From left to right: Seth Meney, Matthew Pennington, Tomer Weinberg and Amit Zohar. Photo: Bentzi Sasson.
“What do I say to her when I’m about to go over the edge?” asks Dan Meir, a 36-year-old from Tel Aviv, who wants to know how he can help his girlfriend deal with his symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Meir is taking part in the first ever program for American and Israeli veterans who suffer from PTSD. Most of the men who sit with him on the second floor of the Marriott on Lexington Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan, have narrowly escaped death in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or the Gaza Strip. A few have lost limbs and others have visible scars from shrapnel, bullets, or IEDs. Most have seen their friends die in front of their eyes.
The veterans, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have flown in for a free trip to New York to sight-see and have fun, thanks to Rabbi Uriel and Shevy Vigler, directors of the Chabad Israel Center of the Upper East Side and Belev Echad, which has brought groups of wounded Israeli soldiers to New York. This time, American vets have come as well. There’s also some serious artillery in the form of Ben Patton, who is running his 36th “I Was There” film workshop (iwastherefilms.org ). That’s what makes this event special: with the help of professional filmmakers, the veterans will shoot, edit, score, and produce short films that deal with their experiences.
They’ve just seen a short film that John and Kelly Muchetti made at Patton’s workshop in November, which the couple credits with helping to save their marriage. John, 36, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was nearly killed by an IED. He tells Dan Meir to let his girlfriend know she is not to blame for his emotions and must be open with her.
“It’s not therapy per se, but it’s therapeutic,” explains Ben Patton. “In a way, (with PTSD) they kind of have to edit what they are feeling and what they are seeing and piece things together. So I thought that making a film is a similar process that would allow them to access their emotions…”
In an interview outside the room, Meir says he was nine years old when a terrorist threw a grenade at him that ripped off his left leg and nearly killed him. He later went on to serve in the IDF, though not in combat. He said he could barely sleep when it was announced that the terrorist who threw the grenade at him would be released by Israel in the trade for Gilad Shalit. Ultimately, the terrorist was not released.
“PTSD is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have it,” Meir said. “It’s like you’re a football player who gets hit outside of the field but somehow you are still inside the game. And you can seem fine to anyone and nobody would know what you are going through.”
There is no cure for PTSD, explains Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University, who was on hand interviewing some of the veterans as part of the program. She said therapy is often helpful and survivor’s guilt is something that many grapple with. One such veteran is Tomer Weinberg.
In Times Square, as his group shot their film, the 34-year-old recalled the fateful day in July of 2006 when he was on duty with his friends Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on the Israeli Lebanese Border. Hezbollah launched a surprise attack. His friends were kidnapped, and soon would be dead; others were killed immediately and a war would soon begin.
“It was very quick and I was hit with quite a few bullets and shrapnel,” he said. “I jumped out and tried to move away. Somehow they didn’t see me and somehow I survived. It’s hard to deal with and it’s something that will stay with me forever and doesn’t heal. But if I can be around other soldiers who have had similar experiences, it can help to release some of the pain.”
At the hotel, Seth Meney worked on the film with Weinberg. The 34-year-old from Texas said that although he wasn’t physically injured while serving in Afghanistan, there were emotional injuries.
“It took me three years before I got help,” Meney said. “When you’re the tip of the spear, you’re supposed to be able to handle any situation.” “Before, I could control my emotions. After getting back, I’d be watching ‘America’s Got Talent’ and a judge would tell someone they were so good and I’d start crying. I had survivor’s guilt, wondering why I’m here when people I served with died.”
The star of the film they are working on is Matthew Pennington, who has a prosthetic left leg after being wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2006. There are scars on his right leg, and the 32-year-old, who is originally from Virginia, said he stayed conscious when his vehicle was hit.
“I didn’t look down,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to live with that mental image in my head. I know I was lucky to come out alive and my men survived. The thing that kept me going was my faith and the knowledge that there is a divine plan.”
After 23 surgeries, he physically improved. He said he had nightmares and anger issues, but now he is much better and even speaks to other vets about PTSD.
“My wife is a superstar and she’s supported me from Day One,” he said. “If not for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Pennington shows his humor, when his prosthetic leg knocks over a computer cord, as he takes a smoke break from working on his short film.
“That damn no feeling thing,” he says.
It is clear that there are differences between veterans of the two countries. They speak about how military service is mandatory in Israel but by volunteer in America. The Americans sport tattoos and don’t understand why the Israelis have none. The Israelis are jealous at the size of the American soldier’s paycheck and more importantly, the luxury of not having to fight in one’s own backyard. The Americans are jealous of the respect that Israelis get in their country. In Israel, the death of one soldier is a national tragedy. In America, the death of a soldier might not make the evening news.
“There is a disconnect where the American public doesn’t pay as much attention to soldiers as you’d expect,” said Sprit Padilla, 47, who lives in the Bronx and served in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991. “Most Americans don’t even know someone in the military, and in Israel someone in your family served or is serving.”
Things are looking up for him, he said, but he will never forget his downward spiral.
“I self-medicated. I became, a drunk, a derelict, and a drug addict,” he said. “My saving grace was that after I was done with the Army, I never picked up another weapon. I think this program is a great opportunity to help people deal with issues in a creative way.”
There are also similarities between the two groups. They have trouble communicating with their families. A sudden loud noise may jar them. And they say they’ve battled the same enemy: not all Muslims, as Left-wing extremists would like to suggest, but radicalized Muslims who see America and Israel as the enemy that must be destroyed. Now the men are fighting for their own future. So would a film workshop with strangers really make any difference in battling PTSD?
Chen Shwartz didn’t think so, at first. The 20-year-old from Rishon LeZion, walks with a cane after his commander sent him to get his knee fixed in Jerusalem. It happened on the way.
“I felt a tap on my shoulder and I turned around,” he said. “A terrorist put a gun to my stomach and shot me three times. I was right near the hospital, I had a few blood transfusions and it was only by a miracle I survived.”
Kobi Suissa, 30 of Haifa, said he considered himself a dead man several times and was hit with shrapnel in Lebanon. He said he sometimes has anxiety and difficulty sleeping. He said making the film was helpful and inspiring.
He also said he appreciates support from the public, but needed to make a correction.
“We are not heroes,” he said. “We are just doing our job.”
Amit Zohar 22, said he appreciated that the Americans said they had their backs and in turn they would have the backs of the Americans. Zohar, whose leg and arm were injured by an RPG ricochet in the Gaza Strip, said the trip was extremely helpful to him.
On July 19, the last full day of day of the trip, the groups showed their films and spoke about making them. Gelband explained that music was therapeutic to him because when shrapnel hit his right hand in the Gaza Strip, he thought he would never play piano again. He was inspired by a song from Israeli musician Idan Raichel, and when his hand got better, the artist came to play piano with him at the hospital.
Jack Moneymaker 24, got lots of applause from the room for his film “Heavy Weight.” In it, he puts bricks into a backpack and each brick had the name of a type of stress or the name of a soldier who was killed. In the end, he left the bricks behind – doing something to lessen his burden.
“I think it was a great program and making the film allowed me to show things that I think resonated with the other soldiers,” said Moneymaker, who was injured by an IED in Kabul and had to have numerous surgeries.
Muchetti, who has a service dog that notifies him minutes before he gets a seizure – he has temporal limbic epilepsy – speaks to the group and in one sentence sums up what he hopes everyone will take away from the trip.
“Those feelings… they don’t deserve to be in charge of you,” he says, in tears.
Dan Meir credited Patton for great emotional support and Vigler for organizing the program, which he said gave him strength. He said he will be making a rock album about his injury and experiences.
“I had doubts about it, but it was really life-changing,” Meir said. “It’s good to come to New York and see people like you and know that you are not the only one. What I like about making this film is that it allows you to work with others that are going through the same thing, but also because it allows you to control and change the narrative. The narrative isn’t ‘I’m haunted and how will I go on?’ It becomes ‘Someone tried to kill me. And I’m still alive.’”