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“A Trauma of Betrayal”: The Unhealed Mental Scars of the Yom Kippur War, 50 Years on

The 1973 Yom Kippur War caused a drastic shift in research efforts into the once little-know condition of post-traumatic stress disorder | In a conversation with Davar, PTSD expert Zahava Solomon reflects on how the war has shaped our understanding of trauma

פרופ' זהבה סולומון (צילום: ערוץ היוטיוב של פרס א.מ.ת)
PTSD expert Zahava Solomon: “It is not surprising that more and more people from the Yom Kippur War recognize the issue within themselves and are ready to turn to therapy.” (Photo: EMET prize YouTube channel)
By Yahel Faraj

Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War rocked the Middle East, those affected are still grappling with the effects of the trauma. Researchers like Professor Zahava Solomon, a world-renowned specialist in PTSD treatment and 2008 winner of the Israel Prize for social work research, have made it their life’s work to understand and find treatment for that trauma.

“The Yom Kippur War resulted in a trauma of betrayal, not just trauma from threats to soldier’s lives,” Solomon told Davar. "People went to the Yom Kippur War with the feeling that the establishment did not heed their warnings. In the first days there was a significant lack of organization—there were situations where units did not receive enough food and ammunition, and there was a great feeling of abandonment."

Solomon's main field of study is with extreme stress, and at the focus of her groundbreaking research are trauma victims, including combat stress reaction victims, prisoners, terror victims, and Holocaust survivors. Her research has been published in six books and around 300 articles in some of the most important journals in the world. The innovative documentary film “Awake at Night” was based on a study she conducted on the Israel Defense Forces in 1991 that assessed the physical, mental, functional and physical condition of those who were captured in the Yom Kippur War.

The war, waged by Egypt and Syria against Israel in October 1973, nearly resulted in Israeli defeat due to ill-preparedness. The war’s large death toll and large number of prisoners of war shocked the Israeli public. Fifty years on, the aftershock of the war still ripples through Israeli society in the form of a generation of soldiers suffering from largely untreated PTSD.

They felt like cannon fodder

Solomon defines PTSD as "a kind of wounding of the soul, a situation in which a person walked in the world with a kind of faith and confidence, in denial of his own death, knowing that he was protected, and the traumatic experience he went through wounded the membrane and exposes the person to acute anxiety of death.”

“After the injury takes place in reality, it continues to exist in the split soul of the soldier himself,” Solomon said. “The traumatic event has passed, but the person is connected to the event through dreams and nightmares, feels explosions every night, smells the smell of gunpowder, the smell of corpses, and continuously experiences the difficulties he went through in battle. Any stimulus, even a distant one, can be interpreted as a reminder of the experience. On the one hand, a feeling of being unprotected and vulnerable, and on the other hand, an attempt to avoid these feelings.”

She explained that the unpreparedness of the IDF during the Yom Kippur War causes a unique type of PTSD. The feeling of being “cannon fodder,” sent into a highly unsafe situation with lack of protection, caused mental injuries on par to the bodily ones sustained during the dangerous battles.

Coupled with this was the high concentration of non-Israeli Jewish soldiers who came from abroad to join the war effort, creating incohesive units within the IDF. Since cohesion and camaraderie within the unit is an important protection against combat stress, explained Solomon, these less familiar units were more vulnerable and fragile. “You were fighting next to people you didn’t know, and there was no feeling that they would fight for you,” she explained.

Shame and silence

Fifty years ago, mental health awareness following combat stress and PTSD was very low. Solomon was one of the people responsible for deepening the academic and research on the subject and positioning mental health treatment as a necessity alongside physical therapy for soldiers returning from the battlefield, alongside physical therapy.

"When I was studying the Yom Kippur War, I wanted to learn about the [mental health] issue, and there were no articles available in Hebrew," she said. "The perception was that if we don't talk about it, it isn’t happening. There was a sense of shame; it was a shameful disorder, which expresses weakness, so to speak.”

"When we started the studies, the thought was that combat stress was a short-lived phenomenon,” she said. “You took the people out of battle and they would come back to themselves. We did research decades after the war, and we discovered that even after all that time, there are those who suffer from PTSD, including those who did not suffer from initial combat stress. Awareness is an important condition in order for there to be treatment. When there is no awareness, no one takes responsibility for the treatment, and indeed the IDF eventually established a task force to treat combat trauma. In this sense, the IDF takes responsibility for their vulnerability."

Therapeutic solutions

Even fifty years later, soldiers from the Yom Kippur are continuing to seek treatment.

"There are quite a few of them, because of delayed reactions, shame, and unwillingness to seek help,” Solomon said. “Old age is also a factor. When you get old, you retire, lose relationships, there are losses of spouses and friends. There are those who have been able to contain the trauma response for all these years, and only in their old age does it emerge. It is not surprising that more and more people from the Yom Kippur War recognize the issue within themselves and are ready to turn to therapy.”

Solomon brought up an episode of the Israeli television series “The One,” a documentary series about Israeli Air Force Squadron 201. “It was discussed that the fighter pilots did not talk to each other, neither about their fears nor about errors in battle, which sometimes cost human lives,” she said. “The things were not discussed, because there was a perception that if they talk they will fall apart."

She said that this attitude of silence and fear around expressing grief is still common today among men. Such silence also becomes generational as parents who were taught not to speak about difficult feelings raise their children the same way. While talk therapy is not suitable for everyone, everyone can be helped by living in an environment where hard topics can be discussed openly, she said.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is not only an issue for the soldiers themselves, but like ripples in the water, there is a secondary traumatization effect, and children and partners of victims are unfortunately at high risk,” Solomon said. “Some of them become secondary victims. The circle of harm is larger than we thought. That's why the treatment should not only be for people who were on the battlefield.

"We are a very violent society. As the years go by, it is likely that there will be more and more violence, and the fact that we are exposed to so many traumatic events does not help us."

Solomon offered advice to those who are wondering how to recommend post-traumatic stress disorder therapy to close friends and relatives:

“If it's a close relationship, you should express your concern and care. But you can't oblige anyone. You can't force anyone to acknowledge that they are hurt. It is helpful if you can talk openly and raise the possibility that maybe their issues are related to difficult experiences from previous years and say that there are ways to seek help.”

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