This Jewish-American organization is helping IDF soldiers with PTSD with dogs

Dogs4Soldiers, under the Belev Echad organization, combines dog therapy with other treatment methods to help IDF veterans battling PTSD.

 Stav Mizrachi at a Belev Echad weekend; tattoo of his dog. (photo credit: Zvika Klein)
Stav Mizrachi at a Belev Echad weekend; tattoo of his dog.
(photo credit: Zvika Klein)

Stav Israel was injured physically and emotionally during his IDF army service in Operation Protective Edge and ever since he was allowed to return home, he wouldn’t leave his bedroom for 10 months. “I would stare at the TV that was off, and wouldn’t even be able to bring myself to meet my parents in the living room since I was ashamed of my situation.” He was heavily medicated with psychiatric drugs and felt useless. There was just one thing that magically brought Israel back to life: a dog.

“I was unable to do anything with myself,” he remembers that dark period of his life. “The concern for him [the dog] relieved me. The first thing I remember is that I had to go outside with him in order to let him defecate and run around. After leaving my parents’ home for the first time in months, I also started engaging in conversation with people since that’s what happens when you take your dog for a walk. This was the first time in months that I actually had a conversation with others.”

“I was unable to do anything with myself. The concern for him [the dog] relieved me."

IDF veteran Stav Israel

Israel began returning to normal life and realized that his new dog was what allowed him to do so. He studied dog training at Hebrew University and graduated from the course with honors. “Through taking care of my dog, I discovered that many treatments failed and that this was the only thing that helped me get through these difficult times.

“I realized that treating people with PTSD through dogs was my calling in life,” Israel explained. “I now own a boarding kennel and daycare center for dogs – which is unreal since just a few years ago I literally didn’t even have one shekel. I even have an employee.”

 Stav Mizrachi at Belev Echad.  (credit: Zvika Klein) Stav Mizrachi at Belev Echad. (credit: Zvika Klein)

Pawing it forward

ISRAEL RUNS a unique program called Dogs4Soldiers for the Belev Echad (With One Heart) organization.

This unique program provides therapeutic puppies to love and assist wounded IDF soldiers. “Our soldiers learn to train their puppies by professional dog trainers who then certify them to become professional dog trainers themselves,” Israel explained. “These four-legged best friends help our heroes live their best lives, providing them with companionship, love and even a possible future career.”

Israel shared that “Uriel, one of my friends from Belev Echad, always told me that because of our connection, he adopted a dog and that what it did to him was amazing.” He added that his dog was the one who was able to take him out of solitude, but he would then only go to places that dogs were welcome. “If there were institutions that wouldn’t accept dogs, I just wouldn’t go there. We went everywhere together.”

A community healed by dogs

Every week, Israel meets between 10 and 20 injured IDF veterans with their dogs and teaches them how to train them. “They want a disciplined dog in order for them not to want to be burdensome, but lucrative and comfortable. The weekly meeting is also a social gathering between friends.”

Israel said that another element regarding dog therapy for PTSD is sleeping with them. “Sleeping with my dog has given me a lot. It gave me peace and quiet. The anxieties slowly drifted away because I was concentrating on the dog – instead of myself.

“You should have seen the man I was after my army service. The day the dog arrived I started healing, but also slowly stopping my medication. Now I am totally off of psychiatric drugs,” he said.

BELEV ECHAD is an international initiative dedicated to easing this transition through a system of support that empowers each veteran to live a life without limits. “We adopt each wounded veteran and assume the roles of mentor, advocate and friend, guiding them through critical medical, educational and professional decisions and celebrating life’s milestones big and small,” said Miki Strachman from Moshav Beit Yitzhak, who manages the activities of Belev Echad in Israel.

Founded in 2009 by American Rabbi Uriel Vigler and his wife Shevy, Belev Echad began as an annual tour of New York City, as a gesture of solidarity and support for wounded warriors of the IDF. What started off as a local initiative of the New York Upper East Side Jewish community, has now become “a global movement dedicated to helping veterans of the IDF reintegrate into civilian life with the love and support they need to thrive,” Strachman said.

Strachman’s daughter, Lee, was injured during her army service in 2015. She was one of four Israeli Border Police officers wounded in a car-ramming attack near east Jerusalem. The terrorist then ran after her with an ax. “We gave the army one girl and we got a completely different girl in return,” she said. “I remember driving to the hospital and not knowing what I would see. I told myself, ‘If she can talk, I’ll deal with the rest.”

Lee began a long three-and-a-half-year rehabilitation process. “I remember one night at the hospital, one of the soldiers screamed in the middle of the night from post trauma. I realized that not everyone was receiving as much intensive love and support as my daughter was. I promised myself that if Lee would walk, my husband and I would dedicate our lives to these soldiers.” She joined the Belev Echad organization and has been immensely involved ever since.

"I promised myself that if Lee would walk, my husband and I would dedicate our lives to these soldiers."

Lee Strachman

EVERYONE WHO works or volunteers for Belev Echad has a personal story: Raz Budani, co-director of programs in Israel, was injured twice during his IDF service. He served in the Golani Brigade for 12 years. “I was wounded in 2009 in the Gaza Strip after three days of fighting. Two shells were fired at us; 25 [soldiers] were wounded and three were killed.” He was in rehabilitation at Soroka hospital for three months; when he was able to stand on one leg, he decided it was time for him to return to service while continuing rehabilitation.

“On the way home to the base from a rehabilitation session, a terrorist recognized that we were riding in a military vehicle and carried out a car bomb attack on us,” he said, describing the second time he was attacked. He succeeded with lots of willpower to return to Golani and then retired as a major at the age of 30. “I received a medical pension because I suffer from a 75% disability,” Budani said, explaining that he then started becoming affected by the PTSD he developed during his difficult and long army service.

Just as Israel and others before him had, he found his place at the Belev Echad organization. “I dreamed that someone would shake my hand and say ‘I believe in you, even if you fall,’” he said of his life before receiving help.

A FEW days ago, one of the former IDF soldiers tried to commit suicide. Strachman made sure that even though he went through a terrible week, she wanted him to join the special activity of the organization: a weekend full of rest and activities in the Ramot hotel in the Golan Heights. “We don’t just organize delegations to the US for these injured soldiers or weekends, but support them 24/7. Our power is in being together: The more they are together, [the more] they become calm and resolve their affairs.”

Stav Mizrachi also suffered from PTSD from his army service in the prestigious Maglan commando unit. He was injured during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. “I met Sharon and Mickey through a member of the organization after my rehabilitation,” he said of Strachman and Budani who are in charge of the programming in Israel for the organization.

Mizrachi was injured by a bombshell in Khan Yunis. “My injury was relatively minor,” he shared. “I train in the Belev Echad gym in Kiryat Ono and participate in a group of dog training led by Stav Israel. I now own a Belgian shepherd; he’s very energetic and he helped me go through rough times. I even tattooed him on my leg,” he said, picking up the bottom of his pants and pointing at it. “The explosion injured me right where the tattoo is now. And now, instead, I tattooed a picture of my dog, which in my eyes is a sign of life and light.”