Moral Injury: Israel Helps US Military Veterans Heal

US Veteran Sebastian D. Munevar at the Kotel

“In a war for their souls,” thirty US veterans made a 10-day journey to Israel in May. These Heroes-to-Heroes Foundation (HTH) US veterans experienced Israel in a unique way designed to explore their faith, fight for their lives, and help them heal. One veteran, Sebastian D. Munevar told me it was a “life changing experience.”

More than 17 US veterans, on average, take their own lives each day. Alarmingly, the rate of US veteran suicides has increased by 11.6% from 2020.

Numerous governmental and private initiatives exist to address this terrible and heartbreaking scourge. HTH, a non-profit largely funded by Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF), is different.

US veterans of all faiths – and no faith – who have attempted suicide, or are on a path to self-destruction, join HTH’s 12-month, research-based, non-denominational program. HTH is premised on the concept that “moral injury”, the guilt and shame about incidents that occurred during a veteran’s military service, is the underlying cause of many suicides.

According to Judy Elias, who founded HTH in 2011, healing comes from a sense of belonging, spiritual/faith connection and finding forgiveness. The organization’s cornerstone 10-day journey to Israel, where veterans make deep spiritual connections, distinguishes it from all other suicide prevention programs.

I first heard about HTH at JNF’s 2023 Global Conference for Israel. Shawn Jordan, an HTH alumnus, was a panelist in the plenary session “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Stand Up for Israel.” He was passionate about his trip to Israel, his deep connection to the Jewish homeland and his IDF buddies.

While I know little about the US military, and have not been directly touched by suicide, I was moved by what I heard at JNF’s conference and wanted to find out more.

Judy told me the organization’s goal is to get each hero past “I’m an awful person because of what I did” and “G-d wishes me dead,” to a place where that person can overcome his or her shame and guilt, connect with a “higher power”, find what it takes to achieve forgiveness from another and then find their own forgiveness.

She says the approach is conducted in a judgment-free, safe environment and is different for each person but “a connection to faith/spirituality is crucial.”

HTH welcomes combat veterans of all military conflicts. Participants work as a team with a coach who has undergone his or her own healing journey via HTH. Mental health professionals and Orthodox rabbis provide support.

The program involves measurable goal setting, identifying the root of the individual’s moral injury, determining each person’s values and whether they are living those values. Participants identify tools to manage day-to-day life and work on spiritual healing.

Goals are achieved via team meetings, one-on-one conferences, written assignments, and family involvement.

Five months into the program, the team meets in person for the first time at the airport prior to leaving for Israel. Two IDF soldiers join each Israel journey.

In the program’s final phase, veterans develop a life plan and path to community reintegration. Believing a “lifetime of healing” is necessary, HTH provides for ongoing coaching and 24/7 alumni chats once the 12-month program is completed.

Although HTH does not proselytize, it does incorporate Jewish viewpoints regarding, for example, atonement, redemption, and faith practices like Shabbat and keeping kosher. Another element involves “theodicy”, an examination of why a loving and powerful G-d allows evil to exist.

Judy says most Christian vets only want to talk with a rabbi rather than clergy of their own faith – this may reflect Judaism’s direct approach to connecting with G-d rather than through an intermediary or Judaism’s more active approach to forgiveness.

I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical but wanted to know more – particularly about the research underlying HTH’s program.

I found out that there is considerable research about moral injury. Indeed, the US Veterans Administration is planning its own study to determine the prevalence of moral injury in the US veteran population.

I also learned that HTH’s program largely reflects the work of Joseph M. Currier, PhD., J. Irene Harris, PhD., and Andrew H. Smith, PhD. Their research focuses on topics like spiritually integrated mental healthcare, spiritual support groups for veteran trauma survivors and rewiring for community integration. I also read about a three-year, recently completed study of HTH that showed positive results.

All this was eye opening. But I needed insights about two more things: what compelled Judy to found HTH and how the journey to Israel fits into HTH’s paradigm.

Judy told me that her childhood was stressful. In retrospect, she realizes that her father, Master Sergeant Irving M. Isaacson, a WWII veteran who volunteered to help other veterans, suffered from PTSD.

Judy was a “very angry kid” when she went on a United Synagogue Youth trip to Israel at age sixteen. The trip was transformative. “Israel saved my life” and “changed my life’s direction” she said. It gave her a deep “personal kinship with the Jewish people” and the belief that she owes something to the Jewish homeland.

After a successful career in finance, Judy changed course. She delved into issues regarding suicide and founded HTH to honor her father and help save lives.

Now an Orthodox Jew, Judy believes veterans experience a “spiritual awakening” on their Israel journey, perhaps similar to hers, and that this “awakening” carries over to real life.

Virtually all HTH US vets who come to Israel are visiting for the first time. They are mostly Christian. Some have no faith. The two IDF soldiers who join the trip are Jewish. This May, one of the US veterans was Muslim.

Throughout the 10-day period, participants get deep insights about their own faith including that Jesus was Jewish. They communicate more with a “higher power,” more clearly understand the meaning of forgiveness and learn how to continue building spiritual strength when they return home.

Accompanied by the team’s coach, a spiritual coach, an Israeli guide and an observant Jewish couple, veterans visit places of religious and military significance including Masada, Tabgha, Latrun, the steps to the Temple Mount, Yad Vashem, Bethlehem, Ammunition Hill, the Kotel, and Israel’s 9/11 memorial.

Sebastian spoke about the Kotel with deep feeling. He said “The Lord preserves Israel for the benefit of all. This was more obvious to me at the Kotel. Although I was born … far from the Promised Land, I was welcomed and allowed to share in the blessings … [and to discover that] the concept of chesed meant that my prayers could be delivered alongside anyone else’s.”

In addition to their personal spiritual growth on the Israel journey, the US veterans develop a connection to Israel, Israeli society, the Jewish people and Jewish traditions. They plant trees, meet with Special in Uniform IDF soldiers, experience a traditional Friday night dinner in Jerusalem and much more.

Sebastian said “the generosity, kindness and grace I’ve experienced in Israel, totally unearned and undeserved, has impressed upon me the practical ways in which God’s goodness is manifest in everyday life.” Ordinary things had an impact, from the Turkish coffee served by the group’s kindly Arab bus driver Ahmed, to the wealth of knowledge conveyed by Yoav, their Israeli tour guide. He said Israel is “clearly G-d’s providence; how else is all this goodness even possible.”

Although the May trip focused on the veterans’ personal healing, emotional and difficult discussions about the October 7 atrocities were inevitable. Josh, an IDF soldier who participated in HTH’s 2023 Israel trip, and is now fighting in Gaza, joined the group for dinner one night. He provided support and shared his perspectives about the war.

Now back home, Sebastian tells colleagues, family and friends that the October 7 victims “are so like us”, shares  the broader historical context of the war and says “with his own eyes”, he saw “Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existing in Jerusalem – far from the image of ‘apartheid’ or ‘genocide’ parroted by many in the mainstream media.”

Sadly, suicide, and mental health in general, are timely and relevant topics for the US and Israel. HTH has applied for grants to grow the capacity, scope and impact of its program. In an effort to save more lives, its ultimate goal is to become a training organization so various US and Israeli non-profits can model their own programs on HTH.

We pray for peace.  But that’s not our reality. For now, we must do whatever is possible to support, honor and save our heroes. On his Israel journey, Sebastian heard that “Israel is meant to be a light for all nations.” He told me “my time in Israel certainly lived up to that. I have seen the light!”

We can all hope that Israel will light the way for many others.

About the Author
Dvorah Richman is a lawyer, free-lance writer and, currently, the President of Jewish National Fund - USA's (JNF) Greater Washington Board and a member of its Special Needs and Disabilities Task Force.
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