Judy Isaacson Elias
“G-d wishes I was dead” is a horrifying statement that no human being wants to hear from a loved one. At Heroes to Heroes, it is a common statement among the veterans we serve. What would drive a person to believe that their Creator no longer wants them alive? My name is Judy Isaacson Elias. I am the Founder of Heroes to Heroes. It is my mission to find out why and solve this problem.
Seventeen veterans die by suicide each day, over six thousand per year. It is a number that has been consistent over the past fifteen years. Why, with tens of thousands of veteran’s organizations, does suicide continue to be a problem? Why are suicide rates going up in all parts of our society, especially among our veterans and teens? Currently, over 6,000 teens die by suicide annually. The teen suicide rate (ages 18-24) is surpassing our veterans. What do they have in common? What can we learn from studying our veterans that will help us with our teens? Heroes to Heroes is determined to find out.
I was sixteen years old when my life started spiraling downward. My father, a proud US Army veteran of World War II, worked hard to build a life and family in the United States, but, in many ways, never came home. He never spoke of his time in combat though he landed in Normandy on the second day, was in the infantry in the Battle of the Bulge and was with his unit as they liberated a concentration camp. He was often quiet and did not participate in our family. My relationship with my mother and sisters was painful and combative. I felt different and unwanted. Home was not a safe place. My father did not see that I needed protection. I turned to alcohol and drugs and rejected my faith and my family’s values.
During this period of personal turmoil, my parents sent me on a youth group pilgrimage to Israel. It was in Israel that I found myself. “As we walked to The Western Wall, I felt strongly that I did not deserve to be there, that I had not been respectful to God and had rejected all He had given me and my people. I cried openly and friends encouraged me to keep moving forward,” I cried. “When I finally put my hand on The Wall, I took a breath and knew I wasn’t alone. It was a pivotal moment for me. It was the beginning of my new life. That reconnection allowed me to choose life.”
Thirty-three years later, in 2009, I was invited to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit our soldiers. What I saw broke my heart. Our soldiers did not want to come home. They did not believe that they deserved a full life. Many lost battle-buddies. All lost friends and almost all had to kill to survive. How do you come home and live a normal life after that experience? How do you just turn it off and move forward? How do you find a way to live through this pain and get to a place of forgiveness and peace? I knew, as the daughter of a veteran and being an American mom, I had to do something. Heroes to Heroes was born.
Heroes to Heroes provides spiritual healing and peer support for veterans who have attempted suicide due to moral injury/PTSD(post- traumatic stress disorder). What is moral injury and why do we combine it with PTSD? Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct (Syracuse University). At Heroes to Heroes, we group Moral Injury with PTSD symptoms since our studies are showing that healing moral injury lessens PTSD symptoms.
My experience in Israel not only changed my life but now changes the lives of so many. Heroes to Heroes provides journeys to Israel for our most vulnerable veterans of all faiths, backgrounds, and communities. Ten-days on the ground in Israel, sharing time with their Israeli counterparts as they reconnect with their Creator to find and accept forgiveness, has saved the lives of hundreds of veterans.
Steven had four suicide attempts. His father called me and told me “I am going to lose my son. Heroes to Heroes is the last resort. Would you please take him on your journey? It’s our last chance.” Steven, a 26- year- old at the time of his journey, had four deployments as a special forces soldier between Iraq and Afghanistan. Steven considered himself the ‘crazy guy’ in his small community in the South. He would visit his Veterans Administration (VA) therapist, fold his arms, and sit for an hour. He was terrified to reveal his story. Since his father feared Steven would not board an airplane to meet the team, he drove his son over twenty-four hours to Newark, New Jersey to make sure he met his Heroes to Heroes team and participated in the journey.
In Jerusalem, Steven went with the team to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national museum and monument to the Holocaust. The last part of the museum is a memorial to the 1.4 million children who were murdered. As the team left the memorial, Steven asked everyone to gather around. He then informed the group that for the first time, he understands that he is a soldier, not a murderer. When he was in Iraq, his team was ambushed. He had a split second to decide whether to eliminate the insurgent who was about to shoot his battle-buddy. He made the right decision and took the shot. He then found out that the insurgent was 10 years old. That child visited him every night in his dreams. He had not slept for years. The following day, the team went to Bethlehem. On their way home, Steven asked the accompanying pastor if he would pray with him. It was the first time Steven was able to pray since the incident in Iraq.
It is a tradition for visitors to the Holy Land to plant trees. For our veterans, this experience is transformative. Steven planted a tree in memory of that ten-year-old boy. The following night, he slept. Today, Steven is a manager of a vitamin store in Oklahoma. Life is not perfect. But it’s good enough that he is committed to choose life.
Over 300 American veterans and ninety Israelis have taken part in Heroes to Heroes journeys in Israel. The results are so strong that a team led by Dr. Joseph Currier, a world-renowned expert in moral injury, has undertaken a long-term study of Heroes to Heroes’ outcomes. Preliminary data is promising. We expect published data in late 2022.
We send six to eight teams per year, with the goal being ten to fifteen teams per year. There are hundreds of veterans on the waiting list. Heroes to Heroes’ participants commit to one year of programming that includes post-journey follow ups with their teams, Zoom meetings, regional events, and, when possible, in-person meetings. Heroes to Heroes provides a program for spouses to help with ‘re-entry’ from the journey.
It is important that the next generation understand our veterans and our soldiers. These problems will not go away. To ensure our veterans are heard, Heroes to Heroes’ alumni speak on college campuses and Zoom meetings with students throughout the country. They explain their service, suicidal ideation, and experience reconnecting in Israel. Students, who are in the age group that is most vulnerable to suicide, come out in large numbers to hear their stories. A majority want to know how they can get to Israel. Is it possible that reconnection to their spirituality and Creator will heal our teens as well?
Heroes to Heroes is funded by a generous grant from JNF’s Boruchin Fund and private donors. Though our waiting list is long, we triage our applicants. Please do not hesitate to recommend a fellow soldier or veteran. Active military personnel have participated in our program. Your eyes and ears are crucial to keeping your brothers and sisters alive. To paraphrase the Talmud, every life we save is as if we have saved a world. We cannot save lives without you! For more information, call Judy Elias (201) 851-2409 or email: [email protected], or go to our website www.heroestoheroes.org.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.