Memorial Day healing: U.S. veterans in Israel


About 20 veterans commit suicide across the U.S. each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. An organization providing spiritual healing, suicide prevention and peer support programming for veterans believes Israel is part of the solution.

Leading up to Monday’s observance of Memorial Day, JNS.org is spotlighting the stories of six American veterans who traveled to Israel with the Heroes to Heroes Foundation, which works with veterans suffering from mental and emotional stress. The foundation’s Israel programming is sponsored in part by Jewish National Fund’s Boruchin Israel Education and Advocacy Center.

Igrain “Iggy” Padilla, 55, of Concord, N.C., spent 12 years in field artillery with the U.S. Army and 14 years in the military police, with tours of duty including deployments to Iraq, where he was physically injured in a head-on collision with a suspected bomber vehicle, and to Afghanistan, where he inspected sites at which U.S. soldiers were killed or injured due to accidents.

“I came home in 2012 on medical retirement and began having depression, nightmares, mood swings. It got so bad that I felt I had lost my identity, lost all interest in life. I couldn’t work, couldn’t do anything, and I started drinking too much. I was 50-years-old and didn’t know what to do,” he says.

Iggy’s wife told him about Heroes to Heroes.

“I’m a religious Christian, and when I heard that the program would take me to Jerusalem I got really excited, because who gets a chance like this to come to the Holy Land?” he says.

Iggy says the trip to Israel “opened my eyes about how to communicate and have a relationship with people I don’t even know.”

Malik Haleem Swinton, 38, of Las Vegas, was deployed to Germany with the Army and sustained injuries in Bosnia and Kosovo, from jumping out of vehicles and helicopters. He also suffered psychological and emotional wounds he can’t speak about because of their classified nature.

Malik left the military in 2001 and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he began having mood swings, insomnia and attitude problems. He thought about suicide. Yet he didn’t connect his state of mind with his military service until 2004, when he sought medical help. He resisted doctors’ diagnoses until 2012, when he sought treatment at a VA hospital and to his relief, learned that his records would be kept confidential.

It took Malik two years to apply and be accepted to Heroes to Heroes, but he believes the wait was worth it.  

“Now, finally, I can talk to people who have had experiences similar to mine, people who don’t judge me and who offer camaraderie and fellowship,” he says.

Edwin Henderson, 36, of Houston, was deployed to Iraq with the Army. He says his physical injuries were minor in comparison to psychological issues. He saw a good friend get shot in the head, and another lose his leg.

“Certain images have stayed with me and continue to haunt me,” he says.

Edwin had thoughts of suicide, and came to feel he had lost his relationship with G-d. Now, the former Bible student who once aspired to be a minister says the Israel trip has “awakened in me a recharge. It’s like G-d saying, ‘Look, I created you for something more than what you think you were put on this Earth for.’ I’m still on a journey of trying to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing, but being [in Israel] brings me back to when I was in school, to before Iraq.” 

Johnny Turner, 38, of Saginaw, Texas, was in Iraq with the Marines. He survived a blast, but suffered a back injury and deafness in his left ear. He says he “saw a lot of my Marine buddies die in front of me. I often feel guilty that I made it home and they didn’t.”

After returning from Iraq, he says his guilt became so acute he “attempted suicide, drank, did a lot of crazy things, because I was trying to take my life.”

A friend recommended Heroes to Heroes, and Johnny was accepted. He says his “aha” moment in Israel came upon visiting Capernaum, near where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount. Johnny says he broke down in tears when he realized he was standing where Jesus walked and taught. 

“That moment was the best,” he says, struggling to compose himself. “This trip has helped me so much. It makes me want to get even closer to the Lord, and it makes me want to do anything I can to help Heroes to Heroes.”

Harrison Manyoma, 40, of Houston, spent his first tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Korea. When the Iraq War started, he re-enlisted for four more years. In Iraq, he was injured by a suicide car bomb.  

“When I got back home to the States things started to affect my life,” he says. “I lost my marriage, my [relationship with my] kids…I had PTSD, but didn’t know it. I got to a point where I thought suicide was my only way out of living the worthless life I thought I was living.”

Harrison says he literally had the gun in his hand, ready to end his life, when he received the phone call that saved him. “Two coaches from Heroes to Heroes were on the line, calling to tell me about their organization and inviting me on a journey of healing,” he recalls. “I listened to what they had to say and put the gun down.”

Now a Heroes to Heroes coach himself, Harrison vividly remembers his first trip to the Western Wall, in 2012. “I placed my hands on the stones and was sincere with prayer,” he says. “I felt a burning sensation in my hand and in my mind, my heart and my body. [Heroes to Heroes founder] Judy [Isaacson Schaffer] looked at me and said, ‘You’re not the same man.’ She was right. I was completely transformed.”

Luke Gaffney, 36, of Union Springs, N.Y., is also a coach with Heroes to Heroes.

Luke joined the Marines and served two tours of duty in Iraq. His first deployment to Iraq came immediately after his brother’s suicide, leaving him no time to deal with the loss.  

During his next tour, his company lost 14 men. Upon returning to the U.S., he says he “began having issues. … To have a psychological problem is a stigma. So, it just built up and over time, I began to self-medicate.”

Luke was medically retired in 2013 due to depression and PTSD. He lost not only his military career, but also his marriage. His parents saw a Heroes to Heroes interview on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, and convinced him to try the program.

“On that first trip to Israel,” Luke says, “I went into the Jordan River [to be baptized], seeing no future for me, and came out of the water with a speck of hope on the horizon. And through the process of being able to come back to Israel and work with the other Heroes to Heroes teams, that speck has grown. I’m feeling hopeful now. I take enjoyment in things now.”

“What makes Israel special,” he adds, “is the fact that you can’t deny there’s something unique about this place … you see the culture and the heritage of the people, and the tie-in of God in this—the political history since 1948, the history of the last 3,000 years. To see Israel as a nation is to see that there’s something at play here that defies natural history. This is the essential catalyst for getting guys like me to begin to feel again.”

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An Israeli soldier’s perspective

A key element of the Heroes to Heroes program is pairing U.S. veterans with their Israeli counterparts. 

Adam Stufflebeam, 23, an Indianapolis native, is a former IDF lone soldier (those without family members living in Israel). Now a student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Adam was connected with Heroes to Heroes through an organization he volunteers for, Reservists On Duty, which sends Israeli soldiers to America to speak about Israel and to counter the BDS movement.

“A lot of these [U.S. veterans] never met Jews before, which is my purpose in being here,” Adam says. “They’re coming to Israel [in part] to talk with Israeli soldiers who can answer their questions….To see these guys who have been through so much emotionally, to watch them grow, even throughout the day, to see their faces when we walked up to the Kotel (Western Wall), has been amazing.”