Israel Pulse

IDF commander seeks help for traumatized soldiers

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Article Summary
A veteran Israeli commander is helping raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and raise money to allow some of his former soldiers to obtain treatment for the PTSD they suffer as a result of the 2014 war in Gaza.

“We heard a loud boom. … The first missile hit [Roi] Peles, a direct hit that killed him on the spot. … The second missile hit the building itself, injuring 12 soldiers. … It was the worst night of my life … each one of us is still stuck there, in Beit Hanoun.”

Those are the words of Tomer Toledo, Or Levi and Yonatan Herblin, recorded on camera. In the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, they had been soldiers in Nahal Orev, a company of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). All of them were wounded in battle. 

Some four years after the battle in which their comrade Lt. Peles was killed by a direct hit of a Kornet missile, several of Peles’ friends in the company have made a video in which they tell their story and ask for financial assistance toward their psychological rehabilitation. The warriors have come to realize that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Due to a lack of assistance from the Defense Ministry, they decided to turn to the public for help, despite the embarrassment that frequently surrounds being a trauma victim. So far, they have received about 92,000 shekels ($25,000), half of their target.

The soldier acted on the initiative of Capt. (Res.) Omri Ganem, a former company commander who hails from the Druze village of Sajur, in northern Israel. Ganem, who retired from the IDF about six months ago, is voluntarily assisting his former soldiers. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ganem expressed his personal feelings as well as touching on the suffering and difficulties of his former soldiers.

“Operation Protective Edge caught me and my good friend Roi Peles at the end of our officer’s training course,” Ganem explained. “He’s from Tel Aviv, and I’m a Druze from the north. On the night of July 26, the first official cease-fire came into effect, but at 22:00, two or three Kornet missiles were fired at us. Roi, who was then a team commander, was sitting with his soldiers on the roof of a building in Beit Hanoun [in Gaza]. He took a direct hit and died on the spot. Twelve of his soldiers were injured moderately to seriously.”

After a long silence, Ganem continued his story, explaining the race against the clock to evacuate the wounded while simultaneously searching for the body of their commander before receiving the order to retreat to Israeli territory.

“After the wounded were evacuated, another force found Peles’ body in a yard somewhere,” Ganem said. “I was outside, and the soldiers told me that a stretcher had arrived with one of the dead soldiers. I didn’t know that it was my closest friend. I received the stretcher, and no one would look me in the eye. According to all the signs, I understand that it was my good friend Roi. I was ordered to replace him and to command what remained of the team.”

Most of the company’s soldiers have since been discharged from military service. Ganem continued to climb the military ladder, becoming a company commander and finally being discharged from the IDF in April.

“On the last Memorial Day [honoring fallen soldiers], I came to understand that my old team suffers from very big problems,” Ganem said. “I knew that a few people had turned to the Defense Ministry to begin the process of recognition and treatment of [PTSD]. But many others are not receiving any kind of therapy and won’t acknowledge their situation, or don’t understand and just suffer through the memories.” According to Ganem, some of the fighters have attempted suicide.

Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill, an expert on treating trauma victims, explained to Al-Monitor that research in the United States on suicide among soldiers suffering from PTSD had revealed a shocking statistic: Every day, 20 discharged soldiers suffering from PTSD commit suicide. One day Ganem, in a conversation with his former soldiers, told them about the effects of the disorder.

“People who had flown abroad were afraid to return home, because everything reminded them that they were close to death,” Ganem said. “One of them even called his father to come and pick him up in Peru [where he had gone hiking after his military service]. A mother of one of my soldiers called me and said, ‘When my son came back from Beit Hanoun, he wasn’t the same person. I want to bring him back to life.’”

The company’s soldiers turned to Tomorrow’s Path, an association founded as a private initiative after Israel's Second Lebanon War (2006) and acknowledgment that many of the soldiers who fought in that conflict were never able to resume their previous lives. The association works to provide affected soldiers the “emotional tools that are needed to process, contain, cope with, separate from, and finally ‘re-package’ their fighting experiences.” The association assists fighters' rehabilitation through group treks in nature.

The website for Tomorrow’s Path explains, “This population, which is not categorized as shell-shock victims and therefore not recognized by the Defense Ministry as IDF-disabled veterans, falls between the chairs. They cope with difficulties that delay their acclimation and re-integration into civilian life, but are not accepted to programs offering therapeutic intervention, assistance or support. What we offer is special treks in nature led by professionals.”

The association estimated that the cost of treatment for the 34 Nahal Orev soldiers would be about 200,000 shekels ($54,000), and Ganem decided to take it upon himself to raise the funds. Only if he is successful will his soldiers be able to make the therapeutic journey toward setting them on the path back to life.

Kraybill says that treatment for trauma sufferers in Israel is among the best in the world, but that most victims must pay privately for the therapy. Gertel admits that other armies in the world, including the US Army, are, like the IDF, reluctant to prescribe immediate therapy for trauma sufferers. Sometimes, the results are disastrous.

Ganem remarked, “The CEO of ERAN [Israel’s anonymous crisis intervention hotline] says that the longer you postpone treatment of trauma, the greater the odds that you’ll never return to your former self. I told the soldiers, ‘You woke up in time. The sooner you receive treatment, the better chance you have of returning to your former lives. Now we have to raise the money.’”

A state that adopts obligatory military enlistment, as is the case with Israel, should remain committed to its soldiers injured during service. Although the Israeli Defense Ministry did not provide the Nahal Orev fighters assistance, the men have avoided criticizing the IDF for not accepting responsibility for them, in the process forcing the former soldiers to reveal their suffering to the entire world.

“It is difficult. Very difficult,” said Ganem. “But now, this is my life's mission.” The former commander remains committed to his soldiers.

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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