In an effort to spread the word and help other veterans, two soldiers spoke to students at the Hillel Center and the Jewish Medical Student Association about their experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder, a spiritual visit to Israel and the Heroes to Heroes Foundation on March 21.
Heroes to Heroes is a non-profit organization that strives to provide support for veterans suffering from PTSD or “moral injuries”, injuries to one’s conscience. In order to do this, they send veterans of any religion to Israel to visit holy sites for spiritual therapy, and to meet both American and Israeli veterans from the Israeli Defense Force.
Sergio Lopez, one of the veterans who spoke, served as a U.S. Army staff sergeant with the 104 Airborne division from 2003-2010 in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was injured by an improvised explosive device that exploded underneath the vehicle in which he was riding. From his traumatic experiences during deployment and his injury, he developed PTSD.
According to evidence collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, traumatic experiences can lead to diminished faith in religious individuals.
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Lopez experienced this many times while overseas.
“One day you’re talking to a buddy and the next day he’s either hurt or he’s gone, it kind of takes you through a roller coaster of emotions,” Lopez said.
Lopez first shot someone in self-defense. He didn’t know how to process it, so he went to the chaplain of his unit for advice.
“These things happen in war and God understands and he’ll forgive you,” the chaplain told him,
Lopez didn’t want to accept that.
He still hasn’t found the answer to reconciling his faith with his deployment.
“I obviously believe in God and my faith was deeply rooted in my religion, especially when we were deployed and we were overseas,” Lopez said. “I guess like everybody you look up to a higher power when you’re in that type of situation, when you’re scared, when you’re alone. My faith was a big part of my deployment.”
In order to move past the experience, Lopez has focused his efforts on doing more volunteer work in his community.
The other speaker was Angel Rivera who served as a staff sergeant in the Army. He is still living with PTSD after the trip to Israel, just a diminished form of it. After his experience, he’s no longer prone to lashing out, but still has many sleepless nights.
Both veterans dealt with similar forms of PTSD. They isolated themselves from their families, friends and the outside world because they got agitated easily. As the years go by, it becomes normal to stay at home day after day, only going out at odd hours to the least amount of people.
Rivera said he can see events from his service very clearly, especially moments when people he served with died.
“I close my eyes, I hear it, I see it,” Rivera said. “That’s not an experience that I would want anybody to see.”
To help with their recovery, both went to Israel with Heroes to Heroes.
Rivera, who was not religious before the trip, described the experience as the trip of a lifetime.
“My soul got laid,” he said. “I was walking through there light-footed.”
During his trip, he was baptized in the Jordan River.
“Came up, and it was like it washed some of the anger off,” Rivera said.
When he deals with hardships at home, he can always look at pictures on his phone or message the veterans he met to make him feel better.
Both of them noted that the media make the VA out to be worse than it is.
“I go to the Bronx VA,” Rivera said. “There’s an excellent staff there. You hear on the news that veterans are getting screwed here and screwed there, and I haven’t dealt with that yet.”
The only thing that Lopez would change is that he wishes that the information for help would be more readily available, but believes the VA provides adequate suuport for veterans returning from deployment.
Both of them stressed that if anyone knew someone who was suffering from PTSD to learn more about Heroes to Heroes at https://heroestoheroes.org/.
“It was a blessing going up there, and I would go up there again in a heartbeat,” Rivera said. “Can’t find a cheeseburger, but that’s alright.”
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