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 — and many are a [racial] minority of 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, who earns a living in radio advertising, 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. “There is tremendous need, and we get more requests than we can handle. We are running one team a year now, but looking to expand to about five teams a year,” says Schaffer.
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.
“I didn’t want to put people on a plane, show them some politics and historical sites, and come home,” says Schaffer. “They’re not Jewish, so it’s not Birthright. I just wanted them to begin to heal.”
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.”
Schaffer says the 2011 group fell in love with the IDF Disabled Veterans organization’s Beit Halochem sports centers. “A couple of them would like to get commitments to build a facility like that in New York, because there are a lot of gyms but no place for them to exercise, socialize and be active. Most of them sit at home and wait for opportunities when someone is doing something for wounded veterans.”
Last year’s group of 10 also sailed with Etgarim (Challenges), which offers recreational and competitive sports training for Israelis with disabilities. “Many of them were able to sleep deeply for the first time on that boat, and that was a real highlight in their healing — realizing they are able to sleep,” Schaffer says. “Most of them don’t.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin hosted the vets last year at the Parliament building in Jerusalem, along with members of Knesset including Yaakov (Katzeleh) Katz, himself a disabled veteran. While in the capital city, they visited Israel’s 9/11 memorial.
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.
One participant told Schaffer that his son wants to join the U.S. army, but he advised him to join the Israeli army instead. “The family is not Jewish, so I’m trying to help them organize this,” she reports.
Two participants originally from the Dominican Republic connected so well with an Israeli they met through Heroes to Heroes that they invited him to come see where they were born. He vacationed with them there for a few weeks.
Participants pay only for airfare to New York and for incidentals. “They wanted to get everything IDF they could, and three guys got Hebrew tattoos,” says Schaffer.
Heroes to Heroes “alumni” are encouraged to continue supporting one another through online blogs and discussions touching on their emotional, spiritual and medical needs. Schaffer plans alumni reunions every two years.
The “coaches” who agreed to accompany the next group along with Schaffer are Nick Auletta, a West Point graduate who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Corey Gibson of Indianapolis, who served in Iraq and “fell in love with Israel and the program” after participating last year.
“They make sure everything runs smoothly, helping the Americans and Israelis to work as a team. There are team meetings every night to go over their day and help individual members build their own goals.”
As for Schaffer’s goal, it’s simply this: “That there will always be someone to reach out to.”