Does Israel go to bat for IDF veterans suffering from PTSD?

The Perspective of Israel's Soldiers with PTSD

AN ISRAELI police explosives expert surveys the damage after a rocket from Gaza exploded in an Israeli community south of Ashkelon. July 14, 2014.   (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI police explosives expert surveys the damage after a rocket from Gaza exploded in an Israeli community south of Ashkelon. July 14, 2014.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
This past summer, the nonprofit organization HaHelem V’HaKrav, held a demonstration titled “Transparent Heroes Protest” in front of the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv to raise awareness of the struggles and difficulties former IDF combat soldiers with PTSD face.
Founded by Nati Shaked, who has war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ya’arit Ashkenazi, whose husband suffers from war-related PTSD, HaHelem V’HaKrav offers legal assistance to PTSD sufferers with regard to their dealings with the Defense Ministry. In addition, it helps educate people on the hardships families of former soldiers who suffer from PTSD face.
“Moshe,” 43, who is married and has four kids, did not want his real name revealed, “because then the authorities will use it against me.” He served in the Nahal Brigade during his army service.
“I spent most of my service as a sniper in Lebanon,” he recalls. “When I completed my army duty, I started a business and also began my studies. Every year I would do 30 days of reserve duty.
“During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, I was placed in a unit offering support to Armored Brigade forces. Some of the time we were stationed inside Gaza, and other times we were just outside the border. The awful sights and experiences we suffered on the Israeli side of the border were sometimes even worse than those inside Gaza. While we were in the midst of fighting, I didn’t feel anything. I was very professional, and we were busy rescuing wounded troops, some of whose condition worsened as they lay in our arms.”
When did you start feeling the effects of the PTSD?
“Only after I returned home. I found it extremely difficult to fall asleep, and even then, after I finally was able to drift off, I would be inundated with visions from [my experiences in] Lebanon. For the first three months after the war ended, I barely slept.
“I went to the office in Tel Hashomer that deals with PTSD. I sat talking with the psychiatrist on duty for three hours. He told me I was suffering from extreme PTSD, and that I needed to get help urgently.
“So I told him to help me, but he replied that he’s not allowed to treat me, that first I have to bring a case against the Defense Ministry. ‘Sorry, but that’s how the system works,’ he told me.
“Three months later, my wife made me go see a private psychiatrist, who also told me I’m suffering from a severe case of PTSD, and that I need to sue the Defense Ministry as quickly as possible.”
So, what happened in the end?
“Due to my wife’s tenacity, I was recognized as a disabled veteran. She suffered more than I did, I think. I was given 50% disability, which makes me eligible to receive NIS 3,800 a month.
“After I came home from Operation Protective Edge, I had to close my business. I can’t work. I had to sell my house, too, so we live in a rental now.
“Every three months I need to bring them an authorization from a psychiatrist claiming that I can’t work, and then they authorize the compensation. My doctor is really tired of filling out forms and dealing with all the bureaucracy. He told me recently, ‘This continuous filling out of forms is ridiculous. I wrote them a letter that you can’t work now.’
“Two years ago, I was meant to appear before a committee that deals with employment capabilities. I’m still waiting for my turn to present my case.”
Another topic that Moshe wanted to discuss was how families of PTSD sufferers are treated.
“My family has suffered greatly due to my condition,” Moshe explains. “Some nights I can go off on a rage after hearing a truck honking loudly. Any sound or smell can place me right back on the battlefield. For example, if my wife is cooking an omelet and a little bit gets burned, that’s enough to set me off.
“The Defense Ministry is willing to offer compensation for up to three years. Unfortunately for me and many others, I’ve passed the three years, and my symptoms have not dissipated at all.
“We’re not even sure if we know all the rights we are eligible for. The ministry is not very helpful in this respect. Also, if by chance you have a PTSD attack while you’re in their office, they’ll call the police on you. It’s not my fault that when the bus drove by my mind told me that it was a tank and that I need to react.”
“I’m a child of a PTSD sufferer,” says “Rami,” 50, who is a divorced father of three living in southern Israel. “My father fought in Operation Kadesh, and in those days no one knew anything about PTSD. He was considered mentally ill. I was born 13 years later. My family was poor and there was always a feeling of sadness and fear in the house. My dad was like a walking zombie. I loved him so much, but he died young, which is pretty common among PTSD sufferers. When a person has PTSD, the entire family suffers.”
What were your father’s symptoms?
“He’d have angry, uncontrollable outbursts. It was such a horrible atmosphere for a child to grow up in. It’s the wife and children who receive the brunt of a man’s anger. Most PTSD sufferers get divorced or have dysfunctional relationships. Even if a man stays married, usually his wife will suffer from intense loneliness.
“My father was a lone soldier and served in Givati. His unit ran into land mines, and many of his fellow soldiers died or were wounded. It’s as if his soul died during the battle, even though his body continued functioning until 1991.
“When you have a family member who suffers from PTSD, you’re treated like you have leprosy. People don’t know what to say to you, so they avoid you. Our house was always empty. Nobody ever came by and knocked on the door. My mother bore the brunt of this burden. We grew up like orphans.”
What message do you want to get out to the public?
“There are currently about 4,700 IDF PTSD sufferers in Israel. In contrast with people who’ve lost an arm or a leg, PTSD has no visible markings. As a result, many people consider PTSD sufferers to be cheaters or liars. They think we’re trying to steal money from the government.
“Disabled IDF veterans can go on with their lives – they can go to university or get a job. People can identify with their hardships. But with PTSD it’s different. People say, ‘What’s the problem? Why can’t you just get on with your life?’
“My goal is to raise public awareness and create a feeling of solidarity. These people are heroes, but nobody recognizes them as such. It’s unconscionable that they are ostracized and fired from their workplaces. Their children are treated with disdain by their fellow students and teachers. When my father died, so many people showed up at his funeral. My mother screamed at them, ‘Where were you when he was still alive and needed you?’
“PTSD sufferers have to fight the system to get any help. They have to face medical committees and beg for help. Many PTSD sufferers end up isolated at home, don’t work and don’t function well in society.”
“I don’t sleep in the same room with my wife,” explains Moshe, “since I wake up all the time, move around and make a lot of noise. And sometimes I yell out in my sleep.
“Certain smells and noises make me very nervous. I get stressed out when the kids fight, and it’s hard for me to hug them, since I don’t really like being touched. If someone touches me, many times my reflex is to lash out and hit them. Two of my kids have sensory issues and are very restless.
“My oldest daughter told me recently, ‘Do you know why I don’t bring friends home? Became I’m embarrassed by the way you act.’
“I’m actually surprised my wife hasn’t divorced me yet. The divorce rate among disabled IDF veterans is sky-high, and among PTSD sufferers it’s even higher.
“As a result, we’re asking the Defense Ministry to offer the appropriate help. Just because both of our legs work doesn’t mean that we’re healthy. It’s our brains that are messed up.”
“I’M ONE of the lucky ones,” says Dror Zicherman, 34, who is single and lives in Tel Aviv. “I also have physical scars in addition to the PTSD, which people can see. I had to go through an endless number of medical committees and fight against all the bureaucracy, before they approved my case. I can only imagine how much harder it is for survivors who have only PTSD, which has no physical markers.”
Zicherman travels around the country, giving lectures at schools about his experiences.
“I got wounded in 2005 during a military operation in Tulkarm,” he recalls. “I was serving in the Nachshon Division of the IDF, and my unit had received intel that terrorists were planning to carry out an attack. So we set up a roadblock, and started checking cars as they crossed over into Israeli territory.
“Then a taxi pulled up, and we asked everyone to get out. The next thing we knew the terrorist had blown himself up right next to me and my commander. My commander was killed right in front of me, and I was seriously wounded.
“I still have a brace on my leg to help me walk, and I suffer excruciating pain all day long. I lost hearing in one ear and in addition suffer from PTSD.
“My PTSD started only two years after the attack. At first, I was in complete denial of my PTSD, since I didn’t want people to pity me. But, thank goodness, I slowly realized that there’s no shame in it, and that it’s incredibly important to talk about everything, and that it’s healthy to share your experiences.”
What are you demanding from the Defense Ministry?
“We don’t want to fight against the Defense Ministry – we want instead that they should fight for us; that they should fight to make all of us PTSD sufferers feel respected again.
“Many PTSD sufferers isolate themselves and rarely leave home. They can barely function, they can’t work, and they’re looked down upon by society. They are pitied and feel like society considers them a burden.
“We want them to feel like they can walk down the street with their chins held high; that people should understand their pain and recognize their illness; that they be helped to find suitable employment; that they be integrated back into Israeli society.
“These are people who fought for our country, and so now the country owes it to them to help them in their time of need.”
The Defense Ministry responds:
The Defense Ministry Rehabilitation Department is currently treating over 57,000 IDF disabled veterans, of which about 4,700 suffer from PTSD. The ministry is working in collaboration with the IDF and Israel’s Combat Response Unit to raise awareness of PTSD symptoms among former soldiers. The ministry is investing a large portion of its budget to develop innovative treatment methods and is working with the best professionals and experts from Israel and around the world.”
The department is continually working to improve the recognition process for disabled veterans who are suffering from PTSD. The office believes that reintegration into the workforce is the best form of rehabilitation, and therefore involves employment consultants to assist with work placements in protected enterprises for individuals who are not capable of working in the general workforce.
The department covers psychological treatment for all PTSD sufferers as needed, indefinitely. In addition, the ministry is aware that the entire family is under stress, and therefore provides psychological treatment for parents and spouses as well, for three years. The department operates support groups for PTSD sufferers and unique treatment frameworks, which impart social and occupational skills to disabled veterans who cannot integrate into other frameworks.
The department collaborates with academic institutions to promote research in the field of PTSD treatment. Ministry staff people have been placed in cities throughout the country in an effort to reach every community.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.