On this Memorial Day, I would like to tell you the story of Sergeant Major Keren Tendler, who died on August 12, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. Her mother, Rivana Tendler, told me the story of a bright young girl who suddenly was no more, and shared the reality of life without her.
Keren was born on September 26, 1979, and grew to be an athletic, talented young woman who couldn’t wait to enlist the army. In high school, she was exposed to the activities of the Israeli Air Force, and was drawn to it. After learning more, she shared with her family her desire to have a meaningful military service, and not spend two years of her life doing secretarial work. She was very excited to join the IDF and especially the Air Force. So she joined a program in her high school, ORT Rehovot, that allows students to enlist in technical positions after completing their studies in practical engineering.
After completing the Air Force mechanics course, Keren entered squadron, and from the very first moment, she was simply elated. She called her family every day, thrilled, to share every experience. Then, she decided she wanted to become an on-flight mechanic on a “Yas’ur” helicopter. This type of job is far from simple, and this type of helicopter is very large and complex. She went through a series of tests, including boot camp and courses, as the sole woman in a group of men. But she was a natural athlete, a swimmer, and it helped her overcome the physical difficulties and reach higher benchmarks than her male companions.
In 2002, Keren finally started living her dream as the first woman to qualify to serve as an on-flight mechanic on a “Yas’ur” helicopter. In an interview with the Air Force magazine, she said: “I see myself as a combat soldier just like the others. My aim is to show other girls that they can do this job, too.”
All of her friends and family came to her course graduation,” Rivana said to me as we sat together in her quiet living room. Everything still fresh in her memory, as if no time had passed. “It wasn’t easy for her. She was around men and faced some extremely difficult tasks, but she had an admirable will power, and she wanted to prove herself and succeed. There was no a screw on that plane she did not know. The “Yas’ur” was the love of her life. “
Did she fit in naturally?
“Her squadron was one of a kind. They were like family, always supporting and loving each other. No pride, no ego. In 2005, she wanted to start an officer's course, but her commander at the time was a troublemaker, so after completing her mandatory service, she was ready to start her adult life. She started law school, but was often called up for reserve duty. She loved to return to the base. In her car she always carried her school bag, her swimming bag and a bag with “Yas’ur” tools and books. She finished her first hear of school with honors, and wanted to be a lawyer specializing in Aviation Law. Up until six years before she went away, she completed 50 days of reserve duty, more than the men she served with.
Then the war broke out. At first, we agreed that it was a right, justified, necessary war, and so did she, but later on we felt like something was a bit “off.” They cut the security budget not long before, so when the war began, we weren’t fully prepared to face the enemy. At first, they didn’t want to send her on a flight to Lebanon, probably because they had a policy to not send women out there, but she was furious and insisted.
Suddenly, the government decided to send 24 helicopters to Lebanon, in order to send supplies and more soldiers This was after the cease -fire was already announced, so they basically sent soldiers out there for 48 hours for no logical reason. On July 25, she wrote in her journal, which we later saw, a request to God to watch over our soldiers and protect them. She felt that things are just not going well.”
And her concerns turned out to be more than reasonable…
“Yes. On August 11, she entered Lebanon for the first time on another flight that was aimed to support IDF forces in the field. She returned home late that night, and tried to calm us down by assuring us that everything was fine, quiet.
The next day she was on call. She arrived the base and asked to board the plane again. The person in charge told her it wasn’t necessary and that there were other people who could and should go, but she insisted. She was on plane No. 2, out of a long line of planes that carried a total of 54 men. They took the exact same route as the day before, and the enemy, Hezbollah, anticipated their arrival.
After landing, suddenly,an explosion was heard, and the plane blew up. Keren and the other four members of her helicopter’s crew were gone. Luckily, the rocket missed the rest [of the fleet]. It was less than two days before the ceasefire started, and after it was officially announced, so why did they send them there? They knew it is all going to end, so why did they do that? No reason whatsoever.”
How did you hear the news?
“This was Saturday, August 12, 2006, at 9:45 p.m. We were sitting at home when my husband read online that Hezbollah took down a “Yas’ur” helicopter in Lebanon. At the same time, my son saw the exact same story on the news. My head started to spin and we started calling everyone we know: the base, people from the squadron. No one said anything, just that “everything was okay.”
At 1:45 a.m., officers knocked on our door, and then nothing was okay. They told us that she was missing, presumably dead. The next day, four bodies were found and retrieved. Keren’s was not. Another nightmare. It was a race against time — who will find the body first, us or Hezbollah, who would later trade it and ask for things in return? We sat and waited all day. Everyone was nervous, and an order was given to the rescue teams not to leave Lebanon without the body.”
I can’t even imagine what went through your head…
“In the meantime, officers helped us with funeral arrangements. At 11 p.m., there was still no body, and the funeral was cancelled. Our friends sat with us the whole time, strengthening and supporting us. At that moment, I collapsed. I was sure Hezbollah had my daughter.
The next day, a friend of mine called and told me that she read online that the body was found. It was very strange, because no one told us anything. In the meantime, journalists came knocking on our door, trying to get an interview, and we pushed them away. We felt overwhelmed, not knowing what happened or what to do. One of the journalists reached the IDF spokesperson at the time, Miri Regev, and asked her if we were informed that the body was found. She said ‘yes’ and I was in shock. We turned to one of the officers and asked him what was going on. He was in shock that we were not informed.
The funeral was set to Aug. 16, 2006. This is a symbolic date, because the next day, we marked 30 years since we made Aliyah from Romania, and on July 31, my husband turned 60. We planned to celebrate after she got back. A few days after the Shivah ended, I was back to my work as an English teacher in ORT high school. I did not know what was going on — my feet were not on the ground and my head was spinning.
Life hasn’t been easy for us. The people of the squadron are amazing — helping us, caring for us — but I can’t shake off the feeling that this August 12 flight was unnecessary, and that five people are gone because of that. Keren’s future abruptly ended. We are not at peace with that, and time does not ease the pain. We always remember, always thinking, “What if?” Her friends got married and had children, and she will stay young forever.”
How do you commemorate Keren?
“We do all in our power to commemorate her. There is a garden in our city, Rehovot, in her name. It was founded partially by the municipality and partially by World ORT and other donations. It is located in the garden where she went on her runs and exercised. World ORT also graciously agreed to grant a yearly scholarship under Keren’s name to a student who finished her military service and is studying engineering or law. The college where she studied law is also granting a scholarship under her name. There is also a memorial there. There is a seminar for young girls in Ra’anana, Israel, that is named after her, a movie about her, a memorial in her high school. There are Jewish communities in the U.S. that commemorate her, and I talk about her at every chance I get. I try to keep her memory alive, and even this article is a commemoration of Keren.”
Why is the commemoration so important to you?
“This is how we keep her memory, her name, fresh in people’s hearts and minds. I am sure people remember this one-of–a-kind young woman, but why not help them remember her even better? Every time her name is mentioned, I find it very important. There is the collective memory on National Memorial Day and through a memorial for all the fallen soldiers of that war, but the personal things are more important to me. Every memory matters.”
Watch "She Touched the Sky" - a memorial movie dedicated to Keren (English subtitles.) May she rest in peace.