Sisters in arms: Female veterans from the US and Israel combat trauma together

Heroes to Heroes launches a pilot trip exclusively for female veterans.

A dance performance by Adam Greenfeld and Tal Galor at Beit Halochem, Tel Aviv (photo credit: ARIANE MANDELL)
A dance performance by Adam Greenfeld and Tal Galor at Beit Halochem, Tel Aviv
(photo credit: ARIANE MANDELL)
However treacherous the battlefield, some of the greatest horrors await soldiers at home.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that in 2014 approximately 20 American veterans a day were committing suicide.
Male veterans were 18% more likely to commit suicide than males in the general population of civilian adults.
Heroes to Heroes, an American nonprofit, was created to counteract these startling statistics. The NGO connects American veterans with Israeli veterans for non-denominational trips through Israel that combine “spirituality with peer-support” to help soldiers with PTSD begin the process of healing and moving on with their lives.
Until now, these trips have been composed entirely of male combat veterans, but here’s another startling Department of Veterans Affairs statistic: In 2014, female American veterans were 2.4 times more likely to commit suicide than females in the general population of American civilian adults. This difference is more than 10 times that for males.
So in September 2016, Heroes to Heroes launched a pilot trip exclusively for female veterans.
It followed the same itinerary as the tours for male veterans, but the experience for the participants – and the traumas that drew them to the journey – were quite different: Almost all of the American participants on the women’s trip were survivors of sexual violence.
The trip balanced activities such as hiking, visits to Nazareth and Bethlehem, the option of being baptized in the Jordan River (the majority of participants are Christian) and treeplanting, with participant-led daily conversations.
These conversations, according to one participant, could get very intense: “One woman described how her commander tried to rape her, and when she said no, he tried to kill her.”
“Another,” the participant said, “talked about having horrible PTSD flashbacks and nightmares like she was running blindly in the dark, and at times during the day she’d break out into a run without anywhere to go, just running, running into things.”
The NGO Protect Our Defenders, which aims to rid the American armed forces of sexual assault and harassment, reported that in 2014 7.3% of female junior enlisted soldiers experienced sexual assault, but an estimated 86% of all sexual assaults (against females as well as males) went unreported.
Ninety percent of all sexual assaults were committed by someone higher up in the chain of command, and 62% of the women who reported sexual assault experienced retaliation, including reprisal from senior commanders.
Further, in many cases, there was little to no support for these women when they returned home.
ONE OF the highlights of the Heroes to Heroes trip was a visit to the Tel Aviv branch of Beit Halochem, which oversees rehabilitation centers for disabled IDF veterans. This center, which has the look, feel and facilities of a lavish country club, is just one project of the nationwide Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization (ZDVO), which is completely separate from the government and operates purely from charitable donations.
Nationally, ZDVO has over 50,000 members who became disabled during their service in the IDF, the Israel Police or one of the country’s security branches, or in a terrorist attack, according to Ora Seidner, the organization’s head of project development.
The centers accept new members immediately out of rehab, “sometimes even still in bandages,” Seidner says.
Some 400 to 600 new members join every year, though she adds that Beit Halochem is one of the few organizations that “prays no new members will join its ranks.”
New members, as well as spouses and families, are immediately welcomed by a warm community of veterans, staff and volunteers. The existing community tasks newcomers with daily challenges, giving them “a reason to get out of the house” and showing them by example that they can get married, have children, lead productive lives and “certainly not be a burden,” Seidner says.
Beit Halochem’s Tel Aviv campus houses an Olympic-sized swimming pool, special hydrotherapy facilities and state-of-the-art physical therapy equipment, alongside a hair salon, sporting goods store, athletic courts and a gym specially designed to suit various disabilities. It also offers classes in arts and crafts, dancing, singing, mountain climbing and languages, and hosts a choir club.
It runs field trips to cultural events and jeep trips, and everything in between.
There are special retiree groups and young veterans groups (the young veterans’ clubhouse has all the Playstations).
Most Israeli Paralympic teams train at a branch of Beit Halochem. Branch members who excel in athletics are invited to join the teams.
Many members come every day – some staying morning until evening – and bring their children and even grandchildren, taking advantage of the on-site daycare. The only rule: No staying overnight. At the end of the day, Beit Halochem’s goal is to reintroduce wounded veterans into society and encourage them to have highly engaged social and family lives.
To create a supportive, cohesive atmosphere, Beit Halochem is not open to the general public. One member says: “I can feel at home without feeling different or being stared at.” Another relates: “There’s no self-pity. You can be yourself, and it’s wonderful.”
While the Heroes to Heroes group was amazed and uplifted by the warmth and support offered to Israeli veterans, there was some dismay about their own treatment back home.
“Daycare at the VA?” one said with a laugh. “Are you kidding me? I waited three years just to get my birth-control prescription from the VA.”
Nevertheless, one Israeli veteran remarked that the order of the day still emphasized how male-oriented veteran organizations in Israel tend to be.
“Even here,” she said, “they almost always use male pronouns when describing the members, and they keep remarking on how ‘wives’ can visit with soldiers – even though we are a group of women they are speaking to.”
Many IDF veterans can use their government disability funding to receive specialized treatments at Beit Halochem. For example, veterans suffering from purely emotional trauma do not qualify for state-sponsored hydrotherapy even though it has proven to be one of the most effective treatments for PTSD.
Beit Halochem staff say they are pursuing a change in this policy, and it is highly likely that the facility will reach greater and greater proportions of the wounded veteran population as national and global sensitivities about the vast array of post-conflict trauma veterans can experience progress.
PERHAPS THE climax of the visit to Beit Halochem was a talk by Anat Yahalom.
Yahalom was commander of a women’s unit in the Sinai until October 6, 1973, when Egyptian planes crossed the canal, bombarded her base and “everything collapsed.”
“I was wounded very badly,” she said. “I was dying. Twice in transport to Israel I was declared dead.”
Yahalom was again declared dead upon her arrival, but doctors managed to revive her. Her left leg was amputated at the knee and replaced with a complicated graft of artificial materials and her own self-donated tissue. She spent 10 days in intensive care, and at one point the staff said she had no chance of survival.
On awakening, she found that her commander, Shaul Shalev, and all of her friends at the base had been killed or taken captive.
“I lost my body,” she recalled. “I lost my friends. Why should I fight for my life? Why should I live? I just wanted to die peacefully with my friends.”
She spent a year in the hospital and underwent several unsuccessful surgeries in the US. When doctors showed her her first wheelchair, she said, they told her This is private; this is for you.
“I understood,” said Yahalom, ”that what they meant was that ‘this is yours, this is where you will sit for the rest of your life.’” But several spiritual experiences led her to believe that it was not up to her whether she lived or died, and when doctors told her she would never walk, never marry and never have children, she thought to herself: “That is nonsense. I know I will dance.”
Yahalom said she remembers the first time her friend, a fellow veteran amputee, took her to Beit Halochem. She sat by the swimming pool crying about how she couldn’t possibly swim with just one leg. She was also self-conscious.
Heroes to heroes participants with Anat Yahalom (second from right)Heroes to heroes participants with Anat Yahalom (second from right)
“Men who are wounded,” she said, “they’re war heroes. Women, on the other hand... it’s a different story. Scars are handsome on a man, but not so attractive on a woman.”
Another veteran amputee who became a star runner saw her crying and told her she needed to swim.
“If you need to cry,” he said, “then go cry in the water. No one will see you.
You can shout in there and you can cry in there, and you can sing in there.”
She took his advice, bought herself some tights, a swimsuit and a top (which she referred to as the “first burkini”) and took her sorrows into the pool. Everything changed after that.
Eventually she married and had three children. She swam regularly and after two years could walk with crutches, clinging to a wall or supported by her husband, Rafi. Today, she walks completely unaided, and no one would suspect her decade of agony and immobility. She has been an art educator in the Galilee. She served as a Jewish Agency aliya emissary in South Africa. She founded youth programs.
She took up hand-bike riding, started a riding group for disabled women and then completed the New York hand-bike marathon.
Yahalom credits her recovery in large part to the enduring support of her community.
“Together, we can fight and we can win anything,” she said.
“If you are by yourself and you stay behind... then, well, you stay behind. Your life goes nowhere.”
She added that the true story of Beit Halochem is social rehabilitation.
“If you miss a few days, people call you,” she said. “They ask: ‘Where are you? What happened to you? Why didn’t you come by today?’” Reclusiveness is highly discouraged among disabled IDF veterans.
“Come,” she said. “Let’s ride together. Let’s talk. Let’s have a coffee by the beach. Let’s cry together. You can cry, it’s okay, but then you pull yourself together.”
THAT, PERHAPS, is where Heroes to Heroes truly helped the women on the trip: It connected them to each other. They finally had a community of peers on which to lean.
Two of the Israeli veterans, Mimi and Rami, both remarked on how startlingly different the circumstances of American female veterans were from those of their Israeli counterparts.
“They’re often the only one in their group of friends who is a vet, and the only female vet they know at all,” one remarked.
This points to the staggering difference in participation between the two countries. CNN reported that in 2013 there were approximately 200,000 American women in the military (less than 1% of the female US population), compared to Israel where, despite exemptions for religious and minority women, the majority of Israeli females serve in some capacity. In Israel, where it is more likely that women have female friends who can relate to their military experiences, in America female veterans are very isolated.
One American participant, Kamilla, described one highlight of the trip as getting to have “girl time” with other former female soldiers.
“We’re getting really close to our Israelis,” she said.
“It’s comforting. It’s home. This is family. It’s so fun to learn to do [the religious women’s] hair wraps. All the girly stuff we normally miss. You can’t really engage with your normal friends like this.... What am I supposed to say? ‘Wanna do our nails together and hear about what’s freaking me out?’” she said.
“Family is home,” Kamilla continued. “But the army is, too, in a different way. They’re there for you when they don’t have to be.”
According to Judy Schaffer, the founder and director of Heroes to Heroes, the participants “really bonded as women.
It was beautiful. And it was upbeat, it was fun – they laughed, they cried together. And for many of them who had isolated themselves, it was the first time to be part of a group again....
It was women bonding as only women do when they’re free. It was wonderful to see.”
On the last night of the trip, Schaffer recalled, one of the Israeli women led the Havdala service that closes Shabbat. She wrote each of the American women’s names on a candle, lit each with the Havdala light, handed them out, and then had them blow out their candles together.
“This brings the light from the Havdala candle into your lives in the United States, and every time you look at this candle, think of this light,” she told them.
It was the last thing they did on the trip before they boarded their planes for home.
Both nations have a long way to go to support female soldiers suffering from trauma, and a longer way to ending assaults on women-in-arms. But Heroes to Heroes and Beit Halochem are taking the important first step of bringing veterans together, bringing them out of isolation and introducing them to communities where people can understand and help relieve their pain.