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'One person responsible for 2,000 veterans is unreasonable'

Care for vets can be improved despite political impasse – Defense Ministry chief

Amir Eshel acknowledges ministry’s failures in caring for Itzik Saidyan, who self-immolated last week, but refuses to elaborate on concrete steps he plans to take to address issues

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli veterans and disabled IDF soldiers protest outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv for better financial and medical aid, April 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israeli veterans and disabled IDF soldiers protest outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv for better financial and medical aid, April 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The director-general of the Defense Ministry on Sunday said his office was looking to advance significant reforms in how it treats wounded veterans, after one such former soldier lit himself on fire last week after years of struggling to receive the care he requested.

Amir Eshel, who has been in his position for nearly a year, acknowledged that his ministry had “failed” the veteran, Itzki Saidyan, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in the 2014 Gaza war. However, Eshel rebuffed criticism that his ministry had ignored the problems with the long-maligned Rehabilitation Department, maintaining that a number of proposals to address the issues had been raised, but the most recent round of elections prevented them from being carried out.

“The elections are behind us, so we’re taking it forward,” Eshel told reporters in a video conference.

Asked how the Defense Ministry intended to enact those sweeping and likely expensive reforms when the current interim government has failed to perform basic functions, such as purchasing vaccines and approving a new justice minister, Eshel said he believed that, unlike with those matters, there was a “consensus” about what should be done to “fix and improve” the Rehabilitation Department.

“There is support for this change, for this significant change,” Eshel said.

Since Saidyan set himself on fire outside the Rehabilitation Department’s offices in the central town of Petah Tikva last Monday, Israeli politicians have vowed to address the problems with the institutions. Defense Minister Benny Gantz formed a new committee within the ministry to make recommendations and enact reforms, led by wounded IDF veteran Ziv Shilon, who lost his left hand in battle in 2012.

On Sunday, veterans-affairs activists protested on the Ayalon freeway outside Defense Ministry headquarters, shutting down traffic to the surrounding streets for hours. Later in the day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also met with the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization and vowed to make comprehensive changes to the department.

Former head of the air force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

The Defense Ministry director-general stressed that his office was looking to fundamentally reform the Rehabilitation Department, whose practices have been criticized for years as arbitrary, cruel, and overburdened with bureaucracy. In some cases, it can take years before a person is recognized as a wounded veteran and eligible for the care and benefits to which they are entitled, during which time applicants’ medical and educational histories can be subjected to invasive investigations to find cause to deny them treatment. In certain cases, especially with PTSD, veterans can be denied recognition entirely if they had certain existing risk factors or experienced traumatic events prior to their military service.

“We are talking about significant change, not cosmetic fixes or public relations. If we don’t effect significant change, we’ve failed,” he said.

Eshel said his ministry, which recently appointed an executive commission to carry out the reforms, was working to address four core issues with the Rehabilitation Department: the quality of the care that veterans receive, the accessibility of that care, ensuring veterans make full use of the benefits to which they are entitled, and improving the way in which former soldiers are recognized as wounded veterans.

To illustrate the current untenable situation, Eshel noted that case workers in the Rehabilitation Department are each responsible for between 1,800 to 2,300 wounded veterans, overseeing their treatment and care.

“One person is responsible for 2,000 wounded veterans. That doesn’t work. And that’s only one example of many,” Eshel said, noting that there are also far too few doctors for the number of wounded veterans in the system.

“That’s unreasonable,” he added.

IDF veteran Itzik Saidyan, who subsequently set himself alight outside a Defense Ministry office on April 12, 2021. (screenshot: Channel 12)

Eshel said the ministry was proposing a significant increase in the number of workers and doctors in the Rehabilitation Department to address the issue.

However, he refused to elaborate on how many staff members he was hoping to bring on or what he considered to be a reasonable ratio of veterans to case workers.

According to Eshel, his ministry’s goal is rapid action, so reforms that can be carried out quickly, particularly those within the Defense Ministry that do not require outside approval or budgeting, will be enacted immediately.

“What is ready to be carried out, will be carried out as soon as possible. What is not yet ripe, we will work toward as quickly as possible,” he said.

The majority of the reforms the Defense Ministry plans to roll out come from a Knesset commission led by former MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, which was completed last year, but never implemented.

At the same time, Eshel said his ministry was considering broader, more complicated questions relating to the treatment of wounded IDF veterans, namely who is considered one.

Eshel noted that under the current system, a conscripted soldier injured in a bicycle crash while off-duty would be designated a wounded IDF veteran and entitled to benefits through the Defense Ministry, while a career officer injured in a bicycle crash while off-duty would receive their benefits from National Insurance.

Despite the country’s current political impasse, Eshel said he believed that there was sufficient resolve to address the long-standing issue and that the Defense Ministry needed to “strike while the iron is hot.”

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