Senior Israeli commanders in combat units have reported that two and a half times more soldiers are asking for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis. According to the commanders, there has been a rise of 60 percent in requests to speak to army mental health officers. One senior officer told Haaretz that the rise in requests for psychological aid stems mainly from soldiers’ concerns for their families, who face economic hardship.
A senior Israel Defense Forces officer commanding a number of infantry brigades and elite units said that until 2020, some 30 percent of the combat brigades, most of whom were serving in administrative positions, asked for economic assistance from the army. But over the past year, the officer has needed to more than double the economic assistance budget, especially for front-line and elite units. The officer said that most of the combat soldiers are asking for economic help for their families. In some cases the soldiers are asking for financial aid to purchase computers for younger siblings or to pay bills. In other cases, soldiers are asking for permission to work while in the army.
Last year, the senior command held meetings with other high-ranking officers to address the growing number of requests for aid since the coronavirus crisis started. Following the meetings, the IDF increased funding for assistance to combat units by millions of shekels. Among other things, commanders have been authorized to give grants of up to 1,200 shekels ($360) to special groups of soldiers (such as soldiers without parents in Israel or soldiers with work permits) to help their families, and special funds have been set up to distribute grants of up to 2,000 shekels for soldiers unable to work during their military service.
“If in the past we saw more requests for economic assistance for soldiers serving at headquarters or in administrative posts, now it’s in all the units at every level,” the senior officer said. The officer added that they were preparing for a rise in applications for economic assistance in 2021 due to the impact of the economic crisis on soldiers’ families.
Commanders in combat brigades are trying to deal with the rise in applications for assistance in various ways to suit the different units. In some units, commanders have begun giving soldiers without parents in Israel grants or grocery vouchers for themselves and their families, at a cost of millions of shekels over the past year. In other units, soldiers have been given financial aid in buying furniture and appliances, as well as computers for younger siblings who have had to begin online classes. The Spokesperson’s Unit said that ahead of Passover, the army is preparing to provide a “precise response, tailored to need.”
The economic crisis has led many combat soldiers into psychological distress. According to the senior officer, the rise in requests to speak to a mental health officer is due in part to soldiers’ concern about their families, as opposed to personal difficulties stemming from their army service.
In 2020, fewer soldiers applied for mental health assistance than in 2019 – 36,909 as opposed to 37,106. But sources with knowlege of the mental health system said that the decline stemmed from the difficulty in holding face-to-face meetings because of the spread of COVID-19 in the army. The army has since instituted special means of helping soldiers with psychological issues, such as a telephone hotline set up in March 2020.
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The army confirmed the rise in the number of soldiers seeking financial assistance over the past year due to the coronavirus crisis. “In response, assistance funding has been increased and grants have been offered to special groups. The implications of the coronavirus period are being studied on an ongoing basis in the IDF and we are working on continuing to follow the latest professional literature on the subject. We will continue to provide this comprehensive assistance in the future as well,” the army said.