Fully subsidized project is open to all reservists

Intensive one-day retreat program aims to prevent PTSD among IDF reservists

After shedding their battle gear, combat troops make their way to The Villa to learn techniques to help put the traumas of war in the past so they can function now and in the future

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Participants at a one-day intensive PTSD prevention workshop at the Protective Partnership's 'The Villa' program in Herzliya. Protective Partnership CEO Lilach Felner is second from left. June 13, 2024. (Courtesy)
Participants at a one-day intensive PTSD prevention workshop at the Protective Partnership's 'The Villa' program in Herzliya. Protective Partnership CEO Lilach Felner is second from left. June 13, 2024. (Courtesy)

On a recent day, 18 discharged IDF reservists gathered at a large single-family home in upscale Herzliya Pituah, just north of Tel Aviv.

The spacious, comfortable abode is the setting for a one-day intensive program designed to arm warriors with tools to deal with the trauma they experience while fighting in Gaza, on the northern border, or in the West Bank since October 7.

The concept behind the program — called The Villa after its donated location — is that with the right initial support, many of these men and women have the innate ability to be among the 90 percent of people exposed to trauma who, according to research, do not eventually develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Villa is a project of The Protective Partnership, an organization that was established in 2019 to locate IDF veterans of all of Israel’s wars and operations suffering from PTSD and have them recognized as such by the Defense Ministry, thereby enabling them to claim their rights.

“We decided to start The Villa immediately after October 7. Hundreds of thousands of reservists were being called up, and we were afraid that too many of them would develop PTSD unless they got immediate treatment and the right intervention,” said Protective Partnership CEO Lilach Felner.

“This was the moment we decided to enter the domain of prevention and treatment, although we continue to also do the work we have done until now,” she said.

IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip in a photo approved for publication on June 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Helping the brain to heal itself

According to Dr. Ronny Simons, the organization’s head of clinical psychology, the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation department projects that between 8,000 and 12,000 reservists and enlisted soldiers will suffer from PTSD during this war.

“This number is logical because it works out to around 10% of those [so far] exposed directly or indirectly to combat during this war. However, there will also be some who develop symptoms who will not meet the Defense Ministry’s cutoff,” Simons said.

Simons explained to The Times of Israel that the free-of-charge one-day program at The Villa is based on the assumption that the generally low incidence of PTSD can be attributed to a natural healing mechanism in the brain.

“The question is how to strengthen this mechanism. We have built a program to do this that is evidence-based and focuses mainly on EMDR,” said Simons, who has treated thousands of military and security services personnel over the last three decades.

Dr. Ronny Simons is the head of clinical psychology and member of the executive committee of the Protective Partnership. The organization’s ‘The Villa’ program was established immediately after the onset of the 2023-2024 Israel-Gaza war to prevent PTSD among IDF reservists and October 7 first responders. (Yanai Yechieli)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a mental health technique that helps a person process traumatic memories and experiences by moving their eyes in specific ways. EMDR can also involve other somatic techniques and is based on the adaptive information processing model, which posits that the brain does not convert traumatic experiences into memories normally.

“Trauma is like a wound that your brain hasn’t been allowed to heal. Because it didn’t have the chance to heal, your brain didn’t receive the message that the danger is over,” according to an article on the Cleveland Clinic website.

“EMDR is vastly researched and accepted in Israel and internationally. It is one of the three leading evidence-based therapies for trauma and PTSD. The others are cognitive processing therapy, which needs time to work, and prolonged exposure, which clients don’t like,” Simons said.

“EMDR is well-liked and has a quick effect. It’s a strange but effective process,” he added.

Engaging the body to heal the mind

After the day’s participants arrive, they drink coffee and snack on pastries as they sit together for an opening session.

Following that, they break into three rotating groups. The first deals with psycho-education on identifying trauma symptoms, healing processes, and how to know that one needs mental health help.

“However, we are deliberate about not using the term ‘mental health.’ I can tell you from my experience that the term is the number-one barrier for a combat soldier to get help. The word ‘mental’ is frightening. This is why so many of them hide and live with their problem even though it is like a ticking bomb inside them,” Felner said.

“They don’t tell or share it with anybody, so even the energy to hide it makes it more difficult to bear,” she said.

During the morning, the participants have individual EMDR sessions with an accredited therapist who is an expert in the technique. They also experience a mind-body intervention by way of Qigong (pronounced “chi gong”), an ancient Chinese exercise practice.

All the participants come together in the afternoon after lunch for three therapeutic and teaching sessions that introduce tools they can use at home. They learn a short relaxation technique that is a variation of autogenic training, as well as an EMDR approach using tapping to help deal with memories, triggers, and mood variations. Finally, they are introduced to yoga nidra, which acts as a sleeping aid.

“Some of these guys haven’t had a proper night’s sleep since they were called up for duty,” Felner said.

At the end of the nine-hour day, the reservists are given an audio kit to take home that “walks” them through the techniques they have learned.

“We hope that they will do this ‘homework’ and the more, the better,” Simons said.

‘It’s like watching a film — I can see the trauma from afar’

Aviram Atia came for a day at the Villa in January. He lives in Pardes Hanna with his wife and two young children but grew up in Moshav Yated near the Gaza border and still has family there. Called up on October 7, he served for a month and a half as a reservist in an elite unit, battling Hamas in several locations in Gaza.

Aviram Atia served as an IDF reservist in Gaza for 85 days at the beginning of the 2023-2024 Israel-Gaza war. He participated in ‘The Villa’ workshop shortly after his discharge and found it beneficial in dealing with trauma he experienced during combat. (Yanai Yechieli)

“That whole period was one huge stress. From October 7 until my discharge I was afraid for my life nonstop. Every night I would go to sleep and worry that I would wake up to horrors,” Atia recounted.

“In addition, two friends in my unit were killed. That was very difficult for me. I remember that when it happened I froze. I couldn’t function,” he said.

Atia shared that he also felt guilty for having had to leave his unit for personal medical reasons two weeks before his comrades were discharged.

“I felt that I had abandoned them. It was hard for me to handle that. That same day, I had a panic attack. I was not doing well. I knew I had to get some treatment,” he said.

Like all The Villa participants, Atia heard about the program by word of mouth. He said he benefited very much from the one-day workshop and especially connected with EMDR therapy. He uses the audio material provided by The Villa and continues with private EMDR sessions.

“EMDR allows me to zoom out from the [traumatic] events. They don’t affect me anymore, which enables me to function. It distances me from what happened. I can look at it and the memory no longer affects me. It’s like watching a film — I see it from afar,” Atia related.

Keeping up with demand

Unlike the psychological processing sessions the IDF does immediately upon soldiers’ completion of their combat service during this war, the sessions at The Villa focus on individual experiences rather than group ones.

Simons noted that sharing experiences is discouraged at The Villa. The program’s goal is for each soldier to deal with his or her own trauma.

“We don’t want ’emotional contamination,’ whereby what one person shares could trigger someone else,” Simons said.

Participants at a one-day intensive PTSD prevention workshop at the Protective Partnership’s ‘The Villa’ program in Herzliya. Protective Partnership CEO Lilach Felner is at far right. June 13, 2024. (Courtesy)

The Villa was up and running by the end of last November, at which time it hosted three groups a week. With IDF troops engaged in battle, the first groups were October 7 first responders like Magen David Adom paramedics and ambulance crews, police officers, and ZAKA search and rescue and human remains retrieval teams.

By early 2024, many IDF reservists were back home and became the predominant participants, coming either as units or individually.

As demand has grown and to meet its stated intentions of providing preventative treatment as soon as possible, the program is now offered four or five days per week.

‘Prevention can be a dangerous word when it comes to PTSD’

While recognizing the good intentions of The Villa program, Dr. Anna Harwood-Gross cautioned that research evidence shows that it is impossible to prevent PTSD from developing in the long term.

“Prevention can be a dangerous word when it comes to PTSD,” said Harwood-Gross, a clinical psychologist and director of research at Metiv-Israel Psychotrauma Center in Jerusalem, who has no connection to The Villa.

Lilach Felner is the CEO of the Protective Partnership. The organization’s ‘The Villa’ program was established immediately after the onset of the 2023-2024 Israel-Gaza war to prevent PTSD among IDF reservists and October 7 first responders. (Yanai Yechieli)

“Short-term treatments provide support, and getting tools is always good and feels positive. However, there is no way to know who will eventually develop PTSD symptoms after experiencing trauma. This can cause a lot of guilt in those who do not seek initial help,” she said.

Nonetheless, The Villa’s leadership is confident that its early intervention model can make a difference and lower the risk of PTSD. In addition to the one-day program, it offers additional one-on-one EMDR sessions to participants whom staff identify as more at risk. The organization also regularly checks in with all participants to see how they are doing. Those who say that they are struggling are referred for further treatment at affordable rates.

“The Villa is open to every reservist or soldier who was discharged from enlisted duty. They can be from any service of the IDF. If they feel they are not as they were before this war began, we are here for them,” Felner said.

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