Analysis |

Israeli Soldiers Start to Talk, and the Army Begins to Listen

The Israeli army is expanding its program to tend, using expert professionals, to soldiers' psychological needs. And a new generation of soldiers is much more ready to open up about their service

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Nahal Brigade soldiers in October.
Nahal Brigade soldiers in October. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During the Second Lebanon War, Lt. Col. Ariel Yochanan commanded the 101st Battalion of the Paratroops Brigade. The battalion fought heavy battles around Bint Jbeil and Ayta ash-Shab in the western sector of southern Lebanon. Unlike many of the units that took part in the fighting, Yochanan’s battalion knew successes: Its soldiers killed dozens of Hezbollah fighters, some during close-range battles in built-up areas.

They also paid a heavy price. Five Unit 101 fighters were killed and 73 were wounded during the war in the summer of 2006. Immediately after the fighting ended, the battalion was dispatched to the Nablus area for exhausting duty. Aside from a long chain of internal investigations, no one seemed to have time to recount the experiences the warriors had gone through. About 30 of them are dealing with post-traumatic stress symptoms and require various psychological treatments to this day. Yochanan told Haaretz that he emerged from the war with “a strong feeling that I did not release my subordinates back into civilian life the way I wished.” Recently, one of the fighters from the Lebanese campaign sent him a painting that expressed reality as it appears to him since the war. The painting depicts children swinging in a playground, but what the former warrior sees is an armed enemy, lurking in the shadows.

As a reservist, Yochanan is currently the project manager of one of the IDF’s most needed, and impressive, initiatives in recent years. The “Back to the Future” project is an outgrowth of a smaller initiative called “For the Sake of Tomorrow” that directly serviced units that underwent trying encounters. The original program accompanied units that experienced severe trauma, such as the survivors of the Golani Brigade’s armored vehicle explosion in the Shajaijeh neighborhood in Gaza (during Operation Protective Edge in 2014), on a short collective trip abroad involving bonding exercises. The two programs rely on the collaboration of the IDF and Defense Ministry with non-profit organizations and civilian volunteers.

These days, the program is gradually being expanded to include other combat units, regardless of their actual involvement in the war. As part of “Back to the Future,” each unit about to be discharged from regular service in the infantry or armored brigade goes on a week of field trips around Israel. Guided by a team of experienced therapists, the fighters engage in reflective and analytical discussion of their military service, the crises they underwent along with the lessons they learned. Another aspect of the week focuses on guided assistance for civilian reentry for the soon-to-be discharged soldiers: How do you plan a trip abroad, get a job or begin studying? How do you deal with bureaucracy? What assistance and benefits does the military give them? In the coming years, the intention is to expand the program to the entire combat sector of the IDF.

Nahal Brigade soldiers, in October.Credit: Gil Elihau

Last week units from the Nahal Brigade’s March 2019 patrol battalion class took the program (compulsory service for men was shortened a few years ago to two years and eight months). The soldiers, dressed in civilian clothing, took relatively short hikes along the Banias and other upper Galilee streams. This was followed by group activities along the banks of the river.

During my brief visit, the seriousness and thoroughness with which the army approached the task was on display. The atmosphere is almost completely civilian. The fighters’ immediate commanding officers don’t take part, and those leading the activity are older professionals, including psychologists and social workers.

Ground forces have had almost no direct involvement in actual combat in recent years. Most of the attacking is done by the air force, in sorties far beyond the border. But even so, combat service leaves its scars. Warriors carry with them harsh memories, or unresolved questions from various experiences: abuse during boot camp, alienating attitude of commanders to personal problems, confrontations with unit members or extreme incidents in the territories.

A relatively small proportion of these soldiers (according to various estimates, about 5 percent or less) ends up with issues that require psychological attention. One of the goals of the week, which also includes filling out questionnaires and monitoring by professionals, is to identify fighters in need of treatment but who so far have not requested it.

One of the main problems that is hardly talked about in the army concerns the atmosphere in those combat units that do not enjoy prestigious status. The service of a fighter in a special unit is accompanied by a certain aura, along with other benefits associated with more interesting engagements and being part of a highly talented group of people. In the grayer battalions, the activity is grinding, the pressure is great and often fighters feel that the commanders couldn’t care less about them, but rather invest all their energy in fulfilling missions.

In the Golani Brigade this is overcome through team-building activities (often quite wild), unit pride and division heritage. Yet in the paratroops’ brigade, considered a higher-quality unit – in part because admission to it requires the passing of a series of preparatory exercises – the problem is more prevalent. Some of the discharged soldiers report burn-out and frustration, and say they felt invisible to their commanders during their service.

The two teams from the Nahal Brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion focused on different aspects of service. One team focused on the benefits of combat service: independence, belief in their abilities, fitness, coping with stress. The second team analyzed crisis situations: In a rare decision, the team was disbanded last year following a series of disciplinary infractions that culminated in a car accident. No one was hurt, but the fighters involved ended up carrying a heavy emotional burden. All of them were separated from their teammates and reassigned, some as training supervisors, some in administrative positions and some as fighters in other teams.

A fly on the wall’s glance at a team meeting gives a very positive impression. It seems the current generation of soldiers is much more open, and much more willing to talk about their feelings and frustrations than previous generations. This is the first time the disbanded team fighters have sat reunited, discussing what happened to them. Some are being exposed to the point of view of their unit mates for the first time.

Some of them leave with considerable frustration; others feel they have overcome the obstacles thrown at them by the military system, which can often be unclear yet rigid. On the threshold of being discharged, a confusing and complex matter in itself, they at least discuss the baggage accumulated through their service as warriors.

The facilitator mediates the discussion with great skill. One of the things we have done here, he concludes, is to start preparing for a break-up. In the coming weeks, fighters from the class of March 2019 will arrive at the induction center to be officially discharged from service. Along with the need to say goodbye to them properly, the army has another interest in the project. An orderly break-up makes the process smoother and increases the chances that the fighters will continue on to reserve service without hiccups.

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