Coping with PTSD since the establishment of Israel

Many of them appear as if they have yet to emerge from the horrors of brutal battles, deadly wars and horrifying terrorist attacks on buses, cafés, schools or public parks.

Aerial view of Israeli soldiers during an operation  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aerial view of Israeli soldiers during an operation
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Throughout the more than 72 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, we have lost more 23,000 of our people to war. Starting even before the War of Independence, many Israelis have died in wars that took place in the Sinai Peninsula, in the West Bank, in the Golan Heights, on the Lebanese border and throughout Israel.
There have also been battles in cities in central Israel, as well as along Israel’s borders in the North and South. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been injured or became disabled. They’ve spent long periods of time in hospitals and rehabilitation centers as they courageously made efforts to recover.
Thousands of them remained disabled, some are missing limbs, have difficulties walking, are left with limited vision or are so incapacitated they cannot work. Israel is home to so many bereaved families who have lost sons and daughters, and continue to live with intense pain and suffering in the absence of their loved ones, unable to fill the void or find a reason to remain hopeful.
It has become a tradition every year, to acknowledge the number of casualties Israel has known, mourning all those who’ve died or been injured.
Every year on Remembrance Day, we sit in front of our TV screens and listen as the names of the Israelis who’ve fallen are commemorated. These are some of the few days left in our life when our hearts pound at the same rhythm and we feel united.
However, in the midst of all this, we haven’t left space for people who walk among us as if everything is fine with them. These individuals seem healthy, and their bodies are free of defects or scars.
And yet, many of them appear as if they have yet to emerge from the horrors of brutal battles, deadly wars and horrifying terrorist attacks on buses, cafés, schools or public parks. It’s impossible to notice anything about them that would set them apart from all the rest of Israel’s citizens that we meet on the street, at recent demonstrations or in our workplaces (those that are still operating, at least).
Except that so many of them, even though you might not notice it, never really emerged from the inferno and have yet to recover from the loud sounds of shooting that trigger memories of traumatic battle scenes and the horrible sights they’ve seen, such as flames that engulfed the bodies of their friends as they lay strewn on the battlefield, or the crowded public bus or downtown café blown up by a suicide bomber, in a street that turned out to be a battlefield.
One such person who is still suffering is Baruch Dror. As a successful TV actor, Dror has starred in a number of popular TV series, such as Ramat Aviv Gimel. He played for the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer club and was even a judo champion in his youth and later graduated from the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts. Dror’s multifaceted career included music and acting in Habimah Theater’s acclaimed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Servant of Two Masters and many other performances. He performed at the Beit Lessin and Beersheba theaters and at the Acre and Israel festivals. He also acted in a number of films, including Delta Force 3: The Killing Game and The Finest Hour.
Dror was a young, handsome, intelligent, impressive and sensitive young man. He was inducted into the Golani Brigade and fought in the First Lebanon War. Unfortunately, he has never been able to overcome the post-trauma and the horrifying events that he experienced. In his daily life, Baruch became everything a young ambitious man aspired to be: an actor, singer, writer, playwright. And yet, in a place hidden deep down inside of him, he remained on the battlefield where his brothers in arms were killed.
The horrors he experienced there permeated his being and refused to abate. The memories followed him everywhere he went – at home with the family he created, on the stage, during filming, at band practices and, mostly, when he was by himself. The flashbacks still occur all the time, incessantly. The fears he experienced as a young man on the battlefield, which he thought he had left behind after returning to civilian life, but which continue to affect him to this day, have rocked his foundation and threaten his stability.
In his book, The Night in Granada, Dror shares his daunting story and the harrowing experiences he still endures to this day due to post-traumatic stress disorder. And he’s not alone – thousands of people suffer from this disorder, many of whom are undiagnosed and not counted among the soldiers who’ve been injured during battle.
The difference is, however, that their injuries are not visible; no bullet pierced their body – just mind and soul. Many people who suffer from PTSD, as Dror does, are able to build a career, get married, have children and remain connected with their families. However, this mental disorder tends to wreak havoc in their lives and create great instability also for people who are close to them.
Dror is a talented writer whose book has an unconventional combination of emotional depth, intellectual breadth and pure curiosity. His writing is articulate, and his characters are emotionally nuanced in a very delicate manner.
The farther into the book I got, the more I felt myself plunging deep down into Dror’s tormented soul. It made me think about where I come from and about the places in which he found himself. For a number of years, I bore the responsibility, as a member of a small group, to make fateful decisions for the country.
Then, for a while I acted as the last link in that decision-making chain, which required that I send people to places from which they might never return. And many did not return. I remember each event, each operation, each attack, each invasion of territory that placed our forces in a life-threatening positions. And I felt the pain along with each family when they lost a loved one, even if under the circumstances I was not in a position to share these feelings with them.
As a matter of routine, I did not usually meet soldiers who arrived back safely from combat and appeared to have effortlessly return to their normal lives, simply because they seemed okay.
Dror describes the struggles he was forced to fight against the Defense Ministry’s Rehabilitation Division in an effort to receive approval for disability compensation. He had to put up with the mocking, impatience, insensitivity, apathy and sometimes even cruelty from the very people whose job it was to understand, aid and support people who’d been injured while protecting our country.
I have no desire to say bad things that would hurt anyone working at the Ministry of Defense Rehabilitation Division. Why should I? Many people who have PTSD take a long time to get used to the idea that they are suffering from a mental disorder. Dealing with post-trauma is not like having a physical impairment. When your body is wounded, your blood spills all over, your leg gets amputated or your guts spill out, there’s no need for you to make any effort to prove anything. The situation is easy for everyone to see. When you are bleeding, people know how to treat your wounds.
But when your body remains intact, it’s much harder to prove that your mind has been damaged. Not only is it difficult for outsiders to understand – it’s tough for the victim, too. And the symptoms aren’t always the same or fit into a specific pattern. Sometimes PTSD sufferers do not display typical PTSD symptoms, which makes it more difficult for the authorities to arrive at a diagnosis. The identification process can be long and protracted.
Slowly, a PTSD sufferer’s life turns into a relentless succession of hallucinations and flashbacks. They suffer through nights that are filled with nightmares and troubled sleep, and days without the ability to function. Oftentimes, as the distress deepens, sufferers can become violent or have explosive bursts of anger, even towards their most trusted loved ones.
Dror underwent almost 200 electric shock treatments for his PTSD. 200! Each time the electrical current threatens to explode your body from within. Each time, he hoped that it would be his last encounter with this torture device. But it never did bring him peace of mind, rescue him or return him to a life of normalcy, a place that was at least bearable. It’s so easy in these difficult days to write about the collective suffering that threatens us and that has already caused damage, from which it will be difficult to recover.
There’s never a suitable time, however, to write a post about people who suffer from post-trauma. They live among us with no identifiable markings. Their cases are not included in the statistics and it’s considered embarrassing to speak about them. It’s uncomfortable to write about PTSD, even when it is about people we are close to. And so, people hide the fact that they or a loved one is suffering from this disorder so that they can save themselves this discomfort.
By writing his book, Dror carried out an act of extreme bravery, of extraordinarily rare heroism. He chose not to hide anymore, but instead to finally confront his problems and anguish head on, and to share his complicated experiences with others. Dror wanted to  share how beneath the picture of a young, handsome, successful, talented man with a wonderful wife and two great kids, there is pain and suffering. He did not want to hide anymore behind what appears to be a normal life, but to expose the heavy burden that he carries hoping that we will all be aware of this phenomenon and assist the many more who suffer as well.

The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.