HERE AND THERE: A price we pay for defending...

Whose responsibility is it to provide the support and treatment necessary for a return to civilian life where feelings are an integral part of being?

Illustrative photo (photo credit: TNS)
Illustrative photo
(photo credit: TNS)
We in Israel remain ever proud of those who serve in the IDF, defending and sustaining the sole Jewish state. On Remembrance Day, we honor some 23,000 souls who have given their lives so that we can continue to enjoy a safe and secure existence.
Our boys and girls are just 18 years old when they enter the IDF; their peers in the Diaspora are choosing what to study at their preferred university. Do we ever stop to think of the cost of this endeavor to the individual? Do we ask how those who serve in combat units cope with post-army life?
How must it be to fight in a bloody war zone and then return home to civilian normality? The Magazine spoke with Avi (as we shall call him), whose war experiences left him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In 1998 after a highly intensive selection process, Avi was accepted into Unit 217, the Duvdevan Unit, an elite special IDF operational force, part of the Commando Brigade, known for its high-risk anti-terrorist missions. Unit members, often garbed in Arab civilian clothes, execute daring undercover operations in urban areas deep in enemy territory.
Avi was exceedingly proud to have made it into Duvdevan. What followed was a training of one and a half years, composed of grueling physical and mental trials.
In 2000, Avi participated in a widely publicized mission to capture notorious Hamas terrorist Mahmoud Abu Hanoud. The mission failed. Avi, the medic, witnessed the horrendous deaths of three of his comrades caused by friendly fire. Since 1986, when this undercover unit was established, 15 soldiers have been killed either by friendly fire, training or other incidents. When the Second Intifada broke out, Avi was sent to the West Bank where intense fighting resulted in extensive loss of life.
Avi was discharged from the IDF in 2001. While he was able to hand over his gun and his uniform, he could not “hand over” the effect that his three years of IDF experience had on his state of mind.
The training for this special unit entailed disconnecting from one’s feelings. Feelings had to be suppressed and neutralized to make it possible to carry out the intricate, clandestine and dangerous missions that are the trademark of Duvdevan.
For Avi and many others, PTSD became a fact of life. Was there a standard dismissal process within the IDF that could assist in the psychological rehabilitation toward normal civilian living? Apparently not. Avi requested help and was sent for assessment to – in his words – “a very depressing, neglected psychiatric ward at Tel Hashomer hospital where the therapy was insufficient and outdated. If you complain to your family doctor you are referred to a psychiatrist who prescribes medications that do more harm than good. For a few this is better than nothing but, generally speaking, for the majority it is a disaster.”
THREE DAYS after his military discharge, Avi began six years of traveling the world, meeting several top therapists and spiritual leaders. During this time he also faced further incidents of trauma and drama, on a large scale. He describes his life then as complete mayhem.
The need to “get away” by traveling abroad is shared by many ex-servicemen. Avi explains, “The triggers for my trauma were everywhere in Israel; the Arabic, the sights, the sounds, the people, the memories are more intense, which is why some decide to travel and never return. Stress is the main factor in PTSD and Israel contributes, by default – whether it’s the news, the constant conflict, the stress levels, let alone the reminders that surround you.”
What is especially striking is the necessity to negate feelings – a prerequisite for being able to carry out the challenges of the Duvdevan conscript. Yet whose responsibility is it to provide the support and treatment necessary for a return to civilian life where feelings are an integral part of being?
As a professional relationship counselor, I have over the years seen how vital feelings are for successful relationships. The suffering of PTSD victims spills over to their families, which find themselves at a complete loss as to how to cope with the often violent and irrational acts of their loved ones. Parents are distraught, unable to find a way back to the son they once knew.
Avi’s experience is not unique. In 2015, former Duvdevan servicemen established the Scheinberg Foundation. Its proactive search for veterans suffering from PTSD has proven successful. Macho men are not supposed to ask for help. In addition, as the Foundation is part of the Duvdevan unit, veterans feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, knowing they will not be in breach of confidentiality issues.
Relatively recently, following pressure from various groups, the Defense Ministry has recognized that PTSD sufferers should be given the same financial and medical consideration as those who suffer physical injuries. This was not the case for Avi, who spent 17 years living in a physical and mental wilderness until he found Duvdevan’s Scheinberg Foundation, which proved to be the answer to his prayers.
Avi’s recuperative journey is ongoing. With the assistance of the foundation and loving people around him, he is helping himself – and helping others who find themselves where he was yesterday.
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.