Reporter's notebook'No other country... has this for disabled veterans'

Wounded IDF veterans find a home in Israel’s state-of-the-art rehabilitation centers

The Zahal Disabled Veteran Organization’s Beit Halochem centers expect to welcome a large portion of the projected 20,000 permanently disabled soldiers from the war this year

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

  • IDF veterans do warm-up exercise as part of wheelchair basketball training at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
    IDF veterans do warm-up exercise as part of wheelchair basketball training at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
  • IDF veterans get physiotherapy treatments at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
    IDF veterans get physiotherapy treatments at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
  • IDF veterans engaged in art activity at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
    IDF veterans engaged in art activity at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
  • The young plays keyboard in the music studio at the young vets' department at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)
    The young plays keyboard in the music studio at the young vets' department at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)

On October 11, reservist Itay Sagy set out on a mission with other IDF Maglan commando soldiers to fight Hamas terrorists after their brutal surprise attack on southern Israel four days earlier.

Sagy’s team had a problem with one of their vehicles. They decided to split into two groups. One stayed to fix the vehicle, and the other went ahead to a bomb shelter along the side of the road to take cover from rocket attacks.

“When we got there, eight Nukhba terrorists were waiting in an ambush. They opened fire on us from all directions. They immediately took six of us out of action, so the rest of us started fighting like crazy. I managed to kill two and then they started throwing grenades at me and one of them fell right next to me and I didn’t see it. It exploded and ripped open my neck,” Sagy said.

He told The Times of Israel what happened next in an early February interview at Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem, one of a handful of centers around the country serving the long-term rehabilitation needs of wounded warriors.

“I remember not breathing for half a minute when I was hit. During that time, I was observing my surroundings from outside my body, and commanding myself to return to life,” Sagy recounted.

“As we continued to fight, eventually killing all of them, a combat medic kept his hand shoved in my neck, to try to control the bleeding. Eventually, he was able to pack my wound with combat gauze. I was evacuated by chopper to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv 40 minutes later,” he said.

Four months after his injury, Sagy, a 25-year-old law and administration student from Kibbutz Gadot in northern Israel, is still undergoing outpatient rehabilitation at Ichilov. However, he has begun spending a significant portion of his time at Beit Halochem, a comprehensive rehabilitation, sports, and recreation center exclusively for Israel’s disabled veterans.

Itay Sagy (left), 25, and Yuval Patiev (20) were severely injured in October 2023, while fighting Hamas terrorists from Gaza. They are new members of Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv and were chosen to visit Australia on behalf of the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization in February 2024. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

There are other Beit Halochem centers in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beersheba, and a new one will open in late 2025 in Ashdod. Run by the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization (ZDVO) with partial support from the Defense Ministry, these centers are the next step in a wounded soldier’s rehabilitation and often become a lifelong, supportive second home for them and their families.

The centers offer state-of-the-art facilities and every possible therapeutic activity, including a wide range of adaptive and non-adaptive sports, art, music, lectures, and trips.

Beit Halochem is a place where being a disabled veteran is the norm and the focus is on staying active and engaged, and on working on personal challenges. ZDVO chairperson, attorney Edan Kleiman, sets a personal example. He has been wheelchair-bound since being shot by terrorists in Gaza in 1992, during his regular army service.

“There is no other country that has this for its disabled veterans. We’ve had American vets visit us and cry [from envy] when they see how committed we are to the long-term rehabilitation for our men and women,” said Ora Seidner, who does project development for the ZDVO’s Zahal Disabled Veterans Fund.

IDF veterans play goalball, a team sport designed specifically for athletes with a vision impairment, at Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv, 2024. (Mark Nomdar)

According to Defense Ministry figures released on February 15, more than 5,500 wounded soldiers have entered the rehabilitation system since the beginning of the war. It is expected that there will be a total of 20,000 by the end of 2024.

Ninety-five percent of these soldiers are men, and most are reservists aged 30 and under. Thus far, 42% of the injuries sustained are to limbs, and 21% of the wounded are suffering from psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It used to take longer until a soldier was recognized as permanently disabled, but in this war, the process has been streamlined and thousands have already received the designation,” Seidner said.

A soldier arrives at Sheba Medical Center for treatment after being evacuated from the battlefield by an IDF helicopter during the Israel-Hamas war, October, 2023. (Courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

Once soldiers are recognized as disabled by the Defense Ministry, they are eligible to join ZDVO. For a small deduction from their monthly ministry disability payments, they can receive bureaucratic assistance, discounts, and more, through district ZDVO offices.

“We have had 54,000 members since 1949, but not all of them join one of the Beit Halochem centers. It’s mainly those who are more severely injured who join. We currently have more than 15,000 members at our four existing centers,” Seidner said.

“We usually get 300 to 500 new members a year. Now we are preparing for an influx of thousands. Hundreds of new members are already coming to our Beit Halochem centers and getting involved in sports like basketball and swimming and are using our fitness centers,” she said.

Architect’s rendering of Beit Halochem in Ashdod. The building is expected to be completed in late 2025. (Courtesy of Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization)

As with the rest of the country, the events of October 7 and the war caught ZDVO off-guard. In response, it is building out underused spaces in its Beit Halochem centers and expanding its workforce, including quadrupling its staff that works with PTSD sufferers. The new Beit Halochem in Ashdod will provide much-needed services to disabled veterans and their families in the hard-hit south.

“We immediately launched an emergency fund and now we are doing more strategic fundraising. We need to raise 40% more this year than in 2023. Our organizational budget was increased 23% from a planned NIS 201 million ($58 million) to NIS 253 million ($70 million),” Seidner said.

A donation of $24 million from Friends of the IDF to Sheba Medical Center for mental healthcare for IDF veterans will allow Beit Halochem centers to bolster their capability to support veterans with PTSD. A significant portion of the donation will be funneled toward care to be provided by Sheba psychologists at the centers.

From left: FIDF national director Nadav Padan, FIDF chairperson Morey Levovitz, Sheba Medical Center director-general Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, and Itamar Graff of the Defense Ministry at ceremony announcing a major FIDF donation to Sheba to expand its mental healthcare capacity by 50%, including at Beit Halochem locations. February 1, 2024. (Courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

The Times of Israel met with Sagy together with Golani Brigade soldier Yuval Patiev, 20, whose leg was shattered on October 7 when a Hamas attack disabled his armored vehicle near the Gaza border. A bomb placed under the vehicle by one of the terrorists exploded, wounding Patiev.

From Kiryat Shmona, Patiev met Sagy when they were roommates at Ichilov. The two became fast friends. The Times of Israel spoke to them as they prepared to fly to Australia on behalf of ZDVO to tell their stories to supporters of the organization.

Like Sagy, Patiev is still doing rehabilitation at Ichilov and is being treated by a psychologist he began seeing soon after his injury. However, he said that coming regularly to Beit Halochem has already become important to him. His goal is to get back to running and even complete a marathon.

“You come here and you can use the pool, the gym, and the tennis court. Mentally, it’s very good because you’re not alone. You’re sharing the same stuff as the other former soldiers who are here. They may be 60, 50, or 40, while I am only 20, but I realized [by talking with and observing them] that life does not end with your injury and you can move on,” Patiev said.

Before October 7, 60% of the Beit Halochem members were 60 and older. With the influx of younger vets from this war, the centers will expand their special programming for members between 18 and 35.

“The younger generation likes more physical challenges as part of their activities,” Seidner noted.

Eyal Chayot, 26, represents Israel in wheelchair tennis. He is currently training for the 2024 Paralympics Games in Paris. Chayot broke his neck in a 2018 training accident when he was a soldier in the IDF’s Maglan unit. (Mark Nomdar)

Elay Chayot, 26, works out daily at the Tel Aviv Beit Halochem. He broke his neck in a 2018 IDF Maglan unit training accident and is now a wheelchair tennis star preparing for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

“Beit Halochem has provided everything I have needed, from coaching to support to funding. Most importantly, it has enabled me to get back to sports, which is something I loved and excelled at before my injury,” Chayot said.

Since the war’s outbreak, he has frequently gone to hospitals to speak with recovering soldiers to tell them about Beit Halochem and invite them to check it out.

“I think ZDVO is the only organization in the world that doesn’t want its membership to grow. No one wanted what happened to happen,” Chayot said.

“But the reality is that this war is going to drastically lower the average age of people who come to Beit Halochem. I am looking forward to the youthful spirit this will inject into the place,” he said.

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