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Israeli soldiers fight combat stress on Dutch sailing boat

By dpa news     Sep 12, 2007 in Politics
Thirty Israeli war veterans have been taking part in an experimental combat stress programme in the Netherlands, in what has been a first for all involved.
The pilot programme, initiated and coordinated by an organization called Back to Life and the Israel Centre for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, has included veterans of an Israeli military rescue unit deployed to Lebanon during last year's conflict with Hezbollah militants.
They had been responsible for taking wounded and fallen soldiers from the war zone back to Israel.
The participants, mostly in their 20s, spent a week sailing from island to island on the Wadden Sea in the Dutch north. Twice daily, they attended group psychotherapy sessions.
"It was the first time we looked back on our war experience," Noat, 22, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, adding: "After the war, we just returned to our lives and put the war aside."
"Our families, friends and colleagues did not experience the war with us. So we never spoke about it afterwards. This week on the ship, with everyone who went through the same war experiences, we could finally talk about it."
Yigal, 28, said Israeli soldiers in the same unit hardly ever meet outside the military framework. "Only once per year, for reserve duty," he says.
But why don't young Israeli military discuss their war experience with older male relatives, all of whom experienced war, having served in the army themselves?
"You don't do that because they have not gone through the exact same thing you have," says 28-year old Boaz.
But Ilan Lior, who initiated and coordinates the Dutch pilot programme, has a different theory: "Young military don't talk to older relatives about war experiences because they want to protect them, particularly their parents."
According to Lior, a programme that actively urges soldiers to confront their war experience is important because Israeli troops are reluctant to broach psychological problems.
Israel's macho culture and the fear of appearing to be a "loser" inhibits them. Soldiers also fear the army will downgrade their military profile, which determines military employability, if they ask for psychological assistance.
"An Israeli soldier who is officially diagnosed with post- traumatic stress syndrome, will see his profile downgraded," Lior said, while many fear the long-term negative impacts on both their military and civil careers.
Israeli combat soldiers serve one month of reserve duty per year until the age of 45.
In civilian life, Lior is a businessman who works in Israel's building industry and heads the Back to Life organisation, which previously organized similar programmes for young cancer survivors.
The current programme for Israeli soldiers is the first of its kind and the effects are to be scientifically analyzed.
"The participants received questionnaires before they left and will fill out similar ones afterwards," explains Daniel Brom.
Brom is director of the Jerusalem-based Israel Centre for the Treatment of Psychotrauma which is responsible for the academic research.
"The Israeli army does very little before, during and after war experiences to help soldiers deal with combat stress," says Brom.
"Our programme fills a gap. Many young Israelis travel abroad for a year after army service. In Israel, this is known as 'clearing your head'. We however think it points to a lack of psychological assistance in the Israeli army to its recruits."
"The lack of proper mental health assistance in the army forces young people to find alternative ways of dealing with the hardships they encountered."
Enabling young Israelis to go straight from the army to university or the workforce has many advantages, not least macro-economical ones.
Compared with their international peers, Israeli adults are relatively old when they begin university or enter the workforce.
Most do so following two years of compulsory army duty for women and three for men. Spending one year abroad delays that even further.
"One of the questions we want to solve is, how to help young adults bridge the gap from military to civil life and how to cope with war experiences without having to travel the world," Brom pointed out.
Dutch-born Brom is aware of the many mental health programmes for military in the Netherlands and other Western countries, particularly for troops sent on missions abroad.
In the Netherlands, even the relatives of troops sent abroad are included in mental health care programmes which begin while the soldiers are still in the country and continue when they return.
"It is too easy to say Israel does not have money for such programmes. On a scale of one to 100, I would say a lack of money makes up 30 per cent of problem, while the remaining 70 per cent is simply denial of the need for mental health care programms for the military," Brom said.
Many obstacles still have to be overcome in Israel because "psychotherapy today is not a socially accepted way of dealing with war experiences for soldiers," he added.
"Meanwhile our programme tries to do something different than the army does. The army deals exclusively with people who have been diagnosed to suffer from combat stress, " Lior said.
"We however offer something to people who never indicated any problems. We do it in a different setting as well - with fun, a beautiful setting in nature. We create the ideal situation for intimate talks about difficult experiences."
A second group of Israeli military is due to go to Paris soon at the invitation of the local Jewish community, who co-sponsors the expenses of their trip. dpa rl pb