“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,’ said Gen. Douglas MacArthur who commanded the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific during World War II. What doesn’t fade for war veterans who were also POWs is the trauma – the nightmare that won’t go away with the passage of time.
Ahead of Yom Kippur, and close to the October 6 anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 war, close to 300 war veterans, most of them from the Yom Kippur War, but some from the 1967 Six Day War, were invited with their families to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Out of uniform, they were just a bunch of bald or balding, aging men. Some still had white or gray hair. A few walked with the aid of a cane, but there was nothing about their appearance to signify their non-stop battle with post trauma stress disorder.
Many had felt for years that what they had undergone in service to the state was unappreciated and virtually ignored.
They all belong to a not-for-profit organization called Erim Balaila (“Alert at Night
”), an ironic title, because most of them are alert at night, unable to sleep because of the memories that haunt them 44 years after their traumatic experiences.
Erim Balaila chairman Shlomo Erdynast said that this was his third time at the President’s Residence. The first was in 2000, on the last day in office of president Ezer Weizman. The second was when a Torah scroll had been dedicated to the former POWs and the third was when President Reuven Rivlin chose to recognize not only their courage but the fact that all of them are engaged in a never-ending struggle.
For all that, Erdynast and other speakers acknowledged that no other country treats its disabled war veterans with the degree of care and consideration that they get in Israel. Yet even though it’s much better in Israel than elsewhere, it’s still not enough.
Erdynast, who was a platoon commander during the war, recounted his explaining to a member of the government administration exactly what the situation was, as he, a trained officer, understood it. No one in the government can understand the security situation unless a field officer explains it to them in the field, he emphasized.
Alluding to the trauma from which many veterans suffer, Erdynast said that it was equally important to explain their situation to a member of government and not to someone who was not part of the decision-making process.
Moderator Ari Ginossar, who spent 47 days in Egyptian captivity, said that what prisoners thought about if they were married, was whether they would ever see their wives and children again. Those who were not married thought about whether they would ever be released so that they could have the opportunity to get married and raise a family.
“Today’s event is in recognition of our contribution to the security of the State of Israel,” he said.
Rivlin in response, “We should have met a long time ago.”
Looking out across the upturned faces, the president said: “You were fighters in a war that never finished. You left captivity, but captivity never left you – even after you were released. Life afterward is never the same as it was before.”
Rivlin showed his awareness that many of the men before him had undergone inhuman humiliations and torture, and had been interrogated in the harshest manner possible, and that their experiences in captivity had left a painful and indelible mark.
“Almost every little thing reminds you of things that you can’t forget,” he said. “You were in a living hell. You are all heroes.”
Rivlin told the veterans: “You have been neglected for too long by the State of Israel, and even when it didn’t neglect you, you still felt abandoned. You paid a heavy price for peace and security, and the State of Israel must recognize this.”
The president also spared a thought for those families still waiting for sons, husbands, fathers and brothers to come home, not only from the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon wars, but also from the most recent of Israel’s wars. He singled out the Katz, Baumel, Feldman, Arad, Hever, Goldin and Shaul families, and promised that Israel would never give up in its efforts to bring their sons home.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan spoke about his childhood friend Prof. Benny Mazuz, who was a graduate of a Bnei Akiva yeshiva and who had been in a hesder unit of the army. When Mazuz was taken prisoner and tortured, what bothered him most was that he had lost the ability to count the days, and not distinguish between one day and another so he didn’t know when it was Shabbat or when there was a Jewish festival. He had a notebook and a pencil, and began to write down the prayers in his notebook so that he would not forget them, and this way compiled his own siddur. He is now a highly respected cardiologist.
Dahan said that he knew that not everyone was able to cope in the way that Mazuz had succeeded, and therefore his door was open to all of the former POWs and disabled veterans. He would do his utmost to help them individually and to help their organization, he pledged.
Haim Bar, the chairman of the Disabled Veterans Association, said even though the veterans, especially those who had been POWs, lived with trauma every minute of the day and night, most had succeeded in becoming productive members of society and had endeavored not to become a burden. He was very proud that Israel ahead of most other countries had realized that post-trauma stress disorder was different from other forms of trauma and was treating it accordingly.
All speakers mentioned that not only the veterans are suffering the effects of trauma. Their families have to struggle with them as well.