What Schalit needs: Peace, quiet, and treatment for PTSD

"It's a very difficult transition to go from being in a dungeon all by yourself to suddenly in a free society," former POW says.

Gilad Schalit in uniform 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Gilad Schalit in uniform 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
What kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit needs more than anything else upon his return to Israel next week is support from a psychiatrist or social worker, and time alone with his family, said Ori Shahak, a former POW and chairman of an advocacy group for ex-soldiers who were once captives.
“From the first step, he needs the support of a psychologist and his family needs as much quiet as possible. To go from being alone for five years and then to be suddenly surrounded by people who love you and support you is a very sharp, very difficult thing. Picture someone who is in the pitch dark for a long time and steps into the sunlight.
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It demands a slow process, some sunglasses to help them get used to the light,” Shahak said on Thursday.
On October 7, 1973, the second day of the Yom Kippur War, the Phantom jet that Shahak and his navigator were flying was shot down by a Syrian antiaircraft gun on the Golan Heights, and the two airmen were taken prisoner.
Eight months later, Shahak and dozens of other soldiers were released in a prisoner exchange.
Now 64 years old, Shahak is the chairman of Erim B’Leila (“Awake at night”), a group that advocates greater state recognition and benefits for former POWs.
“The family needs to have quiet and privacy together in order to get used to one another again. It’s been over five years and this takes time,” he said.
Schalit would have a “black hole” of knowledge about the world since he has been in captivity, and would need to slowly be brought up to date with, Shahak said.
“Think for a second, [when Schalit was captured], there wasn’t Facebook, no iPhone, all types of things that are taken for granted. All of these things take a long, long time to get used to. It’s a black hole you need to fill slowly; if you do it quickly it could explode.”
Even today, 37 years later, Shahak says the trauma of his time in captivity returns unexpectedly, suddenly, to remind him that the he carries a lifelong burden.
“It’s still not over. I try to keep in good shape so in the mornings I go to the park and go jogging. Sometimes, I hear footsteps behind me and I feel that it’s the Syrian soldiers coming take me. I have to stand there and tell myself, “Ori, you’re not in Syria. It happens at times when you’re not expecting it, and it never leaves entirely.”
Shahak says the day he returned to Israel was a moment that can’t be put into words. “It’s impossible to describe the feeling of that day; its excitement, it’s something you can't explain.”
Shahak related a tale of a night in prison in Damascus, where a guard opened a door to let in a nurse to treat one of the captive soldiers, and glancing behind the guard Shahak was dazzled by the bright, shining object in the sky, only to realize that he was looking at the moon for the first time in months.
“People ask me, what to me is freedom, and I say to them when I was in captivity in Syria, the guard stands next to the door, and I see the moon for the first time. For me freedom is seeing the moon for the first time. It’s the basic things, to go outside, to get water, air, when you want to. To suddenly be a free man is something you can’t describe.”
Uri Ehrenfeld, one of the founders of Erim B’Liela, is a former paratrooper who was captured by Egyptian forces in the southern Sinai during the start of the Yom Kippur war and released two-and-a-half months later. Ehrenfeld, who underwent repeated torture, interrogation and solitary confinement, describes the return to the life of a free man as a challenging experience.
“He’ll need quiet, need people to get away from him, let him relax. It’s a very difficult transition to go from being in a dungeon all by yourself to suddenly in a free society.”
Ehrenfeld said that while each person’s tale of trauma and captivity is unique, Schalit can expect his return to Israel to be “a sudden 180 degree shift in his life,” which in extreme cases, can see the soldier hospitalized to deal with the trauma.
Erim B’Liela’s name comes from one of the symptoms commonly experienced by former POWs, sleepless nights, Ehrenfeld said. This was not the result of nightmares, rather that in captivity you had to be ready to stand at attention if the jailers came to your cell, and the fear of being caught asleep and subjected to a beating remains difficult to shake even years later.
The most difficult aspect of his captivity was the solitary confinement, the feeling of being completely alone in the world, Ehrenfeld said. For Schalit it will be important that he receives treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), treatment that was not readily available for POWs of earlier generations, such as Ehrenfeld.
“There are symptoms that stay but you put the experience aside and then suddenly it would come back because you hadn’t gotten the support over the years... You have to deal with the symptoms and deal with the PTSD and not ignore it until it starts to push back,” he said.
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