The columbarium discovered at Horbat Beit Lehi-Beit Loya. Moshe Gilad

American Veterans With PTSD Take on a New Mission: An Israeli Archaeological Dig

At a 2,000-year-old archaeological site, U.S. military veterans who suffer from trauma uncover lost treasures — and learn how to recover



Jake Pluim and Duke Sawyer bent down and brushed the sand off a dusty hole in the ground. It’s only 9 A.M. but they're already dripping with sweat, and their shirts are stuck to their backs. For several hours, they have been exposing three shiny stone steps, part of a large ancient structure. It’s hard physical labor, but they maintain focus and barely rest. When Pluim stopped for a few minutes to take a drink, I asked him about what happened to him when he served in the U.S. Army. He shrugged his shoulders, pointed to the middle of his chest and said, “I was in Afghanistan. A sniper shot me here. That’s it. End of story.” A moment later, he's already bending over the 2,000-year-old step.

Sawyer, it turns out, is more talkative. He served in the army for 22 years. The important way stations were Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa and the Philippines. He was gravely wounded in Iraq, underwent surgery and, as he puts it, “in recent years I’ve been recovering.” The archaeological dig near Beit Guvrin is his first. He has no training in the field, but is enjoying every moment.

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“It’s therapy for me. I’m like a kid playing in the sand, looking for the treasure,” he said. “It helps me focus, distracts me from the problems in my head and at home. Sometimes I put myself into the reality that was here 2,000 years ago. I think about what they did, what they ate, what they liked."

Michal Haber

Sawyer and Pluim are two members of a small group of Americans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who participated in an archaeological dig at Horbat Amuda near Beit Guvrin during the Passover holiday. Several organizations linked together to bring them, the first group of its kind, to Israel. They are headed by AVAR (American Veterans Archaeological Recovery), an organization founded about two years ago that focuses on bringing in U.S. veterans with physical disabilities and mental illness to participate in archaeological projects, which, according to the organization's leaders, helps rehabilitate the veterans and restores a sense of routine.

“Clear objectives, bonding with other veterans and building shared experiences are important for the rehabilitation of people suffering from PTSD or those who were wounded during their military service,” explained Stephen Humphreys and Nicole Fuentes, who accompanied the group in Israel. Humphreys served in the United States Air Force, and later completed a doctorate in archaeology. Fuentes served in the Marine Corps for 10 years before retiring due to an injury. Her partner, who remained in the United States, is still serving in the army.

“The participants want to work with other veterans,” they explained. “Doing things with people who had similar experiences makes things easier for them. For most of them, archaeology is just a hobby, but a few already said that they want to participate in more digs."

The fact that their therapeutic exercise is working toward a genuine academic mission helps the participants feel more comfortable – it’s not just an enrichment program or vacation.

“They’re part of a mission, and as veterans, that suits them,” said Fuentes. “If they make a mistake – that matters. They're used to sleeping in tents for a week without showers, with field toilets, eating in field conditions. The fact that they all live in the same conditions also helps, and brings them back to other times. The archaeological tasks are physical but relatively simple, it’s therapy for them."

The first group to arrive from the United States included five disabled veterans, aged 25 to 50. Funding comes from donations, stipends and personal finances – there are no government budgets here. It’s also important to them that the site of the dig “will yield results," that they'll uncover interesting findings. Horbat Amuda, for example, looks to them like a fascinating site.

Tunnels and an Idumean temple

Nicole Fuentes

The excavation at Horbat Amuda, about six kilometers south of Beit Guvrin, is part of a large-scale project that is documenting the area of Horbat Beit Lehi-Beit Loya. It is run through the academic sponsorship of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority, in partnership with Utah Valley University and with the support of the Beit Lehi Foundation. The findings discovered in the region date from the eve of the destruction of the First Temple (sixth century BCE) and up to the Mamluk period (13th century CE).

The directors of the dig are Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Michal Haber of Hebrew University and Pablo Betzer of the Antiquities Authority. To date, the dig has uncovered a Hellenistic structure from the third century BCE. The archaeologists assume, in light of its size, massive construction and hewn stone, that it served as an Idumean temple or palace. Many subterranean complexes were also discovered, including huge quarries, oil presses, stables, a columbarium and networks of escape tunnels from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE).

Ironically, the entire excavation area in the Beit Lehi region is an Israel Defense Forces firing range, to which entry is prohibited most of the year. Only on Passover, Sukkot and several other holidays does the army allow archaeologists to work at the site. That means the digging seasons there are short and focused. There is a sense of great urgency, which the American participants also mentioned. Time is short and expensive. The mission comes first.

“They had planned to spend one season here, two at most, to conduct limited examinations and continue to the next site,” said Haber. “But because this discovery is so special and represents a significant innovation for the research, we decided to postpone it. As of now there’s an agreement that an AVAR delegation will join us on Sukkot too.”

When asked about her impressions of the American veterans, Haber said: “From the first day of digging – a day that including setting up camp in unusual weather conditions – we understood the extent to which these people are workers. The first and last days at a dig are always the hardest. We started the week with an unexpected storm and cold and ended with a heat wave of 31 degrees Celsius (88 F). Nothing deterred them. We have the impression that the participants are serious and dedicated, pleasant, inquisitive and responsible. Both sides considered this week a pilot, and at the end we agreed that it’s a big success, exceeds expectations and that we would continue together in the coming seasons.”

Michal Haber

Gutfeld is even more enthusiastic: “We had concerns about the idea of including Americans suffering from PTSD and battle injuries in the archaeological digs. But as a disabled IDF veteran [Gutfeld was wounded during his army service in the 1980s] I had no doubt that we would take up the challenge. The concerns dissipated quickly when a group of former combat soldiers, six men and one woman, arrived at the site and immediately began to unload the equipment container and build the camp.

“As soon as the work began, a hailstorm with strong winds began. We Israelis looked for shelter, but they didn’t even understand what the fuss was about and continued to work. They were also dedicated to the dig, worked hard and didn’t complain for a moment, although it was clear that it wasn’t easy for them and some of them were in pain. Several said that the work in the escape and refuge tunnels from the times of the [Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt], under the most difficult conditions, were the high points of the dig for them.”

Digging with friends

One of the members of the American group, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he had served in the army for four years, most of them in Afghanistan, and has since suffered from anxiety. The transition to civilian life was very hard for him; immediately after his discharge, he suffered from depression and gained significant weight. One of his close friends who had served with him committed suicide shortly after being discharged. Then someone recommended the AVAR rehabilitation program to him. He has already participated in several archaeological digs in America, and says that he really enjoyed it.

Michal Haber

“At the archaeological digs I gained confidence, I lost 22 pounds,” he said. “Before that I would sprawl on the sofa and watch television. At the digs I felt like I’m a part of something bigger like I was in the army, I became part of the group again. The advantage of the program is that we’ve all had the same experience. We went through similar things, we were part of the system. When I hear about the backgrounds of the other group members, it reassures me. Everything is easier. The loneliness, which is the hardest thing, lifts a little.

“You have to understand something – in the U.S. military, service is voluntary. Only one percent of the population serves, and after you get out they look at you strangely. Kind of like the way you look at someone weird. It’s not like here, where everyone has been in the army. There, it’s different. Encounters with other ex-servicemen, in this group, for example, help me a lot. These are people who speak my language."

The excavations at Beit Loya.

Bill Markum of Texas served in the Marine Corps for 13 years. “I’ve been everywhere,” he said, enumerating a list of countries that includes Japan, Korea, Guam, Iraq and more. He was discharged four years ago, and this is his first archaeological dig. “It suits us that they’re looking for people who really want to work. All of us veterans are of the same mind. We speak a different language [from others]. We understand each other. When I started work in civilian life I didn’t speak or eat with anyone at work for an entire year. Here, after an hour, we were already laughing together. That’s the difference. It’s a family.”

Markum described the dig at Amuda as “a therapeutic vacation.” He says that Israel has a special influence on the body and soul. “There’s something here,” he says. “Feelings are more powerful here. The connection with history is direct. We're exposing findings that are thousands of years old. It’s amazing. Anyone who was in the army gets the strong connection with history, and that’s why we love archaeology."

Like on the battlefield

Dr. Ofer Keren, director of head injury rehabilitation at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, made it clear at the outset that because he doesn’t know the members of the American group, it would be difficult for him to assess the importance of the project. But he noted that aside from archaeology, we should pay attention to other aspects.

“The basis for the success of such a project lies in the human need for acceptance, for finding consolation among people who have experienced similar things,” he explained. “In every war in American history, there were groups of veterans who found it very difficult to return to civilian life. The difference between Vietnam and contemporary times lies in the transition from a compulsory draft to voluntary enlistment. The army doesn’t presently represent the total population and the veterans are more isolated.”

Keren considered the invitation to participate in these projects important in itself, due to the variety of issues trauma victims experience, including difficulty acclimating to civilian workplaces, making friends and renewing a relationship with family members who don’t understand and are not always empathetic about what they experienced on the battlefield.

An organization like AVAR is likely to give them an opportunity to meet people who understand what they have gone through and what they are experiencing. The very fact that they are away from home, from everyday obligations, should be helpful, Keren noted.

Archaeology, Keren explained, is an interesting field for therapeutic activity. Living in field conditions, hard physical work, a defined mission - these are all similar to military experiences. He said that some treatments for trauma focus on a return to the “battlefield,” and archaeological excavations serve that purpose.

Isn’t a week too short a time? Keren sees no problem with that, and believes that most of the participants would not be capable, physically or emotionally, to withstand it for more than a few weeks. Even a short period of time has a beneficial influence, especially if they continue to feel like a permanent part of a bigger picture.

 

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