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For this Israeli general, the horror of Oct. 7 meant a return to the battlefield


A lot of people here in Israel had a challenging, disorienting day on October 7, one month ago exactly, the day Hamas attacked. But no one has a story like Yair Golan. Golan is a politician. He was a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, until last year. His party is on the left of Israel's political spectrum. Golan joined the recent massive street protests against the far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Golan is also a general in the reserves, not active duty. But the morning of the Hamas attack, October 7, he told me instinct kicked in.

YAIR GOLAN: So by, I think, 8 o'clock, 8:30, I put on my uniform, and I am going to my old headquarters in the Home Front Command.

KELLY: So stop there a second. You said you - I'm putting on my uniform. Why was that your first thought - I have to go put on my uniform?

GOLAN: Because it's so unusual and sounds so bad that, you know, I cannot stay at home. And I'm still in good shape. You know, I can fight.

KELLY: Yair Golan had no weapon, no ammo. He was handed back his old rifle. He told me, as we chatted over tea in his back garden the other day, that his next instinct that morning was to drive south, as close as he could get to the music festival that Hamas had attacked and where people had been murdered and taken hostage.

GOLAN: And then I got a phone call from my sister. And she asked me whether I can take someone - guys from the - who escaped the Nova festival - whether I can take them out of the combating zone to a safe location. She sent me the location, you know, on Google Map. So I drove my Toyota Yaris through the fields, and I managed to find them.

KELLY: Who was it?

GOLAN: Three guys who escaped a terrorist attack.

KELLY: And they were - what? - hiding but still in danger because who knew...

GOLAN: They were hiding inside bushes. They were under trauma, of course. And when I approach them, you know, I jump off the car, and I start to shout them. You know, it's me. It's General Golan. You are safe. It's OK. Please get out of the bushes. And that's what I did (laughter).

KELLY: It's surreal. What's going through your head at this moment - just focus, mission?

GOLAN: Yeah.


GOLAN: That's it. So I took them out. And then I got another phone call from a journalist, Neil Guntash (ph). Can you bring my son back? Send me a location. Well, the same procedure - they send me a location. I drove there, found them and took them out. And then I got another phone call.

KELLY: Is word spreading? General Golan is there...

GOLAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KELLY: ...If your kid is in trouble.

GOLAN: I don't know how. But I did over and over about three times, three consecutive times. And the third time, it was much closer to the Nova festival location. And when I drove along the road, suddenly I realized the horror because there were bodies, you know, along the road. You know, I had to drive my car very cautiously because - you know, in order not to hit one of the bodies.

KELLY: You're making a swerving motion with your hand.

GOLAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, all over the road.

KELLY: Why do this? There are active duty Israeli soldiers around the area. Why do this?

GOLAN: I think the feeling was that everything collapsed. You need to do your best in order to contribute something to the overall effort.

KELLY: The Israeli press across the political spectrum is calling you a hero. Is that a strange feeling for someone who...

GOLAN: Fought all of his life? Well, I can tell you the following.

KELLY: Yeah.

GOLAN: And it's not a matter of modesty. It's - comparing to other things that I did in my life, it was relatively less dangerous. I fought a lot. I managed to question so many people who really fought the terrorists in the kibbutzim, in the villages, in the towns. I can tell you that if you look for bravery, talk to them, not to me.

KELLY: Your beautiful wife is standing here in the doorway. And while we were waiting for you, she was telling me you have five sons together. The oldest is 34, and the youngest is 19.

GOLAN: Yep. You're right.

KELLY: And he will enlist in two weeks, and then all five will be serving their country.

GOLAN: I think this is the - this is a very Israeli story.

KELLY: How do you talk to them about the fight and what would be worth fighting and maybe dying for?

GOLAN: It's really - it's interesting. You know, with my two elder son - oh, even with the third one, it's kind of a professional discussions.

KELLY: Right.

GOLAN: Yes. I try to provide them, you know...

KELLY: You're a general. I get it - professional discussion.

GOLAN: Pride in - proud of my experience, you know, professional guidance.

KELLY: As a father, is that conversation different?

GOLAN: Yes, all the time because you think about every word because if you give an advice that could be lethal, well, you're going to take it with you for the rest of your life. So it's a very cautious discussions for my part.

KELLY: And I heard you had a wedding for one of your sons in this garden where we're sitting.

GOLAN: (Laughter) You heard everything.

KELLY: Listen. I got all the gossip. But it sounds like there's hope and joy amid this...

GOLAN: It was here.

KELLY: ...Very difficult moment - right here, right behind you.

GOLAN: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: There's hope and joy still.

GOLAN: Well, we need to live, and we need to go as soon as possible to normality. There is - you know, I learned it from my father. My father was born in Germany and escaped Germany while he was 5 years old, and half of his family was executed by the Nazis. And he told me all the time, we are going to concentrate on building, not on sorrow, not on, you know, all kind of negative feelings. We must be optimistic. And I think this is a lesson that lead me through my adult life. We need to be - it's not just we need to be optimistic. We need to build this optimism. We need to work hard in order to convince ourselves and others that we could do something really, really good. And, you know, I look at the Israeli nation. We did something fantastic. We need to concentrate right now not on revenge but on building - rebuilding our nation. This is a true political goal.

KELLY: Yair Golan. Thank you.

GOLAN: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Yair Golan, Israeli politician, general and father.


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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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