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Iron Brother tests mettle of wounded soldiers

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“It was a powerful experience to be among a group of like-minded people and share the emotions of those previously injured in battle, either mentally or physically.”

So says South African-born London resident, Evan Feldman, who recently rode 400km in Israel in two days. He was one of the 20 foreign guests who joined the 150 wounded soldiers in Iron Brother 2022 on 29 and 30 March.

Iron Brother comprises road biking, mountain biking, running, kayaking, and swimming in stages from Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel on the northern border of the country, all the way down to Eilat on the Red Sea, which is the southern tip of Israel.

Some of the participants in this year’s event rode or ran 545km from Mount Herman to Eilat. The temperature was barely 5 degrees Celsius as they readied for the start at dawn. Others joined for portions along the way. The remainder either swam or kayaked in the Sea of Galilee or participated in diving in Eilat.

The event was organised by Brothers for Life (BFL), an American-based Jewish non-profit organisation through which injured soldiers help other injured soldiers to reclaim their lives. This was the second Iron Brother event. The first, last year, was designed to inspire wounded soldiers to accomplish a feat they may have considered impossible physically and mentally.

However, as Feldman discovered in March, anything is possible through brotherhood and perseverance. By participating in the Iron Brother with soldiers who were injured in combat, all participants tested their bodies and minds like never before.

“It wasn’t just a normal sporting event that you signed up to or a charity event,” says Dov Krok, another South African-born foreign guest who lives in London and participated in the road-bike ride, riding 320km over the two days.

“This had a lot of meaning. It was just an incredible time to bond with everyone and see people overcoming their challenges. We all did something together,” says Krok.

One former soldiers who participated, Maor Elkobi, raced with a paralysed right arm because of taking two bullets while defending against a terrorist attack. Others ran with braces, prosthetics, and often shrapnel still resting in their arms, legs, and torsos. Most have post-traumatic stress disorder, but their bodies and spirits are strong.

Another former soldier who participated was Israeli Shraga Stern, who served his country in the military for eight years.

“When I was 30, I was injured chasing a terrorist,” he says “We were looking for him. Then I was stabbed very badly in my chest and almost died.”

Having been given a second chance at life, Stern joined BFL to help other wounded soldiers. Today, he’s involved in the organisation on a full-time basis and has helped organise the two editions of the Iron Brother.

In this year’s event, he cycled at least 60km each day, and did a 10km run as well as a 3km swim.

“It was a great experience on a few different levels,” he says. “One of them was to see my best buddies and myself training for this all year. It’s a highlight of our year. It’s about choosing life.

“Another unique thing this year was the inclusion of our international partners, and that made a huge difference. The guys were so honoured to ride together. Israelis were extremely excited to have people coming from around the world, giving them recognition and support. For the international partners who came, it was inspiring to ride with some guys who have visible injuries and to overcome their challenges together.”

Feldman and Krok aren’t former soldiers but were invited to participate as partners of BFL. They have both been involved in hosting delegations from the organisation in South Africa.

Krok, a King David Linksfield alumnus, left South Africa in 2008. Feldman, an alumnus of the Pretoria-based Carmel School, did so a decade later.

In support of South African children’s charities, Feldman has completed some extreme swims and broken various world records as part of a group called Mad Swimmer.

Krok has completed a couple of Olympic distance triathlons and did social cycling with some friends during lockdown. “Other than that, I do a bit of running and I do tai chi. I do quite a lot of training, swimming, and golf. I’m very active and generally a fit kind of person.”

As a result, he didn’t need to train much for the Iron Brother. “There were guys riding with a paralysed arm or with one leg missing, so if they could do it, and I’m fully able, then why shouldn’t I be able to do it?” says Krok. “This carried me over the line and helped me to persevere and push through the pain barriers.”

Stern trained as part of a triathlon team comprised of soldiers wounded in combat. “We meet regularly, twice or three times a week,” he says. “We have a coach. It’s all part of Brothers for Life. We are a big community with 1 200 ‘brothers’ all over Israel.”

Feldman prepared by spending many hours on the saddle to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. “The Iron Brother was tough,” he says. “You start out in the lush of the Golan, but very soon, you’re in the desert, searing heat, heavy headwinds.”

He says only a handful of people completed the entire road-bike distance, and the average size of the peloton was between six and 30 riders.

“Long distances made the ride very difficult. But when you’re among people who have been through far more difficulties than you have, you’re incentivised not to moan and just get on with it.”

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