TORONTO — A group of Israeli combat soldiers from Rescue Air Force 669, a medical evacuation and extraction unit that served together in the 2006 Lebanon War, arrived in Torontoon Oct. 9 for a therapeutic retreat co-ordinated by Peace of Mind (POM).
This is the seventh group since 2010 to be brought to Toronto by POM, a program funded by the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP) that helps discharged Israeli soldiers cope with trauma they may have suffered during their service.
The ICTP treats the estimated nine per cent of Israelis who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is three times the level of that in most western countries.
This group of soldiers, who rescued injured and dead soldiers on the battlefield, were hosted by Thornhill’s Sephardic Kehila Centre.
“Many people ask why we bring them from Israel, here. It helps the therapy. They are disconnected from all the triggers, the pressures of school, of work,” said Linoy Hazan, POM’s Canadian co-ordinating director, explaining that two therapists from Israel accompanied the soldiers to Toronto.
Aviram Lazar, 31, who served as commander of the group, told The CJN at a fundraising bowling event on Oct. 9 that the program has helped him cope with issues he didn’t even know he had.
“This week is the first time that someone really asked us… how do you think it influenced the rest of your life, the way you work, they way you are in relationships, and the way you look at yourself?” Lazar said.
“Most of us had no idea that we were really struggling with things from seven, eight or 10 years ago.”
As a soldier in a rescue unit, he said he had to cope with constant tension and uncertainty about what the next day, or even hour, would bring.
“You could be in your room sleeping, or you could be in the office working on something and the next minute there is a siren and you’re running to the helicopter and 15 minutes later, you find yourself in Gaza helping a group of soldiers rescue an injured soldier,” Lazar said.
Lazar said he was surprised by how much he and his group benefited from the program and was touched by the warmth and generosity of Toronto’s Jewish community, which has raised some $400,000 for the initiative since 2010.
“It’s very heartwarming… In fact, it is one of the things that unite us. In the army, we weren’t used to receiving help. We were used to giving help… Now these strangers are giving us help and we don’t know why… We don’t feel like we deserve it.”
The program continues when the soldiers return home to Israel. They are assessed by their therapists and advised about whether they should continue with private therapy.
POM will be bringing in another group of Israeli soldiers, who will be hosted by Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, to Toronto on Nov. 10.
For more information about Peace of Mind, visit www.traumaweb.org.