Going at it alone: IDF's handling of soldiers' suicide

The suicide of an American-born lone soldier puts the focus on the IDF’s handling of a delicate situation.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY mourn at the funeral of American lone soldier Alex Sasaki at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, in March.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
FRIENDS AND FAMILY mourn at the funeral of American lone soldier Alex Sasaki at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, in March.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Immigrant lone soldiers are one of the Israeli military’s gems. They’ve left their homes and families to serve and defend a country, but unlike their Israeli-born counterparts, when they leave base they are alone. No family to come home to, no warm meal waiting for them.
There are more than 6,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF with no family to support them and provide for them. They are highly motivated to serve the country with a large number serving in combat units. In the last conflict with Hamas in 2014, three of the 66 soldiers who fell were immigrant lone soldiers.
But this past week, many lone soldiers in the IDF faced a different enemy. One of their own took her life on her base. Some of her comrades accused the army of hushing up what they see as a worrying trend of lone soldiers committing suicide.
A senior officer denied that there was a growing trend of suicide in the army, and in particular, among lone soldiers.
Data released by the army showed that since the beginning of the program – which includes two call centers, manned 24/7 for soldiers in distress – suicide rates have fluctuated from a high of 28 in 2006 (coinciding with the Second Lebanon War) and 2010 to a low of six in 2013.
According to the officer, between 2004-2011 there were between 21-36 suicides per year while 2014-2017 saw an average of 15 soldiers commit suicide per year. This past year was the lowest number of suicides since 2013, with nine soldiers taking their lives while in uniform.
The army launched an extensive plan to prevent suicide in 2006, when 28 soldiers took their own lives. According to the senior officer, the data show a dramatic decline of almost 50% since the program was implemented.
“There has been a dramatic decrease in suicides in recent years because of these programs,” the officer said.
While a decade ago the suicide rate was higher among immigrant and other specific groups like the Ethiopian community or reservists, this is now no longer the case, the senior officer said. Nevertheless, male conscripts are more likely to commit suicide than female soldiers.
The senior officer told The Jerusalem Post that the military has numerous holistic programs to help soldiers with mental health issues across the various branches in the army. The general downward trend in suicide can also be related both to restricted access to weapons and the army’s efforts in suicide prevention.
“We have changed our perspectives on dealing with suicides and the results are evident,” the officer said. “We are more sensitive to dealing with this.”
The officer was adamant in denying that there was a worrying rise in lone soldiers committing suicide, telling the Post that it just didn’t jive with the numbers in the army.
“It’s just not true,” the senior officer said, adding that only three lone soldiers committed suicide between 2017 and this year, and only one female lone soldier committed suicide in the past three years.
A total of 14 lone soldiers committed suicide in the past decade, the officer said.
Any death that occurs not during operational duty in the military is investigated by Military Police. These investigations usually take around two months before they are ruled as a suicide or not. There is also a committee headed by an officer with the rank of colonel with several other officers who investigate all aspects of the incident.
All cases make their way to the senior officer’s desk.
ACCORDING TO the officer, there is a great number of tools for lone soldiers, from even before they draft into the army to their release from service, to make sure the soldiers from abroad feel more connected to the country they are serving.
But for many lone soldiers, they do not have a home to go back to when they are off-base and no family where they can spend Friday night dinners or holidays with.
The senior officer told the Post that soldiers are also able to find housing with organizations such as Beit Kobi or HaBayit Shel Benji, where it’s not only a home, but a family.
“We don’t think that we can only help lone soldiers with money. We have started to pair lone soldiers at their draft date with a mentor who will help them and be there for them at all times during their service,” the officer told the Post, adding that while it used to be only after a soldier was drafted that the army knew about the issues the conscript might be facing. “Now 90% of lone soldiers are known by the military before they are even drafted.”
Foreign-born lone soldiers go through the same psychological checks as citizens, filling out medical questionnaires and having their medical information shared with the army. Their physicians also get questionnaires that they must fill out and return to the military.
“We had an incident not so long ago, a recruit who was not a lone soldier and who had a high motivation to serve, committed suicide not long after he was drafted,” the senior officer said. “He didn’t tell anyone that he had tried to commit suicide in the past. If the draftee doesn’t want me to know, then I won’t know it. Lone soldier or otherwise.”
Because of occurrences like that, the officer said, in the questionnaire given to physicians, an additional question was added: Has the recruit tried to commit suicide in the past?
But, “we don’t always know everything,” the officer admitted.
Following their release, lone soldiers also receive financial help from the state and are able to live at a Beit Hachayal soldiers hostel for three months.
Last year, a report by the state comptroller found that the IDF was not addressing the needs of lone soldiers adequately enough. While the report acknowledged that the IDF and the Defense Ministry have already begun to correct some of the failings raised in the report, the criticism raised several shortcomings relating to the treatment of lone soldiers during their service.
The report, which was based on a survey filled out by lone soldiers, found that a significant percentage had difficulties adjusting to civilian life here after their service, as they are without family support and might not have fully mastered the language enough.
The state comptroller recommended that the IDF examine the needs of these soldiers, especially those without family ties, and examine the possibility of providing them with unique benefits that best meet their needs. The report also recommended advancing a strategic plan aimed at absorbing lone soldiers in society after their discharge.
The senior officer acknowledged the difficulty for lone soldiers who are released from the IDF, telling the Post that “it’s not simple to be a lone soldier released from duty. It’s important for us to help them.”
ACCORDING TO Pvt. E., who served at the military’s headquarters, lone soldiers, especially those who serve in combat units, are under immense pressure to show that they are mentally fit all the time.
“They need to show that they are capable and that they are not suffering from anything to get them bumped into the kitchen or become a jobnik,” he told the Post over the phone, using the slang term for a soldier with a desk job. “I’ve heard conversations from soldiers about how awful their service would be if they were dropped from a combat unit to being a jobnik. No one wants to do that.”
While Pvt. E. never thought about committing suicide during his service, he said that all soldiers know that if they want to be released, they could go to their commanding officer and say that they were considering taking their lives.
But, he said, “when you do that, the IDF challenges you on that because the army knows that a lot of people say that just to get out. At the same time, if you really want support, you won’t go through any process of asking for help, of telling them how you feel, because you know you will just get kicked out. You just won’t get the help you need.”
Each base in Israel has at least one mental health officer, but they often are responsible for hundreds of soldiers.
“There is some support for lone soldiers, but not in a confidential way, in the sense that lone soldiers know that if they are suffering and don’t want to leave combat [duty] they have to shut up and deal with it,” he said. “The support that is there isn’t equipped to deal with the issues that are thrown at lone soldiers.”
A friend of his who served as a sniper along the Gaza border fence during the March of Return clashes “got extremely depressed during his service... He told me it was like animals in a cage,” Pvt. E. said.
He said there were “definitely times that I was concerned that he had a gun. He was under an immense amount of pressure and it was getting to him. I never really felt that there was any option to discuss what he was going through and stay in combat.”
While the IDF has focused on commanders as a central part to their holistic mental health programs, Pvt. E. told the Post that many lone soldiers “don’t trust their commanders” to think of their best interests over the task at hand.
“The army uses soldiers like a tank – it will use them until it becomes no longer cost-effective to repair them,” Pvt. E. said. “That’s how I feel. Soldiers are the property of the state. And the fact is that the state doesn’t care. Lie if you’re struggling with the tough realities of the job.”
ANOTHER LONE soldier had similar feelings.
“I’ve been struggling a lot these past couple weeks. I’ve been trying and trying to see a kaban [a mental health officer] but to no avail... and I ended up almost calling an emergency mental health service because I was afraid of hurting myself,” said the soldier who asked not to named, as they are still in active service.
While the soldier said that they are now “functioning a bit better,” their commander did not allow for them to see a mental health officer, and instead “I was even made to feel that I was being ‘dramatic.’”
“Even when I called the kaban’s office myself multiple times, they didn’t pick up,” the soldier said. “Lone soldiers are not supported in the army in the ways that we truly need to be. A higher salary and Yom Siddurim [errands day] are not equivalent to support.”
One reservist, who moved from the United States and served in the Nahal Brigade, participated in three military operations, including in the Second Lebanon War.
St.-Sgt. G. told the Post that he disagreed that there is an “epidemic of suicides” in the lone soldier community, even though he “will always be the first to say that the army is pretty terrible at providing basic health services to soldiers.”
The claim just “does not hold up,” St.-Sgt. G. said.
“Given the age cohort, the fact that many of us arrive here not in the best mental situations to begin with, the stressful realities of soldiering, and the availability of weapons, I’m frankly surprised and relieved that the numbers aren’t higher,” he said. “Every incidence of losing a member of our community is painful. I think, though, that there needs to be a realization that the army isn’t a gap-year program and that the army isn’t built to care for people with serious mental health concerns.
“Organizations like the Lone Soldier Center and Garin Tzabar have done amazing work at building communities that can provide support for soldiers in need, but there are limits to what we can expect them, and even the army, to provide,” he continued. “If someone has fragile mental health and doesn’t choose to disclose this information before they are drafted, or speak up when they have issues, then we will continue to have tragic situations such as these.”
Echoing Pvt. E., he told the Post that one has to avoid stigmatizing those who need help but don’t want to drop out from the military.
“Perhaps the answer is to put in place more comprehensive screenings for lone soldiers, or even limit the number drafted every year, but I think that the way forward will involve some tough conversations about the realities of what the army is, and that it may not be the right path for everyone,” he said.
SAUL RURKA, the founder of HaBayit Shel Benji, told the Post that he and his staff are available at all times if at any point a soldier has an issue or needs someone to talk to.
“Living in our home there are 90 lone soldiers and I know everyone, our staff knows everyone,” Rurka said. “And if there is a problem, we would hopefully know about it. At our house everyone feels part of something, a family.”
But he stressed that as an organization that deals with hundreds of lone soldiers (during and toward the end of their army service), none of the staff members is a psychologist.
“The people who really have the expertise to deal with this issue are the mental health experts and mental health experts in the army,” he said. “It is an extremely complicated issue to deal with because although lone soldiers must be helped, when they have a problem... one must remember that they are in the army and there are many pressing issues going on that must be considered in any given situation, and first and foremost, Israel’s security.”
Rurka told the Post that he was certain that the military goes above and beyond for lone soldiers, but echoing the senior officer, “If people don’t show that there’s anything wrong, it’s very difficult for anyone to do something.”
While he agreed that lone soldiers committing suicide “is a very, very sad and serious issue,” he told the Post that he wasn’t sure the numbers are off the charts and this must be checked.
“One of the soldiers who died was not proven to have committed suicide, so we may be talking about two soldiers in the last six months. There are over 6,500 lone soldiers and two committed suicide in the last six months,” he said. “Are these numbers crazy or are they the same as in any given population? We are certainly not making light of this and it is incredibly sad, but it is important not to turn something into an epidemic until it is shown to be the case.”
Nevertheless, he said “it’s the conversation of the day” around the table at HaBayit Shel Benji.