Heroes to Heroes
Jessica Vargas is a thirty-five-year old single mother and a Marine Corps veteran. She served four years and two deployments in Iraq following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Vargas was 18 when she enlisted straight out of high school. The war in Iraq broke-out soon after. Deployment was inevitable.
Marine training — especially for war — is intense and brutal. War is worse. Nothing in Vargas’ training could have prepared her for what she would endure half-way around the world in a vast desert, a foreign culture, and an unforgiving and hostile environment.
The moral and mental stress Vargas suffered from the horrors she witnessed at such a young age, and the punishing conditions she lived in — often going for weeks without bathing and falling asleep to the explosive sounds of mortar fire — would eventually destroy her marriage and nearly her life. She missed her family. She lost friends. She began to question why she was even there.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was robbed of my innocence. The child within never got to emerge as a young lady preoccupied with dating, college classes, or the latest fashion and hair trends,” Vargas says. “I privately suffered for years behind a public smile — a carefully crafted mask. I pretended, even to myself, that life was good and the successful and glamorous business woman I had become meant I was normal — when in fact I was dying a slow and painful emotional and spiritual death inside.”
Vargas reached out to therapists at the VA but to no avail. The wall she had constructed to shield herself from truth was thick. She had long since disconnected from her feelings. She lived day to day denying her soul the interpersonal connections that give depth and meaning to life.
“I couldn’t cry even though I needed to. I couldn’t scream even though the voice inside shrieked for help,” she continues.
Then, one day, the song Rise Up by Andra Day played on her car radio. “I lost it. A lifetime of tears burst forth uncontrollably,” she shares. “I realized I had serious issues but had no clue how to begin to address them.”
It was a photo assignment in a photography class she had enrolled in that ultimately provided the key to unlocking the door to the room that had held her life hostage for so many years.
“We had to take a self-portrait and use it to tell the class something about ourselves. My photo shocked me. There I was, emotionally and physically spent, sitting on a chair, half clothed in an empty room, staring at a pathetic image of myself in a full-length mirror,” she describes.
The photo forced her to see herself as she was — hopeless, sad, confused — missing the girl she might have been yet struggling to figure that out. Post-traumatic stress had taken its toll. She desperately needed help. Denial was no longer an option.
A friend recommended she apply to a program called Heroes to Heroes, a ten-day spiritual journey to Israel for combat veterans. The theory is that if a veteran finds spirituality, they are less likely to hurt themselves and more likely to heal and embrace their life’s potential.
Judy Isaacson Elias founded Heroes to Heroes in 2010 in tribute to her father — a World War II veteran who worked with disabled vets — and to honor the service of all veterans, especially those with Moral Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Moral injury is often overlooked in the process of treating post-traumatic stress,” says Isaacson Elias. “It’s the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when they witness or feel helpless to prevent acts that transgress their moral and ethical codes.”
Over 200 veterans have participated in Heroes to Heroes thus far, with over 20 marriages saved along with dozens of lives. Veterans of Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all participated in the program.
“I was raised to be proud and respectful of our military and those who fight to preserve our freedoms,” says Isaacson Elias. “After my father’s passing, I felt a strong pull to continue his work with disabled veterans.”
Isaacson Elias explains that the Heroes to Heroes concept emerged following one of many trips to the Walter Reed Medical Center. “I learned that once these men and women leave the protection of the hospital and rehabilitative facilities, many end up lost and alone. After listening to their stories, and learning of their challenges, I realized that something had to be done to make sure that these men and women are given the tools and resources necessary to make their transition to civilian life clean, clear, direct, and purposeful.”
Isaacson Elias looked at other available programs for veterans and wanted to offer something different – an experience of a lifetime and one that will allow emotionally and physically disabled veterans access to a different perspective about their service and their spiritual roots.
Heroes to Heroes teams up 10 veterans for a life-changing journey to Israel. Each team includes ten Americans, five Israelis, and two team coaches who are veterans of both combat and the Heroes to Heroes program.
“We run about ten trips a year – [nine] all male and one all-female trip,” says Isaacson Elias. The program is designed to help participants develop social and emotional bonds with one another while exploring their spirituality and pushing themselves physically and mentally.
Teams meet via Skype to get to know one another prior to the journey and stay together via Skype and social media upon their return to the United States.
Once in Israel, veterans connect to the healing process through spiritual, emotional, physical, and social opportunities.
Throughout the ten-day journey they visit holy sites including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; experience baptism in the River Jordan; plant trees for friends and family who were lost; visit sites including battlefields, memorials, Masada, and Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum); they cycle, swim, hike, and keep to an itinerary that pushes each participant physically and mentally; and visit veterans’ organizations to bond with Israeli counterparts, re-establishing social skills repressed due to trauma and depression.
“This is an extremely emotional journey, and the post-journey is critical,” stresses Isaacson Elias. Team members must work together for at least a year following the trip to ensure a successful transition to civilian life.
The only cost to participants is a U.S. Passport, airfare to meet the team at the U.S. point of departure, and money for incidentals.
“We recently opened up the program to those in Law Enforcement who have been traumatized by events through their service to the community,” she adds.
For Vargas, Heroes to Heroes was life changing.
“I went to Israel a broken human being and came back with the warrior within reawakened; understanding that my life is a gift to be lived in honor of those who could not,” she says.
The trip gave Vargas perspective. She volunteered at Save a Child’s Heart, a humanitarian organization providing life saving cardiac surgery for children from developing countries. She visited Special in Uniform – a community of young people with disabilities serving in the IDF.
“Israel is the only country to allow people with disabilities to serve in the military,” she says.
Vargas also came back with an indelible reminder of her trip: להיות אומץ חזק של טוב.
“At Yad Vashem, I learned about a Jewish heroine of the Holocaust,” she says. “Roza Robato was part of the Nazi resistance. She was caught and tortured by the Germans to give-up the names of other members of the group. She refused and the last words she spoke before she died were Be strong and of good courage. I had it tattooed to my arm, in Hebrew, as inspiration.”
Vargas has turned that inspiration into a commitment to support Heroes to Heroes veterans. She now works as a program coach and mentor.
“I haven’t lived righteously my whole life – which I’m not proud of – but I now hold myself to a higher standard. I learned that I have to forgive myself in order to move on,” she says.
“Heroes to Heroes taught me to strive to be a better version of myself and to live life with purpose, strength, and moral courage.”
Jessica’s tattoo, which translates to “Be strong and of good courage.”
Baptism in the Jordan River