IDF vets feel like outsiders despite awareness of PTSD

Society still struggles to accept that soldiers are "disabled" psychologically by Israel's battles.

sad soldiers wounded 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
sad soldiers wounded 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's been nearly 35 years, but Yom Kippur war veteran Haim Hazan still remembers the battle he fought in the Sinai Peninsula as if it took place yesterday. "I don't want to go into the fine details, it's much too hard for me," begins Hazan, who saw many of his comrades fall in battle. "However, I still see the images as strongly today as they were back then. Sometimes, in my dreams, they are even more real than they were at the time." Hazan was the victim of a psychological disorder now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but at the time of his emotional injury there was little recognition in the Israeli establishment for the condition. Today, PTSD receives official recognition, but Israeli society still has yet to come to grips with the disorder. According to Hazan, who was 29-years-old in 1973 and a husband with two young children, "I came back from there in the same body but I was not the same person inside." "At the time, no one understood what I was going through, but in retrospect I guess I was like a Holocaust survivor - not willing to talk about it and refusing to let anyone inside," explains Hazan, who is one of possibly thousands of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veterans that have returned from battle without physical injury but with deep psychological and emotional scars. "I managed to ruin everything good in my life," he says candidly. "I opened a [car] garage six times but simply could not work or make a living. I felt as though no one understood me." It took Hazan nearly 20 years to persuade the security establishment that the war had left him disabled emotionally and rendered him unable to navigate through society in a "normal" way. "I guess it is natural to look at a person in a wheelchair and accept that he is disabled," observes Hazan, who has since been registered with the National Insurance Institute (NII) and the Ministry of Defense at 50 percent disability. "But when I say that I am a disabled war veteran, people start shaking their heads thinking 'I have legs and arms, so what am I talking about?'" "It is true that in the 1970s, [Israeli society] did not recognize PTSD," comments Sa'ar Uziely, Clinical Director of Natal, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of War and Terror, which runs a treatment center and emergency hotline for those undergoing trauma. "However, since then, there has been a lot more interest and a lot written about post-trauma. Today, the NII recognizes it, as does the Defense Ministry." Uziely describes PTSD as a psychiatric condition that can be triggered by an experience such as a life-threatening experience. This traumatic event might not have an immediate effect on the person, but certain smells, colors or sounds could suddenly cause flashbacks, nightmares and general changes in behavior. "Many people experience traumatic events, but not all combat soldiers suffer from PTSD," points out Uziely, adding that roughly 10% of soldiers contract PTSD during their service. He says that the days leading up to Memorial Day see a rise in the number of requests for help at Natal's clinic. Ze'ev Waisman, Head of the Social Services Unit in the Defense Ministry's Rehabilitation Department, also says that within the army and post-army establishment there is much more recognition today about the PTSD condition. "Very recently we completed our research and prepared a new manual to provide clear guidelines to those working with the soldiers," he says. "Today there is much more awareness of this condition, especially in the IDF; commanders are trained in how to deal with this, and we try to provide those disabled by PTSD with the same benefits as any other disabled veteran." For D., who was injured emotionally in the first Lebanon war in 1986, help came readily from the Defense Ministry, he says. "I filled out the forms and gave them everything they asked for, and they have in turn helped me," says D., who has not been able to keep a job for more than a few months since seeing his field commander killed right next to him during a battle. However, he adds that even though there is awareness of PTSD from the ministry and the army, Israeli society still struggles to accept that a person is "disabled" by it. "I tell you, my four children don't have a father," says D. sadly. "But still my wife refuses to accept that I have such a condition. "If you saw me, you would see that I am a tall man, who from the outside doesn't look as though he has any injuries. The hurt is on the inside." There is still much that needs to be done in order to raise more awareness of PTSD within society, concurs Hazan, who until 2004 represented such veterans in the IDF Disabled Veterans Association. "People still approach me with requests for help, and it is a battle raising such issues with the establishment," he concludes. "It is very hard to find the trauma inside a person, to pull it out and to deal with it."