This past November, Israeli TV stations aired a rather startling commercial. In the clip, characters from the recently televised Israeli drama series Valley of Tears are running through a city square in full battle dress, carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher.
The 10-episode miniseries is a fictional recreation of the opening battles of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a devastating chapter in Israel’s history.
As the actors in the ad march forward, they are joined little by little by ordinary onlookers who help to carry the stretcher.
The soldiers in turn declare that “even today people are still carrying the weight of 1973... and 1982... and 2006... and 2014,” referring to the dates of major Israeli military conflicts. “Thousands of Israelis carry the burden of the traumas they suffered as part of their military service, don’t let them carry it alone,” the narrator concludes.
The clever commercial, featuring members of the original Valley of Tears cast, was commissioned as part of a national campaign by the nonprofit organization NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center, which since 1998 has been providing treatment and support to victims of terror and war in Israel, both civilians or ex-army. Its slogan is “We won’t leave the emotionally wounded behind.”
Valley of Tears, which is also carried in the US on HBO Max, follows a group of mainly reserve soldiers beginning with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur on October 6, 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel, which was woefully unprepared.
The action takes place in the Golan Heights and the Mount Hermon outpost, recreating through the eyes of the soldiers one of the most harrowing battles of the Yom Kippur War, a war that caused a national trauma that has rarely been examined. (The series is named after the site of the crucial battle waged during the war; in Hebrew the show is called Sha’at Ne’ila, the traditional final prayer recited on Yom Kippur.)
A decade in the making, the intense series was generally highly praised, particularly in the acting and the recreation of the despair and hysterical urgency of the events. The series has also been criticized by some veterans for historical inaccuracies.
But whatever the artistic critique, the series opened up psychological wounds in Israel over the painful period of the 1973 war, and revealed how deeply post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) permeates so many lives.
Both NATAL and ERAN, the Israeli mental health support organization, received a dramatic jump in calls to their hotlines while the series was being aired. NATAL alone reported an 88% increase. The calls were from former soldiers of all ages, especially veterans of the Yom Kippur War. The callers described their psychological distress as the result of military service, feelings triggered by the televised series. In some cases calls came in from veterans’ children.
Before airing the series, the KAN television channel assumed there would be a strong reaction – which was ultimately far greater than anticipated – and was in close consultation with NATAL. At the beginning of each telecast (in Israel) a short notice advises people to contact NATAL if they feel the need. After each episode a panel of veterans and NATAL mental health experts discuss their reactions.
PTSD, which can permanently disrupt sufferers’ lives, is still considered shameful in Israeli society. “It’s very hard to break that taboo and convince people that they should seek help,” explains Ifat Morad, head of international relations and resource development of NATAL. “The situation has improved and people are more open now,” she says, adding that today about 530 people receive therapy weekly through NATAL, including many army veterans.
“Whenever there is something in the media about wars or military confrontations, it triggers reactions in people,” says Dr. Hana Himi, director of NATAL’s Clinical Unit. The Valley of Tears series, she says, “apparently legitimized being able to ask questions. It gave people a platform to speak about what happened and to seek help.”
Anyone who’s been in battle or experienced a violent event has painful memories and dreams. How does this differ from clinical PTSD? “It depends on the strength of the symptoms and how they affect functioning in daily life, relationships, work, studying,” explains NATAL psychologist Himi. “You can have a nightmare, but then get up in the morning and function normally, even if with great difficulty. But when there are flashbacks, the inability to sleep, bursts of outrage, and this keeps on recurring for months, it could turn into a chronic condition. We try to understand what the symptoms are how strong are they, how do they influence the ability to function in everyday life,” she says.
Although war-related PTSD is usually associated with male veterans, men are certainly not the only ones who suffer. “My story was a secret for more than 15 years,” recalls Shir Peled, a former agent in the counter terrorism unit of the Border Police. Today 37, she was the first woman to serve in the undercover unit known as the Mista’arvim, whose members are specifically trained to assimilate among the local Arab population.
“I was in disguise and mingled with the local population. It was a very high adrenaline job. The perception was that you’ve been trained like the male fighters and you’re wired like the men fighters but when you’re in the field, you’re not a part of the team, you’re just a decoy,” Peled relates. “It took awhile for me to be integrated in the team and to be really equal.”
A few years ago, Peled began lecturing about her experiences in the army, particularly as a woman in an all-male environment. She speaks to various groups, including companies, army and police groups, high schools and even addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) one year.
Today a professional fashion stylist, Peled says that even though she was giving public talks about her military experiences she didn’t understand that she was, in fact, suffering from PTSD.
Years after her release from the army she was watching the often brutal series “Fauda” about the Mista’arvim undercover unit of the Israeli army. “Everything came to the surface. I had terrible flashbacks,” she says. “It took me some time to admit it to myself and to understand what this was. In the first lockdown it became clear to me that I was suffering from PTSD.”
Peled says it was finally reading a book by one of her fellow soldiers when “everything just clicked and I understood what I was suffering from all those years. One of the reasons that I didn’t talk about it is that I was quite ashamed. As a woman in an all-male environment I had to be tougher than the men to survive; for me it would be a weakness. For women PTSD is not obvious because we’re not in the field fighting.”
Peled set up a Facebook page called “Combat Sisterhood” for female fighters who felt they were suffering from PTSD. The group is part of the Trauma4Good, the Association for Victims of Post Trauma among security forces and rescue teams in Israel, founded in 2018 by Oren Or Bittoun, The therapy group for women with PTSD is a collaboration between Trauma 4 Good and NATAL.
The group, which now has some 150 members, provides a support group for women with PTSD so they could talk about how stressful and difficult it is. She explains that her decision to acknowledge her own situation publicly was “understanding that with my own unique story I can help other women and change perceptions about women in the army.”
Today, Peled is part of the NATAL campaign to reach and help people suffering from PTSD. “The trauma women fighters experience is double that of men because we always have to prove we are better and tougher. For years I wore baggy clothes because soldiers related to me as a woman only; they’re always testing us, asking stupid questions, disparaging us, and when the idea arose to set up a group for women as part of NATAL, I jumped at it.”
The Israeli actress Joy Rieger, who plays the intelligence officer “Dafna” in the Valley of Tears series, has also joined the NATAL campaign.
NATAL is also involved in several outreach projects to the US, especially to help veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.Through the American Friends of NATAL (AFN), NATAL has been running a multiyear collaboration with the American Wounded Warrior Project, and helped the organization set up a veterans’ helpline based on the model of the one in Israel. NATAL and AFN assisted in establishing a pilot project in Jacksonville, Florida, which includes volunteer training.
In an unusual partnership, NATAL is also working with Chicago inner-city faith leaders to assist in helping to prevent post-traumatic stress among survivors of violence related to on-going gang violence.
NATAL, the Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center. https://www.natal.org.il/en/
HELPLINE - 1-800-363-363
Shir Peled: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Center provides crisis intervention and long-term care to thousands of Israeli adults and children every year. The only one of its kind in Israel, it serves as NATAL’s point of intake, and refers callers to the Clinical Unit or other professional organizations as may be needed. NATAL is an apolitical nonprofit organization that specializes in the field of war and terror related trauma. NATAL aims to advance the resiliency of Israeli society through treatment, prevention, public awareness and research.