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For wounded soldiers, empathy helps the healing process

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Brothers for Life delegation leader Maor Elcobi (left) with former Canadian soldier Chris Power.

Eleven Israelis and two Canadians sit in a circle in the basement boardroom at Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue. They share laughs, kibitz and swap war stories – literally. The Israelis marvel at Canada’s size; the Canadians are impressed with Israel’s war readiness.

What they share, beyond a common experience as soldiers, is that they have all been wounded in battle.

But in this room, dark memories are overtaken by the esprit de corps that seems to bind so many soldiers.

The Israelis, ranging in age from 25 to 49, were in Toronto as a delegation of Brothers for Life, sharing their stories to help themselves, and the Canadians, along their path to healing.

Formed about a decade ago, Brothers for Life, based in Seattle but with a presence in Israel, comprises wounded Israeli combat veterans who help soldiers around the world who have been scarred by war. The idea is that simply by meeting and talking, the Israelis help fellow combatants open up about their experiences.

The delegation program, which has taken Israeli soldiers to about 16 countries so far, is just one Brothers for Life service. In Israel, it also offers hospital visits, financial loans, medical treatment, therapy, tutoring and retreats.

The organization was the beneficiary of last autumn’s Jewish National Fund of Toronto’s Negev Dinner. This was the second year Israeli soldiers were brought to Toronto by JNF. Amid the usual frolicking – visiting Niagara Falls, ice-skating, a pub night – they also met with Holocaust survivors.

Brothers for Life has about 850 members, said delegation leader Maor Elcobi, 31, who was wounded in 2007 by shrapnel and bullets in a battle to eliminate Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip. “You must be injured to be a member,” he explained. About a dozen soldiers join each month.

The Israelis agreed that after spending a week in Canada, they had not seen a single soldier. At home, military service is mandatory for men and women, and soldiers are highly visible throughout the country. “It’s part of our culture,” Elcobi told the Canadians. “It’s part of who we are. And people get injured every day.”

Over the years, the Israelis have suffered a variety of physical injuries: shrapnel and bullet wounds, broken bones, burns and long-term physical damage. Some also have post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Chris Power, who spent 16 of his 37 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including three tours of Afghanistan, and was a major with the military police before his medical release, said that he sustained a mental-health injury.

Spending time with other soldiers who’ve been through battle and paid a price “has made me feel better,” Power said.

The other Canadian was 37-year-old Trevor Holt, who’s still in the infantry and based in Petawawa, Ont. He also served three tours of Afghanistan, where he sustained an injury to his lower face in 2010.

The Israelis didn’t understand why Canadian soldiers served in a country halfway around the world. “If we don’t fight,” said one Israeli, “we don’t have a country.” They also asked why anyone would volunteer to serve.

“It’s a great paycheque and steady job,” explained Power. In Canada, being a full-time member of the Forces is seen as a career for life. Anyone who quits is judged harshly, Power said. There’s patriotism too, he added, but it’s not as overt in Canada as in other countries.

He now works as a personal coach, helping others.

“No one else” but other wounded soldiers “can understand us,” offered Elcobi.

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Mostly, the soldiers swapped notes on services available to those who have been wounded in battle. The Canadians seemed impressed that in Israel, Brothers For Life operates a one-stop facility called Beit Achim, or House of the Brothers.

Situated in a cottage near Ben-Gurion Airport, Beit Achim offers every one of the organization’s core services under one roof.

The greatest amazement came from the Israelis, who asked about the size of Canada’s armed forces – according to the Department of National Defence, it’s 71,500 regular force members and 30,000 in the reserves.

“That’s it?” exclaimed one Israeli. “We could kick your ass!”