Our Everyday Heroes

Rafael Kellen

The Life Story of a Genuine Hero

Building a New Life

When Rafael Kellen talks about his childhood, one understands that it was not an easy time. He was born 25 years ago in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa to an ultraorthodox Jewish family. When he was one, his family made Aliya to Israel and settled in Kiryat Ye’arim (also called Telz-Stone), an ultraorthodox settlement in the Jerusalem Corridor populated by religious-ultraorthodox Jews. He never felt connected to the ultraorthodox education system, with its Talmud Torah schools and yeshiva high schools that he was sent to as a youth.

While his peers were following the well-known Torah studies track of the ultraorthodox community, Rafael removed the yarmulke from his head, left home, and rented an apartment in Ashkelon with a childhood friend with whom he’s in touch until this very day. When at the age of 18 he decided he wanted to enlist in the IDF, he knew beforehand that his parents would have a hard time coming to terms with such an extraordinary move.

“My big brother who’s six years older than I took off his yarmulke at the age of 16, enlisted as a combat soldier with the Engineering Corps, took an officers’ course and a company commanders’ course, and served for ten years as a career officer,” recalls Kellen. “I knew our parents had a hard time accepting that. They didn’t show up to any of his graduation ceremonies— or to mine— during our military service. But with the passing of years, they softened a bit; and when my sister graduated from an officer’s course they did show up to the ceremony. It was I, by the way, who hooked my sister up with the Oketz Unit (canine special forces) and today she is a career officer.”

Kellen enlisted with the Kfir Brigade (counter-terrorist urban warfare) and later decided to try getting into the Oketz Unit, the IDF’s special canine forces. He passed the grueling one and a half year training course with distinction. Immediately after that he was sent to take a squad commanders’ course. “My military service suited me perfectly and fit me like what I did and my commanders were very satisfied with me. Being in the army was never difficult for me. Maybe because by nature, I’m a survivor whose been forced to survive all his life. Because I came from a background that was not easy.”

After a period of time in which he participated in a few missions with his unit, Kellen began preparing for the officers’

course. It was during this time that he was injured in a sports accident while participating in his unit’s special Sports Day forcing him to postpone his participation in the prestigious course by several months.

“I was already close to finishing my regular army service as a drill sergeant at Infantry School 450, when I was offered to sign up as a career officer,” Kellen recalls describing the operational period of his life. “It was decided that by that time I would receive my own dog and participate with him in specific missions. I was given Tito who in my opinion was the best dog in the unit. He received and carried out orders including via walkie-talkie. This was a top quality dog. I was able to control him with the slightest of signals. He was a joy and he took part in a few very special operations. “

On his last mission Tito performed admirably and was decorated for saving the lives of many combatants. Unfortunately, he never got to actually receive the decoration because he was killed in the clash in which I was wounded.”

Rafael Kellen and Tito

Veterans Day – Rafael Kellen and Tito, his military working dog.

Injury and addiction

Even today very little can be told of the event in which Kellen was wounded and his companion Tito killed. It was an operation which took place in an enemy country under difficult conditions at night. Ultimately, the operation was crowned a success and it brought great satisfaction to the IDF and Israel’s defense system in general. For Kellen, however, the mission ended badly when, on the way back to Israeli territory, his unit was the target of a powerful explosive device that severely injured his legs causing burns and wounds to his entire body, and severely injuring his hearing.

“Suddenly, I realized that not only was I lying injured in a dark place, but gunfire was coming at me from all directions as I heard screams in Arabic all around me,” Rafael recalls. ”I quickly understood two things – that Tito was killed from the blast, and that we were trapped in a battlefield of dangerous and tricky explosive devices.”

The evacuation of the injured Kellen to Israeli territory on a stretcher lasted several long hours, which seemed like an eternity to him. The fractures, the burns and the shrapnel in his body were causing him excruciating pain. He nearly lost his left leg due to the gangrene that had set in. He was rushed to hospital in Nahariya where he underwent a series of life-saving operations. From there he was transferred for continued treatment at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center followed by an arduous period of rehabilitation at Sheba Medical Center – Tel Hashomer.

After being discharged and returning home, he was now under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense and no longer that of the IDF. Kellen’s most difficult ordeal lay ahead. On the face of it in his physical condition, Kellen had a quick recovery and succeeded in moving from being bed-ridden to a wheelchair and from there to walking. But psychologically, his situation deteriorated.

“I didn’t understand what was happening to me,” he recalls. “I began exhibiting signs of post-trauma. I’d look at bushes and was certain there were armed men hiding inside them. That’s what they call psychologically injured’. I tried to hide the signs with the help of morphine, but by that time I was already struggling to function without my daily fix,” he admits.

Kellen underwent treatment with a psychologist who helped him deal with the memories of the deadly clash and his injury, yet he continued taking the pills and repressing his memories. “At a certain stage I even opened a kennel with my

friend,” he recounts. “I moved to Neve Ilan and later to Givat Zeev, but I was still taking pills all the time. I was so angry with myself. Ultimately, I understood that if I wanted to get over this nightmare, I needed to check into a rehab center.”

Kicking the habit and rehabilitation

When he was just 23, more than two years after being severely wounded in battle and after a complex process of physical recovery and rehabilitation, Rafael Kellen made a difficult and fateful decision: he admitted himself into a drug rehabilitation center. One can only imagine what went through this outstanding combatant’s mind when he found himself in a closed institution, surrounded by drug addicts dealing with withdrawal symptoms and crises.

What made you decide to go to rehab?

“It took me some time as well as maturity to comprehend, and admit, that I was addicted to pain killers, mainly morphine and that this was part of the post-traumatic reaction to my injury. I realized that I was continuing to take Morphine, Percocet, and medical marijuana nonstop, whether I was in pain or not. The pills helped me escape reality without the need to come to terms with it. I did my daily physiotherapy and continued consuming morphine daily. I tried my best to hide what I was going through and drugs help you do that. It’s hard to admit that you’re not that strong, and that you have a psychological problem connected with the injury. At a certain stage, when I saw that I wasn’t able to function without the pills, I said to myself that if I’m addicted, I need to treat it no matter how difficult it might be.”

The rehabilitation process at the “Bereshit” Institute in Beer Sheva included, amongst others, dealing with prolonged and difficult withdrawal symptoms, and Kellen paid for his rehabilitation out of his own pocket. It wasn’t cheap, but he has no regrets about the expense he incurred. “I arrived there weak and falling apart, and emerged a new person,” he says with a smile. “It’s a place that teaches you to accept yourself as you are. Up until then I behaved like a robot. On the outside I maintained a façade of normalcy, but on the inside I was crushed.

Which important tools did you receive from the rehabilitation process?

“First of all reconnecting with myself, which is the basis for a successful treatment. You come to a rehab center where they teach you, for the first time, to be able to talk and expose your feelings, your weaknesses, and admit that you’re not a James Bond type of hero, nor do you need to be one. All of the counselors at the center are themselves former addicts, with experience in rehab and a special sort of life wisdom that’s irreplaceable. The experience was amazing. There, I received lots of love and, for the first time since my injury, I felt at home. The fact that I’m now in a serious relationship with my life partner Ziv and that I have big plans for the future is thanks largely to the process I went through in rehab. The therapists helped me address things that had been closed up and sealed since my childhood.”

Looking forward

After his brief and effective period of rehabilitation, Kellen returned to his apartment and into the arms of Ziv, his girlfriend of three years and a psychology student. The two met while serving in the same canine unit. In the year and a half since then he’s begun visiting Beit Halochem in Jerusalem to receive physiotherapy treatments, exercise in the fitness room, and play wheelchair basketball. At the same time he and Ziv have been volunteering at Beit HaTzayar in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem, at an educational-therapy institute for at-risk youths aged 12–21.

What brings a young guy like you from an ultraorthodox background to want to help kids in distress?

“I personally identify with them. I understood that with my experience in therapy I definitely can help these kids emerge from their crises successfully. I’ve received this kind of help from the counselors at the rehab center and I thought that I ought to ‘pay it forward’ and help these young people for whom life has not been kind. That’s also the reason I decided to study social work. Ziv and I still visit “Beit HaTzayar” from time to time and keep in touch with the young people there.”

Today Rafael lives in the city of Ariel and is concluding his pre-academic course at the local university. Starting next year he will be pursuing his bachelor’s degree in social work. There’s a fitness room across the street from where he lives and he goes there almost every day. “Right now this is the best period of my entire life,” he exults. “I also participate in activities of the Young Veterans Club of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization at Beit Halochem there, I’m in touch with Revital, an amazing instructor / the amazing staff that accompanies me closely.”

And what are your plans for the future? To be a social worker in a disadvantaged neighborhood?

My dream goes further than that. It’s to establish a boarding school for at risk children and youth. I want to give these children a warm place, even without a proper family, so that they’ll have fond memories of their childhood rather than trauma. I have a very special and strong relationship with such children and youths and I want to capitalize on that in order to bring them to even better places. Following the process of rehabilitation I underwent, my heart is now open for me and for them too.”


Don't miss news about our events