Veterans find faith, hope, healing in Holy Land

On Aug. 10, 2012, Harrison Manyoma was about to become a statistic. Every day in the United States, 22 military veterans commit suicide, and on that day, the 37-year-old Catholic from Texas was contemplating taking his own life.

It was seven years after he was discharged from the Army, having served three tours of duty in Iraq where he was seriously injured by a suicide car bomb, leaving him with third-degree burns to his face, memory loss and blurred vision. But on that late summer day, he received a call from the U.S. veteran’s organization Team Red, White & Blue offering him to join a Heroes to Heroes visit to the Holy Land.

“That saved my life,” said Manyoma, who was back in Israel at the end of March, this time as a coach for the fourth Heroes to Heroes visit. “The first time I came here it really opened my life, my heart, my mind to how ridiculous an idea it was to kill myself. Heroes to Heroes was what I needed; it is a mentally empowering program. The healing process just can’t come by itself here; it has to be something spiritual.”

Restoring faith

His own participation two years ago marked a pivotal point in his continuing recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects a large number of U.S. veterans when they come back to civilian life.

Greg Grutter, 46, from Cranston, R.I., leaves the grotto of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank. Photo by Debbie Hill

The brain child of Judy Schaffer, a Jewish American who works in radio marketing and sales in Teaneck, N.J., the Heroes to Heroes program was founded four years ago and brings to the Holy Land American veterans who are suffering in various degrees from PTSD to visit Christian and Jewish sites, spend time with Israeli army veteran counterparts and to renew their faith.

Schaffer came up with the idea after a 2009 visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., at the behest of Cliff Nolan, Political Action Committee Chairman for Teamsters Joint Council 73. Nolan, who later joined her in founding Heroes to Heroes and is now a board member, opened Schaffer’s eyes to the difficult situation many veterans were facing. The encounter with the veterans, she said, changed her life.

Schaffer said her grandfather and father were veterans of World Wars I and II, respectively, and she feels a responsibility to the U.S. veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“These veterans who have come back to civilian life have lost their faith,” Schaffer said. “I began to think about how I could bring back faith to these vets. Israel gives faith to so many people; there is so much here. It is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity,” said Schaffer, who accompanied 10 U.S. vets, all of them Christian, on the trip this spring. The group also included two coaches — veterans who participated in previous trips to Israel — and five Israeli veterans.

Help in healing

Standing outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Greg Grutter, 47, a 19-year veteran of the Marines and National Guard who served in Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan and is a member of St. Mark Parish in Cranston, R.I., recounted how he “was blown up a few times.”

After having come as a participant on a Heroes to Heroes trip in October, he returned this spring as a coach.

“Israel is the only place I don’t have nightmares. In the United States, I have terrible, horrible nightmares,” he said, leaning on the cane he keeps around just in case for balance after suffering spinal damage from a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan.

He has maintained contact with the Israeli vets he met on his first trip, he said, and now if he wakes up in the middle of the night because of the nightmares, he knows he can reach out through the Internet to one of his Israeli friends who, because of the time difference, are awake. Their responses are always supportive and help him get through the rough spots, he said. Now he is glad he can begin helping some of his fellow U.S. veterans.

“If I can help some of the guys here in need, it makes it worth it. They are struggling with their experience after returning home, wondering if their sacrifice was worth it. They are dealing with guilt, losing friends and now with problems of integration,” he added. “Here they talk and there is time to listen. A lot of it has to do with being able to be honest with guys who can relate to them.”

Visiting the holy places he learned about as a child in Catholic school has made a real impact on him as he works toward recovery, he said.

“This has given me a better understanding of my faith — definitely brought me closer to my faith and to my God,” said the father of two teenagers. “I am hoping I can take that with me, to make it better for me.”

‘Opens them up’

In addition to visiting the holy sites, the group went to Yad Vashem (Israel’s national memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims) and to Ammunition Hill to see firsthand where part of the battle for Jerusalem took place in 1967. They also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of the Israeli legislature. They also traveled to Tel Aviv and the Galilee, where they had the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River.

The veterans also meet privately with their Israeli counterparts every night to share experiences and stories. They share hotel rooms and form strong bonds that continue after they have returned to the United States.

Though 80 percent are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Heroes to Heroes also works with Vietnam vets, Schaffer said.

“We are looking for those roughest (cases) where the injury is not visible but which is devastating — and they get the least attention,” Schaffer said. “They don’t have a social life; they don’t leave their homes. They have given up. Once they get here their world changes, and we can see it before our eyes. It helps them open up.”

Three days into their trip, the veterans had shared their experiences and spoken about many tough issues, said Israeli Amit Bar El, 43, who lost most of his eyesight fighting as a reservist in 2006 in the Second Lebanon War. Still, he said, the really difficult issues had just been touched upon.

“We are slowly peeling back the layers,” said Bar El, the father of three young girls. “We have not reached the hard core yet, but we are getting there.”

Feeling alone

Most Americans are completely unaware of what veterans went through during war or what they are going through when coming back from combat, Grutter said, noting that many turn to drugs and have difficulty with relationships because they suffer from depression, anxiety and anger management issues. Grutter said that because this generation of soldiers was the first to face large-scale combat since Vietnam, the country did not know what to do with them.

Only 1 percent of the American population serves in the military, said Benjamin Sanchez, 42, from El Paso, Texas, who served as a combat medic in an Army paratrooper unit during three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

His time in the combat zones almost ruined his marriage, he said.

As a combat medic, he saw the worst of what human beings can do to each other, including non-combatants, he said, and sometimes he feels that the military just used him.

“I saw young girls — babies — blown to pieces,” Sanchez said. “What really haunts me is the children. I love that I can talk to someone here, another paratrooper. There aren’t a lot of paratroopers (in the United States); it is a small unit. I most definitely feel like I am amongst people who have gone through the same thing, and yet they are better and feel better.”


At Ammunition Hill, Israeli Uri Ehrenfeld, 60, hands out paratrooper pins and insignia to the American veterans, who are visibly moved by the act of camaraderie. Ehrenfeld served as a paratrooper during the Yom Kippur and first Lebanon War and was held captive by the Egyptians for two months in 1973,

“This is a mission, to give a hug from us,” said Ehrenfeld, who also suffered from PTSD and can relate to what the Americans are experiencing. He helped found an organization called Awake at Night 15 years ago for Israeli veterans suffering from PTSD. “I think this is an opportunity for us to give them some help. Their situation is not good — no one treats them and they are all alone. They don’t have the social framework that supports them. In Israel, the rehabilitation framework is one of the most advanced in the world. I see them and I see us 20 years ago. This is a brotherhood of combatants, and we want to help.”

Though not necessarily the aim of the program, the camaraderie they develop with the Israelis creates a strong bond of love and appreciation for Israel.

Seeking God

The visit to Bethlehem is not very long, noted Pastor Todd Horton, who accompanies the veterans during their stay in Israel, because many of the sights and sounds of the Palestinian city, which has a more Middle Eastern feel than the Jewish Israeli cities, reminds them of their time in Iraq or Afghanistan and leaves them uneasy.

“Since I’ve been here in Bethlehem, I have been on edge,” said Chicago resident Diego Flores, 31, an Army and Navy veteran who served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and was medically discharged in 2012. “I am not comfortable being here; it brings back memories, and I feel like I have to be on guard.”

Interestingly, he said, it was the visit to the Western Wall and not the Christian holy sites where he felt the most at peace.

“I’ve lost the spiritual side of my life, and I am searching for that,” said Flores, noting that his Catholic school experience was not a good one. “I am hoping to open up so I can better spiritually connect to a higher being — anything that is out there. I feel like I need that in my life now.”

Seriously injured during his 15-month deployment in Iraq eight years ago, Army Sgt. Michael Acevedo, 34, a Catholic originally from Puerto Rico but living in Atlanta, still suffers from his wounds and debilitating migraine headaches. He has yet to be able to process the heavy casualty numbers suffered by his unit: 27 of his friends died.

As a Catholic, Acevedo said he wanted to be where Jesus was.

“My grandmother was a devoted Catholic, and she would pray every day. This gives me peace of mind,” Acevedo said.

Moving forward

Schaffer hopes to be able to raise enough money to sponsor three trips a year to meet the demand, but for now she is happy they can manage one a year.

The program has also affected how Schaffer relates to her own Jewish faith. It is as if, she said, everything has fallen into place and she knows this is what she is supposed to be doing — being part of something greater than her.

“It has helped me feel so much closer to God,” she said. “I feel I am serving a purpose, as if there has been guidance all the way.

“This has been the most incredible learning experience, the most rewarding thing I have done in my life. ... It is so fulfilling; it helps me to understand what is really important in life.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.