‘Truly heroes’: 10-day trip helps IDF soldiers with PTSD, gives them hope

“As a husband and father of two, I knew that I needed to get the treatment I needed before life spiraled out of control.”

By Pesach Benson, TPS

Amid a concerning surge in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide rates among Israel Defense Forces soldiers and veterans, a group of eight soldiers embarked on a 10-day journey of emotional healing in the Hamptons, a resort town in New York.

This initiative, organized by Belev Echad (Hebrew for ‘One Heart’), a New York-based non-profit dedicated to supporting Israeli soldiers wounded in action, aimed to provide respite, rehabilitation, and emotional support to those grappling with the psychological aftermath of warfare and trauma.

“As a husband and father of two, I knew that I needed to get the treatment I needed before life spiraled out of control,” said Nir Reuveni a former IDF paratrooper from Netanya.

In 2005, he was inducted into the army and assigned to a paratrooper’s unit. During an operation in Lebanon, Reuveni’s unit was attacked by terrorists, and he nearly lost his life. After completing his mandatory service, Reuveni became a combat fitness instructor and served in several special units. Yet as the years progressed, he began suffering nightmares, and PTSD reared its ugly head.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental-health condition that can develop after someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as natural disasters, serious accidents, physical or sexual assault, combat experience, or any event involving the threat of injury or death. Some people experience temporary PTSD, but others develop a prolonged disorder.

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“I reached out to Belev Echad and discovered hope and support in so many realms, both personal and professional,” Reuveni said. “This week, they’ve taken us here to the Hamptons. It’s awesome—the sun, the sparkling pools, the food, and above all the people who are so devoted to us and so supportive of us. They’re embraced us in kindness, giving us all a chance to feel normal again and rebuild.”

Gil, a 31-year-old veteran, led the trip to the Hamptons He joined the IDF in 2011, and while fighting in Gaza in 2014, his unit came under attack. Gil said he came face to face with terrorists.

“My team was hit by three rockets. Suddenly, there was smoke everywhere, and I found myself on the floor, crawling and reaching around blindly,” he recalled.

“I felt a body, and I realized that it was my friend. Eventually, we were carried out of there. My shoulder was broken, my elbow dislocated, and I suffered a brain injury. Two of my best buddies died that day.”

Gil was hospitalized for two weeks and spent four months in rehab before returning to the army to finish his service. The PTSD became apparent only after he left the military.

“After being discharged, I set out to Asia with a group of friends, and while visiting Vietnam, we toured a museum about the Vietnam War. I emerged from the museum shell-shocked, a different person, and I couldn’t snap out of it. Over the next weeks, I lost 20 pounds; I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I returned to Israel and was diagnosed with PTSD, commencing a three-year process of emotional rehabilitation,” Gil said.

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“Belev Echad reached out to me, held my hand and promised me that I could be strong again. They funded my schooling, and today, I’m an accountant employed by Deloitte, which is one of the largest firms in the world. Twelve years after the terrors started, I’m back on my feet, independent and proud to be leading this delegation of soldiers with PTSD here to the Hamptons.”

The urgency

Two suicide attempts by IDF reservists in August underscored Belev Echad’s urgency. Bar Kalaf, a 33-year-old reservist who served in an infantry brigade, burnt himself when the IDF said that he was suffering from schizophrenia, not PTSD, and therefore was not entitled to military benefits. Kalaf died two days later.

One day after Kalaf’s self-immolation, Or Donio, a comrade from the same brigade, lit himself on fire and died while waiting for the IDF to recognize his PTSD.

Recent military statistics have revealed that suicide is now the leading cause of death among soldiers in uniform, with an increase of nearly 20% since 2022. This trend has sparked a call for reform within the Defense Ministry to better cater to the needs of veterans and provide more accessible mental health support.

“It’s really important to raise awareness of PTSD, which is a terrible, brutal disease that eats away at the mind and heart,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler, who cofounded Belev Echad with his wife Shevy. “It’s not always clear when it sets in, but when it bursts forth, the results are disastrous — which is what happened with the recent death of Bar Kalaf. Our goal is to help our soldiers recover physically and emotionally, offer them hope and friendship, as well as opportunities for a meaningful future.”

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Gabe and Yaara Plotkin were among the Hamptons families who opened their homes to the soldiers.

“Over the last few days, we’ve been pampering them, treating them to gourmet meals, and taking them on awesome trips. But beyond that, what we really do is just listen. We listen to them, hear their stories and tell them how much we love them and how much we appreciate what they’re doing for us and for our nation, because they’re really and truly heroes,” said Yaara.