Yom Kippur veterans beseech: ‘Treat this whole country for trauma’ - opinion

Those who fought in Israel’s most devastating war and suffered severe trauma ask authorities not to wait before they treat soldiers and civilians alike for psychological damage.

RAMI GERSHON as a soldier (right) and today. (photo credit: RAMI GERSHON)
RAMI GERSHON as a soldier (right) and today.
(photo credit: RAMI GERSHON)

Last week, thousands of Israeli households marked 50 years since the outbreak of the war that has gone down in history as the country’s most devastating conflict – the Yom Kippur War, which began October 6, 1973, when an Arab-led coalition assaulted the country in a coordinated attack that was led by Syria and Egypt and supported by neighboring countries, chiefly Iraq and Jordan.

Black October

A brief glimpse at the numbers representing the tragedies behind the fighting, which notoriously took Israeli intelligence by surprise, can help one understand why the 19 days of battle are often referred to as “Black October.”

Among a population of slightly over 3,000,000 at the time, 2,656 soldiers died in the war; an additional 7,251 soldiers were physically and mentally wounded; and 294 fell captive in enemy territory.

Only a day after veterans and their families gathered in memory of their loved ones, a tragedy of a magnitude that is only beginning to make itself known with each passing day has taken Israel by surprise once more. The human toll that this war is already claiming is yet another reason for the comparison. As of press time, a staggering number of 1,200 people were killed on the Israeli front; security assessments indicate that 130 individuals, among them mothers, young children and foreign nationals, were kidnapped by Hamas and are currently held hostage in the Gaza Strip.

“I may have been released, but I never came back out of captivity”

 SHAUL ABIR during his military service. (credit: Courtesy)
SHAUL ABIR during his military service. (credit: Courtesy)

The current war is causing old and painful memories to resurface for many of the Yom Kippur veterans.

“Yesterday I drove to the airport to bring home one of my family members who had just landed, when suddenly I heard rocket alerts. I had to stop the car, get out, run for cover and duck,” shares Natan Margalit, a Yom Kippur War veteran who was a 19-year-old soldier on active duty when the 1973 war began.

“Saying that this was unpleasant would be an understatement. My generation paid such a heavy price, and we were promised that such oversight won’t happen again, that a crisis like that wouldn’t be repeated. Since Saturday I can’t help but think that what’s happening now is even worse,” he says in a telephone conversation conducted with The Jerusalem Post from his Petah Tikva residence.

Margalit recalls that he and his team tried to alert higher-ups when the war had just begun, but their concerns were dismissed and they were told that “it’s just a drill.”

From there, things escalated quickly. Margalit was captured by Egyptian Army forces, and was held hostage for close to three months in a dark room, where he was blindfolded and handcuffed for the majority of the duration of his captivity. The war, and particularly the time spent abducted, scarred Margalit for life.

“At first I thought I was fine,” he remembers. “After I was released from captivity and the war ended, I even went on to become an officer in the army; I insisted upon it. I got married, had children, and got a job. But 20 years later the IDF invited me to take a poll they gave to war veterans, and upon reading my answers they realized I suffered from post-trauma.”

Asked how the post-trauma impacted his life, Margalit brings up numerous examples, from the mundane to the most profound aspects of life. “I would take on countless shifts in my job with the health services just so that I wouldn’t have to spend time with my family and deal with all the rage I felt,” says the 69-year-old. “I couldn’t get a driver’s license. I couldn’t go to the cinema or to restaurants, because I hated being in closed spaces; if I reluctantly agreed to go, I would always sit near the aisle, where one could easily escape and see the exit.”

Margalit laments that at the time of his service and in subsequent years, there wasn’t enough research or awareness of the importance of providing soldiers with psychological treatment and evaluation. Now, even after years of therapy, he says: “I may have been released, but in a deep sense I never came back out of captivity. I can’t even stand to think of the soldiers and the civilians who are held hostage as we speak.”

No one left unscathed

Rami Gershon, 73, a decorated retired officer who served in the special forces and is one of the founders of Duvdevan – a unit in the Commando Brigade notable for its undercover operations – is also feeling the impact of the rising tensions.

Gershon and his wife, who usually reside in the northern kibbutz Adamit, were warned by friends that the northern front might heat up as well. They left their home for Tel Aviv, where they are currently waiting for the war to end. “I can’t stop reading and watching the news, but it literally makes my skin crawl, because I know exactly what it means to lose friends on the battlefield. When I saw the images of young soldiers carrying corpses out of the Gaza border communities, I remembered doing the exact same thing in the Kippur war.”

“When Kippur happened I was a 23-year-old kid. I didn’t understand what it meant to go into war, although it wasn’t my first round of fighting,” says Gershon, who served in the reserves for decades after the 1973 events. “I don’t think you can call me post-traumatic. I’m a very strong guy – maybe that’s why. But I have friends who never really got over that war. Those same people have been on Xanax since Saturday morning, when news of the war first emerged. I’m talking to you about big, burly men here, OK? They’re having a tough time. Because they’ve been there. We’ve been there. We don’t forget.

“When you read the news,” he continues, “it’s numbers. So-and-so died. But as a soldier I’m telling you that you never forget. When you’re in the trenches you fight for the guy lying there to your right and for the one lying there to your left. And if they die next to you, you remember them forever.”

Like Gershon, the 69-year-old Shaul Abir also continued to serve in the reserves well after the Kippur war, in which he fought both on the northern front and in Sinai. An organizational psychologist who lives in the Galilee, Abir also worked as a consulting psychologist for the Israel Navy. He resigned from his role as a reservist in protest over government conduct concerning the judicial overhaul, along with several of his friends who served in the army during the 1973 war and have banded together in a civilian initiative. The group of former soldiers and officers participate each weekend in the large protests against the legal reform, and set out on volunteer missions to help Israeli society and the military where and when they can.

“Just now I came back from a long day of roaming the country and delivering equipment, assisting soldiers who need it all over. I have been devoted to this country my entire life, and I resigned from reserve duty with a lot of sorrow, but it was the only way I could express my outrage at what’s happening in Israel. When the war broke out, I told the army I’m willing to come back and do whatever is necessary,” he tells the Post.

Abir isn’t quick to diagnose himself as post-traumatic, but he does acknowledge that “no one left that war unscathed, myself included. In psychological terms we call what I have flashbacks.” These flashbacks consist of “vivid images from the battlefield that keep returning. In recent years I’ve also started hearing the voices of commanders calling for help or the static on the radio.”

When such episodes occur, Abir explains, “they usually only last several seconds. When I feel it coming on, I know that I have to sort of reset my mental system, and more often than not I’m able to overcome it rather quickly. Sometimes it’s harder. Recently I had to do an MRI test, and there you have to lay down and the machine makes a lot of noise. Suddenly I saw a lot of flashing lights and couldn’t stop seeing images from the first night of the war. I had to stop the exam in the middle because I understood I was having a more serious kind of flashback episode that filled me with rage and discomfort.”

Abir wishes to point out one stark difference between the trauma of his generation and that which is plaguing the country presently. “In Kippur, most of us who suffered from trauma were soldiers. Now we’re talking about an entire nation: The soldiers and police officers who are fighting and their families, the families of the youth who died or disappeared in the nature party, the families of the people kidnapped and held in Gaza. I think this war will change the trajectory of this country. And we shouldn’t wait for psychological help. We have to treat this whole country for trauma.”

To receive psychological help for war-related stress and trauma, you are welcome to contact the nonprofit NATAL online via www.natal.org.il or at the hotline number 1-800-363-363; Better Help, a therapy platform, is offering six free months of therapy for anyone afflicted by the war. Go to www.betterhelp.com/israelsupport/ for more information.•