An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through.
“What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, executive director of Brothers for Life, told The Algemeiner.
His group organizes sessions for wounded Israeli combat soldiers to spend time with injured U.S. veterans, sometimes for half a day, a full day or even a week.
Upon meeting, for the first few hours, the group will seek to warm up the atmosphere with a sporting event, which Levine says may include an American teaching the Israelis how to play basketball. Soon the soldiers start talking among themselves and opening up about the challenges they face, such as dealing with their injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and sharing what has helped them along the way.
The soldiers create “a really special bond” in the short period of time that they spend together, Levine told The Algemeiner. He said often the soldiers accomplish in a day with someone who understands first hand what they have experienced what would typically take a year with a psychiatrist.
A recent meeting in Boston brought together about 25 U.S. veterans and 10 Israeli soldiers. The group spent a day at Gillette Stadium playing football and the Israeli beach sport “matkot”, before sharing lunch.
Brothers for Life has brought together Israeli and U.S. soldiers in Washington, New York , San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston. The organization describes its model as “injured soldiers helping injured soldiers.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of sharing that goes on and bonding, and so it usually ends up with the guys becoming best friends after a few hours,” Levine said. “We find that after only a few minutes as we begin to speak about our injuries and PTSD, and attempt to return to our lives, we literally start to finish each others sentences. Only combat soldiers who have fought and been injured can understand this.”
“These are people who have never met before, from different cultures but they have more in common than most of the people in the world because of what they’ve been through and why they went through it,” Levine continued. “The kind of brotherhood that they have, it’s a very powerful thing.”
Levine said one wounded U.S. Marine sent his Purple Heart to the Israeli soldiers at the Brothers for Life center in Israel after he found out that the Jewish state does not award the military medal to soldiers. Another U.S. veteran minted a coin featuring an Israeli and American flag together as a symbol of the bond he felt with the Israeli soldiers.
The Brothers for Life co-founder said that in many ways, the organization serves as a “huge non-profit brigade of injured soldiers.” Everyone involved has a mission, which is to help others heal.
“They have the same enemy; same blood,” said Arale Wattenstein, the external relations coordinator for the group. “If a bullet hits you, it hits everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or Israeli.”
In the past, Wattenstein served as an officer in Israel’s Paratroopers Brigade. During an anti-terror operation in the West Bank he fractured his spine and burned the lower part of his body. He was among the Israelis who participated in the first Brothers for Life meeting of IDF soldiers and U.S. veterans that took place on May 11, 2010 in Seattle, Washington, with American soldiers from the U.S. Ft. Lewis Warrior Transition Battalion.
The ties established between the soldiers resulted in a Washington state delegation to Israel including injured soldiers and the state attorney general as well as other leaders who visited Brothers for Life in Israel for a week, to learn about their model for healing. After returning to the states, the U.S. veterans were inspired to start a non-profit organization of their own in Washington called Growing Veterans, using the “soldiers helping soldiers” model in their peer support program.
Growing Veterans Founder and Director Chris Brown, a former U.S. Marine who was part of the delegation that traveled to Israel in 2010, said the trip had a “profound” impact on him. He said there is a stigma that exists in American culture when it comes to seeking help or admitting ones weaknesses and struggles. However, he said, U.S. veterans should turn to former Israeli troops to help break that mold.
“I think the example that the Israelis set is probably one of the most beneficial things that U.S. veterans can get because in Israeli culture it seems to be a lot easier to share your story and to articulate the struggle that you have,” said Brown, who was wounded in a suicide bombing followed by an attack on his patrol base. “That doesn’t come as easy for U.S. veterans and so I think that this example alone, through the interaction, can go a long way.”
“The level of compassion, understanding and willingness to step out of your comfort zone and encouragement to do so, I think that is what is more unique about Brothers for Life,” Brown continued. “And that is the piece of Brothers for Life I’m trying to get to become the norm of Growing Veterans because I see how powerful that alone can be.”
Levine founded Brothers for Life in 2007 along with Gil Ganonyan and Yaniv Leidner, former Israeli soldiers who were wounded in battle and now serve as the organization’s general manager and deputy general manager, respectively.
The concept was developed in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War when Levine and leaders from the Seattle Jewish community, including Leidner, visited Haifa’s Rambam hospital, hoping to somehow help wounded Israeli soldiers.
Ganoyan accompanied the group of friends in Israel as their “babysitter,” according to Levine. When Ganoyan spoke to wounded troops at the hospital, Levine noticed the immediate connection developing between the former soldier and the wounded troops because of their shared experience.
“Gil started telling them ‘Hey, I was also in that bed. I got shot in the neck. I promise you you’re gonna get better, your gonna get your life back,’” Levine recalled. “We just could see the soldiers, this unbelievable connection they had to him and we saw just how much hope it gave them, to meet a guy whose been in it themselves.”
“We came to Gil afterwards and said ‘Gil, you gotta go back to this hospital…see what they need, because there’s something you can do that no one else can do.’”
About 10 months later, the same wounded troops were released from the hospital. Levine and the group of Jewish leaders invited them to visit Seattle for a week and during their stay in the rainy city “a tremendous amount of healing” took place, according to Levine.
“We started asking questions. ‘What are you not getting? What do you need?’ And really, obviously during that week, we could see, wow, there’s something we can do for each other that no one else can do.”
The concept of a shared experience with another soldier is also what Brown found “refreshing” and humbling when he visited Israel in 2010. He said seeing military veterans in a foreign country, that fought against similar enemies and experienced the same type of physical and psychological hardships as him, “kind of normalized the experience a little more for me.”
Levine pointed out that Israelis are naturally more forthright and have “less boundaries” when it comes to emotions, tears and sharing feelings, which has proven to be helpful for the American vets because it can create an environment in which they are comfortable enough to do the same. Wattenstein, who first came to Brothers for Life seeking help before becoming a mentor, told The Algemeiner he finds joy and excitement in teaching the soldiers how to be open with each other.
“First you get help, then you give help,” he said.
The injured soldiers also bond over their shared pledge to risk their lives in service of their respective countries.
“In Israel, you have to serve but you don’t have to serve as a combat soldier and most people don’t. These are the ones who chose to,” Levine said. “And in America, you don’t have to serve at all and these chose to serve. So they share that commonality and that commonality is so much stronger than the cultural differences that they have.”
“What our guys discovered was that ethos; that dedication to selflessness and service. That giving is what gets them through,” he added. “They can apply that to their injury as it relates to other soldiers and they heal each other.”
The U.S. meetings between Israeli troops and American veterans take place once every few months, and the organization now plans to bring a group of Americans to Israel annually so they can continue to facilitate the bonds with the Israelis.
Brown first took a group of U.S. veterans to Israel in December 2014. The Americans said the trip was a “life changing” experience which inspired them to start taking stronger steps toward rehabilitating themselves and the veterans they mentor, according to Brown.
Wattenstein said the former IDF soldiers have much to share with their American counterparts who have a harder time accepting their injuries and moving forward with their lives.
“For them I think it’s a big issue and a problem to understand that you need to live with a bullet inside of you, to live with a prosthetic leg or with something bigger God forbid. And for us that’s our life,” he explained. “That’s how we live. In Israel, every second person has PTSD. So you have to live. You have to smile.”