Oren Or Bittoun gives speeches around the world urging veterans to talk about their experiences.
It took 16 years of running away from his problems for Oren Or Bittoun, a former commander of the Border Police’s undercover counterterrorism unit, to get a proper diagnosis for what he was suffering from.
Bittoun was one of the first soldiers in the unit, taking part in dozens of classified operations in the West Bank during the First Intifada. During one operation, in 1992, he saw the chief of his unit killed, shot in the head by a Palestinian terrorist.
“I was supposed to die,” Bittoun, still visibly scarred from the event, told The Jerusalem Post
during an interview in Herzliya.
While Bittoun saw many things during his service, his commander’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After a short debriefing by the army he went home to commit suicide.
“I cocked my weapon, pointed it to my head and said the Shema Yisrael prayer,” he said. “I remember the door opening and my mother screaming and jumping on me... the gun went off, striking the floor, and it was only then that I realized what had happened.
“I didn’t tell anyone. I kept my suicide attempt secret.”
Soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder usually re-experience traumatic battlefield events, through flashbacks or nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event, severely impacting their everyday life.
After being released from the army Bittoun ran away from his problems, living in the Congo, New York, Switzerland, London and Paris before finally returning to Israel with his wife and eldest son.
According to Bittoun, no matter where he was, even in the Swiss Alps, he wore a gun and knife wherever he went, sure that someone was out to kill him.
“My body was in Tel Aviv but my soul was in the West Bank, in Jenin,” he said, adding that he would scream out his dead commander’s name in his sleep.
One night, 16 years after losing his commander, Bittoun came home from work and had a flashback to that night.
“Sixteen years later, I smelled everything... the smoke, death... I saw everything again, and then I felt someone grab my neck,” he said. “I grabbed the person back and when I opened my eyes I saw it was my six-year-old daughter. She was turning blue.”
“She started crying, asking me, ‘Daddy why do you want to kill me?’” Bittoun said. “I didn’t know what to say except that I loved her.”
It was then that his wife made him get help.
“I didn’t know what PTSD was, I thought I was crazy,” Bittoun told the Post
, adding that no one in the army at that time knew how to recognize PTSD, and while it’s improved by leaps and bounds, “it’s not enough.”
While Israel does not have a specific unit dealing with veterans as the US has, the Defense Ministry and the IDF provide wounded soldiers and their families with a variety of services, including mental health treatment.
Some nine months after officials from Israel and the US met to discuss joint cooperation in the field of treating soldiers suffering from PTSD, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan has recommended that Israel adopt two initiatives already in place in the US for wounded veterans.
More than 1.6 million US veterans receive mental health treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the ministry allows veterans to get treatment for five years after their discharge without registering with the VA at some 300 clinics around the country.
According to sources familiar with Ben-Dahan’s initiatives, the ministry wants to make the mental health of a soldier suffering from PTSD a priority, making sure that they get the mental health treatment required without being held up by bureaucracy.
The source told the Post
it is imperative to shorten the bureaucratic process as it is crucial to be diagnosed and to receive the proper treatment as soon as possible after experiencing a traumatic event.
Bittoun has since become a role model for IDF soldiers who suffer from PTSD, writing a book about his experience and helping former soldiers who reach out to him on Facebook for help and give speeches around the world about PTSD .
“I’ve made this my life mission. My old mission was to be a soldier, but now my mission is to help others who suffer as I did,” Bittoun said. “Don’t close your eyes. If it is hard and you feel like it’s too much, go talk to someone. Don’t deal with it alone. If you don’t talk about it, it will only get worse.”
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