To the rescue... of the rescuers

Former police spokesman Gil Kleiman recalls with clarity the day he realized he'd witnessed one too many suicide bombings.

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April 5, 2006 21:36

 
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Former police spokesman Gil Kleiman recalls with clarity the day he realized he'd witnessed one too many suicide bombings. "I just started crying in my office," he says. "I picked up the phone to call the police psychologist, but I could not speak in a coherent sentence. It was then I realized that I needed help." It was exactly one week after the suicide bombing at the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv in February 2005. It was the 47th suicide bombing Kleiman had witnessed in less than four years as Israel Police liaison for the foreign media - and he couldn't take it any more. "I've seen hundreds of dead bodies and aside from poisoning, I've seen every death possible," continues Kleiman, 48, referring also to the hundreds of terrorist attacks with which he had to familiarize himself as part of his job. Prior to his role as the "voice" of the police, Kleiman had also spent years working as a bomb disposal technician and investigator. "Even the strongest piece of metal can break if you put enough pressure on it," says the New York native poetically. "At some point I could no longer deal with any kind of suffering - even down to a young child crying in the street. I could not deal with my emotions." Kleiman immediately sought help from the standard health plan offered by the police force, but the designated psychologist could only fit him in a week later. Reaching the conclusion that the state plan would not give him the kind of help he desperately needed, Kleiman took extended sick leave from the force and opted for another alternative. "The army and police force give their officers flak jackets, but their souls are ripped apart with no protection whatsoever. The help does not come from the establishment but from private places," says Kleiman, who moved to Israel in the early 1980s and worked his way up through the ranks. NOW RETIRED from the force, Kleiman spends some of his spare time volunteering at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, trying to reach others who are in similar need of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome counseling. "I got emotional help and support from my wife and friends," says Kleiman. "But the physical help had to come from a doctor - from a mental health professional." Dr. Danny Brom, head of the trauma center, estimates that roughly nine percent of adults in Israel suffer from PTSS, triple the amount in the United States. In the police force and other first-responder units - such as paramedics, doctors, forensic experts and bomb disposal technicians - the numbers are undoubtedly even higher. Based in Jerusalem, the center offers training to mental health professionals, and offers short-term treatment to survivors of all different types of traumas, from rape and traffic accidents to suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. Those in need of treatment are either referred by the National Insurance Institute or pay privately. Brom says that there is a treatment fund that offers victims of trauma some financial relief. The center began in the early 1990s as a project of Jerusalem's Herzog hospital. Today, its programs include outreach to children living in border communities such as Sderot, and a walk-in crisis center. "If I had known about this trauma center a year ago, I could have avoided dealing with the bureaucracy. I did not have the strength to fill out Internal Security Ministry forms. I should not have been put in that situation. I needed a place that I could just walk into and start talking," comments Kleiman. "The Internal Security Ministry only deals with this issue once it has reached the later stages," he continues. "The police force has an organizational psychologist but not a clinical one. Those who need psychological counseling are offered only three appointments. The system does not take care of these people." Brom says the center has been working with paramedics from Magen David Adom and Zaka, the rescue and evacuation service, and that it approached firefighters three years ago. "At first they said to us that they really didn't need any help, but when one of our professionals went down there, they wouldn't let her leave. They hadn't seen a mental health professional in more than 10 years," recalls Brom. "We managed to change their whole culture, however, and get them to talk about their feelings." "The foreign media would always ask me how we [the police] were dealing with the trauma of these attacks," says Kleiman. "But in the Israel Police there are no debriefings. There is a real lack of knowledge of the importance of such a thing." He continues: "The inner circle of bomb technicians and forensic experts - those who have to take off their shoes after a bombing before they enter their house - are the ones who need the most help." It's all about the adrenalin, he says, talking about how he managed to sustain himself through one terrorist attack after another - often in a single a day. "I was not crying out for help," he says. "But if a professional had said to me, 'Talk it out,' I would have. I've seen it in people's faces; they would all be willing to talk about it." "Naturally people don't want to talk about a stressful event because they get upset again," says Brom. "Time does not heal mental wounds; it is important to talk them out. It is not a sign of weakness, but is courageous and healing." KLEIMAN SAYS that the high point of his life over the past few months since he left the police force was the day his wife was approached in the supermarket by the wife of another first responder. She told Kleiman's wife that Gil had inspired her husband - who was so traumatized that he couldn't even go to the bathroom alone at night - to seek help in dealing with his trauma. "Once I had found help, word got around and those from the inner circle started coming forward. It became acceptable. People around me said, 'If Gil can get help, then I can get help, too,'" says Kleiman. "I am walking proof that there is life at the end of the tunnel." These days Kleiman is enjoying life as a retiree. He divides his time between studying Tai Chi and Shiatsu ("the police paid for that," he quips), talking about his experiences to groups visiting Israel from the US and volunteering at the trauma center. One of his first projects at the center has been to help create a promotional video in which he talks very candidly about his experiences as police spokesman. As we watch the five-minute clip together, Kleiman rapidly names every suicide bombing that is shown in the video. "That's in Ramat Gan," he says, as images of ambulances and charred bodies flick across the screen. "That's Caf Hillel; that's the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem. "I don't ever want to go back to that," he remarks. "It's not normal standing over a dead body and chit-chatting with a friend I haven't seen in ages, asking him why he hasn't been in touch. I don't want to slip on someone's jawbone again. "I'm not a doctor, but I can talk about my experiences and do what I can to help others who are where I used to be," he says. Kleiman and the center's PR director, Aura Wolfe, emphasize the clinic's need for financial assistance. Although partly funded by the New York Federation and private donations, funding is dwindling and the center is not reaching as many people as it should. "I was in the US recently and donors were asking why we needed money now when things were quiet in Israel," says Wolfe. "As soon as shootings and bombings stop is when PTSS comes out. While it is happening you don't have time to think about it. It is like a reverse peak," says Kleiman, reiterating how lucky he feels to have found help when he did, and urging anyone else - first responder or civilian - to seek professional help if they need it. "I finally mourned for those who had been killed in the suicide attacks. For two straight months I felt like I had 1,100 people outside my front door, and I gave each his and her due," he says. "It was a period of my life that I wouldn't change, but now I have learned how to put it in a box and close the lid." Although he says he never expected to be retired so young, Kleiman concludes, "Today I am much happier than I was before. I don't ever want to lose my humanity again."

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