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May 23, 2017 12:06 pm

US Veterans in Israel: Memorial Day Profiles in Courage and Healing

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US Army veteran Iggy Padilla at the Western Wall. Photo: Courtesy of Jewish National Fund. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 20 veterans commit suicide across the US each day. But an organization providing spiritual healing, suicide prevention and peer support programming for veterans believes that Israel is part of the solution.

Leading up to Memorial Day, is spotlighting the stories of six American veterans who traveled to Israel with the Heroes to Heroes Foundation, which works with veterans suffering from mental and emotional stress. The foundation’s Israel programming is sponsored in part by the Jewish National Fund’s Boruchin Israel Education and Advocacy Center.

Igrain “Iggy” Padilla, 55, of Concord, North Carolina, spent 12 years in field artillery with the US Army, and 14 years in the military police. His tours of duty included deployments to Iraq, where he was physically injured in a head-on collision with a suspected bomber vehicle, and to Afghanistan, where he inspected sites at which US soldiers were killed or injured due to accidents.

“I came home in 2012 on medical retirement, and began having depression, nightmares, mood swings. It got so bad that I felt I had lost my identity, lost all interest in life. I couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything, and I started drinking too much. I was 50-years-old and didn’t know what to do,” he says.

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Iggy’s wife told him about Heroes to Heroes.

“I’m a religious Christian, and when I heard that the program would take me to Jerusalem, I got really excited — because who gets a chance like this to come to the Holy Land?” he says.

Iggy says that the trip to Israel “opened my eyes about how to communicate and have a relationship with people I don’t even know.”

Malik Haleem Swinton, 38, of Las Vegas, was deployed to Germany with the US Army and sustained injuries while in Bosnia and Kosovo, from jumping out of vehicles and helicopters. He also suffered psychological and emotional wounds that he can’t speak about because of their classified nature.

Malik left the military in 2001, and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he began having mood swings, insomnia and attitude problems. He thought about suicide. Yet he didn’t connect his state of mind with his military service until 2004, when he sought medical help. He resisted doctors’ diagnoses until 2012, when he sought treatment at a VA hospital, and — to his relief — learned that his records would be kept confidential.

It took Malik two years to apply and be accepted to Heroes to Heroes, but he believes that the wait was worth it.

“Now, finally, I can talk to people who have had experiences similar to mine, people who don’t judge me and who offer camaraderie and fellowship,” he says.

Edwin Henderson, 36, of Houston, Texas, was deployed to Iraq with the US Army. He says that his physical injuries were minor compared to the psychological issues he suffered. Among other things, he saw a good friend get shot in the head, and another lose his leg.

“Certain images have stayed with me and continue to haunt me,” he says.

Edwin thought of suicide, and came to feel that he had lost his relationship with God. Now, the former Bible student who once aspired to be a minister, says that the Heroes to Heroes trip to Israel has “awakened a recharge in me. It’s like God saying, ‘Look, I created you for something more than what you think you were put on this Earth for.’ I’m still on a journey of trying to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing, but being [in Israel] brings me back to when I was in school, to before Iraq.”

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