Walk into Beit Halochem on Monday morning in north Tel Aviv and you can feel the competitive vibe already. You hear the cheering and the music, and you smell the sweat of the hundreds of competitors in the first Veterans Games.
The games got under way Sunday and wrap up on Thursday at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem rehabilitation centers run by Beit Halochem. Participants, ranging from their 20s to late 50s, are competing, trying new sports and learning about how their respective countries provide specialist care for those injured in combat. The delegation of more than 150 British veterans are joined by many family members.
Participants include several British competitors who won medals at the Prince Harry-founded Invictus Games, including Matthew Neve who spoke to The Jerusalem Post after participating in the shooting competition.
Neve joined the Royal Air Force in 2001 when he was 16 and straight out of secondary school. Deployed two years later to Iraq in March 2003, he unloaded and loaded fellow soldiers who had been severely wounded or killed.
“The time I was doing that, it began to take its toll on me and I deteriorated quite quickly to the point where I was medevaced myself and flown back to the UK and was medically discharged in 2004,” he said.
Diagnosed with PTSD, it took him 12 years to seek proper help, and it came through sport.
Neve, who is competing in shooting and swimming, was asked by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund if he was would participate in the games in Israel. Those games, he said, are an opportunity for him “to further my recovery using the medium of sport.”
“In 2016 I took up archery and I competed in the Invictus games in 2017, and that’s when I found that sport was starting to make a difference for me,” he said. “I suffer from mental health difficulties, PTSD and depression. But when I’m shooting, I can switch all of that off and focus on what’s going on in front of me at that time. It’s the only time where I can socialize with others as well... I find it difficult interacting with other people, but with archery I can go in there and chat with anyone no problem at all.”
Neve left Iraq following an extremely difficult deployment, and Israel was never a place which he thought of visiting.
“For me it was going back to the Middle East... and I’ll never go back to Iraq, that’s for sure,” he said. “But coming to Israel was a way of coming back to the region and putting a positive spin rather than coming away with another negative.”
Neve came to the Games with his wife and two daughters.
“It’s great to bring my family out here, and for them to come out and experience what’s going on and show that it doesn’t matter about disability – be it physical or mental. It shows that barriers can be broken. It doesn’t matter what’s put up. You can if you try hard. You can break the barriers and keep going.”
Nick Costiff, another UK competitor who served in the British Marines from 1991 until 2004, told the Post that rehabilitation and sports is “invaluable” to the well-being and recovery of servicemen and ex-servicemen.
Costiff served as a corporal in various combat zones before he left under medical conditions. Inspired by his injuries and seeing other recover from theirs, has since become a physiotherapist.
“You can’t segregate either of those things... The body does what the mind tells it,” he said. “And if your mind is in the right place and you got a competitive edge, still you need to tap into that and that can drive you to get the best of your body.”
Costiff said that while there is that competitive vibe within the gym, “we also have that unity and the common element that we’ve all been injured fighting for our countries and we recognize that.
“We still have that competitive edge. We still love what we joined up for, and still want to be a part of that and show that part of our character,” he continued, adding that “you see someone putting in 100% into what they are doing, and while it might not be 100% of what they were once capable of, they are still putting in the maximum amount of effort, and it really shows a lot about a person and how they want to be viewed.”
Another competitor, paralympian Hanoch Budin, has been competing in international sporting events for the past 20 years after being wounded while serving in the Golani Brigade during the First Lebanon War in 1982. Participating in six paralympics games, he has won eight medals including two gold, and set two world records.
He began to swim during his rehabilitation, and within a year and a half won a medal in the paralympics.
“As an individual you want to show that you can cope, that you can do things, and swimming is kind of natural,” Budin said. “You go into the water and it’s much easier to cope with... The water keeps you alive and up.”
The competition still excites him. “I always thought being first in the world, in something you like to do, nothing could compare to that.”
For Budin, his disability hasn’t stopped him from pushing his limits.
“I always say that my career was amputated in the army,” but he added that while 99% of people ask if his life would have been different had he not been injured, to him it’s not important.
“Anything you do, which has a cause, and you manage to overcome your difficulties and achieve something, it builds you up... Take sports. Take something, anything. Have a focus and it will help you with many things.”
While Budin didn’t compete in the swimming competition in the Games, since it wouldn’t be fair to others who are not professional swimmers, he will be trying water polo on Wednesday.
As a competitive swimmer growing up, I couldn’t leave the games without speaking to someone who competed in the water.
Fiona Masson, who spoke to the Post after her swimming competition, joined the games with the Not Forgotten Association, which helps wounded service personnel by taking members to events that challenge veterans but build comradeship.
“They brought me back to life,” Masson said. “I suffered for probably four years with PTSD, and then developed social anxiety and social phobia, and I basically never left the house.”
An email from the Band of Brothers, which is connected to the Not Forgotten Association, led her to “muster up every bit of courage” she had and leave the house to compete in the Hell Walking competition in Scotland. She hasn’t stopped competing since.
“Sports brings everyone together, part of a team working toward a common goal,” she said. “The support that you get, regardless of where you come from, everyone is there for each other and it’s nice to be part of a team again.”
It’s not Masson’s first time in the Middle East – she served three tours in Afghanistan with the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and visited Egypt shortly after her recovery.
“It’s a different feeling here,” she said. “I’ve fallen in love with the country, the people, the overall positive attitude. It’s nice to see another country that is so focused on the well-being of its veterans. It’s a nice feeling to know that people are there looking out for you.”
Masson didn’t come with her family, and while traveling alone is challenging for her, she’s overcome so many challenges that she “looks forward to the next one.”
The games, she said, are “an inspiration. It should be for everyone who can see what Israel is doing, and I think it’s something that should definitely be looked into for all countries. They can learn a lot... It’s a wonderful place to be, a nice atmosphere and a positive experience.”
The Veteran Games were organized by Beit Halochem UK and the Embassy of Israel in London. The planning took more than a year and half, and involved raising millions of shekels.
The first such event of its kind, the games are supported by leading rehabilitation and veterans organizations including the Royal Marines Charity, RAF Benevolent Fund, Rock to Recovery, Veteran Scotland, Combat Stress, the Not Forgotten Association and the Association of Jewish ex-Service Men and Women (AJEX), the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust, and the Exilarch’s Foundation. Donations have come from the Patron Charitable Initiatives, the Pears Foundation, the Rachel Charitable Trust, the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation and the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust. As well, the Chelsea Foundation is providing football coaching for families attending and specialist workshops for Israeli sports teachers.
Andrew Wolfson, chairman of Beit Halochem UK, told the Post that the idea for the competition in Israel came up shortly after the last Invictus Games.
“I thought it was a shame that Israelis aren’t a part of the Invictus games, so I thought let’s do our own,” he said.
Unlike the Invictus Games, “it’s less about the competition and more about the collaboration,” Wolfson said. “I see it more as getting our two countries to collaborate and enable best practice in the field of mental and physical rehabilitation.”
In addition to the sporting events, the games include a three-day conference with leading professionals discussing veteran PTSD, mental health and recovery for families to encourage them to share experiences.
“Sport is massively significant in the rehabilitation of soldiers,” Wolfson said. “It gives people a purpose of what they can achieve, and they can get better and better at it. But rehabilitation is not only about learning to do something again and assuming rehabilitation is over, but for life.
“Young people who get injured in tragic circumstances come to Beit Halochem centers and they see people who got injured 20, 30 years ago... Our oldest member is 101 years old... And they see people achieving a huge amount. So even if their life is dramatically changed, it gives them a huge amount of hope.”
Michael Freeman, counselor for civil society affairs at Embassy of Israel in London, told the Post that the idea began last year after a delegation of leading veterans organizations in the UK came to Israel for fives days.
“We spoke about doing something deeper and started to think out of the box a little bit, to think creatively of what an NGO meant,” he said, adding that with the help of the Foreign Ministry, they thought of an event which could promote Israel “in a different way.”
“For the recuperation and rehabilitation process, family is also a critical element,” Freeman said, adding that sports are only part of one’s recovery. “Part of the process is also with their children, who can see what their parent is doing and get a sense of pride.”
While sports and rehabilitation are the focus of the games, the ability to bring wounded veterans from two different countries is paramount.
“Last night we had a dinner of 350 people where all the tables were mixed, and we already saw last night people exchanging phone numbers and telling war stories,” he said. “For them to understand that there are other people who have gone through the same experience in a different place but fighting for the same values, for the same principles, it was very, very warming and heartening for them to talk to someone who understood them in a way that only people who have been in combat or injured in their service could understand,” he said.
Freeman noted countries other than Britain and Israel have expressed interest in the games, and “subject to how it goes, maybe we can repeat it and we would love to expand it.
“When you watch them it’s super inspiring. You see people who have lost limbs. Who are suffering from terrible PTSD or other injuries, and they are here with their families and competing at the highest level and committed in the highest way and it’s just inspiring. It really is. I’m in awe of what they achieved. It doesn’t matter if they have any medals.”
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