‘Now I can start living my life’

Peace of Mind offers IDF veterans straight out of service the option to get away and process their recent combat experiences before they ease back into civilian life.

PEACE OF MIND (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Oren Adasha, who participated in the program in Toronto in 2011, says, “‘Peace of Mind’ will probably be one of the three best things I will ever do in my life.” This high praise is just one example of the extraordinary feedback that the POM program has garnered since its inception in 2007.
Every year, thousands of men and women serve in the IDF; after completing their military service, veterans can stay in the reserves for upwards of 30 years. However, upon their release, the transition back to civilian life can be jarring. “We have these kids who finish their service and say ‘I was a soldier. I gave my stuff back, I left the army base, and now I’m lost. I have no idea what to do,’” explains Prof. Danny Brom, director of The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.
Combat units in particular are often exposed to high levels of violence, and Brom recounts the difficulty of coming out of survival mode: “You cannot train a person to be hyper-alert day and night, instruct him to watch his friends’ backs and trust that his friends will do the same for him during an attack, and at the end of three years say, ‘Go ahead and relax now.’ They can’t.
It’s not realistic.”
Brom stresses that while this intense training is necessary to enable soldiers to protect the country, there is “a price to that protection,” and he considers it “the duty of society – and I would like to say of the Jewish people – to make sure that [IDF combat veterans] don’t get stuck.”
This is where Peace of Mind comes in. POM was established for Israeli veterans who have been in serious combat situations, to help them process their experiences.
“We’re filling in services that the IDF cannot provide,” says program director Lt.-Col. (res.) Sason Rahabi, who served as a deputy battalion commander during the First Lebanon War. He says that while veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are offered care by the Defense Ministry, little is available for veterans who do not show pathological symptoms.
“This project is for people – like me – who continued on with their lives, people of whom no one thought to stop and ask ‘How are you?’ It took me several years – during which time I completed my training as a social worker – to realize that there were still aspects of my own combat experiences that I had not dealt with.” Along the same lines, Brom stresses that programs like POM combat the unhealthy myth that, following a trauma, one “either has post-traumatic stress disorder or has nothing.”
Alon Weltman, POM coordinating director, explains that the program was born “from the simple notion that extremely difficult events, such as those experienced in battle, require at the very least an acknowledgment.”
Like Brom, Weltman further emphasizes that it is the “moral obligation” of society to acknowledge the service of those who enable the rest of us to “live safely and walk proud.”
Since 2007, POM has conducted 19 groups in countries including the Netherlands, France, Italy, England, Canada and the US. There are currently 28 groups that are waiting to be placed with host communities, five or six of which are tentatively scheduled to be run by the end of 2013. Each group consists of between 15 and 20 participants, who all served on the same team, and is accompanied by two mental health professionals. The IDF takes an active role in referring teams that – due to their combat experience – are particularly suited for the program.
POM has three core components: first, a two-day workshop is held in Israel, six weeks before scheduled departure. The international leg of the journey then lasts seven or eight days, and a one-day follow-up workshop is conducted three months after the group returns to Israel.
The international leg of the POM program is structured so that participants have group workshops in the mornings and activities with – and provided by – their local host communities in the afternoons and evenings. These activities can include anything from visiting local Jewish schools to Euro Disney in Paris.
“I’ve traveled over half of the world, and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever had,” recalls Adasha of his stay in Toronto. “Food, drink, laughter... One night after we had dinner, we were picked up in a Hummer limousine and were then walked down a red carpet. We felt like rock stars.” And these feelings are part and parcel of what POM tries to foster: the realization that, to communities abroad, IDF veterans are seen as “rock stars” – or, more plainly, as heroes.
Avinoam Rozenbaum, who was in the second Peace of Mind group in Paris in 2008, was the only French speaker on his team. He therefore found himself in the unofficial role of spokesman and translator over the course of the team’s stay in France. This was how he found himself in the role of explaining to his friends why everyone in synagogue suddenly started staring at them on Shabbat: “The rabbi announced that we were combat soldiers from an elite Golani unit in the IDF, and suddenly people started offering us their seats and inviting us for meals. My friends didn’t understand what was going on, and some were even a bit disgruntled. ‘Avinoam, why are they staring at us?’ a couple of guys asked me. I smiled and said, ‘Today we’re heroes. Just enjoy it.’” Nimrod Slavin, who was in a Peace of Mind group in 2011, had a similar experience upon his arrival at Fire Island, New York. “The community was just so warm,” Slavin describes. “From the moment we arrived, they gave everything they could, be it hot food or simply a sincere interest in meeting us and hearing our stories.
They treated us like heroes, which is definitely not something I experience day-to-day.”
Lior Ben-Porat, who served in Battalion 51 in the Golani Brigade, shares similar thoughts on being welcomed to Toronto in 2011. “We were surprised to be embraced by our host community with 100-percent love and 100% compassion,” says Ben-Porat. “Their support gave us the strength and motivation to speak about our experiences in the group workshops.”
Weltman and Brom both cite the outpouring of acknowledgment and gratitude from host communities as highly significant to the POM program. Dr. Naomi Baum, who directs the Resilience Unit at ICTP and staffed a 2013 POM trip to London, says that for those coming from abroad, international Jewish communities’ embracing of IDF veterans is not all that surprising.
However, many POM participants “don’t really have any appreciation for what it’s like for a Jew outside of Israel. In the Diaspora, [IDF veterans are] called heroes, for they are our heroes, and everyone claps for them. In our conception of resilience, the meaning we make out of trauma is a very important building block in understanding and processing of a traumatic event.
“Participating in POM adds meaning not only to participants’ perception of the State of Israel and to their own service, but to the people of Israel, throughout the world.”
COMMUNITIES ARE responsible for funding the entire cost of the program, which is considerable. Rozenbaum details his amazement that, while in Paris, he did not spend one euro. He describes the sincere warmth of the community: “They gave us their beds, they cooked for us... The degree to which they cared was obvious in their interactions. This, for me, say so much more than words. It goes beyond what you can articulate in an article.”
Families from the community host two participants, forming bonds that last long after the week-long trip.
Rozenbaum is still in touch with his host family five years later, and he has hosted them in Israel. Roy Bar- Adon, who went to Toronto in 2012, is also still in touch with his host family, and says he thought that the experience was particularly meaningful for his host family’s children, who really connected to the whole process. He says that – as a man of 30 – he was amazed to see a community give so freely. “We’re all good people, people who can give, but what we experienced was a true example of giving without borders.”
“I can’t explain it,” Bar-Adon continues, “but they really love you.”
Adasha, who says that he and his teammate, Matan, called their host family “Mom and Dad,” attended their hosts’ daughter’s bat mitzva in Jerusalem just last week.
“We both still speak to them often,” says Adasha.
Brom explains that while Jewish communities in the Diaspora have a strong connection to Israel, connecting to the IDF can sometimes be slightly more difficult. “They may see the soldiers as sturdy, macho guys they have no connection with… but after they get to know these young people who start their lives only after dedicating three-plus years to the IDF, they form strong personal connections.”
Bar-Adon confesses that he and his teammates were initially cynical regarding their hosts’ intentions: “We thought, these communities abroad feel guilty and therefore want to give back. This turned out to be furthest from the truth. Everything they gave came from a sincere desire to simply give.”
PENNY OSTREICHER, chairwoman of the POM US national committee, explains that as a parent, it is incredibly gratifying to be able to make such a strong impact on a young person’s life. “In the beginning of a trip, the more honest guys will say, ‘I’m not really sure why I’m here or what this is about, but thanks for having us.’ By the end of the week, they say things like ‘This is the biggest gift I’ve ever been given.’ To be able to [be a part of] that is an incredible gift.”
This desire to give is integral to the community hosting experience. Finding an enthusiastic community is the first step, says Ostreicher, who considers the program to be a very thorough exchange. “We give out of feelings of gratitude and love for these guys, which is often a revelation for them – seeing how much Diaspora Jews care and appreciate what these soldiers have done for us. [We give out the] feeling that they’re not merely protecting their own backyard, but that their service is of large significance to the Jewish people.”
Ostreicher feels that what the community gets in return is just as significant. “Being a part of this program has added meaning to my life,” says Ostreicher. “After we hosted our first group in the summer of 2011 in Fire Island, the entire community wanted them back. We were not able to host a group this year because a lot of our facilities were destroyed after Hurricane Sandy.
However, I’ve had several people come over to me and say, ‘But it’s the highlight of my summer!’ It’s rare to be able to be a part of a program that is nondenominational, apolitical and up-close and personal. Hosting a Peace of Mind group is something that a community can unite around and feel good about.”
Rosanne Koenigson, whose community hosted a POM group in Highland Park, New Jersey, says that “the benefits of POM to both the hosting community and the soldiers cannot be adequately described.” Participating in POM “put names and faces to the IDF, who until now were anonymous men and women in green uniforms who I passed in Israel, or saw on the buses on their way home from base for Shabbat. POM really personalized the IDF for us.”
Describing one particularly salient encounter at her local synagogue, Koenigson recalls that kiddush on Shabbat was a time when “the floodgates opened up.
The congregants couldn’t get to the participants fast enough.” One particularly striking image for Koenigson was a woman in high heels running towards the veterans in high heels, saying “Thank you!” repeatedly.
“They didn’t know that Diaspora Jews love them and consider them [to be] modern-day Jewish heroes.”
The US national committee helps communities who are interested in hosting a POM group with everything this entails: from fund-raising to organizational details. “It’s very doable for anyone interested,” Ostreicher emphasizes. “We’re really there to help at every step of the journey.”
Ostreicher’s use of the word “journey” is intentional.
In Hebrew, the POM program is called masa shihrur, which loosely translates as a “demobilization journey.” Aside from the physical journey – which Weltman adds gives participants an opportunity to disconnect from the stress of daily life – the emotional journey that veterans go through is astounding.
Brom says POM has worked with many teams that were self-described as “the best of friends before we were in combat together,” who now cannot stand to be around one other. Brom discusses one group of three men who had been best friends since elementary school, and went on to serve in the same unit. After being released from the army, the three “couldn’t look at each other; they became each other’s trauma triggers.
This is not an illness or a disorder, but it’s a burden that veterans can carry around their whole lives.” After participating in POM, an opportunity that Brom presents as a place to “help them talk and listen to each other,” the three became best friends again.
Bar-Adon says the relationship between his team members has significantly improved since participating in POM last year. Ben-Porat says that members in his battalion who lived a couple of minutes away from each other – who had been close friends in the army – avoided any direct interaction so as to avoid “bad memories.” “As a result of participating in POM, we now meet every few months as a group,” explains Ben-Porat. “Our relationships with each other are considerably stronger.”
Slavin, who began serving as platoon commander a week before the Second Lebanon War, says he was left with a lot of questions resulting from several intensive combat situations in Lebanon. One such event, when a bomb hit the structure where his team was sleeping, resulted in the tragic loss of a team member, with eight soldiers wounded, including Slavin himself. Slavin, who was characterized as seriously injured due to significant blood loss, recounts that “it was only as a direct result of a speedy evacuation that they were able to close my vein, which saved my life.” Though some team members returned to army service for a short period of time after the aforementioned event, the group never again served together as a company.
Slavin describes wanting to know what his company members thought of him as a commander, particularly as he replaced someone suddenly and then led them into war. The trip to Fire Island in 2011 was five years after the war had ended, and Slavin says he hoped it would be an opportunity to be together and talk about their experiences openly. POM exceeded his expectations. “My relationship with the soldiers is very much changed. We now have a shared experience that isn’t war, that isn’t something traumatic.
POM gave us an opportunity to speak about things and be together, which would not have existed otherwise, and provided tools to create relationships that will now continue. This project is just the beginning of something for us.”
Adasha, who also participated in POM five years after his military service, says POM definitely strengthened and connected his team. “Since [participating in POM], we talk more, we get together more,” Adasha notes. Having never really spoken about combat, Adasha says that the morning workshops “created an opportunity for everyone to describe the event from his own perspective. By contributing individual pictures, we were able to take each of our subjective memories and turn them into an objective image of reality.”
Rozenbaum shares a similar experience, saying he remembers sitting and talking about the battle where they lost a team member. “Everyone remembered something different. It was a puzzle that we were slowly able to piece together.” When asked if he’d spoken about his combat experiences before, Rozenbaum says that while he had, he hadn’t done so in any great detail. “You talk about it,” he muses, “but you don’t talk about how it felt. In a typical group setting you don’t say, ‘I have nightmares all the time,’ or ‘I can’t stop thinking about my friend that died.’ Maybe to your closest friend you might say, ‘Listen, I can’t stop thinking about him,’ or ‘I was standing a few meters away from him,’ or ‘It could have been me,’ but that’s unusual.”
Rozenbaum says that aside from the practical help he received after being part of POM, it made him realize that his service was not simply expected. He describes how in Israel “the typical reaction upon meeting a former combat soldier is, ‘I appreciate that you were a combat soldier and that you almost died, but now everything’s fine.’ It warmed my heart to see that I was really contributing to the larger Jewish community, and through POM, that they were returning to me as well.”
Brom says the realization that serving in the IDF is of great significance to Jews across the world can change the way veterans think about their service and their relationship to the State of Israel itself. He recalls one participant saying: “I found the thanks and care from the community strange at first, but slowly I began to realize that I really went through something, and I began to feel proud.”
“There’s an old saying,” Brom says, “that Israelis become Jews outside of Israel. Though that may be a bit derogatory, that’s what happens in these groups – they create an awareness that serving in the IDF is of great significance to the Jewish people.”
Rahabi shares a story of one veteran who had not been back to Israel for three years before participating in POM.
“The group took place two weeks before Passover,” says Rahabi. “On the first night of Passover, one veteran surprised his family and said simply ‘I’m home.’” Weltman and Rahabi both note they have received countless phone calls from family members and significant others of individuals who have participated in the program, saying “thank you for returning our sons/husbands/boyfriends.” Perhaps most poignant are the sentiments expressed by participants themselves: that “the war is finally over,” and “now I can start living my life.”
“POM provided a place where I was listened to, but also a place where it was okay for me to talk about my experience – not as a hero, but as a boy who was afraid,” explains Rozenbaum. “Plus, it’s a lot of fun. I would describe it as surreal in a good way.”
And another major indication of POM’s success is the passion with which its participants advocate for it: “The reason I’m talking to you now,” Slavin enthuses, “is because any and every time I can give back to the program after everything it gave me, I will. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from doing so. Every soldier who gets out of the army should have this opportunity, and I am so grateful to everyone who is involved with this project.”
Rozenbaum echoes Slavin’s sentiments, saying, “Anything I can do to help the program succeed and grow – I’m there. Without thinking twice, and without any second thoughts.”
“In my eyes,” says Bar-Adon, “every team, every battalion, every group of people who served in the army together should be part of a program like this. It connects you to the nation.”