Edan Kleiman, chairman of the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, never imagined that he would head an organization with over 50,000 people, let alone light a flame at the official Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl.
Born in Jerusalem, Kleiman was drafted into the IDF’s Givati Brigade in 1991. A year into his service, during an operation in the city of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, a firefight broke out with three terrorists, and he was wounded in the chest.
In critical condition, he was transferred to Soroka-University Medical Center, Beersheba, where he underwent numerous surgeries and operations. Four days later, he woke up.
“It was a big miracle,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “I woke up after four days and realized that my life had changed. I went from being a Givati fighter to being a paraplegic – a disabled IDF veteran.”
After four months of intensive rehabilitation, Kleiman left the hospital in a wheelchair, needing to learn everything from the beginning.
“I had to choose whether the disability rules over me, or I rule over the disability. I decided that I wouldn’t let it rule over me,” he said.
Kleiman decided that he would do what all other IDF veterans do – travel. And he did, going to Thailand and Los Angeles, before studying law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (now Reichman University).
Then one day, more than a decade after he was wounded, he was approached by a disabled IDF veteran who asked him for help.
“I then realized that there are a lot of disabled veterans who need help,” he said. “I made a big change in my life, and decided I needed to start volunteering to help disabled veterans.”
It was in 2006, after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, that Kleiman really began to dive deep into the world of disabled veterans.
“I asked to help the soldiers who were wounded fighting in Lebanon, because while I had been injured in Gaza, I also served in Lebanon. And that’s when I really began to get into this world, to help brothers-in-arms who were wounded.”
Kleiman is not the first wounded soldier in his family, as his father was seriously wounded during the Yom Kippur War. And that has also had an impact on where he finds himself today.
Since 2004, Kleiman has served in various positions in the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, before becoming chairman: as director of its legal division, deputy chairman of the Tel Aviv district, and chairman of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Central districts.
THROUGHOUT THE years, since he began working at the organization, “I have been concerned about the deterioration of respect shown to veterans,” he said, adding that “in 2019 I said that I would fight for the recognition of disabled veterans because that would make our country better.”
According to him, if the Defense Ministry wouldn’t show respect to those who gave their body and soul to the country, people wouldn’t agree to be drafted.
“Treating the disabled is no less important than the upkeep of an F-16s,” Kleiman said.
Last year, after veteran Itzik Saidian set himself on fire in front of the Petah Tikva offices of the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation division, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced the initiation of the “One Soul” reform program for IDF veterans suffering from trauma.
Since then, the process to be recognized as an IDF disabled veteran has undergone a comprehensive reform, with a proactive approach for anyone recognized as disabled, as well as rapid intervention, a shortening of bureaucracy, and the building of a dedicated rehabilitation program in all aspects, including welfare, medical care and employment.
Kleiman is a central figure in the reform, and told the Post that he began a campaign to initiate a reform a year before Saidian’s act.
“Corona had a big effect on our campaign because we didn’t want to endanger the lives of vets, but then Saidian set himself on fire and it broke us, and we decided to go full-blown on the campaign, and the country woke up,” he said, adding that the reform is a total revamp of how disabled veterans are treated, from beginning to end.
Thanking the ministry and Gantz for their work on the reform, Kleiman said he is “very optimistic” that there will be a change in mindset regarding the treatment of disabled veterans.
And while the ministry is “very serious” about the reform, Kleiman said that all the changes needed to be carried out “take time, and disabled veterans don’t have time. We are fighting under fire.”
In addition to treating over 50,000 disabled veterans, the organization manages four rehabilitation centers, which Kleiman calls “the best in the world.”
The centers serve thousands of veterans, who are then able to reintegrate into society and have careers such as law or medicine, or even return to the defense establishment. According to Kleiman, because of the rehabilitation centers, 75% of all disabled IDF veterans are working.
The IDF Disabled Veterans Organization is also helping the families of disabled veterans, and there is a new program for whoever is affected by a disabled veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as a wife or child.
As of November of last year, there were 58,154 disabled IDF veterans recognized by the ministry’s rehabilitation department.
In 2021 another 1,716 disabled IDF veterans were recognized by the government, 747 of them suffering from PTSD. A total of 6,701 veterans have been recognized by the ministry as suffering from PTSD, and, according to the ministry, 97% of all requests for PTSD recognition were approved, compared to 61% in previous years.
For the first time ever, due to concerns over the impact that fireworks might have on veterans with PTSD, the main Independence Day ceremony on May 4 will not have a fireworks display.
“The country has really stepped up in terms of PTSD, but there’s still a long way to go,” Kleiman said. “I understand that some people really enjoy the fireworks, but they have to understand that it hurts a lot of people.”
According to Kleiman, while Israel has come a long way in recognizing PTSD, there is still a long road ahead.
“It’s all about education, and I hope that in the future, those who have PTSD – what we call the invisible disability – will be seen like those in wheelchairs. The country still has a long way to go in order to fully help and recognize veterans with PTSD.”
Kleiman, who has given his body and soul to serving the country and helping its disabled veterans, told the Post that being chosen to light one of the Independence Day flames “was very meaningful” – not just for him “but for all disabled veterans, who are now recognized for what they gave.”
This honor, he said, lets them “know every day, when they wake up, that the country respects them. This embrace is really important for all disabled veterans. That’s their real rehabilitation.
“There’s no bigger honor than to serve as the chairman of an organization of warriors, of 50,000 veterans who gave their body and soul to this country. It’s a big honor.”
He is married to Shiri and the father of two children, Uri and Daniella.•