Rehab Village Sees Wave of Former Israeli Soldiers Seeking Treatment After 2014 Gaza War

IDF operations have led to 'waves' of Israelis suffering from a psychotic episode or other mental health crises to seek care at Kfar Izun holistic treatment village, says founder and former officer Omri Frish.

Israeli soldiers in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, 2014
The IDF spokesman / Shai Wagner

In recent months there has been a sharp increase in the number of individuals seeking help at Kfar Izun (Harmony Village), a treatment and rehab village for backpackers and other young adults suffering from a psychotic episode or other mental health crisis.

“It’s hard to prove scientifically that there’s a link between military service and the outbreak of psychoses, but I can tell you with certainty that the relationship is clear,” says Omri Frish, who in 2001 founded the facility on Kibbutz Sdot Yam, located near Haifa on the coast, together with a group of reserve officers in the Israel Defense Forces, volunteers and professionals.

“We’ve had some 20 guys here who served in Operation Protective Edge [in the summer of 2014],” he adds. “These are waves that we see every time – only the name of the operation changes. Pillar of Defense, Cast Lead,” he says, citing the names of previous conflicts in which the IDF fought in the Gaza Strip. “There was a period after [soldiers served in] the Philadelphi corridor, and of course, the Second Lebanon War.

“Military service confronts us with what is almost the most significant component of post-trauma: the encounter with death. This usually happens in [one of] three ways. Either a good friend is killed, sometimes right next to the soldier, before his very eyes; or the soldier himself was in danger of death or felt certain he might die; or the soldier took the life of another person – without going into the moral or political aspects of this at all.”

Thera are currently 40 individuals being cared for at Kfar Izun, a nonprofit organization. Some are psychotic, some are suffering from severe depression, others from anxiety and still others have suicidal thoughts. Treatment usually lasts about four to five months, and according to its website, the village "offers a holistic approach to treatment, combining Western and Eastern theories."

“Everyone lives here together. The place is open, there are no gates or fences and no committing people against their will here,” says Frish, 62, a social worker and former combat soldier who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his social work studies, which he began at age 37, Frish opted to work with drug victims.

“Apparently because of this duality [of being] a social worker who works with drug victims and a lieutenant colonel who served in a combat unit, I began to get a lot of phone calls from parents whose children who became ill during their post-army trip to the Far East,” he notes. “These are the best of our kids, who served in the most elite units. I had a very hard time sitting and listening to their stories and then sending them to psychiatric hospitals like Abarbanel, Geha or Shalvata. For these kids, who went through Gaza, Jenin or Lebanon, the only option for them after experiencing a psychotic episode was once a closed psychiatric ward.”

Frish recalls that when he and staff at the Israel Anti-Drug Authority came up with the concept of Kfar Izun there was no therapeutic model for such cases. “All the solutions were aimed at the classic junkie – the heroin user who had already sat in jail, who comes from a broken home. That didn’t match the profile I was seeing, a profile that only today, 15 years later, has gotten official recognition.

“We’re talking about young people up to age 40 who are using drugs but come from normative backgrounds. They’ve finished high school, the army, even university or college. They’ve worked, studied, made a living, have strong support systems of family and friends. They’re what’s called ‘normative functioning users,’” Frish explains. “Only half a millimeter separates those who smoke grass for fun all their lives and those who have psychotic attacks. It can happen to anyone."

Omri Frish, a former IDF officer who founded the Kfar Izun therapeutic rehabilitation facility in northern Israel.
Gali Eytan

A new generation

“We’re now getting an incredible number of calls from psychotics who fit the profile of the normative functioning drug user, with a military background, mostly in combat,” Frish continues. “It could be that it’s the terror wave of the past months, but that can’t be proven or measured. There have been waves [of people seeking help] over the years that are hard to explain. What’s certain is that there is a consistent increase around six months after a military operation or a war.”

He notes that today’s generation sees things that his generation never saw or knew about on the battlefield, thanks to technology: “Today soldiers see everything, and up close. We are encountering a new type of post-trauma that only now is starting to appear in the professional literature – soldiers who weren’t physically on the battlefield, but were in war rooms equipped with the best technology and experienced it exactly like a combat soldier in the field.

“There are also soldiers who served in classified intelligence units who are burdened with trauma and guilt. [They think that] if only they had correctly analyzed the signs, perhaps they could have saved [others] or prevented incidents of one kind or another. This new wave of post-trauma [sufferers] includes women.

“You have to understand, from the perspective of the soldier, it doesn’t matter whether you call it an ‘operation’ or a war – in the field it’s war. The State of Israel has recently been launching such operations every year or two, and this has a clear and direct connection to psychotic episodes, and to the whole 'backpacker' phenomenon, which is unique to Israel – the need and desire among young people to travel, to achieve some distance, to clear their heads.”

What sorts of combat experiences drive soldiers to the edge? Frish elaborates: “There is the battlefield experience which, as noted, is not limited to soldiers who were physically there. Another experience – and I’m afraid to say this so as not to sound political – is that of encountering the [Palestinian] civilian population.

“During my own last trip to India I sat with a group of veterans from Duvdevan [the elite undercover unit]. I tried to understand why so many Duvdevan veterans end up in the little village of Tosh, which is in the Parvati Valley in India. My conclusions were that it’s connected to the fact that they worked with civilian populations more than other units, and also because they are trained to control their emotions and not to betray feelings, because displaying them could cost them their lives.

“Another phenomenon typical of these combat soldiers is the feeling that [after what they've experienced] everything else is a piece of cake,” Frish adds. “These soldiers confront death for weeks, sometimes months in a row, and what does that teach them about life? That it’s all easy for them. So on their trek they go alone to a village along a route considered dangerous, because they know that they’ve already entered a refugee camp without cover, so this should be nothing for them. Because they were constantly involved in operational activities they are also used to powerful stimulation and lots of adrenaline rushes, so they need increasingly stronger stimulation."

Demigods and drugs

Some of these experiences, he adds, "come out during treatment. The stories about Protective Edge and Cast Lead emerge and then suddenly the parents say, ‘Right – now we remember, during Protective Edge, a very close friend of his was killed and then we saw a change in his behavior, but within a few weeks he was back to himself, and then he was discharged and went off on his trip.’

“I don’t think that one has to run to a psychologist for everything,” Frish continues, “but this guy was carrying the trauma inside and never dealt with it, and then suddenly – boom, he’s in India, there are lots of drugs, and he meets his commanders – who, for a soldier in a combat unit, are like demigods – and they have a chillum [pipe for smoking drugs] in their hands. It’s a powerful experience. How can they not join the fun?”

He adds that at Kfar Izun, almost no one who served in an IDF combat or combat-support unit undergoes treatment without bringing up his military service.

“The public has this notion of classic shell shock but it doesn’t always look that way,” he says. “The most common manifestations are feelings of a sort of enlightenment, insight or knowledge. Suddenly the person 'understands' lots of things. He has powers. These people are convinced that this is authentic, and when you try to confront them with reality they don’t even try to persuade you. They are convinced they’ll be proven right in the end.

“This is also very dangerous, of course. We had someone here who thought the Shin Bet security service was following him. He was riding in a car with his friend and a patrol car was in back of them. He thought they were coming to get him, but he couldn’t say that to his friend. So when they drove over a small bridge, he simply jumped from a height of eight meters. Not to commit suicide, just so they wouldn’t catch him.”

There are many psychoses that are linked to military service and the security situation, Frish says: “In most of them reality 'inserts' itself into the psychosis. The discharged soldier goes to a small Indian village, and feels as if he’s walking in an Arab village. As if everyone is looking at him – [to him it seems] as if some are starting to recognize him.

“The skills and capabilities developed during military service also play a role. People come here and point to a surfer in the water, or someone paragliding, and say to me, ‘You see him? He’s eavesdropping on us.’ These are people who actually operated these types of technological systems. Now they think they’re being turned on them, that they’re being monitored. And they explain how they are doing it.

“Someone who was here was convinced that the Islamic State had decided to kidnap him, and became so paranoid that he broke a window in the guest house and stuck the glass shards in the pillows, on the carpets and in the doorpost,” Frish recalls.

“When his friends realized he was in a bad way and tried to get in through the window, he took one of the shards and started to cut himself, because he thought it was better to die by his own hand than by the hands of ISIS. I said, ‘But these are your friends, people from the staff.’ And he replied, ‘Yes, but they’ve also been recruited for this mission.’”