U.S. veterans seeking peace

It is a staggering and sobering statistic to go up against.

Every day, 22 American veterans commit suicide due to a feeling of despair and of being left alone to deal with their demons after serving in the U.S. military in some of the world’s toughest war zones, according to Judy Schaffer, a Teaneck, New Jersey, radio marketing and sales professional.

I am tagging along for a morning with a group of American veterans who have come to the Holy Land through her Heroes to Heroes program, which brings American vets on a spiritual — as well as an emotional — journey to visit holy sites and meet with Israeli counterparts in the hopes that, with help from soldiers who have gone through what they have gone through and come out on the other side, the Americans will be able to begin to find their own way to recovery. 

An aside, which perhaps should have been obvious if I had given it a bit more thought: For these men seeking to reconnect with a lost Christian faith, being in the city of Jesus’ birth was actually a tense experience, and they felt they had to be on alert at all times.  Being more Middle Eastern in character than the westernized Jewish cities, it brought back memories of their military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. One veteran confides that when he got off the bus and souvenir hawkers surrounded them, he became very nervous. And despite their friendliness, which he clearly recognized, he was unable to shake off the need to constantly check his back as the group walked towards the Church of the Nativity. As I chatted later with another young vet at Shepherd’s Field in nearby Beit Sahour, he made sure his back was facing the building as we sat on a low stone wall in the sun just outside the Franciscan chapel.

Though it was a pleasure to accompany them, and the vets were friendly and very polite, I felt uncomfortable prying into the difficult private circumstances that have brought them to the Holy Land. Yet, I needed to get the basics of their stories in the short amount of time we had. It reminds me of the interviews I did over a decade ago with bereaved Palestinian and Israeli parents and with the injured on both sides during the years of the intifada.

Those are not easy interviews — speaking with people who have experienced immense tragedies due to acts of violence, knowing you are not giving them the amount of time rightfully due them, feeling like a voyeur of sorts. They leave you with a sense of sadness at the wastefulness of war and all the bloodshed and hate there is in this world.

Though the American vets made it through the physical battles, they have been left with deep invisible scars. But with only 1 percent of the U.S. population serving in the military, most Americans have little idea of what many of these vets who have seen the worst of humanity go through when they return home to an apathetic and bureaucratic Veterans Affairs and an indifferent community. They are the first large group of veterans who have returned from the battlefield, and most people and government administrations don’t know what to make of them, one vet tells me.

Thousands of miles away from home, the vets say they found a place where some of them not only have come closer to a faith they lost or never had, but also where people understand them, where they have found a sense of camaraderie with others who have gone through similar experiences.

Sadly, they had to come to a part of the world where animosity, violence and war are an almost unfortunate daily occurrence to find that support.

Both her grandfather and father were veterans, notes Schaffer, and only when her father was older did she discover that throughout his life he had volunteered helping wounded vets. After his death, she knew it was her turn.

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.