Suicide in the IDF
To this day, I do not think the IDF understands the difference between temporary psychological crises and serious psychiatric disturbance.
Soldiers Photo: Reuters
Recently, great tragedy struck a small, close-knit, elite IDF unit my son
happens to serve in. One of brightest, bravest and most selfless soldiers in the
IDF allegedly committed suicide.
As my son broke the news to me early
last Sunday morning by phone, in Bogota, Colombia, where I am on business, my
soul and spirit traveled to the Middle East – or more precisely, to Kikar
Hasharon in Herzliya Pituah some 30 years ago. I had just come back from a tour
of duty in Lebanon to find that a friend of mine, Ricardo Wolf, a lone soldier
like me, had allegedly shot himself in the head with his military-issue rifle. I
was older than Ricardo, but still a young man, and the the pain was very real.
Not long before, I had heard of another young man, a Brazilian from Recife,
doing the same thing.
The army removed my weapons for some weeks while I
underwent a battery of psychological tests. My military service was never the
same from there on. Like myself and the other young man, Ricardo too was
Brazilian. His mother, Elizabeth was Brazilian, and he was born in Frankfurt,
Germany. I knew Ricardo’s girlfriend Natalie, a wonderful French girl. He had
had the world at his feet – why did he do it? I now found myself asking my son
the same questions.
“Was your buddy unhappy?” “No, Dad, he always had a
smile, was always telling me he was going to travel and come to visit Miami with
me after the army.”
So why did a bright young man, only 19 years old, who
had volunteered to serve in one of the IDF’s toughest units, allegedly kill
himself one week before receiving his beret? Based on what I hear from my son,
the issue is one that existed some 30 years ago when I wore the same uniform he
wears now – namely, that in the IDF, the NCOs and officers responsible for
training soldiers are not much older then the trainees. Some are not even 21
years old, and have very little life experience. Many of these young men do not
have the necessary skill or perspective to understand the issues troubling young
men their own age, and senior officers makes themselves almost unavailable to
the younger soldiers.
The IDF failed to deal with this issue adequately
back in my day, and I see no evidence they’re doing so now. They have to be
proactive. You can’t wait for young soldiers to seek assistance; they are going
to be afraid of looking weak. On top of which, the mentality of the IDF, and
Israeli society in general – whether in business, politics or the military – is
to suck it up and go do what you’ve got to do. Not an approach conducive to
dealing with psychological trauma.
To this day, I do not think the IDF
understands the difference between temporary psychological crises and serious
psychiatric disturbance; that is, conditions which should disqualify someone for
army service. Clearly, the issue is one we need to address. We have had generals
commit suicide, not only enlisted men, and it is time for this to
Most young Israeli men fear the consequences of asking for help; as
things stand now, doing so would most likely mean a “Profile 21” discharge.
Besides the more concrete consequences of such a profile (such as possibly not
being able to get a driver’s license), many feel they would be perceived as
weak, or that people would think they were just trying to get out of a tougher
unit or trying to get out of serving altogether – that they just couldn’t hack
it – when in reality, they are suffering from an illness, and in most cases a
temporary one at that.
In addition to the above, officers and NCOs often
punish even lone soldiers in the most cruel manner possible, such as not
allowing them out when rents are due, when electricity is due to be paid, or not
allowing them to speak to their parents overseas as a punishment for the most
Some are sent home on Friday to find their apartment
without electricity, or in some cases, that they have been evicted, with most of
their belongings having been thrown out in the street. I know of lone soldiers,
like my own son, who do not have a fridge, a microwave or even the most basic
things in their apartment. Officers don’t even provide them a truck if they need
to move –as army regulations call for. This is the type of thing that can cause
brave young men to start doubting their commitment to the IDF.
like many others, could have stayed in their comfortable lives overseas, but
instead, like our own prime minister, made a choice to serve. They should be
treated with dignity and respect. Most of us would be shocked to learn that a
lone soldier only gets around a NIS 1,000 NIS to pay for rent and utilities,
etc. – much better then the $50 I got some 30 years ago, but then, this isn’t 30
Why something can make one person feel suicidal and another
not is a mystery, but what’s for certain is that a bit of kindness and empathy
can go a long way toward avoiding such feelings it. My son told me about another
kid that simply wrote an “apology note” before attempting to kill himself.
Luckily, the tragedy was averted in time, but how many more lives must be lost
before we as a society starts to ask: “Why is this happening?” For us as Jews,
saving a life is like saving the whole world. Not saving a life when you have
the ability to do so is like killing the whole world.
The IDF must set up
confidential telephone hotlines, place more mental health specialists on the
battlefield and in training units, provide added training on dealing with
stress, invest more in research into mental health risks, and more. Make
psychologists more available to soldiers, especially soldiers in training for
the tougher units.
The IDF must publish, like the US Navy did recently, a
list of “truths” about suicide. The IDF must get our rabbis involved in these
situations, explaining the consequences both as a Jew and as a human being to
these young men.
Explaining the trauma that a suicide will cause for the
family. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane, in most cases they may
be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Let us show then these young
men that there is hope, that there is a way out.
Enlisted soldiers cannot
speak out, but we the parents, we the citizens of this tiny nation, must speak
out. From private to general, from man in the street to prime minister, we have
an obligation to watch and listen for signs and we must stand ready to intervene
and assist our follow service members in time of need. We must continue to fight
to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other
mental health issues.
Commanders cannot tolerate any actions that
belittle, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or
are responsibly seeking professional counseling services. The same unit that
lost this soldier today had eight of its soldiers arrested recently for hazing.
This must stop; the IDF is not and should not be like other armies, we are Jews,
we value life – even the lives of our enemies.
For what it’s worth, this
is the plea of a father who, without having even a single relative in Israel,
came here to serve and has now sent his only son to follow in his own footsteps.
If I was – and still am – willing to sacrifice all that matters in life for
Israel’s sake, the least Israel can do is to take care of that which is so
precious to us as parents.
The writer served in the IDF in the 1980s and
lives in Scotland and the US.