We Can Be Heroes

U.S. War Vets Seek to Assuage PTSD in 'Birthright'-type Israel Trip

New Jersey-based organization 'Heroes to Heroes' brings groups of former U.S. soldiers to Israel, where their distress, they feel, doesn't fall on deaf ears.

Greg Grutter did four deployments in Iraq and three in Afghanistan, where he suffered traumatic brain injuries after being the victim of a suicide bomber, and one year later, a roadside bomb. Last month the Rhode Island native -- who was discharged a year ago, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) -- was in Israel, along with nine fellow war veterans all hoping to recover. “I’m on the path to getting better, and this trip has gone a long way to help,” said the 47-year-old father who has undergone three operations for neck injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

The idea that former U.S. soldiers with horrific memories of their deployments in the Middle East would go to Israel to heal isn’t exactly a given. But Teaneck, New Jersey native Judy Schaffer was convinced that a trip to Israel would hasten their emotional and spiritual recovery.

“There a lot of great veterans organizations in America, and they are doing great things. But it’s very hard to restore someone’s faith and spirit...in New Jersey or Montana. I think that Israel is the only place where that can be done...quickly,” explained Schaffer, founder of Heroes to Heroes, an American non-profit organization that brings traumatized U.S. veterans to Israel for a journey of spiritual healing.

Schaffer, daughter of a World War II veteran and a granddaughter of two World War I veterans, envisioned a Birthright-type trip designed meticulously for non-Jewish American war vets -- of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Since she founded the organization in 2011, it has organized and financed three Israel trips for war vets.

During the last month’s 10-day Heroes to Heroes tour, the 10 American participants were baptized in the Jordan River, planted trees in memory of fallen soldiers, walked the Stations of the Cross and prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. One of their most powerful experiences was a visit to Yad Vashem, where they were moved by the message that the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were not just numbers.

“It wasn’t about how many people were killed. Every one of them had a name,” said Grutter. “I think America thinks of us as a number. There were so many of us deployed, so many of us that went and got hurt and came back. But each one of us has a name. Each one of us is a brother, a father, a husband, a mother, a sister, an uncle.”

One of the important elements of the trip is the inclusion of disabled Israeli veterans who accompany the Americans during their 10 days of intensive touring.

“We’re a world apart but we’re exactly the same,”said Grutter, of the five Israeli vets whom he travelled with. Grutter added that he has much more in common with 26-year-old Israeli Alex Dayboj of Ashdod than he ever could have imagined.

Dayboj, who served in the Second Lebanon War, has been struggling with PTSD for the past five years and found the time spent with American vets to be therapeutic. “I’ve made some progress little by little,” said Dayboj, “but all of those changes don’t even come close to the changes I’ve seen in myself over the past 10 days.”

At home, he said, when he's having an attack and his mom hugs him and asks him what's wrong, it only intensifies the pain. Whereas on this trip, when one of his new American friends saw him sitting by himself, looking down and depressed, "all he had to do was put his hand on my shoulder and I felt better immediately."

Schaffer also hopes Heroes to Heroes will fortify links between two countries that have long been militarily connected, but whose people have very different relationships with their soldiers. In Israel, every Israeli has either served in the Israel Defense Forces or knows someone who is serving. Many Americans, however, don't personally know a single soldier.

‘In Israel we’re appreciated’

The Americans in the group were struck by the degree to which Israelis appreciate not only their own soldiers' service, but also that of American veterans.

"I've had more people thank me for my service here than I have just about anywhere in America," said Grutter, who was medically discharged a year ago after 19 years service.

"When I would come home in my uniform in New Jersey, people said, 'Why did you join the army?' Not 'thank you for your service,'" said 27-year-old Aroch Bolanos, who served eight years in the army with two deployments in Iraq. After being honorably discharged, Bolanos earned his bachelor's degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University, but like many young veterans, is having a hard time finding a job.

"When people see military service on my resume, it's like a stigma," says Bolanos. "They think we all have PTSD, and they don't want to deal with it."

In contrast, during the group's visit to the Knesset, "we were treated like royalty," said Charles Hernandez, a veteran from the Bronx who was also a first responder at Ground Zero.

Part of Schaffer's mission in Israel is to inspire veterans to take matters into their own hands, and create the kinds of programs they want to see.

Heroes to Heroes met with the Israeli veterans' group Hope for Heroism, and spent two days biking and sailing with Etgarim, a non-profit organization founded by disabled IDF veterans to provide outdoor activities for disabled Israelis.

"I pray that a lot of what we see here gives our vets the strength to go back and make some change for themselves," said Schaffer.

So far, her plan seems to be working. Nearly every veteran on this trip to Israel said they intend to come back, and a veteran from last year's trip just opened a Heroes to Heroes chapter in Texas.

Toward the end of the most recent trip, Grutter said he was worried about losing the progress he had made over the course of the last 10 days.

"How am I going to continue this feeling?" he asked.

"Physically I've never felt better, spiritually I feel phenomenal, but emotionally is the big part. I've been able to sit down and talk about things that I haven't talked about or shared with anyone else. I'm proud of who I am again, of what I did, of the sacrifices I made. For a long time I wanted to just put that all away."

What reassures Grutter now is knowing that he's not alone.

"We're going to continue this, because we don't want to lose this. We'll continue to help each other and that's how we'll rise above it."

Yardena Schwartz