`I sent a healthy, handsome, independent boy into the army, and look at him now'
Nadav's parents believe army pressures, the stigma of mental illness and negligence by the IDF led to their son's breakdown and hospitalization.
Nadav's days aren't much like those of most young men just starting out: While his peers are planning their studies or trekking the world after their army service, he's doing nothing much, at home with his parents. He has trouble falling asleep at night; when he finally does, he has nightmares.
Just three years ago, when he was a 19-year-old soldier in the Haredi Nahal Brigade, Nadav's future looked promising. Here's his picture, in uniform, with his two younger brothers, standing impressively tall, eyes front to the camera, self-assured. He's nothing like that today; he seems lost, insecure. Nadav (not his real name) was drafted with a 97-point profile and a bright future in the IDF. After combat-level basic training, he did a squad commander's course and served as a company sergeant major at the Haredi Nahal base in the Jordan Valley. He was hoping to do an officer's course and stay on as a career soldier. But things didn't turn out that way.
About a year ago, emotionally in a very bad state, he was committed (involuntarily) to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed as schizophrenic. He's now suing the Defense Ministry to grant him the status of an Israel Defense Forces disabled soldier. His suit, brought in early April by attorney Avinu Bieber against the Defense Ministry, claims his psychiatric illness was triggered by events that took place during his army service - mainly the manner in which the army's criminal investigation division brought him up on charges of drug use.
His parents have leveled serious charges at the army, citing negligence in the treatment their son received. Had Nadav been helped promptly, they believe, his mental state would not have deteriorated. These allegations are not mentioned in the suit, which seeks to fix monetary compensation. The suit's principal claim is that, despite distress signals from Nadav, he wasn't sent by his superiors to see a mental health officer. The army didn't notify the family of Nadav's mental state, even after he was hospitalized. His parents think the negligent treatment of their son was mostly an attempt to paper the problem over. "My son fell victim to the pressure from the Haredi Nahal commanders to keep the unit functioning, and especially to their desire to avoid giving the corps a negative image," says Nadav's father.
Nadav grew up in a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood in a family that identifies itself as Haredi and nationalist. At 16, when Nadav felt a yeshiva high school wasn't the right place for him, he left and began working at odd jobs. Meanwhile, he sat for several matriculation exams as an external student. Around that time, he made friends with some Haredi youths who were planning to join the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Brigade and decided to do likewise. The main attraction was the Netzach (a Hebrew acronym for Haredi army youth) Yehuda program: a combination of two years of army service in a combat unit and a special one-year "mission" program that includes completion of a 10th-grade education, a vocational track, or studying for a matriculation certificate, plus volunteer work.
On September 2, 2000, Nadav enlisted with the second group of the Haredi Nahal. He talks about the pressure on the commanders and others to meet their enlistment quota. To get youngsters to enlist, he says, promises were made but not kept. He was disappointed in the one-year "mission" program. Studying for a matriculation certificate wasn't for him, and after about two months volunteering as a hospital orderly, he was returned to his combat job.
Yoav (also not his real name), from a National Religious background, who supervised Haredi Nahal soldiers during his army service in the Givati Brigade, says promises were tossed around that were never kept. "They promised these guys a driver's license, for instance - anything so they would enlist. This was very attractive to some guys, but there were no driving lessons at all."
Tsuriel Pilz, responsible for recruitment for the Haredi Nahal at the Defense Ministry says he knows nothing of promises not kept.
Yoav claims the Haredi Nahal commanders set themselves the goal of turning these young Haredi innocents into highly motivated combat soldiers. Soldiers with problems, he says, were not at the top of anyone's list: "You have to realize that there are a lot of soldiers with problems there," says Yoav. "Going to see the mental health officer is pretty common there. The Haredi Nahal is a battalion in formation, and they don't want the image of soldiers with problems. They'd rather sweep it under the carpet." According to Yoav, "The welfare officers work pretty hard, but they tend to focus on the soldiers who are on their own [without families]. Guys who didn't come in with problems to begin with, fall through the cracks."
Nadav fell through the cracks. The sequence of events that led to his psychiatric deterioration began a few months after he enlisted in the Haredi Nahal. On March 20, 2001, the army's criminal investigation division opened a file on Nadav and five of his friends, suspected of smoking grass. He was detained for interrogation for two days.
The pressure exerted on him to rat on his pals, the threats by his interrogators, the conditions of his detention and his fear of sentencing - all subjected him to tremendous emotional pressure. But afterwards, his commanders were still talking to him about becoming an officer and he went on serving as usual. Based on recommendations from his commanders presented during the trial, he was considered a highly motivated soldier.
Another thing that contributed to his emotional problems was a terrorist incident at a checkpoint in the Jordan Valley, during which Nadav saw a terrorist's mutilated body. He began experiencing repetitive nightmares. The trauma intensified after the family of some friends of his parents were killed in the Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem. When he began to have trouble functioning, Nadav asked to be transferred to a quartermaster's job. This request raised no questions among his commanders.
Despite the fact that Nadav confessed right away to having smoked grass on two occasions and asked to be tried, an entire year passed until he was charged. The whole judicial process, according to the military advocate who represented him, First Lieutenant Osnat Greidy, was some kind of foot-dragging. "This was a particularly exceptional case," she says. "We hold trials within two or three weeks." She says the excuse given was that they were "checking intelligence information," but the paperwork on the case doesn't disclose any justification for that.
Of the entire army establishment, only Greidy noticed that Nadav's mental state was slipping, and she referred him to a mental health officer - but two months elapsed before that was approved. Between the time he was first detained and the date he was actually charged, and in the days following, Nadav's anxieties intensified and he began having suicidal thoughts. He pointed his gun at himself more than once, he says. At one point, he telephoned one of his officers from the courtroom and threatened to kill himself if he were found guilty. No one took his gun away. The officer denies such a conversation took place.
During Operation Defensive Shield, Nadav was required to return to checkpoint duty. This was beyond his powers. Now someone was paying attention to his strange behavior, and he was sent back to his prior job. The next day, he collapsed. He was then referred to the mental health officer but, he says, someone from the Haredi Nahal persuaded him not to go because "it would ruin his advancement."
He got some time off at home to recuperate. But Nadav was becoming paranoid. He went to a police station and asked to turn himself in so that he could be protected, and later was found on the beach, shivering. Passersby reported him to the army. His unit commander had him hospitalized at Tel Hashomer. Later he was hospitalized against his will at Pardessiya Psychiatric Hospital, on the grounds that he was a danger to himself and others, after he burned the cuffs that bound him to his bed, using a lighter.
Until Nadav phoned his parents from Pardessiya, they had known nothing of his trial or his mental state. His parents were originally from Germany and Switzerland. They immigrated when Nadav was six months old, but appear to be behaving like new immigrants still. The Haredi Nahal seemed like a good place for their son, because it was religious. Now they are very angry at the army and feel guilty for having been so naive.
"We had no prior experience with the army. When he came home, he ate and he slept. Mainly slept. Friends told us that's how combat soldiers behave. That's how he managed to hide his condition from us," says his father, who undertook a comprehensive investigation of the last two years, and assembled a great many documents.
Nadav's story raises a lot of questions: Why did the trial process drag on for so long? Why wasn't he sent to a mental health officer, even after he began withdrawing and thought better of aiming for a command role? Why wasn't his weapon taken away from him when he threatened suicide? And above all: Why didn't the army inform his parents - during the five days following April 11, 2002, when he collapsed and was hospitalized at the psychiatric ward at Tel Hashomer and then, against his will, at Pardessiya - where he was and what his situation was?
"I sent a healthy, handsome, independent boy into the army. He was fine, and look how he is now," says his mother in a choked voice. She cries a lot when he's not around, yearns to have him as he was, and is worried about the future.
Among the family's and Nadav's friends, admitting to mental illness is not easy. "Mental illness is a stigma. This society is deaf to our pain," she says, "and we and Nadav will be ostracized if what happened to him becomes known."
Despite reservations about being interviewed for the newspaper, she is determined to expose the suffering her son went through, for the sake of other soldiers, especially those in the Haredi Nahal. "Our son has supportive parents," she says. "But most of the Haredi Nahal soldiers have no connection with their families. I am afraid this story could repeat itself, and by the time the army starts paying attention, a tragedy could occur."
The IDF Spokesman's Office refused to respond: "IDF commanders are very concerned and monitor the physical and mental condition of their soldiers closely. For reasons of individual privacy and medical confidentiality, we cannot address any of these allegations."