When Harrison Manyoma got his first call from Heroes to Heroes, he had a gun pointed at his head.
“Nobody told me about what happens in the aftermath of injury and war,” Manyoma, who was badly burned during a stint in Iraq while enlisted in the US Army, lamented.
“In my mind and heart I felt shame. I started to feel useless. Then I started feeling anxiety and felt irritable,” he said, adding that he’d frequently fight with his wife and children.
With third-degree burns on his right hand, a ruptured eardrum, blurred vision, memory loss and severe headaches, Manyoma felt he had hit rock bottom “It destroyed my family and marriage. It was horrible,” he recalled mournfully. Eventually, Manyoma began to self-medicate by turning to pain medication and excessive drinking. Flickering thoughts contemplating suicide became increasingly frequent.
Then, one day six years ago, Manyoma uttered a brief prayer as his fingers grasped the trigger of his gun.
“Lord, if you are who you say you are, show me,” he said at the time, moments before his phone rang.
It was a phone call that saved his life. On the other end was a coach from Heroes to Heroes, who asked if he would be interested in participating in their program.
“To expect someone to go to war and come back the same person as when they left, is not realistic. We don’t expect it when our children go to summer camp! We expect them to grow up,” Judy Isaacson Schaffer, Founder and President of Heroes to Heroes. “To send a veteran into battle, where he sees carnage and loses friends and comes back with brain damage and one expects them to be the same is not realistic.”
Isaacson Schaffer and the Heroes to Heroes veterans spoke to The Jerusalem Post ahead of Memorial Day, which mourns America’s fallen. However, for those left behind, their emotional and physical scars run deep and are a pain the program hopes to alleviate for all veterans.
As such, the aim of Heroes to Heroes, a Jewish National Fund partner, is not only to help these soldiers heal and overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, but also to find forgiveness in what they’ve done during war and its aftermath.
“A big challenge we have with our veterans is forgiveness. All the things that we don’t talk about: They had to kill and can’t speak about it outside of their war buddies. Everything they had to do to protect us, takes its toll. Part of that is the tremendous guilt that they come home with,” she said.
As a component of the healing process, veterans are offered a fully funded trip to the Holy Land. Heroes to Heroes believes in the power of spiritual healing and participants feel a deep, visceral reaction with their Creator during their time here.
To date, Heroes to Heroes has brought more than 200 veterans to Israel and in November is slated to bring its first group of police officers to Israel as well.
“I saw it as a way to rekindle my faith,” Omar Jana, Heroes to Heroes program director and US Navy veteran, said.
“After being to the Persian Gulf four times, I changed. Going to Israel got me excited,” he said. “I don’t care what religion you are, what you believe in, just that when you go to Israel you find spiritual healing.”
Jana, who came to Israel in 2016, was overwhelmed by the resilience Israelis exhibit despite the day-to-day threats from their neighbors.
The warmth and fortitude of the Israeli people coupled by the unexplained power of visiting several iconic religious landmarks, compelled Jana to start life anew after his trip.
“There are people out there who are in far worse situations than us, but we complain and get depressed. [Being in Israel] put everything in perspective for me; it was time to move on. Yes, I did things I did not want to do, but that’s life. I decided after Israel I was going to start a new life and leave all the negative things in the Jordan River when I got baptized,” he said.
Upon his return home, Jana joined Heroes to Heroes on a full-time basis so he can pay forward the generosity the organization showed him.
During their time in Israel, veterans get to see what makes Israel special – with many sights and sites featuring Jewish National Fund partners.
From Ammunition Hill to the 9/11 Memorial to Special in Uniform, veterans are exposed to Israel’s staunch support for its troops.
“The moment that we got off the plane, we were thanked by people who didn’t even know us. It was a genuine praising for being in the country. Ninety percent of the country here serves, and that’s impressive,” Manyoma said. “There is a comradeship and brotherhood and sisterhood in Israel. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Manyoma was particularly moved by Jewish National Fund’s Special in Uniform program, which helps people with disabilities serve in the IDF.
“Never in my entire life have I been in a place where the country honors every veteran and allows for disabled soldiers who actually want to be part of the military,” he said.
“There are so many aspects of the country that really speak to our veterans and soldiers. Jewish National Fund is a big part of that. Without the guidance from [JNF CEO] Russell Robinson, our program wouldn’t be nearly as effective,” Isaacson Schaffer said.
Those who came during Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron in April were in awe of the custom of making time stand still for two minutes as all activity comes to a halt during a siren mourning victims of the Holocaust and Israeli wars.
“It’s amazing to see. People stop on freeways! I’d love for us to do that in the States. You guys do it right,” Jana said.
However, their time in Israel is not just spent mourning loss, veterans have also exposed themselves to the joy of Israeli life – with Jana even crashing a wedding during his time here.
“I found myself dancing with a bride and groom. It was the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen. Then I understood, these guys are so happy because they are finally home; after thousands of years roaming the world, they are finally home,” Jana said.
And for many Heroes to Heroes veterans, they are finally healed.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.