A. served in a unit that operated an Iron Dome rocket-intercept system during the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer. All through the 50 days of the operation, A. (whose full name is known to Haaretz) was under intense pressure.
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“It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t there,” he relates. “There were weeks of extreme stress. I barely slept during the whole war. You have to make decisions that are fateful for people’s lives in almost zero time. The pace is dizzying, impossible to describe. For 24 hours a day, you have insane responsibility for life and death. You’re always on alert. Things change every minute. People in our unit freaked out completely, but no one talks about it, because it would harm the national resilience.”
Already within a few weeks, A. could not cope, though he continued to work: “Toward the end of the operation I just about fell apart. I couldn’t sleep because of the nightmares. I got the shivers and had panic attacks for the first time in my life.”
What were the symptoms of the panic attacks?
A.: “Tremendous pressure in my chest, like someone was sitting on me; a rapid pulse I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The attack would last a few minutes until I lay down on my back, and then it would pass.”
How do you feel now [late November]?
“I still have nightmares. The panic attacks have calmed down somewhat, but I still can’t bear to watch images from the operation on the news. That brings it all back.”
Iron Dome was one of the catchwords of Operation Protective Edge. The short-range rocket-intercept system, developed and manufactured in Israel, went operational in 2011. Its nine active batteries are deployed across the country, staffed by hundreds of male and female soldiers. During the fighting, Iron Dome, which launches a defensive missile only when it calculates that a rocket is going to hit a populated area, intercepted 735 of 4,600 rockets and mortars that were fired from Gaza Strip at Israel.
The system is considered a model of technological and security success. As such, it was a key reason for the local civilian front’s steadfastness and stability. The sophisticated invention also gained vast international exposure – images of successful intercepts opened newscasts around the world during the operation.
But three months later, testimonies of soldiers who served in units operating the batteries tell of posttraumatic physiological and emotional episodes.
“I still haven’t recovered,” says Y., a reservist from the center of the country who worked as a missile launcher, using language remarkably similar to that used by A. “It was like an operational madhouse. People at home don’t understand the pressure faced by the soldiers working with the battery. It was two straight months of being on high alert. You’re working around the clock at a dizzying pace in field conditions, with a ton of responsibility on your shoulders. It was nuts, what went on there. There’s the work of the launchers in the field and there’s the battery’s control center which weren’t always connected
“You have just seconds to make decisions involving life and death, and it never stops. I lost seven kilos – I just didn’t eat. You’re constantly living with the fear that something could go wrong and people will die because of you. I barely slept for two months. I experienced a kind of depression. Someone in the unit developed a trembling of the hand and eye tics because of the pressure.”
Yuval, an officer in the reserves who served at two Iron Dome batteries during the operation, in the south and in the central part of the country, adds: “The soldiers of Iron Dome didn’t get the credit they deserve in this war. People paid a serious psychological price, and we mustn’t just shrug it off. I was abroad when the war started; I came back and immediately joined my unit. During the operation I had horrendous headaches, which didn’t stop for some time afterward. Even though we are supposed to be used to it, and even if means exist to protect the ears, there are background noises that stayed with me even after it ended. There was a huge drop in tension [afterward].”
But isn’t much of the work, such as that involving ballistic calculations, done by computer?
Yuval: “What happened last summer is something we’d never experienced at that pace and intensity. A significant part is done by computer and an automated system, but dozens of people are operating the system all day, every day. The radar is also operated by people, who are constantly moving around. It was 50 almost-nonstop days. And there were also other units that worked very intensively – those operating unmanned aircraft, for example. It wasn’t only us. It was the whole air- and sea-defense system in the south.”
Dr. Hadar Shalev, head of the trauma and neuropsychiatric clinic at Soroka University Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, diagnosed hundreds of soldiers who were brought to the hospital during the fighting. He also devised a cooperative program between the country’s hospitals and the Israel Defense Forces’ mental health units.
“According to the latest edition of the [American] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can develop even if a person is [only] a direct witness to the possibility of an attack and does not undergo a life-threatening experience,” he notes. “In my estimate, dozens of soldiers, some of them noncombat, arrived at Soroka with physiological symptoms – trembling, headaches, stomach pain and other phenomena – whose source was diagnosed as emotional.
“The soldiers of Iron Dome,” Shalev continues, “have a vast responsibility for others, and they know they are a priority target [for the enemy]. Add to this the sleeplessness, along with the fact that some of them felt they did not get sufficient prior training. The batteries are also very isolated, so the soldiers received less warmth and support from the civilians who showered the infantry with parcels and gifts.”
“Studies show that combat-support units and second-echelon soldiers are more susceptible to post-traumatic reactions than typical combat troops,” explains Dr. Asaf Caspi, head of the psychiatric clinic at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. “This is partly related to personal data, such as mental fortitude, a factor that affects post-traumatic reaction. A study done in Israel found that people highly motivated to serve are less likely to develop PTSD.
“Regarding Iron Dome,” he continues, “we don’t yet have a perspective of time, and it’s a relatively new system. But the fact is that the soldiers are under high stress for lengthy periods. We’re familiar with this from the soldiers who served as lookouts in previous operations. Probably the media ballyhoo about Iron Dome had an effect, too. It’s also likely that such a long period of combat will have a long-term impact.”
Getting over it
Complaints about the adverse effects of working with the Iron Dome system are not new. As early as 2011, it was reported that a soldier in a newly operational battery was demanding compensation from the Defense Ministry, claiming that his service had caused him severe distress and brought on mental illness. The ministry rejected the claim. In his affidavit, the soldier stated that, even while he was undergoing training as an interceptor, he found himself under severe pressure.
“The job involves great responsibility, because missing a rocket is liable to cause a disaster. I was afraid I would fail in my duties, which involved matters sensitive for the state’s security,” the soldier wrote. His commanding officer testified that the soldier’s training and the duties involved long hours of work under unrelenting pressure.
“During the training I experienced a crisis that had a powerful emotional impact on me,” the soldier also related. “I retreated into a shell, I disconnected from those around me, everything stressed me out.”
He asked a mental health officer for a transfer but was turned down. Following the training, he was posted to a battery that was deployed in different places in the south under field conditions. He lost weight and complained to his commanding officers, but they did nothing, he said. After a few months, he started to suffer from insomnia. Finally he collapsed physically and mentally in the presence of his comrades. In the clinic he explained that he heard voices and was sure they were talking to him, and he was unable to sleep.
According to the soldier’s father, who spoke with Haaretz this fall, “When he asked for a transfer he was told, ‘You’ll get over it.’” Visiting his son in the hospital after his collapse, he found him “worn out, unfocused, incoherent, with no continuity of thought, losing his memory.” At present, “he is getting treatment and is alright.”
Why did you decide to sue the Defense Ministry over recognition of your son’s disability?
The father: “They deny any connection. Their policy is to reject compensation demands out of hand and recognize only those who go to court. The compensation is not the point, it’s a matter of principle. And not everyone can meet the costs of a suit – you need experts, and it’s all very expensive. So the army and the defense establishment benefit. That’s not right.”
The Defense Ministry stated in response to a query from Haaretz: “The soldier’s claim to be recognized as a disabled veteran was rejected due to the absence of disability and after a medical expert found that he was functioning normatively without manifestations of an active mental disorder. An appeal is still pending.”
Amir (not his real name), who served in an Iron Dome unit from 2011 to 2013, also remembers difficult conditions: “It was still new then, but in periods of tension there’s instant deployment, they don’t wait for anything, the important thing is for the launcher to be ready. I remember that in March 2012, there was an escalation and we deployed at 2 A.M. We set up a launcher but we didn’t even have a tent. I bedded down in a sleeping bag on the ground and got soaked in a downpour.”
There is also a serious personnel shortage, Amir says. “You would do a three-hour shift, then two hours of rest and you’re back on duty again. You can’t sleep more than two or three hours [at a time]. You have no choice, because you don’t want to screw someone else who’s been on duty for five hours already. In the end you freak out.”
Conditions began to improve and more personnel were added in mid-2012, Amir relates. Although he was discharged before Operation Protective Edge, with regard to the mental strain in combat, he explains that, “In principle, the system ‘decided’ where to intercept and where not to – if [the rocket is headed for] an open area, the system won’t let you act. You’re there to implement, but not all the pressure is on you.”
In reply to a query to the Defense Ministry about whether claims for disability compensation were filed after Operation Protective Edge by Iron Dome soldiers complaining of PTSD, a spokesman stated that such claims are not categorized by army units.
The IDF maintains that during and after the war, efforts were made to find soldiers who were at mental risk, and afterward the Medical Corps invited soldiers to contact mental health clinics. However, there were no active interventions in Iron Dome batteries during or after the operation.
According to a source in the mental health services, prior to the operation in Gaza, 80 percent of the troops involved underwent several hours of instruction to help them spot comrades-in-arms in distress. “I don’t know how much good that does, but it’s better than nothing,” the source notes. A spokesman for the IDF’s mental health system stated that in the wake of Operation Protective Shield, a few dozen air-defense fighters consulted with mental health officers, but that in general no increase was recorded in this regard.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz: “The mental health system deployed extensively for Operation Protective Edge. Throughout the operation, the units were deployed on the ground and assisted soldiers, with an emphasis on the special and meaningful service performed by the Iron Dome fighters. Since the end of the operation, there has been continuous monitoring of soldiers in terms of mental health, with intervention undertaken where needed.
“No significant increase was identified in the number of requests [for help] by Iron Dome soldiers. At the same time, we wish to emphasize that the IDF views mental health care as being of supreme importance and endeavors to locate soldiers who are in need of it and provide them with optimal treatment.”