The hidden casualties of war

With Purim here, we may indeed hope that society at large will hear his plea for help and rise to the occasion beyond his wildest expectations.

Baruch Ben-Aharon in his dwelling (photo credit: HANANEL BEN-AHARON)
Baruch Ben-Aharon in his dwelling
(photo credit: HANANEL BEN-AHARON)
The 1973 Yom Kippur War left its mark on every part of our society. Its ripples can be felt to this day, nearly 45 years later, in the collective memory of all Israelis whose ears still perk up to the sound of the word haconceptzia (the concept) and whose heartstrings still move to images of Ariel Sharon crossing the Suez Canal.
However, none of us will ever carry a share of the burden equal to that borne by those brave men whose lives crossed paths with that terrible war on the battlefield.
Even those veterans who made it back home in one piece did not return unscathed. The psychological scars of war run deep and often barely fade even decades afterwards. For some, the experience of battle irrevocably altered the course of their lives.
Baruch Ben-Aharon, now 68 years old, fought in that war on the Egyptian front in the Sinai Peninsula as an infantry soldier in the Nahal Brigade, Battalion 50. His experience during three weeks of fighting brought him face-to-face with death on repeated occasions, including some of his closest companions, and culminating in his own hospitalization after an enemy shell landed beside the armored jeep he was in.
Ben-Aharon was lucky enough to recover, but the traumas he weathered could not be healed as quickly as the physical wounds he had suffered, serious though they were. Over the course of the war, he often found himself carrying dead comrades on his back, or wounded soldiers with missing limbs calling out in agony. An Egyptian bombing raid decimated his unit, leaving him with relentless nightmares that have never faded since.
Of the 12 close friends with whom he grew up in Jerusalem, Ben-Aharon was the only one to return home alive. The utter collapse of his closest social circle, coupled with the horrors he had seen in the Sinai, left him in shambles. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and only with the help of close psychiatric treatment was able to somehow rehabilitate and form some semblance of a normal life.
At the age of 35, Ben-Aharon married, and soon enough was father to five beautiful children. For more than 15 years he maintained a happy marriage and a healthy family, still closely supported by psychiatrists to keep his PTSD in check and maintain his mental balance.
In 2000, a beloved neighbor of Ben-Aharon’s was killed in action in southern Lebanon, reopening the terrible wounds that were veiled under a thin layer of skin and anti- depressants since the tumultuous events of October 1973. With news of this young man’s tragic death, Ben- Aharon suffered a nervous breakdown and his mental state rapidly spiraled down to the dark days of battle from which he hoped his mind was already free.
After being hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for months, he ultimately had no choice but to divorce his wife and give her full custody of their children.
Since then he has been living entirely on his own, with only minimal communication with his family.
“I am truly alone, with no supportive relationships in my old age,” he says sadly. “I dedicate much of my day to study, but my weak physical state and constant flashbacks from the war sometimes keep me grounded for days.”
In recent years, Ben-Aharon has been living in the derelict basement of a small synagogue in Jerusalem’s Makor Baruch neighborhood, subsisting on a humble state stipend for the disabled. The conditions that a man of his age and experience must suffer are abhorrent and heartbreaking by all accounts. In the last few months, he has even developed serious breathing problems because of the mold that stifles the air in his “bedroom” and was hospitalized several times.
Yet he still mentions with pride the part he played in the defense of Israel during the Yom Kippur War all those decades ago.
“I am honored to have served in the IDF when the country was at its moment of need,” he explains. “Israel was on the brink of collapse and my generation defended it with our lives. Going back, I would not have acted any differently.”
Nevertheless, in his present condition, haunted by nightmares of war and now by extreme poverty and severe medical problems to boot, Ben- Aharon has swallowed his pride and decided to turn to the general public for help. At his moment of greatest need, he asks for any show of financial support, however small, to help him break out of this unbearable cycle and maintain a minimal level of dignity in his old age.
“I ask for people’s generosity and understanding of my situation. Turning to the whole community in this way is not easy for me,” he says painfully, “but I sacrificed much for Israel and now I truly need people’s help.”
Having endured so much in the defense of this country, and paid the terrible price that some unfortunate veterans pay on behalf of us all, Baruch Ben-Aharon hopes and believes his fellow Israelis will come to his aid and light up the darkness that has taken a toll on his daily life.
With Purim here, we may indeed hope that society at large will hear his plea for help and rise to the occasion beyond his wildest expectations.
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