In a mission to curb suicide among war veterans and encourage emotional and spiritual renewal, a US nonprofit called Heroes to Heroes flew 10 US war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to Israel this week to tour the country and meet with Israeli counterparts.
Heroes to Heroes was founded in 2010 by Judy Isaacson Schaffer, the daughter and granddaughter of veterans from World War I and World War II. Schaffer said the foundation was created to aid emotionally disabled veterans through peer support.
“Every 80 minutes an American veteran commits suicide; we are losing more soldiers at home than we are on the battlefield,” she said in Jerusalem’s Zion Square Wednesday afternoon, while accompanied by three of the program’s participants. “My father spent his free time working with disabled veterans and instilled in me the importance of taking care of those who take care of us.”
Raised in a pro-Israel home, Schaffer, who is Jewish, said Israel is an ideal location to bring soldiers of all religious denominations to visit holy and historic sites and to meet with IDF veterans facing similar challenges.
“Our program begins with a 10-day journey that develops social and emotional bonds between our veterans, while [enabling them to] explore their individual spirituality and push themselves physically,” she said.
Schaffer said her foundation has sponsored five trips to Israel since 2011. On each trip, 10 US veterans tour the country and hold private nightly meetings with IDF veterans to share their experiences.
Through a group of five volunteers, including US veteran Cliff Nolan, the organization, which is based in New Jersey and relies on donations, has treated dozens of men of all ages suffering from PTSD in some 20 states.
One participant, Gregory Cruz, a marine from Rhode Island who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan, said meeting with Israeli veterans has helped him deal with lingering symptoms of PTSD.
While Cruz participated last year as a patient, this year he returned to coach the 10 US veterans afflicted with similar psychological obstacles by leading the nightly discussions during which the veterans share their stories and feelings.
“Each night I try to bring up different topics,” he said.
“One night we might discuss anger, one night guilt, one night depression, one night pride of service, and we’ll just roundtable ideas. Last night we talked about how hard it was for us to discuss our injuries and suffering outside a group of soldiers or people going through it.”
One of the six Israeli participants is Zvika Comay, a former tank commander who said he suffered severe PTSD during the First Lebanon War in 1982 after his tank and another tank were bombed, killing one of his men.
To deal with the trauma and feelings of guilt over the death of his fellow soldier, Comay said he went through intensive therapy for 13 years, during which he was diagnosed with PTSD.
“Therapy brought me back to life and I understood I could manage my life – that I’m in charge of my life,” he said.
After spending time together, Cruz and Comay said they developed an uncommon understanding and bond that has helped both former soldiers heal.
Cruz – who said he, too, harbored pronounced feelings of guilt following his injury, during which a fellow soldier lost his life – noted that speaking candidly with Comay about his feelings has helped him considerably.
“It was hard to talk about and face,” he said. “Zvika and I started talking and realized we had similar issues related to PTSD.”
In one shared exercise, the two men planted trees together in the North to symbolize the renewal of their lives. In an act of solidarity, Comay gave Cruz his tree to plant.
“Initially, I thought it was kind of hokey – until I planted it,” said Cruz. “It was like an out-of-body experience, and I was touched. Afterwards we talked more about our shared issues.”
Schaffer said her goal is to send 10 groups of 10 US veterans to Israel each year to continue the mission her late father started decades ago.
“I want to carry on his legacy,” she said.