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US veterans in Israel: Memorial Day profiles in courage and healing

U.S. Army veteran Iggy Padilla at the Western Wall. Credit: Courtesy of Jewish National Fund.
U.S. Army veteran Iggy Padilla at the Western Wall. Credit: Courtesy of Jewish National Fund.

By June Glazer/

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 Memorial Day (May 29), 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.

In this first installment of a two-part series, three U.S. veterans speak of their transformational journeys in Israel.

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 God. 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 God 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.” will publish the second installment of this Memorial Day series, featuring the stories of three more veterans, tomorrow.

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