EVERY DAY 22 American military veterans commit suicide.
That is the first fact Judy Schaffer, a Jewish-American powerhouse who works in radio marketing and sales in Teaneck, New Jersey, recites in an interview.
Though her two sons are now studying in college, her grandfather and father were both US military veterans of World War I and II respectively, and she feels a responsibility towards the returning US veterans from the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts, Schaffer tells The Jerusalem Report. Four years ago, Schaffer, an observant Jew, cofounded the “Heroes to Heroes” program, which brings groups of injured American veterans, all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to meet with their Israeli counterparts, visit holy sites in Israel and renew their faith.
It was a 2009 visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland that opened her eyes to the difficult situation many American veterans were experiencing. “It changed my life,” says Schaffer, in Israel in late March for the fourth Heroes to Heroes visit with 10 US vets, all of them Christian. The group also included two coaches – veterans who participated in previous trips to Israel – and five Israeli veterans.
“Many veterans who come back to civilian life lose their faith,” Schaffer says.
“I began to think about how I could bring back faith to these vets. Israel gives faith to so many people, there is so much here. It is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity.”
Shortly afterwards, she came on a visit to Israel and asked people what was done here for wounded Israeli veterans.
They referred her to Beit Halochem, theis so immense there is no way it can actually filter down to every individual veteran,” Seidner tells The Report. “For them, the encounter with the concept of Beit Halochem is such a heartwarming eye-opener. It shows them what can be done.”
But the partnership is also a positive one for Israeli vets, she says. “It makes them feel like they can contribute too. It makes us feel very good that we can help them help themselves,” notes Seidner.
With a growing awareness of the program in the US, Heroes to Heroes works with many American veterans groups that refer veterans to them, and there are always many more applicants than there is space for on the private donation-only sponsored trips. Some corporations and Rotary Clubs have stepped in with larger donations, Schaffer says, but the number of the veterans they can help is still limited. The vets only pay for their airfare to Newark airport. Schaffer hopes to be able to raise enough funds to sponsor three trips a year to meet the demand, but for now she is happy they can manage one a year. Following the trip, the Israelis and Americans remain in touch via the Internet and Skype for at least a year.
ON AUGUST 10, 2012, Harrison Manyoma, 37, from Houston, Texas, was about to become part of a statistic. He was contemplating committing suicide seven years after having been discharged from the army. He had served three tours in Iraq and was critically injured in a suicide car bomb, which left him with third-degree burns to his face, suffering from memory loss and blurred vision. Then a call came in from the US veteran’s organization, Team Red White and Blue, offering him to join the Heroes to Heroes team to Israel.
“That saved my life,” says Manyoma, who was back in Israel as a coach for the fourth Heroes to Heroes team visit. “The first time I came here, it really opened my life, my heart, my mind to how ridiculous an idea it was to kill myself. Heroes to Heroes was what I needed. It is a mentally empowering program. The healing process just can’t come by itself. It has to be something spiritual.”
For her, says Schaffer, seeing the transformation in the American veterans even almost as soon as they arrive and meet with their Israeli counterparts has been “magical.” Though 80 percent of the veterans are from Iraq and Afghanistan, they also work with Vietnam vets.
“We are looking for those roughest [cases] where the injury is not visible but devastating and they get the least attention,” she says.
“They don’t have a social life. They don’t leave their homes. They have given up. Once they get here their world changes and we can see it before our eyes. It helps them open up.”
In addition to visiting Christian and Jewish holy sites, and historical sites, the veterans take part in private meetings with their Israeli counterparts every night, sharing experiences and stories. They share hotel rooms and form strong bonds, bonds which continue even once they have returned to the US.
Standing outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Greg Grutter, 47, a 19-year veteran of the Marines and National Guard who served in Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan and hails from Cranston, Rhode Island, recounts how he “was blown up a few times.” After having come as a participant on a Heroes to Heroes trip in October he has returned as coach.
“Israel is the only place I don’t have nightmares. In the United States, I have terrible, horrible nightmares,” he says, leaning on the cane he keeps around for balance, after suffering spinal damage in a car bomb in Kabul.
He has maintained contact with the Israeli vets he met on his own trip here, he says, and now if he wakes up in the middle of night because of the nightmares, he knows he can reach out through the Internet to one of his Israeli friends who, because of the time difference, are awake. Their responses are always supportive and help him get through the rough spots, he says. Now he is glad he, too, can in turn begin helping some of his fellow US veterans.
“If I can help some of the guys in need, it makes it worth it,” Grutter says. “They are struggling with their experience after returning home, wondering if their sacrifice was worth it. They are dealing with guilt, losing friends, and now with problems of integration,” he adds. “Here they talk and there is time to listen. A lot of it has to do with being able to be honest with guys who can relate to them.”
Three days into their trip, the veterans had shared their experiences and spoken about many tough issues, notes Israeli Amit Bar-El, 43, who lost most of his eyesight in combat with the Golani Brigade in 2006, during the Second Lebanon war, but the really difficult issues had just been touched upon.
“We are slowly peeling back the layers,” says Bar-El, the father of three young girls.
“We have not reached the hard core yet, but we are getting there.”
Most Americans are completely unaware of what veterans went through or what they are going through when they come back from combat, Grutter says. Married and the father of two teenaged children, Grutter notes that many of the returning vets turn to drugs and have difficulty with their personal relationships. They were really the first group of vets to have faced large-scale combat since Vietnam and the country did not know what to do with them, he says.
But in Israel, he says, it seems like everyone on the street knows what they are going through. Only one percent of the American population serves in the military, adds Benjamin Sanchez, 42, who served as a combat medic in a paratroop unit during three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His time in the combat zones almost ruined his marriage, he says. As a combat medic, he saw the worst of what human beings can do to each other, including non-combatants, he says.
“I saw young girls, babies, blown to pieces,” says Sanchez. “What really haunts me are the children. I love that I can talk to someone here, another paratrooper. I most definitely feel like I am among people who have gone through the same thing and yet they are better and feel better.”
“When I came back from the military, my family life was challenging at best,” Grutter agrees. “I had a hard time opening up. I felt like I was just a number, just another injured vet. When I came to Israel and visited Yad Vashem and [confronted] the six million Jews who lost their lives, and the guide recited names, it reminded me that my service mattered, that who I am matters.”
After his trip, he was better able to open up with his family and wife, and it gave him a purpose to help others, Grutter says. “War is not pretty. We did our job,” he says.
Though not necessarily the aim of the program, the visit and camaraderie they develop with the Israelis here creates a strongbond of love and appreciation for Israel.
“They live it here; they grew up with the issue. A small nation, fighting on all sides. Putting politics aside, they are good people desiring freedom. I would willingly come to defend them,” says Grutter. “They understand the bad guys are right at the door. They have a deeper appreciation for the military.”
THE GROUP also went to Ammunition Hill to see firsthand where part of the battle for Jerusalem took place in 1967, and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Members. They also traveled to Tel Aviv and the Galilee where they had the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River if they wanted to.
The visit to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity does not last very long, notes Pastor Todd Horton, who accompanies the men during their stay in Israel. He explains that many of the sights and sounds of the Palestinian city, which is more Middle Eastern in nature than Jewish Israeli cities, reminds them of their time in Iraq or Afghanistan and leaves them uneasy.
“While I was in Bethlehem, I was on edge.
I am not comfortable being there. It brings back memories and I feel like I have to be on guard,” says Chicago resident Diego Flores, 31, who served multiple tours in Iraq and was medically discharged in 2012.
Since his return to civilian life, he has suffered from PTSD and sleeping issues. He felt a lack of emotion and the only answer the Veteran Administration hospitals could offer him was to pump him full of medication, Flores says.
There is a lack of help and services for returning veterans suffering from PTSD in the US, he says, whereas in Israel they are proactive in dealing with the issue before it gets worse. “The Israeli soldiers we have met really make you feel right at home,” he says.
At Ammunition Hill, Israeli Uri Ehrenfeld, 60, who served as a paratrooper during the Yom Kippur and First Lebanon wars, and was held captive by the Egyptians for two months in 1973, hands out paratrooper pins and insignia to the American veterans, who are visibly moved by the act of camaraderie.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to give them some help,” says Ehrenfeld, who also suffered from PTSD and can relate personally to what the Americans are experiencing. He helped found an organization called Awake at Night some 15 years ago for Israeli veterans suffering from PTSD. “They don’t have a social framework to support them,” notes Ehrenfeld. “In Israel the rehabilitation framework is one of the most advanced in the world. I see them and I see us 20 years ago. This is a brotherhood of warriors, and we want to help.”
He commended Schaffer for her “loyalty to the young men in the US” and for making the connection with Israel. “The connection she made is unique and amazing,” he says.
“We get out of this as much as it gives to them. We can give them hope that they can help themselves to improve their situation.”
“This has been the most incredible learning experience, the most rewarding thing I have done in my life,” says Schaffer.
“It helps me to understand what is really important in life.”
sports, rehabilitation and recreation centers serving disabled veterans and their families.
Among the many people she met with was Ora Seidner, director of development of the fundraising branch of the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, which runs the Beit Halochem centers. Now, the visit to Beit Halochem is one of the highlights of the trips for the American vets, says Schaffer.
“Obviously, there is a tremendous difference between American war veterans and Israeli veterans. The US is such a huge country and their Veteran’s Administration."