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What have I done! - A Hundred Soldiers
treated for ‘Intifada Syndrome’

by Ethan Rabin

They joined the most elite of units, full of motivation. They served terms of three years and more, fought in the hardest battles of the intifada, but also had to face the civilian Palestinian population. Now that they had been discharged the difficulties are exposed, the personal problems and crises. Dozens of them went on backpacking trips to the Far East where they became drug addicted to Heroine, Cocaine and other hard drugs. Some tried to commit suicide.

In face of this difficult situation, reserve colonel Omri Frish, former combat officer and a social worker by training, took the initiative of trying to save these "backpacking soldiers". He and several other former officers had set up the Izun Rehabilitation Village near Caesarea. In fact, when we set up the village, we just knew that more and more of the young Israelis who go on backpacking trips to India, Thailand and other places, are coming back in a condition of total collapse and are in urgent need of help. But when we took up the task of helping them, we realized that in the majority of cases the phenomenon is related to experiences of military service prior to their going abroad. So we decided to take up all cases of former combat soldiers in crisis, also those who had not gone first through the Far East. We made the new Rehabilitation Village known and were staggered by the number of calls we got, from ex-soldiers and especially parents - more than 900 so far.

The parents told very painful stories of sons becoming drug addicts and trying to commit suicide. Many of them were veterans of the most prestigious elite units such as Sayeret Matkal, the Naval Commandos and Duchifat. One of the main issues arising in talks with the soldiers is the Intifada. "The soldiers burst out crying and accuse themselves of mistreating Palestinians and humiliating them. Now, after being discharged, the vision of what they had done is playing itself in their minds like a non-stop film. Suddenly the soldier, the tough fighter who had been nicknamed 'Rambo', goes to India. There he experiences another reality, a quiet and peaceful situation. When he comes back he realizes what he had done. He tries to escape from reality, to escape into drugs, and his life becomes a ruin" says one of the doctors.

It is difficult to categorize precisely the mental damage caused to the soldiers. "It is not exactly shell shock. It is not precisely a post- traumatic condition, either. It is just a very severe mental crisis. This situation is a real time bomb," says a senior ‘IDF’ officer. One of the main problems arising, especially in treating former members of elite units, is extreme anxiety about failure. "These people are not taught to accept the possibility of failure. In these elite units they are told that failure is unacceptable, and the at a 90% success also counts as failure. When you are 18, 19 or 20 you can believe in such standards. Afterwards, they become more realistic - but that's too late. When you tell soldiers that failure is completely unacceptable and they nevertheless fail, they just break. Then they go into a mental crisis and get into drugs. The drugs help them to rearrange the reality".

One of the staff's main problems is the patients' strong feeling that it is illegitimate to break, to cry or ask for help. "They were told that they are supermen, and supermen don't ask for help. Supermen can solve all problems by themselves. But they don't succeed to solve all the problems, and then they go around with an enormous guilt feeling, a feeling that they are worth nothing". S., a former paratrooper fighter who is under treatment for the past three months, said: "We went into houses. We saw children and old people crying. We shot at their TV sets. At the time you feel no pity, you just have a job to do and you do it. But when afterwards you sit at home, you start realizing what you have done and it hurts you deeply." Since the village was opened, hundreds of parents asked to have their sons treated there.

So far, 120 people were treated, about a 100 of them discharged soldiers. "The problems are severe. Soldiers who killed Palestinians, soldiers who by mistake killed a fellow soldier, soldiers who failed in their military tasks. When we ask 'why did you do it', they say 'I don't know why, it was as if there was another person inside me'" says Omri. "There are cases where the request for help comes too late. There was an officer of Sayeret Matkal who fought against the Palestinians for two consecutive years. After discharge he went to Thailand and became a drug addict. In Israel he went on to become a very heavy cocaine user. His parents called and asked us to help him. We agreed but on the day before he was due to arrive here he was found dead in his room". Another former fighter had gone to Latin America and became hooked on the cactus-derived San Pedro drug. He drank it and went under the table and refused to come out. He said 'No, no, I can't go out, I am on ambush.' He also refused to take food and drink, and said 'You don't eat and drink while on ambush'. This is one of the seeming successes, the man is now trying to find a job and rebuild his life.

A former fighter of the Duvdevan Special Forces unit, only recently discharged from the army, told: "We all the time went into houses and confronted the Palestinians. Many of them were innocent. At the time, we did not care. We were told that that was our assignment that we had to do our job, and we did it. Now I am sorry for some of the things I did. I can do nothing, I have no work and I talk to nobody. I just sit all day watching animated films on the children's TV network, and from time to time I get up and start hitting my head against the wall, and I don't know why I am doing it. Another soldier said: "I served three years in the territories. We killed dozens of terrorists. I saw my friends getting killed. It made me very nervous. A few months ago I went on drive in my parents' car. Somebody bypassed in his car, and that made me angry. I chased him, caught him at a traffic light and then I just opened his door, dragged him out of his car and started to beat him up."(...)

A whole group of soldiers who needed treatment were those concerned with liquidating the senior terrorist Iyad Batat, a year and half ago. "At first we were happy and elated with our success. We posed for photographs over the remnants of the mangled body, some of us smiling and laughing while holding his torn-off organs. Suddenly, a few weeks later, the Operations Officer came, reprimanded us and demanded that we hand over those photographs. He burned them in front of us and warned us never to take such photos again.

When we started realizing what we had done we felt very upset. A short time later, two of us went to party where they took a lot of Ecstasy pills. They came back to camp totally doped. We had to take away their guns and close them up in a room, until the psychiatrists came to take them. One of them didn't recognize anybody, and was all the time shouting "Muhammad, Muhammad, Muhammad." He became totally crazy. The intifada has finished him."

Translated from Ma'ariv Newspaper