Conspiracy of silence

This is the story of three young men who took their own lives while serving in the IDF. But there is new hope: recent preventative measures are actually working

November 29, 2007 09:28


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Uri Marom was a highly promising, 22-year-old IDF helicopter pilot when, after sinking inexplicably into a clinical depression and trying for two years to fight it off, he killed himself. Eran Aderet was a lonely, frustrated computer whiz who took disappointment very hard and who committed suicide at 19, four months into his IDF service. Assaf Hermesh was a bright and likable but immature non-commissioned manpower officer who, afraid he would be sent to the brig for failing to return to base on time, took his life at 19. Marom's suicide came in 2000, Aderet's in 1997, Hermesh's in 1995. In those days, about 35 soldiers were committing suicide a year, either on duty or on furlough, and the IDF was not treating the problem with urgency. Benny Marom recalls that about a year-and-a-half after his son's death, when he first approached IDF officials about coming to grips with the problem, "they wouldn't say 'no' to a bereaved father, but it was lip service, they actually didn't do much." The situation has changed in the last couple of years, though, and in the right direction. Last year the number of soldiers committing suicide dipped to 28, and this year through mid-November the number has gone down sharply to 17. The parents of soldiers who committed suicide, along with professionals who've followed the problem, credit former chief of General Staff Dan Halutz and two current IDF officers - Brig.-Gen. Avi Zamir, deputy head of manpower, and Col. Gadi Lubin, chief mental health officer - with instituting a set of reforms and forging a new awareness and determination to prevent suicides in the ranks. The most concrete reform is that except for troops stationed in the West Bank, soldiers are much less likely to be taking their rifles home with them on furlough. More than 90 percent of IDF suicides are committed with army rifles, and more than half occur on furlough, notes Lubin. In an interview at his office at the IDF's Tel Hashomer base, Lubin, a genial, bespectacled psychiatrist and former paratroop officer, said there is no useful comparison to be made between the suicide rate in the IDF and that of foreign armies. Few other countries, he notes, call up virtually all of their young people to the army (excluding, in Israel's case, Arabs, haredim and religious Zionist girls who tend to choose non-military National Service). He notes, for example, that the Norwegian army, which drafts soldiers for six months (compared to the IDF's three years), reduced its suicide rate partly by granting more draft exemptions for "psychological unsuitability." "The Norwegian army now only takes 70% of its draftable youth. In this country, we can't afford to do that," Lubin says. A more telling comparison is the overall suicide rate for young adults (late teens to early 20s) to their counterparts in other countries. By this measure, young Israelis are safer from suicide than youths in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but in greater danger than the young in Mediterranean countries, such as Spain, Italy and Greece. "The suicide rate among young Israelis is similar to that of American college students, just slightly higher," says Lubin. SITTING IN AN outdoor cafe in his hometown of Kfar Saba, Benny Marom, 61, a high-school psychology teacher and former researcher in the air force, says there was never any hint of suicidal tendencies in Uri, his eldest son, before he was drafted into the IAF. "If there had been, he wouldn't have passed the pilots' course, where you have to withstand tremendous pressure for two years and they have you under a magnifying glass all the time," he notes. After rating "excellent" in the advanced pilots' training course, Uri was sent by the IAF to the US for a few months to train on the Blackhawk helicopter. "After he came back in 1998, he had his first crisis," Marom recalls. Uri didn't fly for several months, during which time he was treated by an IAF psychologist and psychiatrist who put him on the antidepressant Prozac. "He responded well," says Marom. After that Uri returned to the helicopter pilots' course as a trainer, then resumed flying and enrolled in the course for captain. "Then he felt himself going into a depression again, and that he couldn't function." This time Uri wanted to try to overcome his depression without Prozac. "He knew everything there was to know about Prozac, he was brilliant, he knew philosophy, music, films. He saw Prozac as a crutch; you know for the young everything is black and white. So he told the psychiatrist that he wanted to try to get well on his own, and the psychiatrist said okay." Without Prozac, Uri succeeded in overcoming this second bout of depression, for a time. He decided not to go back into the high-pressure life of a pilot, so he took a break from flying and began working a regular day job at air force headquarters. "He did very well," his father says. But in early 2000, Uri felt himself sinking again, and this time it couldn't be attributed to the stress of being a pilot. "He was working 8 to 5, he wasn't under the same sort of pressure, he had more time for himself, he was playing his guitar, so his life wasn't that hard. And still it happened." The idea of being disabled, of not being able to function, was unacceptable to Uri. "He was a pilot, talented, good-looking. This didn't fit his self-image, it wasn't for him. So in May he put an end to his life." Marom doesn't blame anyone in the army, noting that his son "had a great commander." He doesn't think the IDF missed any warning signs of depression. "After Uri's death, one of the IDF investigations went over all his test results and personal data as if it were known in advance what was going to happen later, and still they found no indicators for suicide." Educated in psychology, a retired air force colonel, a bereaved father who's delved into the subject of suicide now for seven years, Marom says the onset of his son's lethal depression in the middle of a full, happy life remains a mystery to him. "Suicide is an enigma," he says, stressing that it's completely misguided to seek a single cause. "He was depressed, but 90-whatever percent of people suffering depression don't commit suicide. The trigger is a constellation of things." He refers to recent research identifying a "mental ache" that suicide victims decide they can't live with, but what causes this mental ache cannot be isolated or predicted. "If he hadn't been in the air force, if he hadn't been a pilot, would it have happened anyway?" Marom wonders, then answers his own question: "Nobody knows." WHATEVER THE IDF is doing to reduce suicides in its ranks, and however more it could be doing, it is the only institution in the country that is devoting serious effort to dealing with the problem, say parents who lost their sons in the army that way. "We were 'lucky,' in quotes, that we lost a family member while he was in the army and not in civilian life," says Avshalom Aderet, father of Eran. Although he contends that the IDF could have prevented his son's suicide with more "sensitivity," Aderet can offer "only praise for the way the IDF helps the families afterward," especially with psychological support groups and counseling. "The family of a civilian who commits suicide gets no help in this country from anybody," he adds. For this reason, Marom, Aderet and Hermesh, along with hundreds of others who've lost loved ones to suicide, along with professionals in the field, volunteer in the organization Shvil Hahaim (Path to Life), which assists families of suicide victims who weren't "lucky" enough to be in the army at the time. Marom says there are approximately 500 suicides a year here, 400 officially recorded as such, plus an estimated 100 among haredim and Muslims who commonly hide the true cause of such a death in the family out of shame. "The annual number of suicides in Israel is about the same as the number of traffic deaths, and compare the way this country treats the two. All over the Western world, governments spend money to prevent suicide, but until six months ago, no Israeli government spent a shekel on it," Marom says, noting that the first pilot program on suicide prevention, run by the National Insurance Institute, is due to begin soon in Galilee. The influence of parents such as Marom, Aderet and Hermesh, along with the constructive criticism of the army's past handling, or mishandling, of the problem by professionals such as Shmuel Yana, a sociologist and retired IDF lieutenant-colonel, and Bar-Ilan University psychology professor Israel Orbach, a leading expert on suicide, have clearly paid off. "In the past, civilian experts on suicide would volunteer their knowledge to the IDF, but the army brass usually wasn't so receptive; they wouldn't accept advice," recalls Orbach. "But in the last two years there's been an awakening. Zamir and Lubin have done excellent work; a lot of steps have been taken to prevent suicides; and not only is the IDF open to civilian advice, it now seeks it out." A PROFILE of the soldier at risk of committing suicide is "impossible" to draw, Lubin maintains. The tragedy strikes the IDF across socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, education levels and family backgrounds. While Lubin couldn't say if there was a difference in the suicide rates among secular and religious soldiers, he did point out that in general, religiosity tends to retard suicide risk. The army, however, does have at least some sketchy outlines of the soldiers who commit suicide, and why. Ninety-four percent are men. Eighty percent are conscripts, often in their first six months of service, while 10% are professional soldiers and the remaining 10% are reservists. Soldiers who commit suicide usually have easy access to weapons. More than half kill themselves at home on furlough. I ask Lubin if hazing is a frequent cause, or at least precursor, to soldiers' suicides, and he replies that despite what's seen in the movies, this is "very rarely" the case. "What is a common cause, though," he continues, "is a sense of failure, of humiliation. A boy wanted to be a pilot and he washed out and now he thinks he's nobody. He wanted to get into an elite unit and didn't make it, and now even the easier unit is hard for him. One other leading cause is dejection over a failed romance." A key question in this whole subject is whether army service exacerbates suicidal tendencies, eases them or has no effect on them. "It all depends on the individual," says Orbach. While the common belief is that vulnerable people may crack under the pressure and demands of the army, Orbach says it also "strengthens some people and helps them mature." To illustrate the latter, Lubin tells of soldier he came across who had been bullied badly as a teenager, who had terribly low self-esteem and who was counseled by IDF mental health officers throughout his three years of service. "He actually did well in the army," Lubin recalls. "Here he got recognition for his intelligence. He used to say, 'If not for the army, I wouldn't know what to do with myself.' A week before he was to be demobilized, he killed himself. It wasn't the army that led him to suicide, it was the fear of leaving the army." THE NOTION that IDF service can strengthen a troubled teen was endorsed by Eran Aderet's civilian psychologist. The boy was treated by the psychologist during the 11th grade after a girl he was in love with turned him down, after which he stopped eating and going to school, says his father, Avshalom Aderet, 59, a lecturer on information systems at several colleges. "He hardly had any friends in school. Most of his socializing was done over the Internet," says Aderet, sitting in his Kiryat Ono living room. For Eran, the computer was more than a machine, it was his main source of contact with peers, his chief outlet to the world. Skinny and shy to begin with, his failed romance, depression and bout of anorexia left him unable to be drafted at 18, so he was drafted a year later, by which time he had gained some weight and seemingly gotten over his depression. "He did well in basic training," notes his father. The boy assumed that with his highly sophisticated computer skills, the army would place him in a job using computers after basic training. But the IDF decided that because of Eran's recent depression and psychological treatment, he was a security risk with the army's computers, says his father, who considers this to have been literally a fatal decision on the army's part. The IDF made Eran a warehouseman at the Tel Hashomer base. "He became totally isolated in the unit, he had no friends," says Aderet. "The other soldiers and officers didn't harass him as such; their attitude was more, 'How did he get here?' He wasn't strong enough to do all the heavy lifting that was required. Eran was different from the others intellectually and physically, and someone who is different is often disliked." The boy asked his commanding officers for a transfer to another unit, and was repeatedly turned down. He would come home on weekends and lie on his bed, sleep for a few hours, then stay up all night at his computer. "I tried to encourage him; I told him to be patient, that maybe he would be transferred to a computer unit later. Eran didn't talk about how he felt inside. I didn't know the problem was so deep," says Aderet. He didn't think to intervene, to press the army to pay more attention to his son's distress. "Unfortunately, I trusted the IDF." In the army's postmortem investigations, early warning signs were discovered. "Once Eran got into an argument over some procedure in the warehouse," says Aderet, "and he kicked a wall so hard that he put a hole in it. Why didn't any of his commanders ask what could drive a quiet boy like this to such an outburst?" Three times Eran made appointments to see an army mental health officer, and each time the appointment fell through because of some bureaucratic detail. "We knew about the first two times, but not the third one. He was too embarrassed to tell us that he'd gone again to see a mental health officer but never got to see him." That third missed appointment came two days before the boy's suicide. On every previous weekend furlough, he'd come home without his rifle. This time, though, he was ordered not to go straight back to the base when the weekend was over, but to go first to a soldiers' hitchhiking post for guard duty. His father says: "This was the first time Eran came home from his army job with his rifle, and he didn't go back." Afterward, Eran's commander was censured by the IDF for taking no initiative to help a soldier who clearly needed help. A few years later, Aderet and his wife divorced, which he says was brought on in considerable degree by the tragedy, which also had a devastating effect on their three younger children. "The family was destroyed," he says. Without anyone telling him to his face, Aderet sensed from people in his circles that Eran's suicide was like a black mark on the family. "We felt stigmatized. It seemed like people were silently accusing us of failing to protect our son." The whole excruciating ordeal made Aderet an angry man for a long time. "It was six years," he says, "before I decided to turn my anger into something positive." He began campaigning for suicide prevention in meeting after meeting with the IDF brass. WHAT MAKES suicide prevention in the IDF such a challenge, says Lubin, is that draftees with severe mental or behavioral problems that put them at risk for suicide, and that are either documented or obvious during the conscription process, are supposed to be given draft exemptions for psychological unsuitability. Five percent of IDF draftees receive such exemptions. "So," Lubin explains, "what we have to do is detect suicidal tendencies among the remaining 95% who are supposedly healthy." Like Aderet, Ofra Hermesh thought army service would be good for her son. "We thought it would help Assaf mature," she says, sitting in the living room of her spacious Nof Yam home. Clumsy and slow to organize himself because of motor problems - a severe liability in any army - Assaf spent a year in a strenuous, pre-army training program to prepare for service. "He very much wanted to do the army," says his mother. Now, 12 years later, Hermesh, an active volunteer in Shvil Hahaim, has come to the conclusion that the army, with its "toughness and demands," isn't for everyone, and it wasn't for Assaf. After his suicide, a couple of the older soldiers at his base outside Eilat told her their impression that he was "a child in an adult's body." Assaf had a child's innocence and fear of getting into trouble. "In school he was always afraid that the teachers would get mad at him, that they'd punish him," says his mother, 60, a business manager married to a psychiatrist. Because of Assaf's clumsiness and immaturity, she was afraid he'd be bullied. "But he did very well in basic training." Assaf was bright, with a phenomenal memory, and tremendously likable. At the base in Eilat where he was a non-commissioned adjutant officer, those two older soldiers took him under their wing. "They were afraid the other soldiers might make fun of him because he was a little different, so they sort of adopted him, they brought him into their circle. One of the soldiers roomed with him to make sure Assaf got where he needed to go on time." Hermesh doesn't blame the IDF for neglecting or harassing her son. "Just the opposite - they gave him extra attention. His commander really liked him." The only complaint Hermesh ever heard from Assaf during his 10 months in the army was that he was stationed so far from home. "We saw no [sign of suicidal intent], the IDF saw nothing, his commander saw nothing." In the army's postmortem investigations, however, a Rorschach test taken when he applied for an officer's course indicated that the thought of suicide was somewhere in his mind. "He told the psychologist it was a picture of someone in despair, standing at a window, wanting to jump." One Friday he came home for weekend furlough and told his family he expected to have to go back to the base early because there was going to be a call-up exercise. Hermesh and her husband were out at a restaurant that night when the call from the base came. The soldier making the call told Hermesh later that "he had the feeling Assaf wasn't planning to go back to the base, so he warned him that if he didn't, he'd be put in military prison for a month." Assaf had gone with a friend to a birthday party that night, then watched a video at home. His sister said later that they'd had a good time and nothing seemed wrong with him. But sometime in the middle of the night, after his friend had gone home and his sister had gone to bed, Assaf was alone with his army rifle. "We don't know why he didn't go back to the base for the exercise, but he didn't," says his mother. "We think he was terrified of the trial and punishment that was waiting for him. Young people see everything in black and white. We think that in the couple of hours that he was alone, he lost all rational judgment." After 12 years, Hermesh still can't make sense of it. "The more I know about suicide, the less I understand it. It defies understanding. You see young people living their lives, making plans, buying tickets for shows in the future and all of a sudden they kill themselves." MUCH OF THE IDF's current approach to suicide prevention, says Lubin, means bringing a heightened awareness of the problem to the army's traditional manpower duties: talking to 12th graders in the schools, matching soldiers with units and training officers, especially mental health officers. IDF officials have also tried to convince the media "not to romanticize suicides, especially by celebrities, such as the media did with Kurt Cobain," says Lubin, adding that this effort seems to be paying off. Marom and other activists and professionals sit in on the IDF's "Suicide Forum" convened every month or two by Brig.-Gen. Avi Zamir, deputy head of manpower. Aderet addresses IDF training base commanders on suicide prevention before the main annual induction. "There's much more awareness, much more openness about suicide in the IDF today," he says. But Aderet hasn't gotten the same cooperation from schools, noting that he and a few other parents whose children committed suicide have asked to address classrooms, but only two or three schools have agreed, while many more have refused. There's still room for improvement in the IDF as well. "A few months ago we got a call from a parent of a soldier who said her son was in distress and asked to speak to a mental health officer, and he was given an appointment for a week later," says Hermesh. "When a soldier is in a depression, he needs to see a mental health officer right away." The current consensus campaign against draft-dodging also worries Aderet. "I'm afraid the suicide rate could go back up again because the IDF will be afraid to give psychological deferments or releases to soldiers who shouldn't be in the army," he says. Marom worries what will happen after Lubin and Zamir rotate out of their current jobs. But the parents say the most urgent work has to be done not by the IDF, but by the rest of society - in government budgeting, in prevention programs, in public awareness. They speak of a "conspiracy of silence" about suicide because of the stigma attached to it. "Young people who are thinking about suicide, whether they're in the army or not, have to stop being ashamed; they have to ask their parents, their friends, their commanders, their mental health officer, for help," says Aderet. "Parents have to be more sensitive to their children, they have to stop being afraid to ask them if they think about ending their life." "No one is fated to commit suicide," stresses Lubin. "It's something that can be prevented." Suicides by IDF soldiers YearConscriptsCareerReservistsTotal 1990292435 1991295741 19922241137 1993314338 1994345342 1995335442 1996241429 1997280432 1998323237 1999263130 2000254534 2001333137 2002185326 2003273737 2004253028 2005304236 2006262028 2007*132217

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