Soldiers Traumatized by Gaza War Forced to Cope on Their Own

Only after they came home from last summer's operation in Gaza did reservists in an infantry battalion realize they were suffering psychological problems. But the army did little to answer their pleas for help.

Ofer Vaknin

The landing of a mortar shell was the company’s welcome to the Gaza Strip. The soldiers entered the battle zone on foot, after an air force raid. The mortar struck a few meters from them immediately after they crossed the fence into Gaza.

“That was the first shock,” says Ami (all soldiers’ names have been changed), an officer in the auxiliary weapons company (pluga misaya’at) of an infantry battalion. “We suddenly found ourselves under fire, when we’d been certain that not even a cat was left there.”

Mid-July 2014, Israel Defense Forces Operation Protective Edge. The weapons company was called up for reserve duty. Off and on, its soldiers spent 29 days in the staging areas abutting the border. Some have still not recovered from the experience. Their requests to the army for help with psychological problems that arose in the wake of the operation have, in effect, been rejected.

Since last summer’s war, the IDF has made a highly publicized effort to find and assist soldiers who emerged from the fighting with mental distress. Considerable resources have been invested in the effort. However, the weapons unit’s story shows that help is not always forthcoming even if soldiers seek it at their own initiative.

After the dramatic beginning of their involvement in the war, the reservists in question spent another five days in the Strip. They searched for tunnels and also advanced from house to house, capturing those targets with gunfire before entering them.

“Most of the inhabitants had already fled, but there was one case when we fired a missile into a house and then heard the crying of a baby,” Ami relates. “That was a total shock, especially to the fathers among us. We stopped shooting and called on the residents with a loudspeaker to come out. We were afraid that the house was booby-trapped. We chose a few guys to go in, guys we could trust to go in gently, without shooting, unless they ran into a terrorist. They expected to find the body of a child, or of one of the parents, but they had managed to escape.”

After a house is seized under such circumstances, the soldiers generally rest in it – though they do not manage to sleep.

“There are 40-50 guys on one floor. No running water, no toilet. A terrible stench of sweat and feces. You don’t sleep for a week out of sheer pressure. The smell of death is everywhere,” Ami says. “Still, there’s a lot of excitement. Non-stop laughter. You don’t feel afraid. People functioned amazingly.”

Ami is a veteran in the unit; he’s been doing reserve service in it for more than 20 years. “I did my regular duty during all those beautiful years of the Lebanon war [during the 1980s], but this is not the same thing,” he explains.

Staging ground ‘carnival’

After leaving the Strip after their first stint there, the reservists in his unit were stationed in the staging areas along the border, ready to go back in at any time. But three announced that they would not enter Gaza again, Ami says. “They knew that they would be kicked out of the unit for that. I started to understand that there were some people who’d been affected by what they had been through.”

The staging grounds were like a “carnival,” says Ami. The soldiers lounged about in a forest under shade canopies, civilians arrived with food, kibbutz members pampered them.

“The problem is that the transitions completely rattle you,” Ami explains. “We kept being told that we were going in, which makes you taut as a spring. We would get on the bus – and then be told that we weren’t going in. Or, you’d come out of all that filth and suddenly you’re being hosted by the kibbutzim. It was madness.”

A few days after Ami’s unit left Gaza, a mortar shell landed a few dozen meters from them in the staging area, killing four soldiers from a different unit. Ami’s soldiers evacuated the dead and the wounded.

“It was a slaughterhouse,” he says. “From the fun atmosphere, of reveling and singing – suddenly, boom! Soldiers torn apart, screaming. In the evening we got an order to look for an arm in the area, because it had to be buried. And we’re wandering around with flashlights, looking. Totally wacko.”

But the real problems began after the end of the unit’s reserve duty. Following a short debriefing by the company commander, the soldiers returned home.

“We were given the number of an emergency intervention center in Tzrifin [an IDF base]. We thought that maybe one or two soldiers might need it,” says Ami. But that assessment soon changed.

“It was as if the reserve duty had taken place at a speed of 400 kilometers an hour, and then youwe went back to life at 40 kpm. Maybe it’s easier for regular soldiers, who stay in the army after the war,” he says now. “I went back to work and to five children.”

Ami works in sales. After the operation, instead of going to scheduled meetings, he would drive a few hundred meters and stop.

“I spent whole days in the car with the computer and the radio,” he recalls. “One of the guys in the unit went into Gaza with a camera and filmed six hours of material. For weeks I sat in my car and watched it over and over.” Reliving the war that way, Ami felt like he was on a high, at least momentarily.

“It was a turn-off, turn-on,” he says. “A high that was really a downer. Like rehab. People around me noticed something was wrong, but I couldn’t talk about it with anyone who hadn’t been there with me.”

To this day, half a year later, he estimates that he’s working at only 30 percent of his regular capacity. He says he started trying to avoid being in crowded rooms, because they brought back the smell and the overcrowding of the captured houses in Gaza.

In the meantime, the only personal relationships that have not been impaired are those between the soldiers in the unit.

“There’s a group of 10 guys who are in close touch anyway, and beyond that the ties have become closer via platoon-level WhatsApp groups,” according to Ami. The reservists began to meet frequently, and the stories started to surface. He realized that he wasn’t the only one who was having a hard time readjusting.

‘Ton of bricks’

Roy, another soldier in the same unit, is independently employed, and his work involves frequent meetings with people. During reserve duty last summer, he says he felt like he was in a war movie.

“You come to terms with the fact that you’re there, in Gaza. There are occasional moments when the brain tries to return to reality; you see the lights of the kibbutzim nearby and yet feel so far away from them. But the routine there is very magnetic; there’s wild adrenaline flowing. You accept that it’s hot, stinking, disgusting. You don’t sleep. That becomes your routine. It was only when I got home that it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

In what way?

Roy: “Everyone asks you what it was like, what you did, but I couldn’t talk to people, definitely not to people who weren’t in the war. I didn’t have any patience. As long as there were people around it was all right, but when I got back to my office and sat down at the computer, I couldn’t work. At first I told myself that it’s legitimate not to be focused for a few days. But I found myself staring at the computer for hours on end. I’m still carrying financial debts from that period. I also felt very much on edge. A person shouldn’t have to see bodies, blood and body parts. That’s alright in movies, but in life it knocks you for a loop.”

“Every little bit of nonsense freaks you out” after such an experience, says Eli, who is also in the same unit. “Suddenly you hear a song that you remember hearing there, with the guys. Or there’s some sort of whistling outside, or a sudden noise. The adrenaline starts to flow, the heart pounds. You try to figure out where the attack is coming from. We got back home on a Monday and I went back to work that Thursday, because I knew that if I vegetated at home things would only get worse. But I didn’t get back to peak form.”

“We’re a cohesive group,” says Roy. “We met after a week, the regular guys, and I discovered that everyone was in the same boat. We’re all irritable, have no patience, can’t concentrate. People with families and kids couldn’t function properly. We started to understand that we needed a mental health officer, and we wondered why we hadn’t had a proper summing-up talk” with their commanders after the dust had settled.

Ami asked the platoon commanders who served under him to find out whether they had soldiers who were suffering from after-effects of the fighting as well.

“They got back to me with a list of 15 guys who had a problem, out of 100 reservists in the whole company. And they were only the ones who agreed to talk.” Ami called the number he’d been given by the army when they were discharged from reserve service. “I was told to send a fax. I hung up and that was that. It turned out later that another four or five guys also called, but when they were told they had to take another step, and to acknowledge black-on-white that they were wacko, none of them continued with the process.

“We understood that we had to wrap things up the right way and hold a proper dialogue,” he continues. “We decided to gather the whole company, together with mental health officers, for a summing-up session. And we thought the best way would be to call it a day of reserve duty, so everyone would be obliged to show up.”

The IDF balks

Ami and a more senior commander in the company contacted the brigade’s chief mental health officer, who thought it was a good idea. “We were sure it would be a simple matter. The army spent billions on the operation. We were there for 30 days. What’s one more day of reserve duty?”

The mental health officer spoke to the battalion commander, who passed on the request to the commander of the School for Infantry Corps Professions, Col. Mordechai Kahana. He rejected the request. Ami asked the chief reserves officer, Brig. Gen. Hoshea Friedman, to talk to Kahana and persuade him to authorize the day. Friedman did so, but Kahana stuck to his guns.

“He didn’t understand what the company had been through. He didn’t say so much as a word to us, he has no idea what we did,” Ami says of Kahana, who suggested that the officers meet with the brigade’s chief mental health officer and then go on to deal with the soldiers’ treatment on an individual basis. .

“I had a fit,” Ami says. “Soldiers will not come on their own to say that things are tough for them. Only people with a high level of [comfort with] intimacy will agree to meet for that purpose.”

Thanks to their connections in the army, however, Ami and his comrades-in-arms were eventually able to organize a talk with mental health officers one Friday a short time later, at an informal event. All the company’s soldiers were invited.

“It was great, but only 25 people showed up,” he explains. “I know of at least one guy who’s in bad shape and didn’t show up. It’s hard to come out of the closet officially.”

Eli: “The gathering was totally our initiative. If we hadn’t been able to organize it with the mental health officers, we would have done it privately. The get-together was helpful, because everyone opened up completely. It was a matter of each person and his point of view, in a place where you feel safe opening up. At home, my father was the only one I spoke to.”

A few weeks later, everyone in the company was summoned by the army for a gathering, as part of a separate project to find soldiers in distress. Some of the soldiers came and filled out detailed questionnaires. But when the army contacted Ami in December to take the process to the next stage, he was no longer interested. “Enough, how long can you drag your feet?” he asks.

To which Eli adds, “Why didn’t they strike while the iron was hot, when we wanted help?”

Ami and Eli’s company is not alone in suffering problems due to fighting in Gaza. The nonprofit organization Eran, the emotional-first aid service that assists people in distress by phone or via the Internet, reports that during the operation they received 580 calls from soldiers; since then, they’ve been getting 250 calls a month related to Operation Protective Edge.

“We have noted an increase in the number of calls stemming from anxiety and trauma since the operation,” says Dr. Shiri Daniels, Eran’s national professional director. “Many of the calls referring to soldiers’ emotional distress are not actually from the soldier himself, but from family members or someone close to him.”

Daniels estimates that about 1,450 requests for assistance have been received from soldiers since Operation Protective Edge began.

Earlier this month, walla.com reported that a special committee of the IDF Medical Corps’ mental health unit found that hundreds of soldiers were suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder in the wake of the Gaza war. The report added that the committee members themselves were surprised at the large number.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated in response to this article: “The reserve company in question made a collective request for a reserve duty call-up in order to conduct a conversation about the fighting in Operation Protective Edge. After the brigade commander examined the request, he decided not to authorize call-up days for the gathering. At the same time, the brigade commander made it clear that every soldier who applies on a personal basis to his commanding officers will be referred to mental health personnel, as is customary in the IDF. However, to date not one personal request for assistance has been submitted.”