IDF soldiers scarred from service come to New York to heal

The trip was part of the flagship program of an organization called “Belev Echad” (Hebrew for “With One Heart”), which began as an impromptu initiative to help wounded IDF soldiers in need.

 THE MAY 2022 Belev Echad delegation pose in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, on May 15, 2022. (photo credit: BELEV ECHAD)
THE MAY 2022 Belev Echad delegation pose in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, on May 15, 2022.
(photo credit: BELEV ECHAD)

Twelve men in their 20s and 30s set out on a trip to New York and New Jersey on May 15. At first glance there was nothing exceptional about the group – they looked like a bunch of young men having a good time. But each one carried a scar – some physical, some mental, some both – from serving in the IDF.

Over the next 10 days, the 12 enjoyed helicopter and boat rides around New York City, taking in the view from the top of one of the city’s tallest buildings, a full-day motorcycle trip, a tour at the UN and a meeting with Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan, a tour of the New York Stock Exchange and more. The trip also included a number of breakfasts, dinners and parties hosted by Israeli expats and local Jews. At every such event the ex-soldiers were profusely applauded and thanked for their service and sacrifice. Those who wanted stood up and told their stories, and some were visibly moved by the attention.

The trip was part of the flagship program of an organization called “Belev Echad” (Hebrew for “With One Heart”), which began as an impromptu initiative to help wounded IDF soldiers in need.

“In 2009, there were a lot of wounded soldiers in Israel and we decided to bring them to New York just for a trip,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler, who founded Belev Echad along with his wife, Shevy. “[At first] we didn’t think we would found an organization, but when we first brought them to New York [in 2010] there were many people who came to shower them with love. For the soldiers it was a trip that really helped them, but also for the community there were hundreds – thousands – of people who wanted to meet them and be inspired by them. So the soldiers were almost on a mission to inspire people.”

“Then, in 2014 [following Operation Protective Edge] there were a lot more wounded soldiers, and we decided to found the organization.” Belev Echad began to operate fully in 2017, and in total has conducted some 30 group visits to the US, Vigler explained. 

 ‘THE LUBAVITCHER Rebbe used to say that these are not “wounded soldiers” but “exceptional soldiers.”’ (credit: BELEV ECHAD) ‘THE LUBAVITCHER Rebbe used to say that these are not “wounded soldiers” but “exceptional soldiers.”’ (credit: BELEV ECHAD)

Belev Echad also purchased a property in Kiryat Ono and equipped it with a pool, gym and other facilities for the soldiers’ benefit. It also serves as a social gathering place.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that these are not ‘wounded soldiers’ but ‘exceptional soldiers.’ We feel that they are exceptional and good people and deserve everything we can give them.”

Rabbi Uriel Vigler

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that these are not ‘wounded soldiers’ but ‘exceptional soldiers.’ We feel that they are exceptional and good people and deserve everything we can give them,” said Vigler, who is affiliated with the Chabad movement.

But there is no hidden agenda, says Vigler, and the goal is to give them the time of their lives, and for the local Jews, most of whom belong to his community, the opportunity to do something good in support of Israel.

“You can see it transforms their lives. They feel alone, but the support of the members of their group, people who share their pain, changes them. You can see this happening between day one and day 10,” Vigler said. 

“I felt like my soul was splintering”

One of the soldiers whose life changed after joining the organization is the leader of the group, David Axel Melni, or Axel for short. Heavily tattooed, stocky, bearded, brooding, quiet but charismatic, Axel joined similar delegations in 2019 and earlier this year, and now returned as the group leader, in charge of everything the soldiers may need. Axel’s story mirrors that of the others – a physical injury accompanied by mental trauma, a period of denial and then a phone call from Belev Echad.

Axel joined the Border Police in March 2015 and after four months of training was placed in the 3rd Company of the battalion tasked with securing the Old City of Jerusalem. On August 26, 2015, just a month after finishing his training, Axel was on a routine patrol when he felt a shove from behind and saw something fly over his left shoulder. He turned around and saw a large man with a knife and realized that the object had been a hatchet. Axel knocked the man to the ground with two well-placed punches but the man leaped up and began to flee. Axel set off in pursuit while knocking aside civilians, caught up with the terrorist and tackled him to the ground. He couldn’t use his gun since a large number of civilians were nearby, and instead managed to beat the terrorist unconscious with his police baton.

“I remember the feeling – I was shaking,” he said. “It’s not like at school, as if you are in some extracurricular activity. You are fighting for your life – it was me or him.” he described.

Then, he began to feel dizzy and realized that he had been stabbed in the leg, with the knife just missing a major artery. As he was being carried away on a stretcher, Axel recalls seeing video clips of himself grappling with the terrorist on a live news update on a nearby TV.

Axel was rushed to a hospital and operated on twice. He left the hospital after about a week and began rehab.

“When I was at home [recuperating] I didn’t internalize the fact that I was the victim of a terror attack. My attitude was, ‘It was nothing, it’s behind me, I’ll return.’ I was already preoccupied by thoughts about returning [to the unit],” he said.

He gradually made his way back to his unit, becoming caught up in the flow of intense daily activity.

But in the months that followed, Axel realized that something was wrong. He experienced recurring nightmares and flashbacks and was constantly on edge – when hearing footsteps approaching from behind he would turn and flinch as if being under attack, especially when he was in the vicinity of the area where he was attacked. At home on weekends, he would experience anxiety attacks and shut himself off from some of his friends.

He also couldn’t talk to his fellow soldiers.

“I was ashamed,” he explained. “A moment ago you were calling me a hero, and now you need to hear me talking [about my hardships]? They kept calling me a hero, but inside my soul was crumbling,” he said.

His family couldn’t understand either, he said.

“As a family of olim from Argentina, they could not understand the experiences of the soul of an injured soldier,” he said.

With no one to turn to, by the end of his military service Axel felt he was “falling apart” and that his “soul was splintering.” He finally worked up the courage to speak to a fellow soldier, who hugged him. But when he turned to his commanding officer to ask for help, the system didn’t give him the empathy he needed.

“When I went to see someone, he asked me bluntly: ‘Do you want me to release you from the army or what?’”

He eventually spoke to the Border Police officer responsible for injured soldiers and asked to leave his role in his combat company. Luckily, a spot opened up on a team that convinced new draftees to join the Border Police. Axel did this for the last three months of his service, and since he began to feel better he did not seek more help.

Instead, following his release Axel began to work as a security guard on group hikes. But on trips to Jerusalem, he would again suffer from terrifying flashbacks. He would break out into cold sweats, a recurring smell would linger long after the trip was over, he would suffer intense anxiety attacks and even vomit. The shame and despair returned.

Instead of seeking help, however, Axel decided to leave the country, hoping to leave his troubles behind. He settled in England. A few months later, in 2019, while abroad, he received a call from a representative of Belev Echad inviting him to a meeting on his next visit to Israel. Axel was skeptical at first, but the organization listened to his story and offered him to take part in a trip to New York with other wounded IDF veterans.

That trip would change his life. Axel was able to meet other soldiers with similar experiences and began to gain a new perspective about what he was going through. His new friends could understand him on a level deeper than any therapist could, and the group was a source of healing, he said. He managed to overcome the feelings of shame and guilt that had been plaguing him and began to feel a new sense of purpose. Now, at age 26, along with leading the May 2022 delegation, Axel is employed full time by the organization.

“This is what is special about the organization. It gives [the injured soldiers] a voice and gives them emotional, professional and other tools to succeed,” he said. “To lead this trip is to come full circle. There are always new circles opening, but this trip was so meaningful for me, and I am excited to see at the end how it impacts the rest of the group.”

 IN THE clouds (from L): Delegation members Elad Tschuva, Oren Nathan, Bar Haddad, Ohad Shmilovitz and Netanel Shahar on a helicopter ride around the Bay.   (credit: BELEV ECHAD) IN THE clouds (from L): Delegation members Elad Tschuva, Oren Nathan, Bar Haddad, Ohad Shmilovitz and Netanel Shahar on a helicopter ride around the Bay. (credit: BELEV ECHAD)

A brotherhood of wounded soldiers

Indeed, one thing that nearly every member of the group said as being the most meaningful part of the delegation was that they were surrounded by people who understood them, and did not have to hide the fact that they were physically and often mentally wounded. It freed them from the occasional self-deprecation and shame that they felt in Israel, and allowed them to be whoever they wanted. Throughout the trip they were able to joke about their injuries, as well as complain full-throatedly about their experiences attempting to receive official handicapped status from the Defense Ministry in order to receive benefits.

The jokes reveal a sad reality: nearly every one of them, especially those suffering from PTSD, face yearslong legal battles against the authorities, branches of the same government that sent them into battle in the first place. The Defense Ministry went out of its way to try to prove that their ailments were not directly related to incidents they witnessed during their service, the soldiers said. Since IDF veteran Itzik Saidyan, who suffered from PTSD, self-immolated on April 12, 2021, for this exact reason, procedures have changed, but it still is not enough, they say.

Another group member, Erez Blumental, who celebrated his 30th birthday while on the trip, said that he took the Defense Ministry’s attitude personally, and left the country for two years.

Blumental was a tank commander in Operation Protective Edge. After spending nearly a month in Gaza, the night-vision goggles in the tank he was in stopped working and the tank flipped over in an area not far from where Hamas operatives were still present. He broke his spine and suffered three herniated discs, and has chronic pain.

Despite the injury, Blumental insisted he would finish his military service and he even served in the reserves for a number of years. He waited five years until he received official recognition and compensation from the army, and recently was also recognized as suffering from PTSD.

“I went to a mechina [pre-military academy] so it was hard for me to give up on the army,” he said. “I had so many opportunities to leave the army but insisted on staying. But at times, the way they [the Defense Ministry] treated us was terrible.

“I had so many opportunities to leave the army but insisted on staying. But at times, the way they [the Defense Ministry] treated us was terrible.”

Erez Blumental

“The appreciation we are getting here [in New York] is diametrically opposed to what we experienced with the Defense Ministry,” he said.

Many organizations have been founded to fill the void and assist disabled IDF veterans, especially during the last decade when the public became more aware of the effects of PTSD. But Belev Echad is unique in that the only criteria for joining is that the veterans are recognized by the Defense Ministry, no matter the cause. There are both men and women, combat and non-combat soldiers, and those suffering from a wide variety of physical and mental injuries.

“The most important people that we have for the future of any country, especially a country like Israel, are those who have faced death and have a better understanding of what life is about. But those are the people we abandon the earliest,” said Richard Miller, Belev Echad board member and one of its first supporters.

“These are the people who can be the most productive people in a society, but we also need to help them be productive so that they forget some of the past and get rid of the emotional problems that they may have,” he said.

“These are the people who can be the most productive people in a society, but we also need to help them be productive so that they forget some of the past and get rid of the emotional problems that they may have.”

Richard Miller

The veterans enjoyed a trip full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But above all else, they enjoyed each other’s company and the ability to let go of the weights that bore them down. ■

The writer was a guest of the organization.