Yom Kippur War veteran: Emotional consequences to trauma

After 46 years, Prof. Yuval Neria is helping war veterans like himself through innovative research in Israel and abroad.

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October 7, 2019 17:39
4 minute read.
Yom Kippur War veteran: Emotional consequences to trauma

A knocked out Israeli M60 tank amongst the debris of other armor after an Israeli counterattack in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For Yuval Neria and other IDF veterans of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the trauma of the battles in Sinai and the Golan Heights has never ended.

For 46 years, Neria has been researching and helping victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), both in Israel and across the globe.

The Jerusalem Post spoke with Neria about his experiences in the Yom Kippur War, his work as a professor of Medical Psychology at the departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, and his role as the head of the Friends of the Yom Kippur War Center in the United States.

Neria, who grew up in Holon, was severely injured in the Yom Kippur War, and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Valor – Israel’s highest military decoration – for his actions as a tank commander on the Sinai front.

“Our battalion vanished after two days [of fighting], but despite this I continued to find other tanks, joined other units, and I was eventually promoted to a company commander… [and] continued on to the Battle of the Chinese Farm until I was injured and evacuated,” said Neria, who was deputy company commander of the 9th Armored Battalion on the northern front of the Suez Canal.

He was 22 when he received his Medal of Valor. To this day, only 40 such medals have been awarded: 12 for action in the War of Independence, four for the Sinai War, 12 for the Six Day War, one for the War of Attrition, eight for the Yom Kippur War, and three others awarded for other military engagement.

Recovering from his wounds, Neria studied psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Haifa University. He then taught at Tel Aviv University “until my recruitment to Columbia University.”

Today he lives with his wife and three children in New York.

Neria and the Yom Kippur War Center organization, which was established in January 2018 “by warriors from this war,” are currently raising funds for the “innovative, one-of-a-kind” Yom Kippur Center in Netanya.

“To date, land was assigned for the center in Netanya, and architectural plans are in progress,” he said. “We hope to have this center open to the public in three years.”

The center will include a Hall of Valor and Commemoration, a display of the War’s History and Heritage, an auditorium, an educational wing and a research facility, “attracting civilians, soldiers and researchers from Israel and around the world,” Neria said.

As for why they decided to open the center, the war hero said that he believed “the story of this war has yet to be fully told. It is a rare opportunity to share the experiences of the veterans themselves, their family members, and the experiences of people who lost loved ones. Despite the length of time since the war, for many, the memories are still fresh and painful.”

He said it was important that a platform for these memories be stored and shared “for generations to come.”

It was Neria experiences and memories from the Yom Kippur War that drew him to research PTSD and trauma, “the emotional consequences of exposure to traumatic events, conducting numerous studies among Israeli veterans and prisoners of war,” both the bereaved and those exposed to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, and “the young adults exposed to ongoing missile and rockets attacks” in southern Israel.

Neria said that he is specifically studying “the brain of trauma-exposed individuals, and in what way its function and structure is affected by severe threat to life.”

To date, his research is showing a significant impact of trauma on the brain, “especially in its capacity to effectively process fear and reward.

“People with PTSD are therefore more fearful, aroused, anxious than those without PTSD regardless of the context or whether they are safe or not,” he said. “They are also more depressed and don’t seek pleasurable experiences.

Neria said that in his lab at Columbia, “We are working hard on identifying the circuits involved in PTSD and how to target them better in treatment in order to reverse those difficulties and to normalize brain function in PTSD.”

One of the most interesting projects he has led in recent years is establishing a treatment center for veterans and family members who are unable or not interested in receiving care in Veteran Association programs.

The New York–Presbyterian Military Family Wellness Center (MFWC) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), established in 2016, provides cost-free evidence-based assessment and treatment to local area veterans, active-duty service personnel, and their adult family members.

Neria said that since its inception, “the MFWC has prioritized collaborations with regional public and private institutions, seeking to complement existing resources rather than to compete with or replace them. The primary conditions we treat are PTSD, major depression, anxiety disorders, and adjustment disorders,” meaning readjustment to civilian life.

Asked what keeps him inspired to do this work, Neria said that “as a former warrior myself, I became very committed to war veterans in Israel and around the world, who are recruited at a young age, give everything they have to their countries, and frequently come home psychologically and physically shattered. Many of them are also killed in the battlefield leaving behind a life that will never be accomplished and fulfilled.

“In my work as a scientist studying PTSD, I feel that I can give back to society by understanding the underlying damage that wars bring to human psychology, and find an effective cure for it,” he concluded.


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