American women war veterans visit Israel for spiritual healing

"Every day is a battle both physically and mentally. Jerusalem has given me a sense of purpose." says Iraq War vet.

Rocio Villanueva, 31, of Escondido, California (second from the right), joins hands with other US women veterans prior to being baptized in the Jordan River (photo credit: COURTESY HEROES TO HEROES)
Rocio Villanueva, 31, of Escondido, California (second from the right), joins hands with other US women veterans prior to being baptized in the Jordan River
US MARINES veteran Donna Perdue, 51, recalls how she held the Ethiopian child in her arms, rocking him gently and singing him lullabies, his eyes locked silently o nto hers as life slipped away from his limp body. Moments earlier, he had been shot through the head and his brains were seeping outside of his skull.
An armed Somalian militia group had destroyed the entire Ethiopian village to which, not long before, the US Marines had provided assistance – building a school, a medical clinic and even shipping over an old yellow bus so the children could get to school more easily.
“We thought we were helping the villagers out. We thought we were giving them support and a way to stop them from being recruited into the militias. But [the improvements] just brought the attention of the militias to them; it made them stick out,” she says.
As a 22-year-old Marine Corps journalist, Perdue was assigned to accompany journalists on different assignments in Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia. Technically, she wasn’t a combat soldier, but she often was sent to combat situations.
Some 30 years after the horrific slaughter of the villagers, Perdue still has nightmares and flashbacks, and suffers from high anxiety and outbreaks of anger.
Today a mother and grandmother living with her family in Valparaiso, Indiana, she has been diagnosed with PTSD and has been in and out of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ offices.
In mid-September, she was one of 14 US women veterans who took part in the second such group for women participating in the Heroes to Heroes program, a peer-support program that aims for spiritual healing and suicide prevention among veterans of US military conflicts including the Vietnam War.
After almost a week in Israel, Perdue, along with three of her fellow vets, had tattooed the word “unbreakable” in Hebrew on the inside of her wrist which she can look at in moments of stress. She also proudly sported her hamsa necklace, with the traditional hand symbol being a sign of protection from evil.
“I just needed something, and somebody suggested I may want to go to Israel,” says Perdue. “It has been overwhelming. I have shed a few tears and my heart has almost exploded with joy. You feel it; there is something [extraordinary] about being able to see where Jesus walked; to be able to put your hand on it ‒ well, the energy just pushes through my arm.”
In addition to visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, the group was baptized in the Jordan river, went to the Dead Sea, spent time in Tel Aviv and participated in the Israeli memorial ceremony commemorating the US 9/11 terrorist attacks.
WITH A 2016 study by the US Department of Veterans Affairs finding that 20 US veterans commit suicide every day, Judy Isaacson Schaffer the Jewish founder of Heroes to Heroes and a former Teaneck, New Jersey, radio marketing and sales professional whose father and grandfather were both veterans, says she recognized the need to reach out to those veterans suffering the most from PTSD just as her father had volunteered with veterans from earlier wars.
Since its founding six years ago, Heroes to Heroes, which is funded through private foundation donations and individual donors and, this year through JNF’s Boruchin Fund, has brought more than 14 groups of veterans comprising a total of 141 veterans to meet with their Israeli counterparts and visit holy sites.
Because fewer than one percent of Americans serve in the armed forces, and the number for women is even lower, many veterans feel isolated once they return home and miss the camaraderie they felt while in the military. In addition to combat trauma, some women also have been victims of military sexual trauma, says Schaffer. After word about the Heroes to Heroes groups got out to the veteran community, women began asking to participate, she says.
Most of the veteran services available in the US are geared toward male veterans, and perhaps because of this lack of institutional and communal support, more women veterans commit suicide than men, says Schaffer.
The peer-to-peer encounter with Israeli veterans, some of whom have also experienced traumatic injuries, as well as the peerto- peer discussions within their own group moderated by two coaches who have gone through the program, allows the US veterans on the Heroes to Heroes program to see that it is possible to move forward from their traumatic experiences, says Schaffer.
Participants are asked to stay in contact with the group for a year after the visit.
“WE BELIEVE this soldier to soldier encounter is most effective,” says Schaffer.
“There is this sisterhood which is a lot stronger with the women, but it all depends on the group. Women, on the whole, are farther along in their [recovery] process than the men we have seen. Though there are not as many programs for them, they seem to find each other. I was not expecting that one-third of the group would say this group saved their lives.”
According to the US Veterans Administration, women make up about 10% of the veteran population in the US, with only 1.4% of all female Americans having ever served in the military, compared to 13.4% of all male Americans.
Although technically many women veterans are not in combat units, their postings are often in places of combat but the American public doesn’t realize that, says Katherine Ragazzino, 41, from San Diego, California, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq.
She was among the women to participate in Heroes to Heroes’s first women’s trip, and returned on the second one to help others.
Ragazzino suffered a traumatic brain injury in a Humvee accident and spent three years in a hospital before she was discharged.
“We come home and the war is not over.
Every day is a battle both physically and mentally. Jerusalem has given me a sense of purpose to be able to find an opportunity to share in my growth and help the next women vets in the program. We are helping all women vets, no matter what war,” she says.
One of the participants in this group, she says, is a Vietnam vet, who had been “hurting so much for years and years.”
“I am grateful to see my life having taken a different path. It was more than a journey to Jerusalem for me. Jerusalem brought back my life to me and gave me a purpose.
It has been inspiring and empowering.
I just want to pay it forward now,” says Ragazzino.
Like Ragazzino, US Marine Corps veteran Jackie Kirkwood, 38, of Sacramento, California, was among the first group of women to participate in Heroes to Heroes, and returned this year to help other women navigate the process.
The transition to civilian life was a difficult one, she says, and a number of her friends committed suicide.
“All the veterans [groups] are for men… and it was hard to find my place,” she says.
“They are not a very welcoming place and they all call me ‘sweetheart.’ It’s very hard for women veterans to find something there.”
After struggling with a battle against cancer and going through a difficult divorce, Kirkwood felt she needed to reaffirm her faith. Then someone suggested the Heroes to Heroes program.
“I was dealing with a lot of death and a lot of trauma,” she says, as she keeps an eye on her group as they make their way from the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter.
“Coming here helped me realize that God has a reason for everything. Being here helped me learn to live for today and not let the traumas I went through impact my day-to-day life.”
Meeting with Israeli women veterans who were also combat veterans helped her feel some sense of normalcy, she says. In the US, when she has interviewed for a job, they look at her in disbelief when she says she was in the Marine Corps, she adds.
“[Here] it is almost normal. They were also combat veterans and I love how as a community everyone in Israel served in the military, so everyone understands what people have experienced and are going through,” she says.
There is a sense of kinship of having done military service, agrees Perdue, despite the different experiences.
“We have all served our countries for a reason; we carried the weapon and did what we were supposed to do, and followed the rules [and were in] uncomfortable positions which we had no control over,” she says. “I know that when I fall down and feel like life is coming at me, I am going to have these girls [as a support network] who have been through something similar to me.”
But the trip was not a miracle cure for her struggles, Kirkwood says. And a lot of the daily peer-to-peer conversations at the end of the day were difficult ones.
“It got worse before it got better in terms of bringing up the demons,” she says. “But seeing the sites and putting them together with the Bible helped me. We got baptized in the Jordan and the anxiety gave way. I am still dealing with it, but it helped me become more calm and patient.”
For Anastasya Shtraksal, 32, who served as a lone soldier in an IDF tank division during the Second Lebanon War, accompanying the American veterans actually helped her process some of the more difficult situations she had been through.
“I wanted to show our appreciation and support for their service. At first, I was afraid of how we would connect, but now it feels like we have known each other for years,” says Shtraksal. “Most of them have started some sort of healing process here and watching them has helped me think about how I can process my own issues. I have seen them deal with stuff and it is not the end of the world.”
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher US Army veteran Rocio Villanueva, 31, fairly fell onto the Stone of Unction, where tradition holds that Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion, and pressed her forehead to the smoothed stone.
Seriously wounded during a tour of duty in Iraq with a head injury that affected her memory, Villanueva was diagnosed with PTSD. The engineering specialist and mother of four, who had been raised in a practicing Catholic home, had slowly lost touch with her faith. Though on the outside she seemed to have moved on with her life ‒ marrying a fellow combat veteran and raising a family ‒ she says she had been trying for almost nine years to come to terms with her service. Since her return to civilian life, she says, six of her friends have committed suicide, the last one just two months ago, while others have become addicted to drugs.
Now, Villanueva says she feels a sense of spiritual renewal.
“Since the third day I got here, I felt a healing in my heart. At the Church of the Annunciation [in Nazareth], I felt so good and able to speak to God,” said Villanueva, of Escondido, California. “My family has been able help me physically, but with the part I have inside of me it has been really hard to open up. I had so much anger in my heart and was so sad I could cry about anything.
Here, I felt my heart open up. I went to confession and I felt that God was talking to me through the priest.”
She was surprised by the connection she felt to Israel, she says, but there was a sense of family and community that seemed familiar.
Before, she had been so angry she was even unable to say the grace before meals as she had always done with her parents, says Villanueva. Now she wants to begin that tradition anew with her own children when she returns home.
“I grew up in a very Catholic family and for me to lose that faith was [like] I had lost my way. Now, I want my kids to be good Catholics and to go to church and take Communion,” she says. “I know I will still have many problems, but now I feel like God is with me.
“We are all veterans here, with Jackie [Kirkwood] and Kate [Ragazzino] leading us. We are learning from everybody here,” she says.
Her husband, who served in the same unit she did in Iraq, also suffers from PTSD and their marriage has felt the strain of that, she says. They each react differently to their PTSD with her husband being over protective, yet silent about his personal struggles.
“I told my husband I needed to be healed from my wounds to be able to be a good spouse,” she says.
Picking at her falafel lunch, Rory Shaffer, 42, of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, says she is reminded every day of the injury she suffered in a blast that killed three of her friends and shattered her jaw. Another friend committed suicide right in front of her. In addition to PTSD, she suffers from survivor’s guilt.
“Eating is an issue. Swallowing is an issue.
I live with my injuries every second.
Every day I am reminded of it. Within my household I have support, but the rest of my family just thinks I should get over it. I have been suffering,” says Shaffer.
“I am not a huge talker, but in the last few days I’ve been more social so I can meet more people. For some people that is easy, but for me it is a big deal. I will never get over [the trauma], but I can get past it.”