Breaking the silence: I tried to commit suicide in the IDF

Seven years have passed since that day I tried to jump. Seven years in which I hardly told anyone this story. But now it is time to speak out — for myself and for all the others who were forgotten or silenced by the system.

By Sapir Sluzker-Amran

A young Israeli female combat soldier seen taking a rest after taking part in an obstacle course exercise. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A young Israeli female combat soldier seen taking a rest after taking part in an obstacle course exercise. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

I tried to commit suicide in the army. One day during training, a few weeks after I was enlisted, I climbed the railing of the third or fourth story of building on my base, and stood with one foot out in the air, while my hand held on to the rail. Soldiers yelled, the sergeant ran over and grabbed me. He pulled so that I would step down, meanwhile I held on tight, determined to get out of there at any cost. I am getting out of the army — dead or alive.

In the end, the sergeant managed to get me to climb down, and I was taken to see a mental health officer. I sat on a bench in the sun, waiting for her honor to see me. Perhaps I can still be discharged. Maybe, finally, I’ll find the person in this despicable system that will look me in the eyes and understand that I’m neither spoiled nor making things up. That I don’t fit here.

In line was another soldier, I think her name was Racheli. She told me that she was having a hard time, but that she doesn’t want to cause trouble. I think she was younger than me, another girl from Scouts who was selected to be a commander. A gun was draped over her gaunt body. Next to us sat two soldiers who were there to supervise me. A few months after I successfully managed to leave the army, I read that she took that same gun, walked into a restroom in an army base, and shot herself in the head. She never hid her struggles, she just didn’t yell as loud as I did.

My parents never viewed commanders or the army as above all else — they saw that their daughter was slowly disappearing. No longer was she the Sapir who always the first to make everyone laugh; she was slowly becoming unrecognizable. Someone who cried every Saturday when it was time to go back to base. Sapir who no longer had any desire to eat. Maybe Racheli was afraid of what people would say about her, maybe she never had the same kind of support I did. Maybe she thought she could not shirk her military duties — and ended up paying with her life — perhaps because she so badly wanted to be part of something. Maybe so that, one day, she could look back nostalgically and recall stories from the army.

Who talks to the parents?

The commanders did not want to give up on me. Not because I was important to them, but because statistics mattered. “I have never lost a soldier, and I am not planning on starting now,” said my last commander. By this point I was already a lost soul, stepping off the train every day in central Tel Aviv, imagining myself jumping. I looked at the women sergeants and wished that they would receive their god damned three-striped badge already. Not out of respect, but because the significance of those three stripes is that they will soon be released. The mental health officer tried to convince me to stay. Not for me, but for his statistics. “This will ruin your life, you won’t be able to study. Think about all of your friends. It will be hard for you to find a job and even your driver’s license might be taken away. Time will pass quickly, you’re just acting spoiled.”

But I wasn’t being spoiled — I just didn’t fit. I never found my place. I couldn’t understand the logic of the system, nor could I place myself in it. The fact that I came out of the closet at a very early stage of my training didn’t help.

An Israeli soldier walks near graves of fallen soldiers in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier walks near graves of fallen soldiers in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

My commander knew I was struggling, yet ignored it until I ran off one day and insisted on seeing the mental health officer. A month later, my commander asked that I guard some godforsaken hole in the middle of nowhere. I told her I couldn’t do it, and she responded that I must. “It’s better for both of us if I’m not anywhere near a weapon right now. I’m serious,” I told her. Only then did she leave me be. What would have happened had I not found the strength to say this sentence out loud? What I were forced to sit alone in the dark in a guard tower — just me and my rifle?

The army never informed my parents that I tried to commit suicide. No one thought it was necessary to call them and tell them what was going on with me, meanwhile I was yet unable to yell — I only knew how to cry. That same weekend I went out with a friend. I remember myself going into the bathroom stall and having a flashback to standing on that railing. Panic attack. I can’t breathe, I can’t move. I’m sitting in the stall and trying to calm down. That same friend is today an officer in the army, serving in a combat position. “Salt of the earth,” according to this country’s parameters. Everything I thought I was not.

Seven years have passed since that day I tried to jump. Seven years in which I hardly told anyone this story. I did not think I would be able to write down what happened there, certainly not publish it. Only now have I truly come clean to myself about what took place there, yet every story of a soldier’s suicide that makes headlines catches me off guard all over again. It is such a silenced, shameful phenomenon. Since I was in pre-school, I was told that I was surely going to be an officer. I even have a photo with an officer taken on some Independence Day hanging in my parents’ home, her hat sitting unkemptly on my head while the two of us salute. The fear of evading army service, the fear of being viewed as different. The fear of not being part of the collective. What will people say.

Death statistics

The system is incapable of understanding, its role is to fight. Forever. Not to make room for losers who can’t deal — the ones who eventually commit suicide. More soldiers who became statistics and whom we will remember as we stand during the siren on Memorial Day. Kids who died for nothing. Who called out and showed signs of distress in a system that wants only to show bravery. Those who were harassed, those who were ashamed of seeking help. And anyways, in order to get to see a medical health officer, one needs to insist. One needs to fight to get help, which often doesn’t help. And who has the energy to fight, anyway? Every story of a soldier’s suicide brings me to tears for a young boy whose entire life was in front of him, or a young girl who couldn’t take it anymore. For those who came back with stories and nightmares and were never given the proper help. There are way too many of these stories, of these deaths. Way too many parents who don’t understand and officers who are not interested in understanding.

The system doesn’t understand because it treats soldiers with psychological problems just like Israel’s National Insurance Institute treats welfare recipients. Because there are always one or two people who try to game the system, it must mean that everyone is a fraud. Everyone is simply pretending in order to improve their situation or get something — no one has any real hardships.

Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, during Israeli Memorial Day, May 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Bereaved Israelis mourn next to graves of fallen soldiers at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, during Israeli Memorial Day, May 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a study conducted by Major Leah Shelef, who heads the Israeli Air Force’s Mental Health Clinic, 2009 saw 188 suicide attempts — a third of them by women. Am I included in those 188 attempts? According to statistics published in Haaretz, from 2007 until 2013, 124 soldiers committed suicide during their army service, while 237 soldiers committed suicide between 2002-2012. Even worse, between 2009 and 2011, the main cause of death among soldiers was suicide.

In one of the articles I read while searching for statistics, I found the following harrowing comment left by a mother whose son killed himself in the army:

Air Force pilot, this is what he failed at. A few days later he received a letter that said he did not fit. They knew that they does not deal with failures, that he may hurt himself, “narcissistic tendencies,” it said. But they didn’t pass this on, only sent him to a different corps where he could commit suicide. And that’s what he did. They didn’t say a word to us, because he belongs to the army and they do not report on the status of soldiers, not even to parents. I saw that he wasn’t feeling well, but I did not understand the extent. After all, this was the army, and it’s not always easy. I did not know people commit suicide in the army. It’s a secret. No one told me. Even when it happened, I thought I was the only one, that everyone else dies a hero and only he committed suicide. I thought that I failed in my love for him, that I didn’t see, that I didn’t know to ask the right questions, to listen to his silence.

These are not the army stories that they want us to tell on Memorial Day — about those who went for no reason, who were killed by the enemy within. Whenever those statistics are published, I force myself not to think about Racheli. I am in denial. Denial that if they hadn’t caught me, that if I had jumped, maybe I would have broken a few bones. Or maybe I would also have become a statistic.

Louis Brandeis said that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Suicide in the IDF must come out of the shadows, which is why I am sharing my story. So that parents who send their children to the army know that even the strongest people have their weakest moments — that not everyone fits the system. So that commanders show sensitivity and don’t put up endless barriers to getting psychological help, so that those same soldiers know they are not alone. The army needs to publish updated statistics on its website as well as track suicide attempts. It must publish its plans and allow public criticism, update parents about their child’s status, and not view suicide attempts as “damage to IDF property.”

This is likely the only text of its kind published on the Internet, at least according to what I have seen. So many deaths, but those who survived to tell their stories would likely kill so that no one find out this detail. I, too, was like this, until last Memorial Day, in which more families stood over 15 graves belonging to soldiers who most likely committed suicide in 2016 during their military service, according to statistics passed on by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit to Local Call. Such large numbers for such a silenced phenomenon — a silence that only leads to a lack of awareness and another senseless death, one that could have been prevented. So I decided that enough was enough, that it is time to talk about it, even if I am deathly afraid of the consequences of publishing this piece, which will come up every time someone searches either my name or “suicides in the IDF.” This fear paralyzed me until now, but if, according to statistics, a quarter of dead soldiers over the past decade committed suicide, I cannot be silent any longer. Today I chose to put aside the shame so that there is a chance to save the next person who wants to jump or shoot himself.

Sapir Sluzker-Amran is a blogger for Local Call, where this article was first published in Hebrew.