‘The amazing process we began this week brought us from ‘brothers in arms’ to ‘brothers in soul.’’
By BRENDA KATTEN
Peace of mind is what we would all wish for, but the “Peace of Mind” (POM) group that recently paid a one week visit to London, hosted by the Ner Yisrael community of Hendon, came with a particular purpose. Its 20 participants had served together in an IDF high-risk combat unit some years ago, while continuing to come together each year to carry out their miluim (reserve duty) responsibilities.Today, in their mid-thirties, married with young children, they still have memories of their traumatic moments in battle – a reality that, unlike the physical grime of war, cannot be showered away. On the surface, many continue their civilian life without apparent problems. The effect of trauma can often remain dormant, with the individual being unaware of how it affects their day-to-day living and that of their families.The project was initiated by the Psycho-Trauma Department of the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. It is a nine-month program, beginning with a seminar six weeks prior to the trip abroad. A second seminar takes place six weeks after the return home, with the final session six months following the return to Israel. Each group is accompanied by two psychologists.The Magazine spoke with Michelle Sint, coordinator for the Hendon-based group, whose veterans embraced secular and religious participants with one belonging to the Druze community.“It is an amazing project that impacts profoundly on many individuals and, subsequently, their families,” she says. “We see how much of a difference it has made to the 20 participants who have just left for home. This is the second group hosted by Ner Yisrael. It has been exceedingly rewarding to receive feedback from the first group, where one of the participant’s wives wrote to say, “Thank you for giving me back my husband.”On the community side, it presents a chance to show these brave warriors a Diaspora community that is quite different from their expectations. The guys were bowled over by their hosts’ level of commitment and love of Israel – far stronger than they envisaged. They could not believe that we, so readily and excitedly, took a group of complete strangers into our homes, organizing hospitality and visits to London’s tourist attractions.Michelle introduced me to one of the team, whom we shall call Chaim. Chaim is 34 years old, married with twin sons aged two and a half, and a daughter of eight months. They live on a moshav; Chaim works as a CPA and explains his story.AdvertisementI joined the army in August 2004, as part of a special combat unit. During my three years of service, my unit fought in the Second Lebanon War [August 2006] as well as in Gaza and Judea and Samaria.The purpose of the POM program is, primarily, for the members of our unit to talk about our experiences during our military service. Let me emphasize that our ‘experiences’ included being wounded, rescue under fire, fighting under fire and moments between life and death.At the time, not one of us spoke of how this might be affecting us – we all had to remain 100% focused on fighting the enemy. We talked about the mechanics of the battle but never addressed how these traumatic battle happenings might have affected us emotionally. Each one had to remain resilient: the perfect ‘Macho Man.’The preparatory seminar, six weeks prior to our journey, gave us an insight into what we might expect from the forthcoming program in London.Once in London, we sat together every day from 8.30 am until 4.30 pm, with each one having the time to express feelings that hitherto had remained buried. With two psychologists on hand, guiding us and giving us a sense of security, it was safe to talk about how the trauma of battle affected our emotions.It permitted me to open up emotionally to my colleagues with whom I had served for three years. We were able to share both experiences of life in general as well as war in particular.We were fortunate to be hosted by families in the Ner Yisrael community, whose warmth, love and understanding contributed greatly to the program’s success. The community was there for us: whether to enjoy a barbecue together, arranging theater outings, visits to tourist attractions or having a drink in a pub. It was the perfect counterbalance to a day filled with the sharing of deep emotions.This was my first experience of being part of a Jewish religious community abroad. I was surprised to find that it was very similar to what I know from home. It was wonderful to feel that this community and others love and hug Israel.Upon returning home, I thought about what I had gained from this project. I learned that my colleagues and I experienced the same emotional reactions to our time in combat situations, but that until coming together with POM, we had never shared our feelings. It was exceedingly comforting to find that I was not alone. What I have discovered is that being able to share emotions brings us closer together. For sure this will be one of the pluses I have taken with me that will benefit my family. I now recognize that the ability to share feelings with those we are close to results in a strengthening of the relationship.CHAIM’S RECOGNITION of the positive spin-off for the family was endorsed when the Magazine spoke with Alon Weltman, director of the POM program at Metiv (the Herzog Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma). Weltman gave an example of a POM graduate who returned home and two months later was told by the head of his little boy’s Gan “ Your son today is full of confidence with a new found sense of security ”. In other words the benefits are not limited to the participants but extend to the family and beyond.At Ner Yisrael’s communal Shabbat lunch, in honor of the veteran’s visit, where 250 members of the community came together to celebrate their visit one soldier expressed the views of all “We started this amazing and unique journey as brothers in arms. During this past week one experienced the other through his perspective and feelings. The amazing process we began this week brought us from “brothers in arms” to “brothers in soul.” My soulmates and I want to thank everyone who has been part of this significant project but especially the members of Ner Yisrael whose hospitality and love is without boundaries.”The community was moved by these words as they were when the group stood on the Bet Knesset’s Bima as the prayer for Israel’s IDF was recited – there was not one dry eye in the Shul.The POM project began in 2007 (in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War) with a group of ex combat soldiers visiting Paris. Taking place in another country brings the peace of mind conducive to the daily intensive therapy. Anthony Goldstein, who heads the United Kingdom’s POM, says the 100th group is about to travel to Toronto with a further 120 units (embracing over 2000 combat soldiers) requesting to join the program simply because they have heard from graduates of its success.At a time when there is much talk about a distancing between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry how gratifying to hear of a project that builds strong bridges between the two. It demonstrates an understanding and deep recognition of the human price Israel pays for its continuity.It made me wonder whether we in Israel show sufficient understanding of and indebtedness to these remarkable combat soldiers whose defense of our beloved Israel gives us security and peace of mind.The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.