Saidyan's condition improves, due to undergo surgery

Internal probe faults Defense Ministry’s treatment of vet who self-immolated

Investigative committee on Itzik Saidyan, who suffers from PTSD, finds he was forced to fight grueling bureaucracy for years, received only temporary assistance

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

IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan (Facebook)
IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan (Facebook)

The Defense Ministry on Tuesday night released the conclusions of its internal probe into the treatment of military veteran Itzik Saidyan, who set himself on fire in an apparent protest earlier this month, in which it found a number of failings in the way that his case and similar ones were handled by the ministry and called for reforms in the process of recognizing and caring for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

On April 13, Saidyan doused himself in a flammable liquid and set himself on fire outside the offices of the ministry’s Rehabilitation Department in the central town of Petah Tikva. He remains in serious condition, with burns covering his entire body, at Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, though his doctors on Wednesday said his health had improved somewhat. Saidyan was due to undergo an additional operation later in the day.

Saidyan, who served in the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade, had been recognized by the Rehabilitation Department as having PTSD following his service in the 2014 Gaza war, particularly his time in the bloody battle of Shejaiya. However, in 2018 the ministry initially only deemed him 25 percent disabled due to his condition, despite the fact that he had severe symptoms and difficulties integrating into society, and maintained that some of his PTSD was caused not by his military service but by traumatic events from his childhood.

Since that initial 25% disabled designation in October 2018, Saidyan has been fighting the ministry to raise his level of disability, which would grant him additional assistance.

Following Saidyan’s self-immolation, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered an immediate investigation into Saidyan’s case and called for a review of the much-maligned Rehabilitation Department. Last week, the ministry released its plan to reform the department, which is meant to address many of the difficulties that Saidyan encountered.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (C-L) and Prime Minister Benjamin (C) in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL/Flash90)

The government was meant to discuss those reforms on Tuesday, but due to an ongoing battle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz over the former’s refusal to allow the appointment of a justice minister in accordance with their coalition agreement, the Rehabilitation Department proposals were not addressed.

Late Tuesday night, the ministry released the results of its internal investigation into Saidyan’s case, which acknowledged many of the harshest criticisms of the Rehabilitation Department, including its tortuous bureaucracy, invasive background checks and insufficient staff.

According to the probe, Saidyan first requested to be recognized as having PTSD in June 2017. Two months later, his appeal was given to a case officer who began looking into Saidyan’s history before his military service.

“The case officer began collecting information from the schools [Saidyan] learned in, from his local government’s child advancement officer, from the police and from other investigations that he’d been subjected to before his enlistment,” the Defense Ministry said.

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

Such background checks are a standard practice by the Rehabilitation Department, though they have drawn harsh criticism from veterans and mental health professionals, who accuse the Defense Ministry of effectively working under the assumption that veterans are lying about their conditions and of deeming soldiers who were considered to be sufficiently healthy to serve in the military to have been too unwell to receive assistance after the fact.

More than a year after he submitted his request, in August 2018, Saidyan appeared before a Rehabilitation Department psychiatrist, who recommended that the ministry recognize half of his condition as having been caused by his military service, while the other half was attributed to earlier factors. Saidyan, by all accounts, had an incredibly difficult childhood. His father died when Saidyan was a child, and he effectively lived on his own, supporting himself, from his teenage years.

In October 2018, a Rehabilitation Department panel overrode that recommendation, recognizing Saidyan as 25% disabled, but entirely from his military service. After Saidyan appealed the decision, a new, higher panel changed the designation in March 2019, recognizing him as 50% disabled, but ruled that the ministry would only pay for half of the assistance that goes along with that level of disability.

A few months later, Saidyan tried to appeal that decision as well, but failed to provide the documentation necessary. Unlike in his previous dealings with the Defense Ministry, Saidyan filed that appeal on his own, without the help of a lawyer.

Throughout his dealings with the bureaucracy of the Rehabilitation Department, Saidyan did receive assistance from the ministry, including financial support, though this was generally on a temporary basis, for a few months at a time and often with additional bureaucratic challenges, and only after he complained to his case officer of his struggles to hold down a job and appeared before Defense Ministry committees.

That occurred most recently on April 11 — two days before he set himself on fire — when a Rehabilitation Department panel agreed that he would receive monthly financial assistance in light of his inability to work because of his condition through September 2021, but that “for technical reasons” he would not receive such assistance for the month of April, but only beginning the following month.

The day before setting himself alight, Saidyan had reached out to a social worker in a text message, warning he might harm himself.

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

“The worker called him back immediately and sent him a concerned message to check the meaning of his message. After he didn’t respond, she contacted her superiors. She also updated Itzik’s doctor and asked him to make contact with [Saidyan]. She also spoke to his landlord and asked that he check if he was in the apartment. The social worker also spoke with his counselor from a nonprofit group,” the ministry said.

An hour later, she messaged him again and a few minutes later he responded, telling her he was okay and had just been “a little annoyed.”

The Defense Ministry said its investigation found that other things happened to Saidyan in the days before his self-immolation that may have played a role in his decision, but refused to elaborate out of respect for his privacy.

The investigation, which was led by Col. (res.) Eliezer Karni, the deputy head of the ministry’s planning department, harshly criticized the convoluted process that Saidyan was subjected to, finding that the various people involved in his case did not share information about him and opposing the ministry’s practice of investigating veterans’ backgrounds. More generally, the probe determined that the Rehabilitation Department used a flawed method of establishing the degree of disability for veterans with PTSD, basing it on the person’s ability to work without considering the condition’s mental and emotional toll.

“In the process of treating Itzik, there was a communication gap between the medical committees and the benefits officer regarding the scope of Itzik’s recognition,” the investigatory commission wrote.

“It should have been determined that all 50% of the disability was due to his military service,” according to the statement.

Karni’s committee also called for better communication between the military, which offers its own PTSD treatments, and the Rehabilitation Department.

In addition, the probe found that the process of being recognized is generally arduous and expensive for veterans, requiring them to hire the services of lawyers and other professionals.

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

The committee also found that throughout Saidyan’s interactions with the department, both in the recognition process and his treatment, there was a constant shortage of staff, resulting in backlogs.

Many of the investigatory committee’s recommendations — notably an end to the invasive background checks — were included in the ministry’s proposals for reforming the Rehabilitation Department.

Following Saidyan’s self-immolation, the Defense Ministry unveiled a plan to reform rehabilitative care for wounded IDF veterans, focusing most of its efforts on streamlining the byzantine bureaucracy and doing away with invasive background checks on those applying for assistance.

The ministry will be able to roll out some of these reforms itself, while others will require government decisions in order to go forward. These aspects have been held up due to the political impasse, but Defense Ministry officials say they believe that there is sufficiently broad consensus to pass the measures.

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