel, following a curriculum patterned after United States high schools,” JTA reported when the school opened in 1967.

Singer headed to Israel.

“I got off the plane, looked at the green fields and was like, ‘I am home,’” he recalled.

At the end of the year, Singer told his parents he wanted to return for 12th grade. They obliged and, upon graduating, Singer told them he wanted to join the Israeli army. “That’s when they said, ‘no,’” Singer said.

Not yet a legal adult, Singer returned to Pittsburgh and enrolled in Antioch College. After six weeks of classes, he left, worked as a carpenter for six months, saved enough money for a ticket, and on his 18th birthday (Oct. 11, 1981) returned to Israel, where he quickly obtained citizenship and a date to enlist in the IDF.

“I was gleaming with happiness,” Singer said.

As a lone soldier in basic training, he was given a week to go back to Pittsburgh and visit family; however, his time in the States proved shorter.

In London, on June 3, 1982, Palestinian members of the Abu Nidal terrorist organization shot Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, in the head.

“Not since the slaying of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 has a hit team made war such a likely outcome,” The Guardian reported.

On June 6, the IDF invaded Lebanon.

Singer was still in Pittsburgh when he “heard on CBS News that my guys went in,” he recalled.

He quickly changed his ticket and flew back to Israel only to discover the roads into Lebanon were “jammed.” He found an officer at the airport, took a helicopter to Lebanon, commandeered a car and met up with fellow members of the Golani infantry brigade.

After the First Lebanon War, Singer returned to Israel, became an IDF officer and entered medical school. He trained in field surgery, hoping to become a doctor for the Golani brigade, but was told the IDF needed a physician with Israel’s 890th paratrooper battalion, so he complied.

Years passed, Singer married, he and his wife welcomed children, but life didn’t grow quieter. During Passover 2002, amid a month of repeated terrorist attacks, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 30 people at the Park Hotel in Netanya.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Knesset members the IDF and other security forces would embark on Operation Defensive Shield with a goal of “uprooting” terrorists.

Sharon’s orders to the IDF were clear: “target and paralyze anyone who takes up weapons and tries to oppose our troops, resists them or endanger them — and to avoid harming the civilian population.”

On April 3 — the seventh day of Passover — instead of sitting around the holiday table, Singer was seated in “an armored personnel carrier on the way to Nablus,” he said.

The wartime experience differed greatly from his introduction to battle.

Retired Major Dr. Roee Singer. Photo courtesy of Roee Singer

“In Lebanon One, I was not fired upon,” Singer said. “This was my baptism under fire.”

Singer said Operation Defensive Shield was a “successful campaign” and praised the IDF for “going into the hornet’s nest and addressing the problem there.”

But four years later, Singer found himself amid another conflict. Following Hezbollah’s July 12, 2006, cross-border raid from Lebanon into Israel, he was contacted by his commander and told to report to Israel’s northern border.

“Our guys were already in Lebanon,” Singer said.

After reaching a suburb of Bint Jbeil, where his fellow paratroopers had gathered, Singer spent the first day or two, he said, sitting on the floor of a mansion, eating sandwiches and reading Gemara. Then, suddenly, gunfire erupted.

“They knew we were here,” he said.

As the IDF soldiers took their positions, Singer remained seated.

“My job is to watch over them and let them do their work,” he said.

Singer quietly read Tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud when he heard a missile hit the roof of his building. He donned his helmet, ascended the stairs and discovered three IDF soldiers in a pile, “one on top of the other,” he said. “The power of the missiles swung them around like a tornado on the roof.”

Off to the side, 20 feet from the injured group, Singer saw one dead soldier, and three wounded, who required attention. But he couldn’t administer treatment there.

“We were open to more missile fire,” he said.

After the wounded were moved four stories down from the roof, Singer and his medics tried to stop the bleeding. Efforts were largely successful, Singer said, except one soldier required additional care.

Singer and the medics finally tied the soldier down to a stretcher and managed to get his bleeding under control.

“Now we had to carry these guys to the evacuation point, and that means going out the doors, and Hezbollah knows you’re there,” Singer said. “I heard an incredible outbreak of gunfire. It was our guys shooting in front.”

IDF soldiers created an “evacuation envelope” so Singer and his team could walk half a kilometer up a hill and deliver the wounded for transport to the hospital.

As gunfire continued, Singer thought back to his initial “baptism under fire.”

“For the first time, I realized this was the real deal,” he said. “Hezbollah was a good army.”

The IDF members reached the evacuation vehicles and delivered the wounded. Singer and his team left Lebanon to regroup, only to discover their work wasn’t finished.

After reentering Lebanon, he received a call that a soldier was injured 100 meters down the road. Singer and his medics “zig-zagged” through alleyways avoiding enemy gunfire. After reaching the building's location, Singer noticed two IDF soldiers on the floor.

“One guy had a bullet in his neck, the other guy had a bullet in his thigh,” Singer said.

While the former was actually “all right,” the latter required immediate care, so Singer administered morphine and spoke with nearby soldiers. An evacuation team was needed, Singer said, but bringing one in during the middle of the day was “suicide,” so he and the wounded remained seated in the building until it was safe to exit.

“That day was crazy,” Singer said. “It was like living in a shooting range from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. … They would throw a grenade in, shoot at us, but miraculously no one was hurt on that day except my two guys,” Singer said.

Finally, after nightfall, Singer and his team evacuated the wounded. But again, Singer’s work wasn’t finished. He and his team walked through the night to reach a safe space. After arriving around 5 a.m. they endured another day of gunfire and missile attacks, he said.

“When they were shooting, I would read Tehillim, and when they weren’t shooting I would read Gemara,” Singer continued. “It’s hard to concentrate on Gemara when they’re shooting at you, as you can imagine.”

Around 3 p.m. a missile landed in a nearby room. Singer ventured over to discover two soldiers in shell shock. One soldier was able to go back and fight. The other soldier, Singer said, needed to be carried off on a stretcher.

Retired Major Dr. Roee Singer. Photo courtesy of Roee Singer

Two hours later, Singer was called and told that an IDF soldier in the next building had sustained a chest wound. Reaching him was problematic, though.

“Stepping out in the middle of daylight is insanity,” Singer said. “I’m thinking I have limited resources and can’t do open heart surgery in the middle of a battlefield.”

Singer and his medics convened.

“I was 44 at the time,” Singer said. “The oldest of my guys was 27. The soldiers are 18 — they could be my children — they knew their friend is bleeding in the next building, so I said, ‘OK, we are going to go save this guy.’”

Singer and the medics were led by a team of six IDF soldiers. After reaching the building, Singer ran up the steps. Gunfire continued raining through the windows, but he eventually reached the wounded soldier.

“He didn’t look good,” Singer said. “He had a bullet in his shoulder and lost at least one lung.”

Singer noticed the bullet entered near the soldier’s subclavian artery and that the exit wound was “half the size of a grapefruit.”

The medics applied packing, but the soldier was still losing blood.

“I told my medic to give me the packing and I started stuffing his back with gauze pads to put pressure to stop the bleeding,” Singer said.

The soldier stabilized. His pulse leveled off, but his breathing began to fail. Singer realized the soldier needed a chest tube, but missiles were entering the building.

Singer inserted a chest tube. The soldier’s breathing improved, but Singer worried the soldier would lose consciousness so he inserted a breathing tube. Just as the procedure was nearing its end, Singer placed a piece of gauze above the breathing tube to prevent dust from entering. At that moment, Singer said, a missile hit the compound, and the ceiling collapsed. He noticed a piece of concrete had fallen on the gauze filter. Had the gauze not been placed above the breathing tube, Singer said, there would have been concrete in the soldier’s lungs.

Singer knew the soldier needed to be evacuated, but it was “midday, in the center of the village, and enemies were everywhere,” he said. “They were shooting at us from 15 feet away.”

The IDF dispatched a helicopter to disable the enemies, but the efforts were unsuccessful. Enemy gunfire and missiles continued, Singer said, and he covered the soldier to protect him from shrapnel.

Finally, a rescue vehicle arrived — but it was parked five feet from a Hezbollah window, Singer said. Despite the danger, IDF soldiers got on top of the armored carrier and managed to load the wounded into the vehicle. The soldier was transported to a hospital and treated.

Every year on the date of the attack, that soldier still calls “to thank me for saving his life,” Singer said.

Sixteen years have passed since the end of the Second Lebanon War, and Singer said his life isn't the same: Those experiences “brought me to a higher level of faith, of belief in God, of wanting to do good.”

He received a medal of honor for his actions, retired from the army as a major and serves as deputy director, Division of Epidemiology, for Israel’s Ministry of Health.

As one of the country’s highest ranking public health officials, Singer — he goes by “Roee,” which is Hebrew for “shepherd” — has helped Israel navigate polio, Ebola, measles, West Nile virus and COVID.

“Public health is the closest thing to being under fire in medicine,” Singer said. “All these outbreaks are coming at you hard and fast. It feels like we’re being bombarded all the time.”

But as Singer nears his 60th birthday, he said he’s finally reached a place of appreciation: “I can’t get shot at all the time. But to be bombarded, maybe I’m in the right place after all.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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