To help with war trauma, Israeli soldiers take Manhattan

Long distance is heart of treatment program. “In Israel, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about these experiences,” says psychologist.

August 12, 2011 09:29
2 minute read.
Israeli Soldiers at a Manhattan Jewish Experience

Israeli Soldiers at a Manhattan Jewish Experience party . (photo credit: JTA)

NEW YORK -  Last month, 15 former soldiers selected by the Israel Defense Forces traveled to New York for a weeklong program to treat lingering trauma from their combat during the 2006 Lebanon War with Hezbollah.

An Israeli group called Peace of Mind organized the program, which ranged from group therapy and painting to sightseeing at the Empire State Building and a cocktail party on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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The long distance - not just from Lebanon, but from Israel as well - is at the heart of the treatment program.

“In Israel, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about these experiences,” said Alon Weltman, an Israeli psychologist and director of the program who accompanied the soldiers during their visit.

Bringing them to the United States, Weltman said, was an effort to break that taboo and help them move beyond their traumas. The soldiers spent half of each day in New York in intensive group therapy.

The program was developed by the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, a nonprofit affiliated with the Sarah Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem and the School of Social Work at Hebrew University. The center asks the IDF to choose a group of soldiers for treatment and then finds international Jewish communities willing to take in the soldiers and foot the bill - about $55,000 - to pay for the expenses of the 15 soldiers and three psychologists. In this case, a group of Jews from Fire Island, a popular vacation spot on Long Island about two hours from Manhattan, paid the bill.

Peace of Mind doesn’t treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, but helps soldiers realize that they may have repressed trauma from their wartime experiences that affect their everyday lives.

“Think of someone experiencing a sudden death of someone close,” Weltman said. “That person is dealing with a difficult experience but is not necessarily post-traumatic. He might not have the right tools to deal with this experience, though, and that is part of what we try to do in the program.”

The 15 men who came for the visit to America last month were platoon mates in the IDF’s 931st infantry regiment during the monthlong Second Lebanon War. The 931st saw particularly tough combat, including urban fighting against Hezbollah militiamen in closed quarters.

The platoon defended strategic buildings, staged assaults and came under rocket fire. In one rocket attack that hit their sleeping quarters, a soldier who had switched mattresses with a friend was killed by the projectile. Ten others were wounded.

For some of the soldiers on the program, the realization that the war still touches their lives felt like a revelation.

“I didn’t think the war affected me,” Beck said. “Now when we sit and talk, I realize how much it’s affected my life.”

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