It’s probably unique in crowdfunding to raise money to provide psychological treatment for Israel Defense Forces combat soldiers who served in military campaigns, in this case Operation Protective Edge, and are suffering from trauma.
Ganem: I can’t really relate to crowdfunding. When I entered the website and saw that people were raising money to get a book published, or for a new app, it really bugged me. I said: Am I now supposed to turn my friends’ trauma into a four-minute video?
But you did it.
I simply had no choice.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the squad’s story – or maybe, better, to the beginning of your military career.
I was born and raised in Sajour, a Druze village in the north. In the ninth grade, as is usual in our community, I switched to a military boarding school. Roy Peles, whom we’ll talk about in a moment, and I were already rising stars during our basic training [in an elite unit of the Nahal Brigade]. We were marked. We were sent to a squad leaders’ course, where we became soulmates. We were commanders of a group of new recruits, and then we went to an officers course. Actually, we both dreamed of the same posting after the course: to return as officers for the new recruits whom we commanded as squad commanders. In the end Roy, the outstanding athlete, got that post. I remember that he came out of the meeting with the battalion commander positively jumping with joy – and I understood immediately that he’d got the nod and that I was going to be stuck at some dark and depressing new recruits base. We completed Bahad 1 [Officers Training School] in June 2014. Roy got the squad and went with them to the Gaza Strip.
What happened with you?
Just as I thought, I was stuck on a base of new recruits, bored and frustrated. On the weekend when Operation Protective Edge broke out my family wasn’t in the country. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity of my uptight mother being away, and I went to the staging areas.
What does that term mean?
The areas outside the Gaza Strip, on this side of the border, where the support troops for the soldiers fighting inside are stationed. They bring in food and equipment and evacuate the wounded. An officer in a staging area is a rare commodity, because everyone is involved in the fighting inside, so they were very happy to see me. At night I slept among piles of donated deodorant and candy. Suddenly I heard people starting to shout and run, and I realized that something serious had happened. The first rumor was that an officer had been killed [on Friday, July 25, 2014, at night].
Did you think it was Roy?
I never imagined it might be someone I knew. I stopped a vehicle and asked them to take me to the command post, fast. On the way I opened the window and heard a kind of sound like a bottle being opened, and I realized that the incident hadn’t ended, because there was mortar fire. At the command post, I was briefed on the situation, and then I heard on the radio network that the “black unit” was going in – a unit of religiously observant soldiers with dogs.
You understand what they do, and you know why they are being sent in.
What were you told about the events inside?
At about 10 P.M. soldiers, including Roy and his squad, took up positions in a house and prepared for an attack on the casbah of Beit Hanun. A few minutes afterward Kornet [anti-tank] missiles were fired into the house. Roy took a direct hit and was killed on the spot. [He was 21 years old.] Another missile hit the floor below and 10 soldiers were wounded.
Most of them seriously. Please explain about the Kornets – they’ve been in the headlines lately.
The Kornet is one of the most sophisticated missiles. It can be fired long distances and is extremely destructive. There are very few Kornet lauchers in the Gaza Strip, and that night one of them targeted the building. Roy took a direct hit, so his body couldn’t be found. At midnight, the brigade commander announced a cease-fire via the radio network. The Israeli troops would be leaving Gaza at 5 the following morning. Afterward I understood that there had been a real argument between the battalion commander, who refused to leave without Roy, and the brigade commander, who said: “You’re out at 5.” So, after the complicated evacuation of the wounded was completed, they still had to find Roy’s body, under hysterical time pressure. They didn’t give up. The noise I’d heard – the mortars – was cover fire for the search. It took until 4:30 A.M. to find the body.
What did you do then?
I half-slept on some armored personnel carrier, next to the guy who was in charge of identifying bodies. He woke me up at 5 to help him with the stretcher with the deceased. Two armored vehicles arrived. We unloaded equipment, all of it covered with blood, from the first one. On the other one was the body, wrapped in a curtain from the house. I had never seen a dead body. I took down the stretcher. Suddenly I realized that something was wrong, that everything was quiet around me, that everyone was trying to avoid looking at me. I grabbed the guy in charge of identifying bodies and simply pushed him up against the vehicle by force.
“You’re going to tell me now who it is,” I demanded. He said, “It’s Peles, ‘bro.” I ran to the stretcher. I saw that part of the kneepad was sticking out. And I recognized the mark Roy made on his equipment: P.R. It was him. I grasped that it really was him. And I… I don’t know. I can’t say what went through my head, what I thought. I only know that suddenly my phone rings, and who should it be but Hagit – Roy’s mother. She was supposed to come that morning with care packages.
And she didn’t know what happened.
She hadn’t yet been officially notified.
Wow, I can’t breathe.
I spoke to her only after I was sure she already knew. Hagit is truly an exceptional woman. I remember every word of that conversation. “Good morning, Omri” – like that, perfectly cool. “Do you know what happened?” I said. “Of course, I’m here.” And then she says, “All right, so come over.” I went to her place in Tel Aviv. The house had already begun to fill up with people. From that point on everything becomes a blur. I don’t even remember where I slept that night, what exactly happened.
That weekend another friend of mine, Liad Lavie, who had been wounded, also died. I’d visited him in the hospital before going to the front, but I hadn’t realized how serious the situation was. Roy’s funeral was held on Sunday, Liad’s on Monday. On Tuesday I was informed that I was being transferred to a new position, replacing Roy. “The vehicle that took him out will take you in.”
You tell this story as though it happened to someone else.
I really can’t say what I felt. I put on my gear and went in to meet Roy’s troops. I get there and something like six soldiers are standing there. That’s what was left of the squad. All the rest were in the hospital. And they’re totally wiped out. I didn’t know what to say to them. In the end I came out with, “Okay, this is as bad as it will get. From here on it’s only up.” They still laugh at me about it.
What did they tell you?
You didn’t talk about what had happened? About Roy?
I don’t know. It’s a Pandora’s box. We didn’t want to open it. They were still in training. They’d only been in the army for a year then. Not some kind of gnarled fighters who have seen a thing or two in their time. They left the base and suddenly ran into a war. Their commander was killed in front of their eyes. Half the squad was simply wiped out.
How could you not have talked about it?
Do you get it? I took over the squad, I went through the rest of the war with them, I ran with them until their discharge – and I never grasped how badly they were hurting, what happened to their souls.
What about your soul?
Gone. Nonexistent. I don’t know what to tell you. On automatic pilot. I went on running with them. We took in new soldiers. We called ourselves the “Ganem-Peles squad.” They did amazing work. I felt that it was a success, that I took them to a situation of being a superb squad. Our ways parted in 2016 – they were discharged and I went on to my next post.
Did you stay in touch?
Mostly through WhatsApp. We didn’t meet much after that, because I was a long way off.
When did you understand that there was a problem?
It took time. First I heard, by a roundabout route, that two soldiers from the squad had thought about ending their lives. Last Memorial Day I met a few of them at Roy’s annual commemoration, and the idea came up for us all to meet and talk about what had happened. Four years after that black night, we met at a lovely spot by Alexander Creek. Almost everyone showed up. That’s where I was hit by the real bombshell. They talked about what had happened there. People cried. Broke down. Talked about what happened to them
What had happened to them?
Nothing good. Some had disconnected completely from the squad and we didn’t hear from them. You know what the hardest thing for me was at that meeting? That suddenly the penny dropped and I realized that four years had passed, and that neither my friends nor I had shared what we went through in Operation Protective Edge. Not with friends. Not with family. Not with partners. Not with anyone.
When they did start to share, what did they say about that night? If they’d never talked about it, that means each person had only one piece of the puzzle.
That’s what happened, and it made me understand how powerful it would be if we all underwent therapy together. One of us had been wounded very seriously that night. The army wanted to discharge him, but he insisted on staying in. During his service he wanted to put an end to his life. His trauma from that night is that everyone was calling to him and shouting, “Medic, medic, help” – but he couldn’t get up, because he had taken shrapnel in his leg. That’s the trauma that was burned into him: Everyone around him was dying and he tried to get up and couldn’t.
We also have to remember that it all happened in darkness.
That darkness shimmers for everyone, in flashes. Total darkness, no turning on flashlights, you don’t know what’s happening with you, what’s going on around you. You don’t even realize you’ve been wounded, because you’re on an incredible adrenaline rush. Some people didn’t realize they’d been wounded until they got outside. Our deputy company commander, for example, took a piece of shrapnel in the leg; it took him two days to realize he was wounded.
You weren’t there, in that room. So it was also the first time you’d heard the whole story.
One of the soldiers from the squad, who is now in a process of recognizing that he has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], said: ‘When I see a fountain, I see splashes of blood.’ That’s what they went through in that room. Blood. Screams. “Help me.” Shots from outside. The knowledge that another missile might hit at any time. Yonatan Herbelin, who wrote a book about it, was part of the medical team that treated the wounded. His trauma was the most powerful. He told about how they evacuated the wounded, and every time they went in they were trembling with fear, afraid to see which of them would pull someone who was dead or wounded out of the dark. He collapsed there.
Another member of the squad, an outstanding soldier, said he later flew to South America, entered his room in a hostel in Cusco [Peru], and couldn’t make himself go outside. He felt that the streets were full of people who wanted to kill him. He called his father and asked him to come. His father immediately got on a plane, took his son and brought him home. He told us about it when we were sitting in a circle, and I saw the shock on everyone’s face. We were sure that he was one of those who came through it okay. So was he, the strong hero, also shattered? We understood that everyone had been traumatized differently.
And then you decided that you would all undergo therapy – a very specific form of therapy.
It was then that I grasped the depth of the problem, but I had absolutely no solution. One night, when I was at a bar [a few months ago], I suddenly get a call from Ido, who was the company commander who led the force that night. “Ganem,” he tells me, “there was a report on TV about the unit in Shujaiyeh [referring to survivors of an incident in a Gaza town in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed in an APC]. They underwent group therapy in Romania. I don’t care how hard we have to work or how we get there, but we’re going to do that therapy.”
Why that specific therapy?
Because in the report, when the deputy company commander was asked why he embarked on that journey, he replies, “Because I am responsible for my soldiers, for them getting back to their lives.” He made me realize that I had the same responsibility. The very next day I contacted the nonprofit group that offers the therapy – together with Hagit, Roy’s mother, who’s been fighting alongside me for this from the first moment.
A special woman.
Very. It’s hard to explain just how special. She’s involved in this with all her soul. She says that maybe she can’t help her son anymore, but she can help other kids.
Tell me a little about the therapy you want to undergo.
Path to Tomorrow [Bashvil Hamachar] is a nonprofit organization that was established after the Second Lebanon War  and it specializes in arranging treatment for traumatized soldiers.
It’s funded by the Defense Ministry, isn’t it?
In very small part. Most of the funding is from donations. The principle is that therapy is experienced together – and in a natural setting. First there are personal interviews with the therapists, then there’s a two-day get-acquainted meeting, and afterward we go on a hike in the Carpathian Mountains, in rugged conditions. There, every day, with the therapists, more layers are peeled away. The wounds are reopened and then closed properly. It’s like the biggest fear – to talk about that night – becomes something else.
If you ask someone from our squad to tell you today about what happened in Gaza, he’ll go in his pants. I was told that this journey is a life-changer, because for the first time you face the trauma head-on. You understand that it is part of you and of who you are. It was also explained to me that it’s important to deal with trauma soon after the event.
With time it becomes embedded in the psyche and becomes part of every experience.
Do you know whom the organization treats mostly? People aged 40 with children. At the age of 40-plus, suddenly their army service blows up in their face.
Does the whole squad want to undergo therapy? Aren’t there any who are against it?
There are. One of the medics, for example, blames himself because one of his friends was wounded. It doesn’t matter how many times the person who was wounded tells him that it wasn’t his fault, that there was nothing he could have done. He just can’t shake it. He can’t look his friend in the eyes; he’s broken off from him completely. My dream is for him to come with us and free himself of it. A few said, “Leave me alone, I’m all right, it’s behind me, why do you want to drag me to Romania to open old wounds?” But I’m insisting. I know it’s not behind anyone.
Do you know when I understood how traumatized my friends are? I was a patient in Ichilov Hospital not long ago. A few friends came to visit, and we were sitting there, at night, in the café across the road. Suddenly, right opposite us, a motorcycle runs into a bus and the driver is thrown into the air. I turn and look at my buddies. One of them, a medic, suddenly jumps up and does a sprint, runs as fast as he can – in the other direction. I ran to the injured person, but he just fled. I can say the same about myself – to this day, my mother doesn’t know what happened that night.
You said earlier that no one from the squad shared.
The day after I started the crowdfunding campaign, the mother of one of the soldiers called me and said, “Omri, listen well, even if I have to give you my whole salary you’re going on that journey. I want my son back. He doesn’t say a word to me. He comes home, but it’s like he’s not really there. He escaped and hasn’t returned.” That conversation really finished me, the conversation with the mother begging for her son’s life.
It feels as though we should blame the system in this case. To ask how it’s possible that soldiers have to raise money in order to treat themselves. But it’s clear that the system can’t be responsive to everyone.
I don’t blame the Defense Ministry. It’s not a bad organization. It’s an organization that works in binary terms: Either you’re diagnosed with PTSD, and then you get therapy, or you’re not diagnosed, and it’s, “See you later.” So everyone who’s not diagnosed with PTSD is all right?
Do you know how many IDF soldiers are currently diagnosed with PTSD? Take a guess.
Nearly 5,000. You were closer than I was. I thought it would be tens of thousands.
The thing is that it really is tens of thousands. But those are the transparent ones. They’re the ones who carry their trauma quietly. Who are afraid to admit that they’re hurting.
And the procedure also isn’t simple.
We have one soldier on the squad who’s in the process [of applying for recognition of his disability at the Defense Ministry]. You have to sign an affidavit, you get a few assessment meetings, after which it’s decided whether there’s justification for treatment. And then the diagnosis process starts. You know what the wackiest part is? Since he started the therapy, he’s been incapable of getting out of bed. The psychologist or psychiatrist who met with him scratched all his wounds, took him back that night, asked him the toughest questions and then told him, “All right, in another few weeks I’ll conclude the review and then we’ll decide what to do with you.” In the meantime he’s stuck in bed.
Generally, when there’s a failure in a large system, private organizations enter the vacuum. Here the vacuum is endless. How many PTSDs are walking around among us, who haven’t had and won’t have a response?
I know that things are happening. That a pilot program has been started in Givati [infantry brigade], for example – mental preparation for discharge through trauma processing. Maybe the army will understand that in the end it pays off to do a kind of preventive psychological treatment. That could prevent a great many cases of trauma afterward.
This is an organization that has become used to the idea that soldiers’ mental problems, up to a certain level, are theirs and their families’. What should the system learn from your case?
That the experiences need to be processed. If our soldiers had undergone some sort of processing of what we experienced – a day, a month, a year after the event – some of us would be in a far better situation today.
What about before? Why, for example, don’t soldiers get psychological preparation?
I was a company commander for a year and a half. I never spoke with my soldiers about these things.
And you never got preparation as a soldier.
No. Look, there’s a unit that deals with psychological problems, which you can contact and get a response. I don’t know how effective it is.
Maybe before we think about a systemic response, soldiers have to be taught to speak up, to share. To eradicate the macho norms. It’s insane that you came to these soldiers three days after the disaster and yet you didn’t talk about it.
I agree. In the army, feelings aren’t something you put on the table. You don’t talk about feelings. Certainly not with combat soldiers. But I’d say that this conception is beginning to change: As a company commander, I saw that officers under me talked a little with their units about sharing. But we belong to the previous generation.
A few tens of thousands of shekels.
You know, it’s not such a vast amount, so how do you account for the fact that you haven’t been able to raise it so far?
I approached a great many people of means – I completely lost my shame. But I discovered that there’s a problem. It’s hard for people to identify with others who have psychological problems. It’s not sexy. We joke about it in our unit and say that those who were wounded physically were saved. The army and dozens of additional organizations embrace them in every possible way. But what about the invisible hurt? One of my soldiers, who’s in a really bad mental state, takes a dig at his wounded buddy and says to him, “‘Bro, you have a car, you have good conditions, you swim at the disabled veterans’ center. But me, the only pool I have is the pool of my tears.”