Place: A military training facility in the Golan
Time: Winter, 2003
Event: A heavy explosion shook the entire building, and when the smoke cleared, it was clear that not a single one of the 24 soldiers present had escaped injury. An RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) had gone off inside the classroom, leaving all the soldiers injured and in shock. It was a miracle that none of them had died.
If you were to see him today, married and the proud father of a child, teaching civics and giving lectures, standing, running, swimming, sky diving and skiing, you would never believe that Yinon Cohen had sustained the worst injury that day, losing both his legs.

The scene of the explosion
The scene of the explosion

The Fateful Mistake

“Of course, I’ll never forget that day. It was a cold winter day, eight months after I had been drafted into the IDF. The drill sergeant called us into one of the classrooms to get a close look at an RPG. He stood in the middle of the room with the deadly anti-tank weapon, which was mounted on a platform, and we were all sitting on the floor in a semicircle around it. I was sitting directly in front of it.

“Since this lesson was taking place after many days of hard training and difficult hikes, I was exhausted and started dozing off in the middle of the lecture. At first the sergeant kept waking me up, but after a while he got frustrated and made me stand up, even though everybody else was sitting. And then he loaded the weapon and accidentally pressed the trigger. I and one other soldier were badly injured, four soldiers were moderately injured, nine were lightly injured, and there were nine others who had to be treated for shock.

“It happened in seconds. First there was a deafening explosion and a fireball that filled the entire room; then I felt something piercing me, cutting me in two. The rocket flew directly at me, hit me and partially exploded. My body flew to the right, and my legs flew to the left. It was fortunate that, because of the short distance, the rocket didn’t completely explode (otherwise there would have been at least ten casualties). I was injured by the partial explosion and by shrapnel from the rocket.

“After the explosion, there was a second or two of quiet, and then cries for help from every corner of the room. One soldier approached me and then went to help other soldiers instead. He thought I was dead and went to help the ones who could still be saved. Every part of my body was in unbelievable pain, and it felt as though my legs were on fire. In spite of this, I was conscious, and when I heard calls to evacuate the room in case other ammunition exploded, I dragged myself out of the room with what I can only describe as supernatural strength. Only then, when I was outside in a safe place, did I let myself pass out.”

When I ask Yinon why he calls this event a miracle, he doesn’t hesitate. “People can’t understand this, but as far as I’m concerned it was an absolute miracle. If I had been sitting, the rocket would have hit me straight in the face; it would have been the upper half of my body that would have been injured, and I wouldn’t be talking to you today. It’s a miracle because, in spite of my injuries, I’m alive and breathing. I got married and started a family. I eat, drink, travel and of course try to do what I should as a Jew, to serve G‑d.”


Friday Night Kiddush

After the accident, Yinon hovered between life and death for a day until, on Friday night, he opened his eyes. He saw his parents standing around his bed, eyes red from tears, worry and sleep deprivation. The first words he said to them were, “Thank you G‑d, that at least I’m alive.”

“My parents were so thrilled to hear these words. That moment is one I will never forget. My father immediately made Friday night kiddush, which for him was a prayer of thanks to G‑d that I was still in this world.”

But together with the happiness, there was an awareness that he was facing the greatest challenge of his life. The recovery was long and hard. He needed extensive medical, physical and psychological treatment. Within a short time he endured 35 operations, due to numerous infections of his burns.

Accepting his new condition was even harder. “I knew my feet were gone, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at my legs and to see exactly what had happened. Until then, I had never seen a person without legs. I couldn’t imagine how a person could live like that, and I couldn’t bring myself to accept that this was going to be the rest of my life. I lived in denial, telling myself that this was just a bad dream and that I would soon wake up. Every morning, when I woke up and my legs still weren’t there, I would realize that this bad dream wasn’t going to go away, and I despaired. It was only after a month that I finally brought myself to look at my missing feet and start thinking about what I was going to have to deal with.”

A number of people who had also lost their legs visited Yinon to to try to comfort him and reassure him that he could still live a normal life.

“The truth is that these people, with all their good intentions, didn’t really manage to encourage me. None of them were missing both legs. They only had to live with one missing limb. I was certain that for me it would be impossible to manage. Unlike them I didn’t have either leg, and I didn’t see how I would be able live a regular life.”

By the sea
By the sea


There were two things that eventually helped Yinon on his path to recovery. “The first and most important was faith. In a state of depression like that, no one can really help. People can talk, comfort and encourage, but if they haven’t had the same experience, they can’t really appreciate what you’re going through. In the end it was just me and G‑d. I spoke with Him often, and in spite of the anger and hurt I was feeling toward Him, I knew that in the end I believed in Him. I knew that, in spite of all the pain and frustration, He was the one who had brought me to this state for reasons I couldn’t understand. And I knew, too, that He was the one who would give me the strength to deal with the situation I was in. He was the one who would help me cope with my limitations and my path forward. As I spoke to Him, I realized that despair and depression would only destroy me, and that if I wanted to make anything out of the rest of my life, I couldn’t give in to endless self-pity. In the end, my strong faith in my Creator kept me sane.

“The other thing that helped me recover was a visit from Yossi Hochman. As we were talking, he removed both his legs. When I heard Yossi’s story, which involved a terrorist attack in which his wife and two daughters were killed, I realized that I was far better off than him. Compared to Yossi, who had been able to continue and remarry after losing the people he cared for most, my problems seemed relatively small. I still had a warm and loving family.

“But even with my renewed determination, moving on was not easy. After the initial healing came the process of reconstruction, which included getting fitted for prostheses, and a long and difficult adjustment.

“These were extremely hard months, full of ups and downs, a small step forward and then a long fall backward. I knew I couldn’t let myself give up, that if I gave in and let myself collapse, I wouldn’t be able to cope anymore, and I would lose the battle.”

In the army, before the accident
In the army, before the accident

“I Wanted to Be Invisible”

Another, no less difficult challenge, was coping with the stares of people around him. When his sister took him out to get a bit of fresh air for the first time after the accident, he turned and hid his face so that he didn’t have to see all the pitying looks. But in the evening, when he returned to his hospital room, Yinon realized that if he couldn’t bring himself to let people see him, he would never be able to go out. “I realized I had two choices, either to wilt away in my room and suffer between the four walls, or to go wherever I want, as I am, and let the people around me decide how they were going to cope with my disability.”

After a long period of treatment and physical therapy, Yinon was able to walk with his prostheses. It was easy to learn to walk, but then his scabs opened up and started hemorrhaging. This was because the explosion hadn’t amputated his legs evenly; there were bumps and hollows in the amputated areas, and the prostheses didn’t fit exactly as needed.

As I’m sure you’ve realized by now, Yinon is a real fighter. The fact that his sister, who was the one escorting him everywhere, was getting married in two and a half months, motivated him to push through the whole process yet again. And so, when the wedding day arrived, he did the impossible and showed up walking.

“Until today they tease me, saying that I stole the show from my sister and her husband. It was supposed to be their big day, but when I showed up walking, people just stood there and cried. Then they started clapping and cheering. I don’t know if there was a single dry eye in the entire hall.”

Skiing with his new feet
Skiing with his new feet

In the Merit of Tzitzit

“Before the accident a lot of soldiers made fun of the way I refused to be without my tzitzit for even a moment, even though it doesn’t fit with the standard army uniform. I had to keep defending myself and arguing with them, telling them that in my opinion the tzitzit were the best protective vest you could find. Before being drafted into the army, I wasn’t so careful about tzitzit. I put them on mostly out of habit and for my parents’ sake, but once I was in the army I started to think about the fact that tzitzit are our reminder to keep the mitzvahs, and that it was my responsibility to be a good Jew and wear them every day. After the accident everybody started asking me the same question: How is it that you, who prays three times a day without fail, was the most badly hurt of all? What happened to your ‘special’ protective vest? The answer was clear to me: Were it not for the mitzvahs I do, I would not have survived the explosion! And the fact is that the upper part of my body, the half that was covered by the tzitzit, wasn’t affected at all. It was only my legs, where the tzitzit threads end, that got hurt. In my opinion, we’re talking about a big miracle. The tzitzit did their job and protected me.”

Before you start pitying him, Yinon wants to make it clear that in his opinion he is truly fortunate. “Every morning I say Modeh Ani, ‘I gratefully thank you, living and eternal king, for You have compassionately returned my soul to me. Your faithfulness is abundant.’ This prayer means a lot to me. I know how easily a person can die and how much thanks we owe the Creator for every morning that He continues to have faith in us and give us back our lives.”

Yinon also says that he is no longer jealous of anybody. “I found unbelievable strength inside myself, and I found that I can do almost anything. Nothing can hold me back. I do everything that everybody else does, just in a different way.”

In Rambam Hospital
In Rambam Hospital

An Unbelievable Wedding

This incredible story comes with a happy ending. After some unsuccessful efforts to find his soulmate, Yinon met Meirav, now his wife, through mutual friends.

Meirav does not suffer from any disabilities, but after she met Yinon and saw what kind of person he was, she wanted to marry him. “It wasn’t easy for her parents to accept, and they nearly called it off, but we were meant for one another. Most of the girls I went out with backed off when they saw how disabled I was, and each time I thanked G‑d that they were backing out early on and that the feeling was pretty much mutual. Meirav accepted me the way I am, mostly because of my personality. I always told my parents that in a way I’m lucky, because the girl who marries me will do it because she’s attracted to me as I am and not for any other reason. And that will show that she herself is a good person.

“Make no mistake, it wasn’t an easy decision at all, and there was a lot of uncertainty along the way. What caused her to decide was the awareness that just like I could become an invalid overnight, so could she or any other person. Nobody has a promise of safety, and there’s no use thinking about what will be decades from now.”

The wedding itself was, of course, an incredibly happy and emotional occasion. The guest list included many of the doctors who had treated Yinon, as well as prominent public officials, military officials and his friends from the army. One of the highlights of the wedding was when dozens of disabled soldiers, who had become friends with Yinon over the years, danced around the young couple in a circle of wheelchairs.

Incidentally, Meirav’s parents, who had been so set against the idea of the marriage at first, became two of Yinon’s closest friends.

It would have been nice if after the wedding there were no further problems and everyone could settle into happily ever after, but real life doesn’t work like that, and new problems arose with Yinon’s legs. Thankfully, this proved to be the last stretch. The young couple moved to New York for about a year in order to find the proper prostheses for his legs, ones that would allow him to live without scabs causing problems every couple of months. After a lot of effort, and at the cost of $150,000 (donated by three organizations: Return Israel, Advancing to Life and Refuge for the Injured), he received three sets of prosthetic legs for three different needs. These let him return to the activities he enjoyed before the injury: running, swimming, skiing, playing soccer and basketball, and carrying out daily activities with almost no sign of his injuries.

The most touching moment for him was when he managed to run again for the first time in 12 years. “I cried like a baby. I just couldn’t stop crying. I found myself running, and the wind was rushing past my face. It was a very special moment. By the way, if any of the people reading this article would meet me in the street, I’m convinced they wouldn’t recognize me as the double amputee they’re reading about.”

Always Have Faith

Yinon and his wife now live in Moshav Maor, a little to the south of Hadera, and Yinon tells his story in lectures he gives all over Israel. “The most important thing for me is to send the message that a person should always have faith; faith in the Creator and also faith in himself. Each person needs to know that he has inner strengths far beyond what he knows.”

Yinon tries to see the good in everything. He half-jokingly says that he’s got it better than other people: he can walk around in puddles all winter without worrying about getting cold feet, and if he knows that he has an important meeting early the next day, he can prepare his feet and put his nice shoes on before he goes to bed.

“I have no doubt that I am where I am today because I didn’t let myself give in to depression. Always pray to G‑d to give you strength, and don’t give up hope. Look ahead and see the light at the end of the tunnel. That light is always there, even if the path through the tunnel is longer than you expected. If right after the explosion you had told me, my parents, the doctors or fellow soldiers that I would marry a woman with no disabilities at all, and that I would stand on my feet, play every sport I wanted to, and be able to travel and support my family, no one would have believed it. Start believing in yourself and in the Divine strength you have within yourself. Limitations are just in the head, and one who breaks through them can go anywhere.”