At 9 P.M. on August 26, 2000, team after team of the Duvdevan special operations force left the settlement of Shavei Shomron. Their destination was a house in the village of Asira al-Shamaliya, which lies on the slopes of Mount Eival near Nablus.
According to their intelligence, a high-priority target was in the house, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, who in the days before the second intifada was considered a top member of Hamas’ armed wing, responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis. Everything was going according to plan until one of the team’s snipers thought he saw armed men on the roof of the house and started shooting.
But this was a case of mistaken identity. The men taking fire weren’t Palestinians, they were Duvdevan soldiers. Three first sergeants were killed on the spot: Niv Yaacobi, Roy Even-Filsteiner and Liron Sharvit.
“There was shooting and I was told to go to the roof where Niv and Liron were,” says the team’s medic, Brian (a made-up name like all others in this story). “I got to the roof and saw Niv and Liron lying side by side without moving, wounded in the head and chest. I ran to Niv, he was my closet friend on the team. I knew there was nothing I could do but I sat there and held his head. I couldn’t let go.”
Brian kept hearing shouts to go see what had happened to Liron. “I ran to him,” Brian recalls, “and we tried to resuscitate him, but there was nothing we could do. They were both dead.”
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Yaacobi, Sharvit and Even-Filstein are three of the 15 Duvdevan soldiers who have been killed since the unit was established in 1986 (two other fatalities were of soldiers attached to the unit from other units). Of course, military units tend to have fatalities, but in this unit, none of the 15 were killed by enemy fire. In most cases it was training accidents or, like on that evening in Asira al-Shimaliya, friendly fire during an operation.
Operation Symphony of Life was the army’s code name for the capture of Abu Hanoud. That symphony became a trauma that has been with Brian ever since, and now he’s in his late 30s.
“When I came down from the roof I was led to the street, where I just sat and shivered,” he says. “Today I know that the minute I went on the roof was the minute I was wounded. My post-trauma is a battle wound like any other, like losing an arm or a leg.”
Brian, who came to Israel on his own and was a lone soldier during his service, took a long time to realize what had happened. “In our team we didn’t talk about the impact of that incident; we wanted to suppress it,” he says. “Asira became a taboo topic – no one talked about it, at least not before demobilization.”
It took several years after Brian left the demobilization center before he understood the scar that this incident had left on his soul. He isn’t alone. His unit, which often operates with its members dressed undercover as Palestinians, conducts hundreds of missions a year in an attempt to foil terror attacks. In these operations soldiers win many citations and medals, on top of the wounds that don’t bleed and often don’t heal.
Now, 32 years after it was established and 26 years after it was declassified, its members are launching a campaign for their comrades who have been bearing the impact of combat.
Such an effort isn’t anything obvious for such a unit. This is a group whose members at any moment must be aggressive and daring while seeking contact with the enemy, a unit where a term like post-traumatic stress disorder is often excluded from the lexicon. Former soldiers in the Duvdevan unit include Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, who created the hit TV show "Fauda" based off their experiences.
But now things are changing. Two and a half years ago former Duvdevan soldiers set up the Scheinberg Foundation, which helps lone soldiers after demobilization. Last year it began to locate and treat veterans with PTSD. The foundation set up support groups, helping these people obtain the support of the Defense Ministry and get medical treatment.
Off the rails on vacation
One of the veterans who regularly attends meetings is Or, now in his 30s. He was totally unaware of the emotional damage caused by his service in the Duvdevan. “It hit me on a trip to the Far East. I was in a taxi and the driver’s kid was sitting next to him,” Or says.
“All of a sudden I thought he wanted to kill me, that he had exposed me and I was in danger. I remember thinking that I had to kill this kid and run away. I started going wild in the taxi, hitting the driver. He stopped and let me out. I found myself begging him to take me anyway and not leave me in the middle of nowhere.”
Looking back, when Or reconstructs the road he has taken, he thinks back to his time in the Duvdevan. “It was total,” he says. “It got to a point where you didn’t go home on a weekend so that nothing affected your training, so that nothing distracted you. I took myself to the limit.”
He now realizes it was too extreme. “When I was over there I didn’t ask any questions,” Or says. “I was totally immersed in it, and that’s what I wanted in life. All I wanted was to be worthy in the eyes of my team, that anyone going on a mission with me could trust me.”
There was some intimation of his problems during his service, he admits. He remembers how a few months before demobilization he went to his commander, put his pistol and kaffiyeh on the table and said he was leaving. He couldn’t take it anymore. He was offered a short leave. He agreed, returned and completed his service.
“No one knew anything about it; I hid it. My family didn’t know what I was doing, my girlfriend didn’t know either,” Or says. “I hid everything I could and didn’t really have an open relationship with anyone in that delusional situation. I was under emotional stress that I couldn’t put my finger on until one day I broke down in tears at my parents’ house.”
The real crisis hit on that trip to the Far East. At that moment he couldn’t distinguish between his life and the life of the character he had assumed in the past. “I found myself on that trip taking part in a Muslim purification ritual,” Or says.
On another occasion he was struck by anxiety when he encountered a Muslim man on the street. “I began to think I’d been exposed,” he says. “At one point I ditched my motorcycle because I believed I had been discovered and that someone had booby-trapped it. The whole trip was like a movie where someone was testing me.”
Upon returning to Israel, Or realized he had a problem and needed to do something to keep his sanity. The first to help him were the former members of his team.
“Outwardly, everything seemed irrelevant and meaningless,” he says. “At some point I wished I’d taken a bullet on a mission so I’d be recognized as a wounded fighter. That would have given me legitimization to feel that way.”
Or’s descriptions sound very familiar to Brian’s. He too went on a long trip after the army, trying to forget his time in the military, escaping from himself. “I traveled everywhere but almost immediately I left each place I had reached,” he says. “I couldn’t stay in one place. I flew to Australia, India, Mexico, Fiji.”
At some point he landed in Morocco and remembers not feeling well; he had probably caught pneumonia. “I found myself entering a mosque and going to sleep there. I got up in the morning and ran off as if someone were trying to kill me,” he says.
“Asira was with me the whole time: escapes, noises, it was all there. I traveled around the world with a feeling that I was responsible for Niv and Liron’s deaths, that I should have run to that roof faster and done something that might have saved them. Today I know they died instantly, but the feeling didn’t leave me.”
In addition to finding a way to contain all these emotions, there’s another difficulty: how to share them. Or says he had great problems making contact with team members after he returned. He says he wasn’t adequately understood.
“I understand the unit’s work and am aware of its importance, but you have to be a bit crazy to do that work, he says. “We don’t go in crazy; you get that during your service. You’re trained for it. So when you leave they should take responsibility for how you leave for civilian life with that burden.”
Today he says that if he had received some help in advance, maybe he wouldn’t have had to spend so much of his own money on therapy. “They load your hard disk and even if they don’t know how to unload it when you demobilize they should give us tools for dealing with that load,” he says. “Now I think about it 30 percent of the time, but I’ve learned to live with it.”
Seeking out the sufferers
In an event held by the unit, Brian met one of his officers from that night in Asira. The officer, who still serves in the Duvdevan in the reserves, asked Brian how he was. “I don’t know who I am,” Brian replied. “I don’t know what’s with me.”
After that event the officer decided to contact Or. When the two talked, he realized the gravity of the problem. Those talks, as well as conversations with other fighters who were clamoring for help, changed something in his way of thinking.
“We realized there were true difficulties for some of these soldiers after demobilization,” the officer says. “We went to Canada, me and a few other members of the unit, to try to build a model of therapy and assistance.”
It took time but this is how the Scheinberg Foundation’s initiative to help demobilized soldiers began. “The hardest challenge is in finding the fighters,” the officer says. “No one comes on his own initiative asking for help. We have to reach them. We’re now accompanying eight former fighters, but if you ask me where we’ll be in 10 years, I believe it will grow at least tenfold.”
In addition to helping demobilized soldiers get the help they need, the officer has set another goal: to develop awareness of the problem in the unit and create a system that will accompany soldiers throughout their service.
“My vision is that this issue will be part of the soldier’s training,” he says. “We have to talk about it every few months, sit down and talk after dramatic incidents, analyze what happened and how it affected everyone.”
He says that if soldiers learn to identify symptoms of PTSD such as sleeplessness, stress and a lack of appetite, “they’ll be able to recognize it in a teammate on time. Turning to a commander could prevent something more serious in the future.”
Now, a year after the foundation launched similar efforts, Brian and Or not only get help, they try to find others and help them too. One person they’ve located is Yehuda, now in his 40s, who was only recently diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. He still does his reserve duty in the Duvdevan.
“Until a year ago I couldn’t understand my serious sleep problems,” Yehuda says. “There were entire days I couldn’t fall asleep, sometimes making my whole body shake.”
It was suggested to Yehuda that this might be related to his military service. “They always told me to see if it was related and I’d laugh,” he says. “I did all the diagnostic tests for sleep problems, and in the end the doctor diagnosed me as post-traumatic.”
Yehuda is known by anyone who joined the unit in the ‘90s. For years he was the first face encountered by people arriving there; he took them on marches designed to foster group cohesion. Even now he doesn’t have one bad thing to say about the Duvdevan, but he sees the system, mainly the Defense Ministry, as the obstacle.
“When a fighter has a problem he faces a ministry official and he’s told that something is wrong with him, that his behavior is strange. But when I accepted him to the unit I saw him as someone suitable. Something happened on the way. He doesn’t have to wage a campaign against the army so that he’s recognized as suffering from post-trauma. Someone needs to take responsibility.”
In the meantime, says the officer, the foundation is there for anyone in need. “We’re trying to reach the snipers who were in Asira. We want to hug them and give them support if they need it. It’s important that people realize that post-trauma can express itself in signs you don’t think are important, but it’s there and it’s best to open up and talk about it,” he says.
“I had an instance after Operation Symphony of Life when I was at home in front of my refrigerator. There was a cheese called Symphony, and when I opened it I got the smell of the bodies from Asira. Am I post-traumatic? I don’t know.”
Haaretz correspondent Yaniv Kubovich, a Duvdevan veteran, is now a member of the Duvdevan Association.