Suicide in the IDF

To this day, I do not think the IDF understands the difference between temporary psychological crises and serious psychiatric disturbance.

Soldier 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Soldier 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Recently, great tragedy struck a small, close-knit, elite IDF unit my son happens to serve in. One of brightest, bravest and most selfless soldiers in the IDF allegedly committed suicide.
As my son broke the news to me early last Sunday morning by phone, in Bogota, Colombia, where I am on business, my soul and spirit traveled to the Middle East – or more precisely, to Kikar Hasharon in Herzliya Pituah some 30 years ago. I had just come back from a tour of duty in Lebanon to find that a friend of mine, Ricardo Wolf, a lone soldier like me, had allegedly shot himself in the head with his military-issue rifle. I was older than Ricardo, but still a young man, and the the pain was very real. Not long before, I had heard of another young man, a Brazilian from Recife, doing the same thing.
The army removed my weapons for some weeks while I underwent a battery of psychological tests. My military service was never the same from there on. Like myself and the other young man, Ricardo too was Brazilian. His mother, Elizabeth was Brazilian, and he was born in Frankfurt, Germany. I knew Ricardo’s girlfriend Natalie, a wonderful French girl. He had had the world at his feet – why did he do it? I now found myself asking my son the same questions.
“Was your buddy unhappy?” “No, Dad, he always had a smile, was always telling me he was going to travel and come to visit Miami with me after the army.”
So why did a bright young man, only 19 years old, who had volunteered to serve in one of the IDF’s toughest units, allegedly kill himself one week before receiving his beret? Based on what I hear from my son, the issue is one that existed some 30 years ago when I wore the same uniform he wears now – namely, that in the IDF, the NCOs and officers responsible for training soldiers are not much older then the trainees. Some are not even 21 years old, and have very little life experience. Many of these young men do not have the necessary skill or perspective to understand the issues troubling young men their own age, and senior officers makes themselves almost unavailable to the younger soldiers.
The IDF failed to deal with this issue adequately back in my day, and I see no evidence they’re doing so now. They have to be proactive. You can’t wait for young soldiers to seek assistance; they are going to be afraid of looking weak. On top of which, the mentality of the IDF, and Israeli society in general – whether in business, politics or the military – is to suck it up and go do what you’ve got to do. Not an approach conducive to dealing with psychological trauma.
To this day, I do not think the IDF understands the difference between temporary psychological crises and serious psychiatric disturbance; that is, conditions which should disqualify someone for army service. Clearly, the issue is one we need to address. We have had generals commit suicide, not only enlisted men, and it is time for this to stop.
Most young Israeli men fear the consequences of asking for help; as things stand now, doing so would most likely mean a “Profile 21” discharge. Besides the more concrete consequences of such a profile (such as possibly not being able to get a driver’s license), many feel they would be perceived as weak, or that people would think they were just trying to get out of a tougher unit or trying to get out of serving altogether – that they just couldn’t hack it – when in reality, they are suffering from an illness, and in most cases a temporary one at that.
In addition to the above, officers and NCOs often punish even lone soldiers in the most cruel manner possible, such as not allowing them out when rents are due, when electricity is due to be paid, or not allowing them to speak to their parents overseas as a punishment for the most silly infraction.
Some are sent home on Friday to find their apartment without electricity, or in some cases, that they have been evicted, with most of their belongings having been thrown out in the street. I know of lone soldiers, like my own son, who do not have a fridge, a microwave or even the most basic things in their apartment. Officers don’t even provide them a truck if they need to move –as army regulations call for. This is the type of thing that can cause brave young men to start doubting their commitment to the IDF.
My son, like many others, could have stayed in their comfortable lives overseas, but instead, like our own prime minister, made a choice to serve. They should be treated with dignity and respect. Most of us would be shocked to learn that a lone soldier only gets around a NIS 1,000 NIS to pay for rent and utilities, etc. – much better then the $50 I got some 30 years ago, but then, this isn’t 30 years ago.
Why something can make one person feel suicidal and another not is a mystery, but what’s for certain is that a bit of kindness and empathy can go a long way toward avoiding such feelings it. My son told me about another kid that simply wrote an “apology note” before attempting to kill himself. Luckily, the tragedy was averted in time, but how many more lives must be lost before we as a society starts to ask: “Why is this happening?” For us as Jews, saving a life is like saving the whole world. Not saving a life when you have the ability to do so is like killing the whole world.
The IDF must set up confidential telephone hotlines, place more mental health specialists on the battlefield and in training units, provide added training on dealing with stress, invest more in research into mental health risks, and more. Make psychologists more available to soldiers, especially soldiers in training for the tougher units.
The IDF must publish, like the US Navy did recently, a list of “truths” about suicide. The IDF must get our rabbis involved in these situations, explaining the consequences both as a Jew and as a human being to these young men.
Explaining the trauma that a suicide will cause for the family. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane, in most cases they may be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Let us show then these young men that there is hope, that there is a way out.
Enlisted soldiers cannot speak out, but we the parents, we the citizens of this tiny nation, must speak out. From private to general, from man in the street to prime minister, we have an obligation to watch and listen for signs and we must stand ready to intervene and assist our follow service members in time of need. We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
Commanders cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional counseling services. The same unit that lost this soldier today had eight of its soldiers arrested recently for hazing. This must stop; the IDF is not and should not be like other armies, we are Jews, we value life – even the lives of our enemies.
For what it’s worth, this is the plea of a father who, without having even a single relative in Israel, came here to serve and has now sent his only son to follow in his own footsteps. If I was – and still am – willing to sacrifice all that matters in life for Israel’s sake, the least Israel can do is to take care of that which is so precious to us as parents.
The writer served in the IDF in the 1980s and lives in Scotland and the US.