US Army veterans find comfort in Israel

US vets experience Israel on Memorial Day with Israeli peers thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA and its partner Heroes to Heroes.

Heroes to Heroes participants with their Israeli counterparts lay a wreath at the Latrun Armored Corps Memorial. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Heroes to Heroes participants with their Israeli counterparts lay a wreath at the Latrun Armored Corps Memorial.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I struggled for years trying to find healing from the moral injury of war and was overwhelmed by the impact that Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) had on my experience with Heroes to Heroes in Israel. Everywhere we went, JNF-USA was there!” said Joe Walters, 71, from Suffolk, Virginia.
A Vietnam War veteran, Walters is one of 277 US Army veterans who has traveled to Israel with Jewish National Fund-USA partner Heroes to Heroes, a US-based organization that provides spiritual healing and peer support for American combat veterans who have attempted suicide or are on a path to self-destruction. In partnership with JNF-USA, American and Israeli military veterans are also able to meet and bond during a 10-day journey to Israel, where teams of 12 to 14 US vets are led by program alumni. While in Israel, the vets are joined by their Israeli counterparts and visit various sites important to Israel’s path to independence.
An immediate recognizable difference pointed out to the American veterans upon arrival in Israel is how the US and Israel commemorate their nation’s respective memorial days. 
Picnics, parades, and barbecues are the typical activities seen during Memorial Day weekend in the US. First observed in 1868, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died serving in the US military. While the day of observance in the US has largely lost its somber tone and moved towards shopping sales and weekend getaways, to many it still remains a day when families visit cemeteries and hold memorials to honor and remember those who died in service.
The scene is different in Israel during its national day of mourning, Yom Hazikaron. More somber and pensive in tone, Israel’s national day of mourning hits close to home for every citizen; everyone knows someone who fell protecting the country.
In Israel, the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), another Jewish National Fund partner, oversees 180 different sites throughout the country that recall both the sacrifices and the miracle of the rebirth of modern Israel. Noa Gefen, chairwoman of SPIHS, explained that these heritage sites “enable visitors to touch and feel history – not just read about them in textbooks.” Places like the Atlit Detention Camp near Haifa, the Ayalon Institute’s underground bullet factory in Rehovot, and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv recall Israel’s struggle for independence. Others, like Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem and the Koach Fort in the Upper Galilee recall the battles and heroism of Israel’s soldiers.
“We must preserve history for the next generation,” said Gefen. “That’s why we collaborate closely with Jewish National Fund-USA to preserve sites, expand exhibits, and find new ways to share Israel’s story with the public. We could not do the work that we do without JNF-USA’s donors and leadership.”
Judy Isaacson Elias, founder of Heroes to Heroes, believes that the experience of being in Israel, in combination with visiting Jewish National Fund-USA sites throughout the country along with Israeli veterans, is part of the path towards healing. “The focus of the journey to Israel is to help our veterans reconnect with their Creator, to find forgiveness, and to find peace.” Elias explained that veterans are faced with the challenge of dealing with “moral injury,” which can occur from actions and experiences during warfare. “Our focus is to deal with this so they can heal, find connection and forgiveness, and forgive themselves.”
Elias says that most of the veterans are of Christian faiths, and for them, “forgiveness is key in finding the peace they need to move forward.” The combination of religious experience and learning about Israel with JNF-USA, said Elias, is particularly important.
“They go to the Galilee and get baptized in the Jordan River, they go to Christian holy sites. They also go to the Golan Heights to learn about Israel’s security challenges and spend time with Israelis who take part in the program. In this way they get to know the Israeli people.”
“For me, it was the tree plantings with my IDF brother, Dror Gilmore, that brought me the greatest insight,” said Walters, adding, “The tradition of bringing new life to dry places was magnified as Dror and I planted two trees in such a way that as they grow together, they will become one. I am so grateful for the unity that JNF-USA is bringing in all that it touches.”
A Heroes to Heroes team planting trees at The Harvey Hertz-JNF Ceremonial Tree Planting Center at Neot Kedumim. (photo credit: Courtesy)A Heroes to Heroes team planting trees at The Harvey Hertz-JNF Ceremonial Tree Planting Center at Neot Kedumim. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harrison Manyoma, 42, served in the US Army for eight years in the Air Defense Artillery branch. In July 2004,Manyoma and his combat patrol team were ambushed by a suicide car bomber in Baghdad. Manyoma received multiple wounds; third-degree burns to his right and left arm and hands, memory loss, blurred vision, traumatic brain injury, and ruptured eardrums. On the brink of suicide in 2012, Manyoma received lifesaving and transformative help thanks to Heroes to Heroes.
“My heart, mind, body, and spirit have been completely transformed since my first journey to Israel in 2012 with Heroes to Heroes,” he said. “From the moment I stood on Ammunition Hill, I knew that Israel had more than my heart; it had my soul.
“The Latrun Tank Memorial is one of the places where I learned that Israel never gave up. Hearing the stories and accounts of how these mighty Israeli heroes fought and never gave up gave me more than hope. It gave me the will to fight when hope seems lost.”
Harrison Manyoma, far right, baptizing a fellow soldier in the Jordan River. (photo credit: Courtesy)Harrison Manyoma, far right, baptizing a fellow soldier in the Jordan River. (photo credit: Courtesy)
“Israel is a tool to help them survive,” said Elias. “We have brought over 277 US Army veterans to Israel for this journey, and the results have been remarkable.”
Elias added that US Army veterans have a special affinity with Israel and its people. “They spend time with Israelis who take part in the program, they get to know the Israeli people, and get to know what it is like to live in a land where you are actually defending your backyard. Many veterans feel that Israel is a ‘vets’ country, because everyone here is a veteran. They know that people here have their backs, and for some, this trip is the first time they enjoy a full night’s sleep without medication.”
“Jewish National Fund-USA is a major donor to Heroes to Heroes and they have helped us grow to where we are today – they’ve helped us save lives.”
And the silhouette of two soldiers facing each other in the Heroes to Heroes logo?
“That’s two heroes – an American and an Israeli – working together,” she said.
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.