Tel Aviv — Uri Ehrenfeld knew exactly how Gilad Shalit felt as the pale and scrawny soldier strode to freedom on Israeli soil October 18 after five years in captivity.
Ehrenfeld, who spent months in captivity during the Yom Kippur War, relived his own rush of emotions when he watched Shalit hug his father and return to a rapturous welcome in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila, in northern Israel.
“It threw me back 38 years to when I was freed,” Ehrenfeld said just hours after Shalit’s release. “He looked exactly like we did.”
Ehrenfeld said the road ahead would not be easy for Shalit, but predicted he would survive “okay,” just like other former Israeli prisoners did.
“He will be like one of us,” Ehrenfeld said. “He lost a lot of weight, became very pale, and I saw straight away that he was very weak. But mentally he seems very strong.”
Other former Israeli captives were too overjoyed to express their feelings at Shalit’s release.
“I feel sheer excitement, nothing else that can be put into words,” said Arik Avneri, who was also captured during the Yom Kippur War.
Ehrenfeld admitted being on pins and needles as he watched the Shalit prisoner-swap drama unfold along with the rest of Israel. He fretted that a last-minute snag might ruin the entire deal. “It was a very exciting moment, but I was stressing until the last moment,” he said. “There was a fear something could go wrong.”
Despite their joy at Shalit’s release, former Israeli prisoners and experts say it will be tough for him to return to any sort of normal life.
When Shalit was captured, he was unknown. He returned home Israel’s most famous soldier and every Israeli parent’s son.
At some point, he will have to come to grips with the new reality of his life. And he may not like how it feels.
Bar Ilan University psychologist Rachel Dekel, an expert on captives, said that Shalit, like most returnees, is likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, intrusive memory, difficulty concentrating, a lack of trust of people and various other problems.
“From being impotent he’s going to be a superstar,” said Solly Dreman, emeritus psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University. “And superstars are often very lonely, with very dark closets.”
The case most similar to Shalit’s is that of Lebanon War veteran Yosef Grof, freed in 1985. Grof’s mother ran an unusually high-profile campaign to get him released. He was similar to Shalit in other respects: while most of Israel’s 450 living former prisoners of war were in captivity for a matter of months, he was held in Damascus for almost three years; while many were imprisoned with others, he was held alone; while others were held by a state, he was imprisoned by Palestinian militants. The price paid for his freedom was high: 1,150 Palestinians for him and two other Israelis.
“I found it very difficult going from total anonymity to such exposure when all the world sees your face,” he recalled in a rare interview with the Forward. He was firm in refusing interviews in the months after his release and determined to avoid becoming a public figure.
Grof went on to live a normal life, despite bearing psychological scars. He married, raised a family, set up house in the town of Modi’in and got a job as a bank administrator. He started considering the public-private demarcation when he was still in captivity. “Even there, I started to prepare myself,” he said.
And after his homecoming he lived by the principle that he needed to “know you are what you are and not what the press is making of you.”
The other key to achieving reintegration was taking things slowly. “In the beginning I didn’t even try to catch up, not with events and not with technology. Even now I say to people sometimes, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t here for that.’”
While Grof’s story seems to offer hope for Shalit, Dreman believes that Shalit has only an even change of achieving relative normality.
The campaign to free Shalit has led to the soldier’s being seen as “the child of every mother and father in Israel.” The downside to this notoriety is that it cannot be easily switched off once he is home, Dreman said.
“If he can achieve some sort of normal routine engaged in some purposeful activity amid strong familial roots, he may be okay,” Dreman said. “But if everybody feels he’s part of their family, he becomes public property.”
Fame aside, reintegration is a worry. “Coming home is not the happy ending, it’s the beginning of a new struggle,” said Gideon Raff, a television producer and director who met dozens of returned captives when conducting research for his 2009 series, “Prisoners of War.”
The fictional Israeli show, adapted for the United States and currently airing on the Showtime cable channel as “Homeland,” explored the complexities of returning to life back home, including psychological problems, difficulty re-establishing oneself with friends and family and what Raff calls the “wounded manhood” of being a fighter but requiring rescue at a high cost to one’s country.
While fears for Shalit’s privacy are greater than with any returnee POW in the past, some things have changed for the better.
Avneri recalled that when he returned home after two months in Syria, he was taken to “a second prison.” He was referring to a hotel near Haifa, where the army and intelligence services interrogated him and other returnees about what information they may have revealed to their captors, leading to feelings of guilt among some. By contrast, within hours of arriving in Israel the state delivered Shalit to his northern Israel home with his parents, without interrogation.
The other major change is that while most of Israel’s POWs received no psychological treatment from the state, Shalit will. “Only people physically injured were treated by the government when I was released,” Ehrenfeld said. “The rest of the people were in a very bad psychological condition and not treated at all.”
In 1996, Ehrenfeld helped to establish an advocacy group for former prisoners of war, Awake at Night. Six years ago the group successfully lobbied politicians to instigate and pass a law ensuring free psychological therapy and treatment for former POWs as soon as they return, and for the rest of their lives.
Six months after Ehrenfeld returned home to his parents in Jerusalem, he pushed himself to become independent. After earning his degree, he started working in security. He married and raised a family, though the demons of his captivity never went away. Ehrenfeld worried for his physical welfare: He returned slightly disabled as a result of abuse, and today he is 93% disabled.
When it came to his psychological condition, he did little to help himself recover.
“I bypassed it … through most of the years,” he said, adding that this was the norm in those days. Most POWs did not talk to each other, believing their problems to be unusual and not inevitable leftovers from their captivity.
Looking back now, Ehrenfeld believes that psychological attention would have benefited him. “Every noise makes me jump,” he said. “I find it very difficult to fall asleep, because doing so was forbidden during captivity.”
Some effects of his trauma are subtler. He is a workaholic, a common trait among former POWs, who sometimes feel a debt to the whole country for bringing them back home in one piece.
“It is to be busy,” he said, “but also to pay back the country, as if we feel obliged.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org