Richard Sanchez, an explosives handler for the United States Navy, was in his second tour overseas in 2005 when the truck he was driving hit an improvised explosive device about 10 miles from the Iraqi border. He sustained a spinal chord injury from the roadside bomb and returned to the U.S. for surgery, keeping him out of a wheelchair but in constant pain.
“It’s a pain [where you think] you’d rather be dead than go through it every day,” Sanchez said.
The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he and so many other veterans suffer from wreaked havoc on his personal life. He was turned down for help at his local Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in the Bronx because the Navy had yet to send him the correct paperwork. Sanchez retreated to his home where he stayed for the next five months, much of it in his bedroom, as he isolated himself from his wife and two sons. He and his wife are now separated and Sanchez says his oldest son won’t speak to him.
Sanchez felt alone, unable to relate to people anymore. When he learned about a 10-day trip to Israel in September with other U.S. veterans who had been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, he jumped at the opportunity to spend time with some kindred spirits. But while he expected to bond with his countrymen, he was surprised to find how well he connected with the Israelis he met.
“It’s like we were brothers,” Sanchez, 44, said. “Even though we were in different wars in different parts of the world, it felt like a family.”
Sanchez participated in a joint program run by the Heroes to Heroes Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping U.S. service-disabled veterans make a smooth transition to civilian life, and the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL), which aims to strengthen the ties between the two countries. Leaving New York on Sept. 11, the group of 10 U.S. vets toured the holy sites, visited the Knesset and met Israeli veterans.
Of course, in Israel, veterans can be almost anyone.
“Many of [the American veterans] felt more comfortable in Israel than they did in the U.S. because of that connection,” said Judy Schaffer, president of Heroes to Heroes, who accompanied the vets to Israel last month. “[The country is] almost 100 percent veteran.”
The American soldiers traveled the country with Israeli veterans to develop a peer group to combat the constant fits of loneliness that Sanchez and so many others like him frequently encounter.
“They were facing injuries, facing a lot of isolation, and what they needed more than anything was that support group,” Schaffer said.
The other major goal of the trip, which was privately funded, was for the Americans to see the many services Israel offers its veterans and, if possible, to bring some of those experiences back to the U.S.
Charles Hernandez, one of two participants to travel with a service dog, believes that the U.S. could learn a lot from how Israel treats its veterans.
“Israel’s in a league by itself,” said Hernandez, 48, a former paratrooper in the U.S. Army. “They take care of their people. You serve combat over there, Israel will take care of you.”
Like Sanchez, Hernandez, a New York native, suffered severe PTSD — among other physical injuries — during a tour in Iraq in 2004. He, too, is separated from his wife and has difficulty spending time with his son and two daughters. Hernandez said that since returning from duty, he no longer trusts people and is frequently looking to get into fights.
But though Hernandez has tried, he said that he’s gotten almost no help from the VA. The trouble he’s had in the U.S. securing veteran services made his experiences in Israel even more eye opening.
“You come to America, you’ve got to wait to get the GI Bill, and if you qualify you only qualify for 22 months,” he said. “In Israel, they say, ‘If you want to go to school, go to school. You’ve got children? We’ll take care of your kids, too.’”
Sanchez agreed with Hernandez’s assessment of the American policy toward veterans.
“A lot of bureaucracy and politics hold the VA medical system back,” he said.
Even in a more relaxed environment, it wasn’t always easy for the Americans. According to Harley Lippman, president of the AIFL who was also on the trip, at one point the team was walking in Jerusalem’s Old City during an Arab wedding and shots were fired into the sky. The vets feared they were back in Iraq.
“One of them said he was looking to grab his gun. Another one said he was getting ready to jump under a table,” said Lippman. “You see the stress of the PTSD on their faces. It was a very unsettling moment.”
When the group visited Beit Halochem, a center for injured Israeli veterans, they were shocked at what they saw. As opposed to VA hospitals — one soldier remarked to Schaffer that at the VA people sit in wheelchairs and wait to die — there were people playing tennis and billiards, dancing and swimming in an Olympic-sized pool.
During the tour of the center, Hernandez said an Israeli veteran with one arm took out a ping-pong paddle and challenged him to a game. Though he said his initial instinct was to say, “Dude, you got one arm,” he thought better of it and took the Israeli’s offer to play. Within minutes, they were just two guys playing table tennis.
“We smiled at each other because there was a connection, veteran to veteran.”
Sanchez said the size of the rehabilitative staff in Beit Halochem far outnumbered those in VA hospitals. The fact that the doctors were all veterans was the icing on the cake.
“We feel comfortable when we are among our peers,” said Sanchez. “Here in the U.S. we have a lot of non-veterans in the medical staff, and they don’t really understand us. They’re quick to write a prescription, but they don’t really sit down with us and talk to us.”
Sanchez was particularly enamored with Beit Halochem’s programs for the families of injured veterans. He said the U.S. ought to adopt this practice because “our families don’t understand the perils we’ve gone through; maybe if they can go in the system with us they’d understand a lot more.”
Since coming home in late September, the American soldiers have kept in touch with their Israeli counterparts. In order to go on the trip, each participant is required to commit to contacting another at least twice a month for the next year, and the group will meet up quarterly. Hernandez said that last week he received a Shanna Tova card for Rosh HaShanah.
Though socializing is still not easy for him, Sanchez, who is working toward his bachelor’s degree at Berkley College, said that the experience has entered him into a brand-new network of friends.
“Once I walk out that door of my house, anywhere I go, to school, a shopping mall or wherever, I don’t see anyone around that I can relate to,” he said. “But [now] I can always pick up the phone and talk to somebody that’s closer to me here, or even [far] out there.”