Holy Land trip helps U.S. military veterans overcome PTSD

IMAGE: CNS photo/Debbie Hill

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Inside the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, U.S. Army veteran Rocio Villanueva fell onto the stone of the unction where
tradition holds that Jesus was laid out after his crucifixion and touched her
head to the smoothed surface.

Injured during a tour of duty in
Iraq and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the 31-year-old engineering
specialist and mother of four was raised in a Catholic home but had slowly lost
touch with her faith. After almost a week in the Holy Land as part of the
second group of women veterans participating in the Heroes to Heroes program, Villanueva felt a spiritual
renewal.

“Since the third day I got here
I felt a healing in my heart. At the Church of the Annunciation (in Nazareth), I felt so good and able
to speak to God,” said Villanueva, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in
Escondido, California.

“My family has been able help me
physically, but with the part I have inside of me, it has been really hard to
open up. I had so much anger in my heart and was so sad, I could cry about anything.
Here I felt my heart open up. I went to confession and I felt that God was talking
to me through the priest,” she said.

Since its founding six years ago
by Judy Isaacson Schaffer,
a Teaneck, New Jersey, marketing and sales professional whose father and
grandfather served in the military, Heroes to Heroes has taken 14 groups of U.S. veterans
— including those who served in Vietnam — to meet with their Israeli
counterparts and visit holy sites. It is a peer-support program with the goal
of helping achieve spiritual healing and preventing suicide.

Villanueva’s group was in the Holy
Land Sept. 5-12. Participants visited Bethlehem, were baptized in the Jordan River
and joined in the Israeli memorial ceremony commemorating the 9/11 attacks in
New York and elsewhere.

With 22 U.S. veterans committing
suicide every day, Schaffer said she recognized the need to reach out to those
veterans suffering the most from PTSD, just as her father had volunteered with
veterans from earlier wars. Because less than 1 percent of Americans serve in
the armed forces — a small fraction of whom are women — many veterans feel
isolated when they return, she said.

The peer-to-peer encounter with
Israeli veterans, some of whom have also experienced traumatic injuries, as
well as discussions within their own group allow the U.S. veterans to see that
it is possible to move forward from their challenging experiences, Schaffer
explained.

Participants are asked to stay
in contact with members of their group for a year after the visit.

Most of the veteran services
available in the U.S. are geared towards male veterans, and perhaps because of
this lack of institutional and communal support, more women veterans commit
suicide than men, Schaffer said.

In addition to combat trauma,
some women have also been victims of military sexual trauma, she said.

“I will never get over (the
trauma), but I can get past it,” said U.S. Army veteran Rory Shaffer, 42. A mother of three,
Shaffer served twice in Iraq and was severely injured in a blast which killed
three of her friends. She also witnessed the suicide of another friend while on
combat duty.

“Within my household, I have
support but the rest of my family just thinks I should get over it,”
Shaffer said. “I have been suffering. I was not expecting that one-third
of the group would say this group saved their lives.”

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