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To help with war trauma, Israeli soldiers take Manhattan

Shay Shem Tobi, left, and Levy Forchheimer enjoying the cocktail party and comedy night thrown in honor of visiting Israeli soldiers by the Manhattan Jewish Experience, July 2011. (JTA)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Israel wanted to help its troops, it sent them to America.

Last month, 15 former soldiers selected by the Israel Defense Forces traveled to New York for a weeklong program to treat lingering trauma from their combat during the 2006 Lebanon War with Hezbollah.

An Israeli group called Peace of Mind organized the program, which ranged from group therapy and painting to sightseeing at the Empire State Building and a cocktail party on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The long distance — not just from Lebanon, but from Israel as well — is at the heart of the treatment program.

“In Israel, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about these experiences,” said Alon Weltman, an Israeli psychologist and director of the program who accompanied the soldiers during their visit.

Bringing them to the United States, Weltman said, was an effort to break that taboo and help them move beyond their traumas. The soldiers spent half of each day in New York in intensive group therapy.

The program was developed by the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, a nonprofit affiliated with the Sarah Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem and the School of Social Work at Hebrew University. The center asks the IDF to choose a group of soldiers for treatment and then finds international Jewish communities willing to take in the soldiers and foot the bill — about $55,000 — to pay for the expenses of the 15 soldiers and three psychologists. In this case, a group of Jews from Fire Island, a popular vacation spot on Long Island about two hours from Manhattan, paid the bill.

Peace of Mind doesn’t treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, but helps soldiers realize that they may have repressed trauma from their wartime experiences that affect their everyday lives.

“Think of someone experiencing a sudden death of someone close,” Weltman said. “That person is dealing with a difficult experience but is not necessarily post-traumatic. He might not have the right tools to deal with this experience, though, and that is part of what we try to do in the program.”

The 15 men who came for the visit to America last month were platoon mates in the IDF’s 931st infantry regiment during the monthlong Second Lebanon War. The 931st saw particularly tough combat, including urban fighting against Hezbollah militiamen in closed quarters.

“There were a lot of missions,” said First Sgt. Amit Ginat, who spent a year in physical therapy after being wounded by gunfire and grenade shrapnel during an assault on a house occupied by four enemy fighters.

The platoon defended strategic buildings, staged assaults and came under rocket fire. In one rocket attack that hit their sleeping quarters, a soldier who had switched mattresses with a friend was killed by the projectile. Ten others were wounded.

Most of the platoon members were injured during the war. Months later they were civilians again.

Their lives took different paths. They traveled, went to school, married, worked jobs, had kids. Some kept in touch, but not all. Every so often they regrouped for reserve duty. But many could not leave the war completely behind them.

Capt. Yuron Edel is taken back to the combat zone by the smell of metal or Mediterranean herbs. Second Lt. Yoni Beck still wonders whether he could have saved his friends. First Sgt. Shay Shem Tobi says fireworks make him jumpy. Levy Forchheimer can’t listen to a particular song without remembering the friend he lost in combat.

“Everything since the war has changed. I try to avoid situations that remind me of the war,” said Tobi, who left Israel to travel when his service ended and recently started studying animation. “Some take it more harshly than others, but everyone took something from it, something good or bad.”

For some of the soldiers on the program, the realization that the war still touches their lives felt like a revelation.

“I didn’t think the war affected me,” Beck said. “Now when we sit and talk, I realize how much it’s affected my life.”

Other soldiers said they didn’t think they had lingering trauma.

“I wouldn’t like to think the war changed me,” Forcheimer, an American who served in the IDF, said near the outset of the program. “But I’ll find out.”

Edel said the program gave him concrete and immediate results.

“It gave me a feeling of lightness, having put the burden away,” he told JTA from Israel after the program had ended.

Although excellent treatment is available to the average soldier within the IDF, Weltman said, soldiers must seek it out.

“We think the treatment should come to them,” he said, explaining the rationale for Peace of Mind.

Weltman said the program helps the IDF because it reduces the dropout rate for reserve duty and increases resilience for trauma, which he said is measured before and after the program. The IDF did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

For the Jewish communities taking in and entertaining the soldiers, it’s an opportunity to learn and to help. On their first day in the United States, the soldiers were the guests of honor at a cocktail party and comedy night hosted by the Manhattan Jewish Experience, an outreach organization that caters to unaffiliated young professionals.

The organization’s founder, Rabbi Marc Wildes, told the soldiers in a short welcoming speech that they are admired by the Jewish community and viewed as “holy soldiers.” The men listened, but also kept their arms around each other, whispering and interjecting jokes. Afterward, Edel thanked the rabbi for the welcome but offered a corrective.

“You see us as holy soldiers, but we see ourselves as simple people,” Edel said. “We want you to see us that way, and talk to us that way, and pass that along.

Barbara Messer, who helped organize the Long Island residents who sponsored and hosted the soldiers, said the lesson was learned.

“When they were coming, people were saying, ‘The soldiers are coming,’ ” Messer recalled. “But after they arrived they were just the guys — people who had been through a lot and who then became our friends.”