Every year, as Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) approaches, I watch my husband’s entire demeanor change. His shoulders slump more, his normally cheerful disposition wanes, and his mind wanders. Like many Israelis, Gaby’s thoughts are primarily with the ones we have lost in battle. From his great uncle, one of the Lamed Heh, to a friend from his unit who died in a tragic car crash while out on leave.
But it’s more than just the memories of those we’ve lost that preoccupy his thoughts; it’s the memory of the moment he became a disabled veteran. At the end of his second year of mandatory military service in an elite unit, suffering from an infection and a temperature of more than 40C, he collapsed from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration, a kilometer before the end of a grueling four-night navigation hike in the North. Fortunately, they were able to save his life, but he sustained an irreversible brain injury. A once-healthy, -spry 21-year-old was suddenly discharged early from the army, coming face to face with a life that no longer held the possibilities he dreamed of before starting his mandatory army service.
Gaby endured hospitalization and difficult treatment programs, and spent more than a decade becoming a thriving member of Israeli society. We are fortunate that the Israeli government recognizes him as a disabled veteran, and their assistance in subsidizing medication, treatments and rehabilitation is crucial. Truth be told, we could not afford it without their help.
He fought against all odds to obtain his professional degree, and I cannot express the look of pride on his face when he stood at graduation to collect his diploma. The doctors said it could never happen; he had beaten the odds. Gaby spent years in therapy and treatments, and takes more medication than an octogenarian with a heart condition. And still, he thanks G-d every day that he is alive. He counts his blessings, and cherishes every single moment he spends with his children. They told him he would never marry or have children; he proved them wrong.
But, for some reason, the attitude toward disabled veterans in this country is not one of pride, but of indifference. As an American, I was shocked to realize that Israel has no equivalent to Veterans Day. There is no day where we honor our disabled veterans. Didn’t they also give for our country? Didn’t they also sacrifice to keep the Israeli people safe? Don’t our disabled veterans deserve to be honored, respected, and appreciated?
Disabled veterans, like my husband, are faced with daily challenges and humiliations. From individuals who assume that veterans without missing limbs or visible scar tissue, like my husband, are just faking in order to collect money from the government; to potential employers — and there were many — who wouldn’t hire my husband once they learned he was no longer an active army reservist; and to the private health insurance agencies who deny him extra coverage because of the injury he sustained during the army, ignoring both his disabled veteran status and countless physician letters and documentation that clearly makes him a worthy candidate for coverage.
When I hear about some of the callous and obnoxious things people have said to my husband upon finding out that he is a disabled veteran it fills me with rage. Do they think he likes being a disabled veteran? Do they think he doesn’t feel a little bit less of a man because he cannot serve as a reservist? Do they realize how devastated he feels knowing that he can never be a security guard on our children’s field trips because he is not permitted to handle a gun?
The only camaraderie he finds is at Beit Halochem, a wonderful facility where disabled veterans find treatment and healing. Did I mention it’s located near the Jerusalem zoo? Some might argue its location was picked because of the vast expanse of land; ask to my husband and he’ll tell you he feels its location is meant to keep disabled veterans isolated, separate, and away from public view.
All he wanted was to serve his country, which he did, but it came with a price. And what’s worse than his physical injury, than any physical pain, is the emotional pain he endures from people making him feel like his injury was his fault.
I’ve met many disabled veterans over the years, and they are truly humble and unassuming people. And, like my husband, they aren’t looking for fanfare, standing ovations or fireworks. They simply want to be recognized and appreciated for the physical and emotional pieces of themselves that were taken from them while they served in the army, protecting this wonderful country.