Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)
An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through.
“What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, executive director and co-founder of Brothers for Life, told The Algemeiner.
His group organizes sessions for wounded Israeli combat soldiers to spend time with injured U.S. veterans, for half a day, a full day or up to a full week.
Upon meeting, for the first few hours, the group will warm up with a sporting event. Soon the soldiers begin talking among themselves and opening up about the challenges they face, and sharing what has helped them recover.
The soldiers create “a really special bond” in the short period of time that they spend together, Levine told The Algemeiner. Often the soldiers will accomplish in a day what would typically take a year with a psychiatrist.
A recent meeting in Boston brought together about 25 U.S. veterans and 10 Israeli soldiers. The group spent a day at Gillette Stadium playing football and the Israeli beach sport “matkot,” before sharing lunch.
Aside from Boston, the organization has brought together Israeli and U.S. soldiers in several other cities including Washington, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
“There’s a tremendous amount of sharing that goes on and bonding, and so it usually ends up with the guys becoming best friends after a few hours,” Levine said. “We find that after only a few minutes as we begin to speak about our injuries and PTSD, and attempt to return to our lives, we literally start to finish each others sentences. Only combat soldiers who have fought and been injured can understand this.”
“The kind of brotherhood that they have, it’s a very powerful thing.”
Levine said one wounded U.S. Marine sent his Purple Heart to the Israeli soldiers at the Brothers for Life center in Israel. Another U.S. veteran minted a coin featuring an Israeli and American flag together as a symbol of the bond he felt with the Israeli soldiers.
Levine, who served in the IDF, likened the organization to a “huge non-profit brigade.” As within an army, everyone involved has a mission, which in this case is to help others heal.
“They have the same enemy; same blood,” said Arale Wattenstein, the external relations coordinator for the group. “If a bullet hits you, it hits everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or Israeli.”
Wattenstein served as an officer in Israel’s Paratroopers Brigade. He was injured during an anti-terror operation in the West Bank and was among the first Israelis to participate in a Brothers for Life meeting. That meeting of IDF soldiers and U.S. veterans took place on May 11, 2010 in Seattle, Washington, with American soldiers from the U.S. Ft. Lewis Warrior Transition Battalion.
Later in 2010, Washington State sent a delegation to Israel of injured U.S. veterans along with the State Attorney General to learn about the Brothers for Life model for healing. After returning to America, the U.S. veterans established Growing Veterans, a “soldiers helping soldiers” peer support program modeled after Brothers for Life. The latter organization likes to count this among their successes.
Growing Veterans’ Chris Brown, its founder and director, is a former U.S. Marine who was part of the delegation that traveled to Israel in 2010. He describes the profound impact it had on him:
“I think the example that the Israelis set is probably one of the most beneficial things that U.S. veterans can get because in Israeli culture it seems to be a lot easier to share your story and to articulate the struggle that you have,” said Brown.
“That doesn’t come as easy for U.S. veterans and so I think that this example alone, through the interaction, can go a long way.”
Levine pointed out that Israelis are naturally more forthright and have “less boundaries” when it comes to emotions, tears and sharing feelings, which has proven to be helpful for the American vets because it can create an environment in which they are comfortable enough to do the same. Wattenstein, who first came to Brothers for Life seeking help before becoming a mentor, told The Algemeiner he finds joy and excitement in teaching the soldiers how to be open with each other.
“First you get help, then you give help,” he said.
“What our guys discovered was that ethos; that dedication to selflessness and service. That giving is what gets them through,” he added. “They can apply that to their injury as it relates to other soldiers and they heal each other.”
Brothers for Life was founded by Levine in 2007 along with Gil Ganonyan and Yaniv Leidner, former Israeli soldiers who were wounded in battle and now serve as the organization’s general manager and deputy general manager, respectively.
A year earlier, during the Second Lebanon War, Levine and Leidner along with other leaders from the Seattle Jewish community, visited Haifa’s Rambam hospital hoping to somehow help Israeli soldiers wounded in battle.
When Ganoyan spoke to wounded troops at the hospital, Levine noticed the immediate connection developing between the former soldier and the wounded troops because of their shared experience.
“Gil started telling them ‘Hey, I was also in that bed. I got shot in the neck. I promise you you’re gonna get better, your gonna get your life back,’” Levine recalled. “We just could see the soldiers, this unbelievable connection they had to him and we saw just how much hope it gave them, to meet a guy whose been in it themselves.”
“We came to Gil afterwards and said ‘Gil, you gotta go back to this hospital… because there’s something you can do that no one else can do.’”
About 10 months later, these wounded troops were released from the hospital and Levine invited them to visit Seattle for a week.
“We started asking questions. ‘What are you not getting? What do you need?’ And really, obviously during that week, we could see, wow, there’s something we can do for each other that no one else can do.”
The shared similar experience with another soldier is what Brown found refreshing and humbling when he visited Israel in 2010. Seeing military veterans in a foreign country, who fought similar enemies and experienced the same type of physical and psychological hardships, “kind of normalized the experience a little more for me,” he said.
Brown’s Growing Veterans meetings with Israelis take place every few months in the U.S. After a successful trip to Israel in December 2014, the organization now has plans to bring a group of wounded U.S. veterans to Israel annually so they can continue to facilitate bonds with the Israelis.
Wattenstein said the Israeli attitude has helped the Americans tremendously. “For them I think it’s a big issue and a problem to understand that you need to live with a bullet inside of you, to live with a prosthetic leg or with something bigger, God forbid. And for us that’s our life,” he explained. “That’s how we live. In Israel, every second person has PTSD. So you have to live. You have to smile.”