By Avigayil Kadesh
On August 30, a West Point graduate and an Iraq war veteran arrived with a group of American veterans for a 10-day tour of Israel to help them deal with post-traumatic stress resulting from their combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It may seem counterintuitive to bring soldiers from a land at peace to find healing in a land still seeking peace. But it makes perfect sense to Judy Schaffer, founder of Heroes to Heroes. And she has the amazing results of her organization’s first sponsored trip to Israel in September 2011 to prove it.
“They expected a place a little like Iraq or Afghanistan, but they found paradise in many ways,” says Schaffer. “A major comfort for them was that so many Israelis are veterans, and one of them said to U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro that they felt more at home here than in the U.S. While in the United States soldiers are a minority…here they could speak to almost anyone in the street, including therapists, and be understood. They could talk about things that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan with Israelis and have it validated that they’re not crazy. It exorcised some of their ghosts.”
The New Jersey mother of two always had a soft spot for men in uniform.
“My father was a World War II vet, and my grandfathers both fought in World War I and my uncle in Korea,” she relates. “My father worked for Jewish War Veterans and volunteered to take wounded vets to baseball games and other events. After he passed away in 2001, I wanted to do something to honor him and carry on what he was doing.”
The opportunity arose in 2009, when Schaffer went with the New York Fire Department to throw holiday parties for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
“When I spoke with our soldiers, every single one said, ‘I want to get back to my unit.’ They miss their buddies and they don’t want to heal alone. It haunted me.”
Several weeks later she was on a plane to Israel and began chatting with her seatmate about Israel’s services for wounded veterans. She was astonished to hear about the many programs available, and did more research. Soon she knew that her mission would be to bring wounded vets to Israel for a dose of practical ideas and emotional inspiration.
“That’s how Heroes to Heroes was born,” Schaffer says. “I hired a law firm to get 501(c)(3) [tax-exempt] status and I networked, called in favors and went one-on-one to donors, which I still do.” Her board of directors includes veterans from the first trip, as well as business people concerned about veterans’ affairs. “I happen to be Jewish, but most people on my board are not,” she notes.
Backed by some government funding, Heroes to Heroes gets recommendations for participants from the armed services and the U.S. Veterans Administration. Heroes To Heroes Journey to Israel is designed to educate, motivate and stimulate discussion and bonding between eight to 14 American disabled veterans and five Israeli peers, as a springboard for emotional and spiritual healing during and after the experience.
The trips include talks on global terrorism and how to keep it from U.S. borders; experiencing Israel’s holy sites; practical meetings with disabled Israeli veterans who have become business leaders; fostering relationships between American and Israeli veterans built on support and post-war experiences; and visiting Israeli facilities for disabled veterans.
This year’s group met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sept. 3. He told them, “This is a very moving moment for me because you’re the soldiers of the greatest force for freedom in history. We share the same experiences. We’ve defended the same values and we face the same threats.”
The effects of the experience were significant. “How Israel treats its vets and how they were welcomed made it so much more than we ever expected,” says Schaffer.