Over 60 British military veterans — many suffering serious injuries following campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland — flew to Tel Aviv with their families this week to join Israeli counterparts for the inaugural Veterans Games.
The five-day long event gave soldiers from the UK and from the Israel Defence Force the chance to experience the kind of competitive sports seen at the Invictus Games.
Like Invictus, it recognised the capacity for sport to boost rehabilitation. But it was complimented by a conference on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health featuring experts from both countries. The programme also provided time for sharing experiences of war and recovery and for families to spend quality time together.
— Mark Regev (@MarkRegev) May 30, 2019
The inaugural event was conceived and developed by Beit Halochem UK chairman Andrew Wolfson together with the Israeli Embassy and was inspired by the Prince Harry-founded Invictus Games and funded by leading British Jewish philanthropists. It brought together British and Israeli veterans to compete in swimming, rifle shooting and X-Fit (a range of strength and endurance exercises) at Beit Halochem’s state-of-the-art centres in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
#IDF and #UK wounded vets – head to head, in sports!
100 wounded vets join forces in celebration of family and sport at The Veteran Games and Conference in #Israel
https://t.co/sufPyDpNKf #MAGA#AmericaFirst🇺🇸#SupportVets🇺🇸🇬🇧🇮🇱 pic.twitter.com/SHyHpmG458
— Armen (@ArmenArmich) May 28, 2019
The Israeli Embassy’s Michael Freeman, who helped organise the initiative, said: “When we planned it we had a grand vision in our minds and it’s exceeded all those expectations. If there are people who want to make it happen maybe in two years time we can have another round with more countries joining in and this can become one of the key events in the sports and recovery programme for injured veterans from Britain, Israel and around the world.”
President Rivlin hosted the UK delegation at his residence on the final day:
“I see true true heroes here who served their country’s cause and went to war to preserve our values and protect us all. I would like to say: I salute you
“I’m proud and honoured to see our own IDF veterans who took part in the Games. I salute you too. You all returned from battle. But there were those – your comrades and friends – who did not. Let’s pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Help for Heroes praised Israel’s approach to supporting the rehabilitation and recovery of wounded ex-soldiers and said it is a model that could be explored to further help veterans in the UK.
Thanks to @AJEX_UK for allowing me to represent them and the UK in the veterans games in Israel, a fantastic opportunity and not only that I won bronze in the 50m freestyle and gold in the 50m backstroke. pic.twitter.com/VZ2UAcFjKU
— jamie (@jamie99180493) May 28, 2019
The British charity’s chief executive Melanie Waters was inspired by a visit to a rehabilitation centre run by Beit Halochem in Tel Aviv.
She told Jewish News she was particularly struck that the centre offers on-site physiotherapy and other treatments as part of a “holistic” approach to rehabilitation.
“It’s not just about the sport when it comes to veteran care,” the CEO said. “It was great to hear the Israeli government contributes towards care. The charity and membership tops up that support. If the government only pays for two physiotherapy treatments and there is a need for more, then the charity element helps. I like that model.”
Waters hailed the “very generous” donors supporting Help for Heroes, but said what she had seen in Israel could feed into ongoing conversations with Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Certainly there is something to say to the government about the holistic approach in uniting rehabilitation and recovery. If we were able to do this with government financial help, there would be a positive outcome because we’d be helping veterans to live and go back to work and prevent our veterans having to go elsewhere.
“Many military charities also have expertise with veterans they might not get in the health service.”
She said she was also “impressed by the sense of community” at the centre, one of four run by the charity nationwide to support 51,000 veterans and their families, as well as victims of terror attacks.
Waters – whose charity selects and trains the British squad for the Invictus Games, that were founded by Prince Harry – is now looking at the possibility of hosting a return veteran Games and conference in the UK. She said, “Recovery through sport is in our DNA. It’s great to see wounded veterans recovering with colleagues from Israel.
“We are glad the families are here as we believe it’s part of rehabilitation and recovery.”
Inspiring to meet British & Israeli participants at the landmark Veteran Games with @PresidentRuvi. Incredible stories of achievement over adversity. The Games are held in support of physical and mental healing, and were inspired by the UK’s @WeAreInvictus #VeteransGames pic.twitter.com/q0PqtIM51r
— andrew murrison (@AWMurrison) May 30, 2019
The conference also heard from the Kate Davies, a director in NHS England responsible for armed forces commissioning, and Israeli experts made presentations on innovations in the battle against PTSD in veterans.
There was no doubt the British soldiers and their families were impressed both with the way they were treated and Israel itself.
RAF Benevolent Fund ambassador Joanna Martin, who competed in shooting after a training accident left her in a wheelchair, marvelled at the “amazing” facilities at Beit Halochem as she got to know fellow charity ambassadors she’d never previously met.
While she said Gaza was the first thing that came to mind at any mention of Israel before this week, it was clear she had been transformed into a cheerleader for the country. The 57-year-old said: “I’m definitely going to go home and tell people they have to go to Israel.”
Danny White, a former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, said, “I had known that Israel was a young nation born out of conflict and great tragedy for the Jewish people. But what I am experiencing is a clearly progressive and really forward thinking country.”
Great couple of days at The Veteran Games in Israel.⠀
— RAF Benevolent Fund (@RAFBF) May 28, 2019
Israel Day 2-summary of todays veteran games and conference in Twitter characters! Shot some pellets, had great fun, met some of our Israeli counterparts, shared stories, went on a culinary tour and sampled Israel’s delicacies (amazing) then went for a great evening.#loveisrael pic.twitter.com/Xn6PNNjiID
— Matthew Neve (@Swanseaarcher) May 27, 2019
Ben Ward was serving in the Royal Welsh regiment in Afghanistan when he was seriously injured by an unexploded device. He described the visit to Israel as “a wonderful experience” and praised “the really friendly people” and the “great food.”
Fiona Masson, who has suffered from PTSD and anxiety related issues since serving three tours in Afghanistan with the Royal Artillery Regiment, gave her insight into a country that appears to have the wellbeing of its veterans at the centre of its society and government policy.
“It is clear there are people looking out for you here,” she said.
Our coaches are in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week as part of the 2019 Veteran Games & Conference with @BHalochem
The six-day event is based around a sports competition between wounded, sick and injured veterans from the UK and Israel pic.twitter.com/LrKnKHgyBl
— Chelsea Foundation (@CFCFoundation) May 28, 2019
Speaking on behalf of the participants, Matt Tomlinson, one of the most decorated Marines with 28 years service before his retirement in 2017, said: “I can honestly say we will never forget this truly amazing experience.”
He told Jewish News: “The first Israel/UK Veteran Games has surpassed all my expectations. The camaraderie between the participating veterans, their families and the academics will hopefully go on to forge an even closer relationship between our two countries.”
— Michael Freeman (@M_S_Freeman) May 29, 2019
The project, which opened with a gala dinner in the grounds of Beit Halochem on Sunday evening for 350 people, was also the result of substantial donations from the Patron Charitable Initiatives, the Pears Foundation, the Rachel Charitable Trust, the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust and The Wolfson Family Trust. Chelsea FC’s Foundation also provided substantial funding as well as a team of coaches to train kids attending the Games.