Very few of us can truly understand and appreciate what war veterans, especially those who have been in combat, suffered wounds, trauma, moral injury or PTSD, live through. It takes a Hero to know a Hero.
That was the underlying principle that guided Judy Schaffer when, in March 2010, she decided to establish the “Heroes to Heroes” Foundation, a non denominational organization which provides a spiritual healing, suicide prevention and peer support program for veterans (http://www.heroestoheroes.org/about/our-program/). Part of the project includes organizing missions to Israel for teaming US war veterans with their IDF counterpart. The first team arrived in Israel in September 2011. There have been five altogether.
The idea to set up such a program first planted itself in Judy’s mind following a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (then in Washington D.C. and now in Bethesda). Cliff Nolen, one of the board members of the Foundation who is also the Head of the New Jersey Teamsters Union and Chair of Political Action, invited her to join him there to visit some veterans. Judy came out of this experience a changed person. When she walked out of the Medical Center, she felt “like the mother of soldiers.”
As part of a family where both her grandfather and father served in the US army, Judy is well familiar with the manner in which combat can affect the lives of those who partake in it. The visit to Walter Reed Medical Center and what she learned as a result alerted her that though the veterans received physical and emotional rehabilitation, the element of spiritual healing was absent.
“I realized that there was an urgent need to make these veterans aware that what they experienced in combat and the outcome of it had nothing to do with them or who they were,” she told me during our telephone interview. “We decided to connect them with Israeli soldiers as they would be more likely to understand them and accept them. Israeli soldiers know what a combat vet is and, like them, know the face of the devil first hand.”
Each of the teams in the “Heroes to Heroes” program includes ten Americans, five Israelis and two team coaches.
When in Israel, each person can connect to the healing process in several ways:
- Spiritually –Visits to holy sites such as The Western Wall, Stations of the Cross, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River, offer soul searching and inner peace regardless of belief.
- Emotionally – Planting trees in memory of the dead and in honor of the living, visiting sites including Masada, battlefields and memorials, Yad Vashem and the 9/11 Memorial in Jerusalem provide reflection and self examination.
- Physically – Cycling, swimming, sailing, kayaking and keeping to an itinerary all push each participant physically and is an important part of the team building experience.
- Socially – Team meetings to conclude each day, visits to veterans’ organizations and bonding with Israeli partners help the vets redevelop social skills that may be repressed due to PTS, trauma and depression.
Last week, I had the honor to accompany Judy and her team for a visit to the Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer where many of the wounded soldiers from the last Israel – Gaza war are undergoing rehabilitation. We were joined by Governor and Mrs. Huckabee who were visiting Israel at the time.
It was heartwarming to see the forging of the connection between the American and Israeli war veterans. Especially touching were the moments when the former were handing out a copy of the Purple Heart medal, the highest award given to U.S. soldiers who were wounded or killed in combat, to their Israeli counterparts. There was not a single dry eye to be seen. Like Judy, I, too, came out f that experience a changed person.
We wish the Israeli wounded a speedy recovery. To Judy and the “Heroes to Heroes” program, we offer every blessing and hope to continue to see your teams here in the years to come.