American, Israeli Vets Face Trauma Through Film


Dan Meir was on his way to buy ice cream with his family in Haifa when a terrorist threw a grenade. He was 9.

“The memory is a blur — just a loud noise and then black. Both of my legs were covered with metal, and I still have a scar on my forehead,” Meir said during a phone interview from his home in Tel Aviv. He lost his left leg. His 1-year-old brother, 6-year-old sister and grandparents were also injured.

For Meir, 36, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and graduate student in psychodrama at Kibbutzim College in Tel Aviv, film has been one way to deal with the trauma of his past. Two weeks ago he participated in an interactive film workshop that brought together 15 American and Israeli veterans to write, shoot and edit original movies about their experiences. Belev Echad, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that runs programs to honor and aid wounded Israeli veterans, partnered with the Patton Veterans Project, which runs “I Was There” film workshops for veterans struggling with post traumatic stress disorder.

“Unpacking and repacking memories is similar to the process of making a film. It gives sense and order to the images and memories that plague many veterans,” said Ben Patton, who founded the Patton Veterans Project in 2011. The organization has worked with more than 600 U.S. veterans to date.

The four-day workshop, believed to be the first intercultural seminar of its kind, led to a fruitful dialogue about differences, along with an underlying recognition of similarity, said Patton, who is the grandson of World War II hero Gen. George S. Patton.

Participant Matthew Pennington, an American veteran from Maine, was surprised to discover the parallels between himself and his Israeli counterparts.

“Regardless of where you come from, the human experience of trauma is very similar,” said Pennington, who lost his left leg and severely injured his right in a 2006 roadside bombing in Iraq during his third deployment to the Mideast. The two groups of soldiers “keyed in” on sharing common goals — and a common enemy, he said. “We’re all fighting against regimes who instill fear and oppression.”

Pennington found film therapy to be particularly effective because of its “non-confrontational” nature. “When you deal with vets, you’re dealing with very masculine personality types. Accepting that you need formal therapy is very hard,” he said. “When you approach film as a job, you lose sight of the fact that it’s therapy.”

Still, with or without with the support of therapy, the return to civilian life can be grueling. In his short film, “PTSD Sounds,” Israeli veteran Yoav Gelband partnered with one Israeli and two American veterans to tell the story of re-integrating into the bustle of city life. Shot in Times Square, the five-minute film communicates how even the most commonplace sounds — a drill at a construction site or and ambulance siren — can bring back a host of unwanted memories.

“The film’s about the journey to find peace in our daily lives, and in our own minds,” said Gelband, 23, who was injured last summer in a shootout in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. “We all fought in different places, under different circumstances, but we’re haunted by the same sounds.”

Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a leading expert in PTSD, said that aside from dealing with the normal difficulties that occur post-trauma, soldiers have the added weight of dealing with judgment from others.

“There are things you do in combat that people have a lot of judgment about,” said Yehuda, adding that comments from those who have not been in combat but think they would have acted differently are exceedingly unhelpful. “Decisions are made under intense pressure and at great personal risk. Soldiers aren’t as free to make decisions. It is very difficult to describe that mindset to someone who has never been in battle.”

Guilt also plagues some veterans, particularly with regard to not being able to protect a fellow combatant, said Yehuda. “It’s the painful doubt of ‘could I have prevented it?’”

Dani Tenenbaum, one of the film instructors who facilitated the workshop, said he’s noticed that American and Israeli soldiers have very different coping mechanisms: Israeli soldiers often use humor, while the Americans focus on honor.

“Israelis are more cynical about their injuries — they share a dark sense of humor, while the Americans speak about it less,” said Tenenbaum, who has led six workshops for American veterans. He said the casual attitude among Israelis veterans stems from many of the volatile realities of living in the Middle East. “People get used to terror attacks and war — you can’t just not talk about it,” he said. “You have to find ways to deal with it.”

The workshop also highlighted the differences in how people responded to soldiers when they returned home.

“American soldiers are saluted at baseball games! In Israel, we drop the formal stuff really quickly,” Gelband said. Still, he felt that he and his fellow Israeli soldiers were more appreciated than his American counterparts. “Our country is small, everybody either serves or knows someone who served, and everyone is related to soldiers who were killed or injured in combat or a terror attack,” he said. “In America, no one knows what their soldiers have been through.”

Film instructor Boaz Shahak, 43, also saw a “huge difference” between how the two cultures were greeted when they returned. He said many of the American soldiers talked about being “alone in the street,” while Israeli veterans are “hugged by society.”

The element of choice that accompanies an American soldier’s decision to join the army also magnifies the difference in reception, he said. “It’s seen as a professional move, so sometimes people aren’t as quick to sympathize.”

Still, the ease with which the two cultures connected was “surprising,” even for Shahak, a documentary filmmaker for the past 20 years.

“Both sides went into this not fully believing what they’d gain, and both sides left sharing in someone else’s heartache and healing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of film. It’s not just about telling one story. It’s telling the story of thousands, through one person’s eyes.”