“God wishes I was dead” is a horrifying statement that no human being wants to hear from a loved one. At Heroes to Heroes, it is a common statement among the veterans we serve. What would drive a person to believe that their Creator no longer wants them alive? My name is Judy Isaacson Elias. I am the founder of Heroes to Heroes. It is my mission to find out why and solve this problem.
Seventeen veterans die by suicide each day, over 6,000 per year. It is a number that has been consistent over the past 15 years. Why, with tens of thousands of veterans’ organizations, does suicide continue to be a problem? Why are suicide rates going up in all parts of our society, especially among our veterans? Heroes to Heroes is determined to find out.
I was 16 years old when my life started spiraling downward. My father, a proud U.S. Army veteran of World War II, worked hard to build a life and family in the United States, but, in many ways, never came home. He never spoke of his time in combat though he landed in Normandy on the second day, was in the infantry in the Battle of the Bulge and was with his unit as they liberated a concentration camp. He was often quiet and did not participate in our family.
My relationship with my mother and sisters was painful and combative. I felt different and unwanted. Home was not a safe place. My father did not see that I needed protection. I turned to alcohol and drugs and rejected my faith and my family’s values.
During this period of personal turmoil, my parents sent me on a youth group pilgrimage to Israel. It was in Israel that I found myself. As we walked to the Western Wall, I felt strongly that I did not deserve to be there, that I had not been respectful to God and had rejected all He had given me and my people. I cried openly, and friends encouraged me to keep moving forward. When I finally put my hand on The Wall, I took a breath and knew I wasn’t alone. It was a pivotal moment for me. It was the beginning of my new life. That reconnection allowed me to choose life.
Thirty-three years later, in 2009, I was invited to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit our soldiers. What I saw broke my heart. Our soldiers did not want to come home. They did not believe that they deserved a full life. Many lost battle-buddies. All lost friends and almost all had to kill to survive. How do you come home and live a normal life after that experience? How do you just turn it off and move forward? How do you find a way to live through this pain and get to a place of forgiveness and peace? I knew, as the daughter of a veteran and being an American mom, I had to do something. Heroes to Heroes was born.
Heroes to Heroes provides spiritual healing and peer support for veterans who have attempted suicide due to moral injury/PTSD. Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values or ethical codes of conduct (Syracuse University). At Heroes to Heroes, we group moral injury with PTSD symptoms since our studies show that healing moral injury lessens PTSD symptoms.
My experience in Israel not only changed my life, but now changes the lives of so many. Heroes to Heroes provides journeys to Israel for our most vulnerable veterans of all faiths, backgrounds and communities.
Over 300 American veterans and 90 Israelis have taken part in Heroes to Heroes journeys in Israel. The results are so strong that a team led by Dr. Joseph Currier, a world-renowned expert in moral injury, has undertaken a long-term study of Heroes to Heroes’ outcomes. Preliminary data is promising. We expect published data in late 2022.
COVID-19 has put Heroes to Heroes’ journeys on hold until July 2021. The organization expects to continue to send six to eight teams per year, with the goal being 10 to 15 teams per year. There are hundreds of veterans on the waiting list.
Heroes to Heroes’ participants commit to one year of programming that includes post-journey follow-ups with their teams, Zoom meetings, regional events and, when possible, in-person meetings. Heroes to Heroes provides a program for spouses to help with “re-entry” from the journey.
Heroes to Heroes’ alumni speak on college campuses and Zoom meetings with students throughout the country. They explain their service, suicidal ideation, and experience reconnecting in Israel.
Heroes to Heroes is funded by a generous grant from JNF’s Boruchin Fund and private donors. Please join us or become a sponsor of our annual golf outings. Sponsor a veteran or a team. Volunteer! We cannot save lives without you! For more information, call Judy Elias: (201) 851-2409 or email: [email protected] or go to our website www.heroestoheroes.org.
By Judith Isaacson Elias