Heroes to Heroes helps U.S. soldiers heal their psychic wounds

With his two kids out of the house, retired Army Sgt. Harrison Manyoma planned to commit suicide on Aug. 10, 2012. But a Jewish mother from New Jersey derailed his plans.
May 21, 2015

With his two kids out of the house, retired Army Sgt. Harrison Manyoma planned to commit suicide on Aug. 10, 2012. But a Jewish mother from New Jersey derailed his plans. 

Judy Schaffer started Heroes to Heroes after meeting wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland at a Christmas party she helped organize in 2009. The meeting haunted her. 

The soldiers Schaffer met had volunteered to serve so that American boys, like her two sons, did not have to go, did not have to risk their lives, did not have to return to the United States, as Manyoma did, with physical injuries from a roadside explosion in Iraq and psychic wounds that no one could see. When Schaffer, a radio sales representative, learned that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, she wondered how Americans could live with that statistic.

Shortly after the holiday party at Walter Reed, she happened to sit next to an Israeli soldier on a plane. She asked him how Israelis recuperate from the emotional pain of combat. Israel has a military culture, he told her, because service is compulsory. So everyone knows a wounded vet. Everyone understands post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Something clicked for Schaffer. Could it possibly help veterans to visit Israel?  Could linking Israeli soldiers with American vets be a healing experience? Could visiting the holiest place on Earth help restore their faith in life? Schaffer developed a business plan and started fundraising. 

Heroes to Heroes took its first group of veterans to Israel in 2011, attempting to restore a sense of peace to ex-soldiers who, in some cases, had been suffering from PTSD for years, had lost jobs, lost relationships or were as deeply depressed as Manyoma.   

On the day Manyoma planned to kill himself, he received a call at his home in Texas inviting him on a 10-day trip, along with nine other former soldiers whose lives had been upended by wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The trip transformed him.

Now the man who had sought to end his life serves as a coach for Heroes to Heroes. For the group’s sixth trip to Israel, in February, Manyoma helped select the vets who would most benefit from the experience, monitored each ex-soldier once on Israeli soil, and worked with his Israeli counterparts, who accompanied the Americans on their journey.

From his own experience, Manyoma knew that simply being in a country that honors its veterans every day would have an intense impact on the former soldiers. And it did. A veteran of the Vietnam War who hadn’t spoken about his experience in 45 years opened up to fellow vets after his first night in Jerusalem.

Heroes to Heroes team gathers at the Western Wall.

Manyoma had a similar experience on his initial trip to Israel. He felt a sensation coursing through his arm as he placed his hand on the Western Wall. He began sobbing, but at the same time, experienced a joy he had not known for some time. He opened up emotionally, talked about his feelings and slept better that night than he had since December 2004, when he was wounded in Iraq.

On each trip, the former soldiers are purposely asked to adhere to a tight schedule. Many have not followed a routine for years and arrive in Israel with little interest in life. Their attitude starts to change as they visit the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Yad Vashem. Some walk the Stations of the Cross or undergo a baptism in the Jordan River as a symbol of renewal. All plant a tree in the Lavi Forest in honor of people they have lost or for their children. According to Schaffer, planting a tree for their kids means they are choosing to live. 

During the second trip that Heroes to Heroes made, vets met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who listened to each soldier, shared his own wartime experience and related the heartbreak of losing his brother at the raid on Entebbe in 1976. On their most recent trip, vets met with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Along with the social and emotional aspects of the program, there is a physical element. Vets are asked to ride a bicycle. Most haven’t been on a bike in years, many haven’t been active at all, and some are in physical distress. They’ve taken painkillers or used drugs and alcohol. They’re scared to get on a bike. They worry they will fall. No one has.

The vets return to the United States changed. Manyoma said his son and daughter saw a different man when he came home. “Daddy’s back,” his daughter told him. “The trip opened my heart,” he said.

Heroes to Heroes, which is run by volunteers, has so far been limited to two trips a year because of the financial commitment each visit requires. Schaffer has solicited donors, applied for a grant and is now discussing the possibility that a film could be made about the organization. Her goal is to take four teams to Israel in 2015, to reach people who desperately need help, to throw them a lifeline before they crash, to help them heal. 

To learn more, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

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