Defense Ministry unveils reform plan for PTSD, rehabilitative care for veterans

Moves aimed at cutting red tape, ending background checks; come after ex-IDF soldier self-immolated in apparent protest after years of fighting ministry bureaucracy

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

Defense Ministry officials unveil new reforms for its Rehabilitation Department at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 22, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Ministry officials unveil new reforms for its Rehabilitation Department at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 22, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Defense Ministry on Thursday unveiled its plan to reform rehabilitative care for wounded Israel Defense Forces veterans, focusing most of its efforts on streamlining the current byzantine bureaucracy and doing away with invasive background checks on those applying for assistance.

The ministry’s long-maligned Rehabilitation Department has come under renewed intense scrutiny in recent weeks after an IDF veteran who had long struggled to receive help from the ministry set himself on fire outside the department’s offices in Petah Tikva earlier this month.

The veteran, Itzik Saidyan, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following his service in the 2014 Gaza war, remained in critical condition Thursday in Sheba Medical Center, with burns covering his entire body, which his doctors say have caused infections that endanger his life.

Following Saidyan’s self-immolation on April 13, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered an internal probe of the Rehabilitation Department and formed a committee to carry out changes in the organization.

Screen capture from video of IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan talking about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Channel 12 News)

On Thursday, the ministry’s reform proposal, named “One Soul,” was revealed in a press conference at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“Over the past months, we have made significant strides in treating wounded IDF veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately for Itzik, this was too little and too late, but it is not too late for many other wounded veterans and their families. I will bring this proposal, along with the prime minister, to the government next week. This is an issue that is above politics,” Gantz said.

The Rehabilitation Department has long been criticized, both by veterans’ groups and in government probes, for having an excessively complicated and difficult system of establishing if an applicant can be recognized as having injuries caused by or during their military service. The process can in some cases take several years, during which the applicant is not eligible to receive the assistance they require. This is considered especially true for veterans suffering from PTSD, who can be subjected to probes by Defense Ministry investigators looking for reasons why their condition may not have been caused by their military service.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, tours a rehabilitation center for wounded IDF veterans on April 21, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In the case of Saidyan, who reportedly suffered from a severe case of PTSD, a Defense Ministry panel would only partially recognize his condition, arguing that traumatic events he experienced earlier in his life, namely the loss of his father as a child, were responsible for his disorder. Danny Brom, one of Israel’s leading researchers of PTSD, recently told The Times of Israel that the practice of using potential risk factors for PTSD from someone’s past as justification for denying them recognition when the disorder develops following their military service was “untrue and almost evil.”

“Knowing all this, they took him into the army, with [a clean bill of health]. If they thought that this guy can’t handle it, why did they take him into the army?” Brom said.

The interim head of the Rehabilitation Department, Itamar Graf, said that as part of a series of reforms dealing with both general issues with the Rehabilitation Department and specific ones regarding care for veterans suffering from PTSD, these invasive background checks would no longer be conducted.

We’ve understood for many months that the process that exists today is not good, that the service is insufficient and that we have to change this reality

“There are processes that are long and complicated, which have to simplify and change. Some of them are our fault, some of them are because of laws and rules and other things. No one is looking into the background of a soldier because they want to. There are laws and protocols and lawyers and a million other things. We’ve understood for many months that the process that exists today is not good, that the service is insufficient and that we have to change this reality,” Graf said at the press conference on Thursday

“We will not look into the background of anyone, unless it is necessary,” he said.

According to Graf, the proposal also includes creating a faster and easier process for recognizing injuries that were caused by or occurred during military service, providing legal assistance during the recognition process, increasing the number of services available online, and adding staff to the department.

“We will simplify processes that currently represent a major difficulty for the wounded veterans and for the [Defense Ministry] workers, who instead of working on rehabilitation are dealing with paperwork and ‘show me this, present me with that.’ Everything we can get rid of to make things easier and faster, we will remove,” Graf said.

Graf, who was temporarily put in charge of the Rehabilitation Department in January, said his office currently has workers dealing with some 1,500 to 2,000 wounded veterans, whereas in the civilian National Insurance case workers have a tenth as many clients.

Graf said the number of doctors and medical professionals who work directly with wounded veterans must also be increased significantly.

Regarding post-traumatic stress disorder, the proposal calls for the creation of a center for researching PTSD and a national PTSD committee, an increase in the number of treatments for PTSD offered by the ministry, and funding for alternative care not offered by the department.

Some of these reforms will be possible through internal changes in protocols, while others will require new legislation or approvals by the government. The ministry said it was working on finding funding sources for many of these changes, particularly for hiring new staff.

Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel has said that despite the current political impasse, he believes there is sufficient consensus on the need to address the matter, and that the government will approve the measures.

“There is support for this change, for this significant change,” Eshel told reporters on Sunday.

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.

Eshel said his ministry was also considering broader, more complicated questions relating to the treatment of wounded IDF veterans, particularly who is considered one. He 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 benefits from National Insurance.

Changing the designation of who is considered a wounded IDF veteran would potentially have a tremendous impact on the number of people receiving treatment through the Rehabilitation Department, with major budgetary consequences. Such a move would also be deeply unpopular with the powerful and influential IDF Disabled Veterans Organization, which opposes the change.

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