Operation under pressure during war, absorbing missiles or aircraft crashing: these are situations that could cause stress amongst soldiers and their families. The IAF Psychology Division is responsible for dealing with such situations, in order to maintain operational activity. Just over a month and a half ago they stood before one of their greatest tests

Eilon Tohar | Translation by: Ohad Zeltzer-Zubida & Ofri Aharon

November 26, 2015. An armored bus that belongs to the Discovery Unit flipped over on its way to Jerusalem. Over time, details started reaching the public: 40 injured soldiers, and Late Srgt. Stav Partush was trapped under the bus. She was pronounced dead on the spot.

SAR Unit 669 was called and a reconnaissance aircraft ensured the evacuation was being done safely. “We received a report that a bus had flipped over and there were 40 injured soldiers”, recalls Lt. Col. Idit Oz, Head of the IAF’s Psychology Department. “We are aware that incidents with many injured people can cause stress and could expose those involved to painful images that may cause distress or hardship. We also know that a quick response and treatment can help moderate these symptoms”.

As the report about the car accident came in, the Psychology Department began working immediately with the goal of supporting those who were injured, their acquaintances, the commanders and families: IAF psychologists dropped everything in order minimize mental damage the event could cause to those involved as soon as possible. “The IAF Psychology Department came together to care for those involved, all in real time”, stated Col. Erez, the IAF’s Head Psychological Officer. “The work fluctuates between advising commanders and helping the soldiers that stayed in the unit, to treatment in five hospitals and support for the injured soldiers’ families. The amount of work done here is unusual on the IDF level and suits the IAF moral standing: everyone contributes in order to help and especially to maintain functional continuity”.

Maintaining functional continuity: from a different angle

What does mental health have to do with functional continuity?
The world of psychology is an integral part of the soldiers’ health, and is directly tied to the IAF’s functional continuity and the soldiers’ ability to fulfill their tasks. According to Lt. Col. Oz, the IAF has unique characteristics which may influence different psychological aspects. “The IAF consists of very large units, and there is a large distance between the execution of the mission, and the division which supports it – between the pilots which receives an operational command and the technician which connects wires and the cook which makes their food. In this sense, the social network is different to one in an infantry battalion in which everyone lives together”, she explains. “Additionally, there are many populations in the IAF, spread across many professions and it is difficult to think of another place in the IDF which has operational combatants, fighter pilots, UAV operators and construction and administrative units which operate in a way unique to the IAF”.

One of the dramatic events that stood as a milestone for the Psychology department’s attitude towards events with numerous injuries was the crash of the CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter during a training exercise on July 26, 2010. Four pilots, two technicians and a Roman observing officer were killed in the accident and led to the consolidation of our approach to such events, which became a kind of a “combat doctrine”. “This event required attention from multiple centers”, recalls Lieut. Col. Oz. “There was a psychologist that flew to Romania, and other professionals that operated on airbases. The event helped us built a model for treatment in accidents with multiple injuries: starting from those who were at the traumatic event to those affected by the loss. We absorbed this method and practiced it in a training exercise for such events, which was proved successful after the accident”.

Maintaining functional continuity: from a different angle

“The most effective treatment is prevention”
The operation after the accident near Jerusalem was spread out on every possible layer: groups of Psychology officers arrived at the five hospitals the soldiers were taken to. In addition, a situation room was established in the Psychology Department with the goal of keeping track of the evacuated soldiers and the operation of the groups and to ensure first hand treatment on site.

How did you manage to make everything happen so quickly?
“It took one phone call for the activity to begin”, says Lt. Col. Oz. “It was really the easiest part of the mission: recruiting the people, devoted psychology officers who left everything in order to arrive and contribute.”

The amount of involved soldiers and the intimate nature of the small unit increased the demand for psychological treatment with the purpose of explaining to the soldiers that their responses to the event were normal and most of all – to show them that someone is there for them. “In one of the hospitals there was a patient laying in his bed who had a lot of trouble moving, and the psychological officer which was there asked the four other patients in the same hospital to join him, drew the curtains and created a closed therapeutic space in which they were able to recreate the story together and understand what happened”, shares Lt. Col. Oz. She adds: “The most effective treatment is prevention. Once problems are created – it is much more difficult to treat them.”

Is it possible to prevent post-trauma?
“You can try. Mental preparation and early intervention significantly reduce the intensity of the post-traumatic response, and shorten the healing period.”

Maintaining functional continuity: from a different angle

The responsibility – is the Commanders’
Almost two months have passed since the bus accident, and the Psychology Department is still escorting the soldiers, who are continuing their military service, despite the large hole that the Stav left behind. “The unit has gone back to work and is functioning as usual. Of course there is sadness, but work continues and we are still escorting it”, reports Lt. Col. Oz. “Since the accident we have held personal and group sessions with the involved soldiers.”

A year and a half ago the “Sheild” project began in different IAF units, during which soldiers in mandatory service learn how to help their friends in dealing with traumatic events. The expanding project is similar in its structure to first aid workshops, however, it focuses on mental strength and not physical, with the goal of giving the soldiers coping tools in the case of emergency events such as war or missile absorption. “We believe that people receive the best first aid from their peers”, adds Lt. Col. Oz. “Most events can be contained inside the unit, and our preference is to always help the commanders in order for them to become helpful, and only then assist the soldiers themselves. The commanders are very significant figures when it comes to maintaining the unit’s routine”.