Security and Defense: What to do about lone soldier deaths

Is enough being done to help young Jews who come to Israel to serve in the IDF?

IDF soldiers on the Gaza border (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF soldiers on the Gaza border
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
 The recent deaths of three IDF lone soldiers in differing circumstances, unrelated to operational duties, has brought attention to the potential problems these young people can face when enlisting and serving in the demanding circumstances of the Israeli army.
Questions have been raised about the level of screening the IDF conducts for new immigrants who volunteer to join the army, and whether or not the organizations assisting these young men and women need to be more involved in that process.
Last week, one lone soldier, an official IDF status for someone whose parents do not live in Israel, died of a likely drug overdose, although whether or not he intended to commit suicide is unclear and the IDF is still investigating.
Two other lone soldiers have died in similar circumstances in the last three months, including one who hanged himself in a lone soldier center in Haifa after reportedly seeking help for mental health problems on numerous occasions.
There are approximately 7,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the IDF, of whom roughly half are new immigrants while the other half are Israel-born and from broken homes, used to be in the haredi community, or in similar circumstances.
The IDF declined to release the exact numbers of immigrant lone soldiers who have committed suicide in recent years, but the KeepOlim organization, which helps immigrants and lone soldiers, puts the figure at five within the last four years, with more who have attempted suicide.
KeepOlim director LiAmi Lawrence says he gets on average one or two calls a month from lone soldiers in a mental crisis, while in February, following the death of the soldier who hanged himself, nine soldiers called to say they were suicidal, likely having been triggered by their comrade’s suicide.
One thing many people working for organizations assisting lone soldiers point out is that although many come for purely idealistic reasons, others can be drawn to the IDF as a way to escape personal problems at home.
“A lot of lone soldiers are running away from something; they’re not enlisting purely out of Zionism, and they think the army can solve their crisis,” says Daniel Viner, 27, who served as a lone soldier in an elite IDF combat unit from 2014 to 2018.
“Then they enlist and have the added stress of being a lone soldier in a foreign country, and it becomes a complex situation.”
Ari Kalker, the former director of housing at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, makes a similar observation.
“Enlisting to the army allows you to run away from your issues by doing something that is accepted within the Jewish people as something to be proud of,” he notes.
“Troubled people from the Diaspora are especially attracted to IDF service, and there is a fine line between someone finding themselves and someone who is emotionally troubled. People are seeking adventure, and the IDF provides them with distraction from the fact that they are lost.”
Another key problem appears to be the relative absence of serious psychological screening on the part of the IDF for new immigrant enlistees.
Whereas the IDF has readily accessible medical and school records for Israeli conscripts and is able to very quickly see whether an individual may be at risk for mental health problems and requires professional review before enlistment is completed, it does not have access to health records for lone soldiers who have immigrated from abroad.
This means that during the “First Order” conscription process, soldiers are not evaluated by a mental-health professional since, for the overwhelming number of conscripts, the IDF already knows they are mentally healthy.
A young IDF soldier from the army’s Manpower Directorate does conduct a short personal interview, but this is designed to evaluate Hebrew proficiency and other issues, as well as possible mental health problems.
But these soldiers are not medical professionals and have little ability to be able to determine if a lone soldier is hiding information or simply having a good day.
Another critical issue is that combat soldiers in particular are worried about reporting mental health problems, feelings of depression or unhappiness to their IDF commanders and the mental health officers in the army. If they tell IDF personnel about such issues, they know that it is very likely their gun will be taken away from them and their IDF fitness profile will be lowered, which would in all likelihood mean they are transferred from their dream role in a combat unit to a “jobnik” position, which is extremely undesirable, says Viner.
The alternative is to call an anonymous mental heath support line, but there is no such support line in Israel available in languages other than Hebrew or Arabic. For a lone soldier who may struggle to express emotional issues properly in Hebrew, this can be a significant problem.
Until 2003, the ERAN mental health support organization did run a foreign language hotline, but it was discontinued after funding from the Aliyah Ministry was halted.
The Health Ministry recently issued a tender to restart such a hotline, but it was won by a nursing company with no experience in mental health issues and has yet to start operations.
Kalker says that any expectation that the army will reform its policies over mental health screening and support any time soon is unrealistic given the bureaucratic nature of its operations and the fact that its primary purpose is not in the realm of mental health.
Instead, he says that the various organizations assisting new immigrants in enlisting and providing them with support during their service should increase their screening activities.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, which assists North American Jews in making aliyah, also provides substantive help for its immigrants who want to enlist, handling the bureaucratic process of enlistment for them and providing support for lone soldiers during their service.
Noya Govrin, who runs Nefesh B’Nefesh’s lone soldier program, says that the organization’s “goal and mission” is to help these lone soldiers enlist and “give them the resources to integrate into the IDF.”
She says that officials in the organization meet many but not all of the lone soldiers from North America before they enlist.
In addition, she says that the majority of them also attend a one-day Nefesh B’Nefesh seminar to prepare enlisting soldiers for the army.
If Nefesh B’Nefesh staff see any indication that the prospective soldier may be suffering from personal problems or mental health problems during either of these meetings, the organization will alert the IDF, says Govrin, although she cannot say how many such cases there have been.
Lone soldiers enlisting in the IDF through Nefesh B’Nefesh are not screened by a mental health professional, and Govrin insists that this is a job for the army.
“We have one-on-one meetings, we have the seminar and if we have the slightest feeling that things are not OK, we inform the IDF,” she says.
“It is not our responsibility to screen soldiers before they are drafted though. The IDF has a full day of ‘First Order’ procedures where they have different tests and exams. Nefesh B’Nefesh should be very careful not to take the place of the IDF.”
She also points out that Nefesh B’Nefesh provides social support to lone soldiers throughout their service in different languages, arranges social events for them, and in general tries to assist them during their time in the IDF.
The Lone Soldier Center is the other major organization assisting lone soldiers. Mike Meyerheim of the center acknowledges, like others, that there can be a proclivity of some lone soldiers to enlist to the IDF for non-ideological reasons that could cause problems further down the line.
“Some of them are coming to Israel to find a new life,” he says. “Are there those that come with challenges? Absolutely. Are there those who can overcome them? Absolutely. But not everyone. Some get into high pressure combat units and then their issues can resurface.”
Meyerheim says that the organization is “very upfront” about the realities of serving in the army, and that the organization “has only one goal: to take care of lone soldiers so they are aware of what they’re getting into, [to ensure] that they’re OK while they’re doing it, and help them stay afterwards if they so wish.”
The Lone Soldier Center does not either use mental health professionals to screen prospective soldiers for possible problems, and Meyerheim, like Govrin, says that this is the role of the IDF.
Regardless, he says that whenever a soldier is in touch with him and mentions a problem that is “identified as a mental health challenge” he will call their commander and ensure they are assigned a review with a mental health official.
“If there is any notion that a soldier might be a danger to himself or others, we let the army know,” he says.
“The IDF is designed to win wars, not to provide psychological support,” says Viner, and therefore a “sweeping answer” to the problems faced by lone soldiers in the IDF is not available.
He emphasizes that better education for what such soldiers should expect before they enlist is critical, and that talking with people who themselves served in combat units as a lone soldier is vital.
Kalker says that because of the army’s ponderous process of forming policy, it is vital that organizations helping lone soldiers take on greater responsibility and employ medical professionals to review the individuals who are seeking to enlist through them.
The lack of support in the native language of immigrant lone soldiers is another critical problem that must be remedied, says Lawrence, whose KeepOlim organization is in the process of setting up a mental health hotline specifically for lone soldiers, which will be available in different languages.
The tragedies of recent months have brought these issues into sharp relief, and have clearly shocked those who work with lone soldiers.
“Every person brings their own world into the picture, each case has a separate world of issues,” says Meyerheim.
“Does the army need to do a better job up front? Yes. Do we need to communicate better? Yes, because none of us wants to bury another soldier.”