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Op-edA plea for mandatory, end-of-service evaluation, checks, aid

The wake-up call of Itzik Saidyan

The radical shift from Memorial Day to Independence Day isn’t automatic. It requires respect, care and attention for those whose lives were wrecked in our defense

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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

Israel could not have one without the other.

We mark Memorial Day, honoring and grieving for loved ones who have lost their lives so that this country survives, and then, with an indescribable wrenching of our national gears, we switch in an instant to Independence Day, celebrating the extraordinary fact of our survival, of our flourishing, in this so frequently bloody region.

We could not have one without the other. But this year, as our revived Jewish nation turns 73, we are confronting a failure to properly honor, aid and protect those of our loved ones who did not lose their lives in our defense but still had them crushed, derailed, substantially taken from them.

On Monday, Itzik Saidyan, 26, a veteran of the 2014 war with Hamas, set himself alight outside a Defense Ministry office responsible for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. He remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Saidyan, who has said seven of his brothers-in-arms were killed around him as he fought with the Golani Brigade in the Battle of Shuja’iyya — a Hamas “terror fortress” in Gaza City where tunnels converged and from where rocket fire into Israel was concentrated — had been diagnosed with PTSD and recognized as disabled. But he had spent years challenging the Defense Ministry over its financially motivated insistence that part of his condition was a result of childhood rather than military trauma. The ministry bureaucrats “treated him like a swindler who is trying to cheat the country,” a close friend lamented on Monday night.

The friend told Israeli television of Saidyan’s difficulties in adjusting to civilian life and said he had “fits of rage and quarrels, a past full of [various] jobs and apartments” but “found solace in surfing.”

In the day after Saidyan’s act of despair and desperation, the Natal support group for IDF veterans battling trauma saw a 300 percent surge in calls for help, most of them from combat soldiers who fought in that 2014 Operation Protective Edge

Saidyan’s terrible resort to dousing himself in flammable liquid and setting himself on fire has jolted the military top brass into the belated acknowledgment that the army failed him. “This is our responsibility,” the director general of the Defense Ministry said over and over, declaring that Saidyan had sounded “a wake-up call” that would be heeded, promising commissions of inquiry, changes of policy, lessons that will be learned. The IDF chief of staff visited Saidyan in the hospital, met with his family, sought to comfort them. The president, the prime minister and the minister of defense expressed their shock and prayed for his recovery.

In the day after Saidyan’s act of despair and desperation, the Natal support group for IDF veterans battling trauma saw a 300 percent surge in calls for help, most of them from combat soldiers who fought in that 2014 Operation Protective Edge, a deadly seven-week conflict that included an extensive IDF ground operation in the treacherous, Hamas-controlled alleys and tunnels of Gaza. Only some 200 Israelis who fought that war have been officially recognized as suffering from PTSD, an Israeli television report said Tuesday night; the number of those actually affected is believed to be many, many times higher.

The scale of the Israeli security establishment’s failure, and of the challenge it has long neglected, however, is still more extensive.

When their mandatory service is over, our young men and women, including those who have directly risked their lives in combat, are routinely dropped back into their civilian lives without diagnosis and treatment of any psychological damage they may have suffered — without, that is, mandatory, end-of-service evaluation, subsequent checks, and appropriate support

Innovative, thriving Israel, an extraordinary global leader in so many fields, plucks most of its young men and women out of their First World lives, forcibly suspending their education, career paths and social interaction, and drops them into mandatory military service, where their destiny is controlled by others, and where their lives are frequently in danger. That’s the unavoidable necessity for a tiny country whose very existence is still rejected and resisted by many of its closest neighbors.

What is avoidable, however, is a situation in which, when their mandatory service is over, our young men and women, including those who have directly risked their lives in combat, are routinely dropped back into their civilian lives without diagnosis and treatment of any psychological damage they may have suffered — without, that is, mandatory, end-of-service evaluation, subsequent checks, and appropriate support. I write this as a parent who knows.

Related: Israel’s care for traumatized veterans is broken. Fixing it will be hard

Awareness in the defense establishment of the imperative to tackle PTSD may gradually be growing, but the tsunami of anguish unleashed by Itzik Saidyan’s action is a consequence not of shock at so extreme an action, but of recognition that so many others have been suffering terribly, below the radar, for so long.

Our ability to do all the wonderful things that Israel does, to maintain this gloriously resilient and innovative nation, is a function of our energized, motivated younger generations — the very same people whose lives Israel borrows for two or three formative years to ensure the country stays safe.

The radical shift from Memorial Day to Independence Day isn’t automatic. We don’t get to take it for granted. It requires not only mourning for those who lost their lives in our defense, but proper respect, care and attention for those whose lives were wrecked or blighted in our defense. That’s the essence of the wake-up call of Itzik Saidyan. Heeding it is essential for Israel to make that near-impossible annual transition from national mourning to national celebration.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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