Wounded British and Israeli veterans bond in first ever Veterans Games

Many had suffered serious injuries. They shared their experiences at the games, that feature the kind of competitive sports seen at the Invictus Games


A delegation of 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 and mental health conference.

It was an ambitious five-day long project giving more than 100 soldiers from the UK and from the Israel Defence Force the chance to experience the kind of competitive sports seen at the Invictus Games.

Taking place alongside the physical activities at the impressive Beit Halochem rehabilitation centres was a three-day long conference featuring leading experts from both countries on treating injured or psychologically damaged soldiers.

The Veteran Games were organised by Beit Halochem UK and the Embassy of Israel in London and took over one and a half years to plan.

Michael Freeman, Counsellor for Civic Affairs at the Israeli Embassy, told the JC that the idea for the event emerged from a smaller gathering of British veteran leaders in Israel.


“We spoke about doing something deeper and more meaningful with a mini games, which would also be focused around the families of the armed forces veterans. Sport would be important, but it wouldn’t be the key focus. Family and physical recovery were also just as important.

“Children could see for themselves what their parents could achieve in events such as swimming, shooting and crossfits [a combination of strength and balance challenges].

“And then there was also the opportunity to promote Israel to people who most probably don’t know the country in that way.”

The importance attached to the Veteran Games from an Israeli perspective was underlined by Ambassador Mark Regev’s appearance at Heathrow Airport to speak with the British delegation ahead of their flight to Tel Aviv.

“Ultimately the sort of issues you’ve had to deal with many Israeli families have had to deal with as well,” he said.

“We can learn from each other’s experiences. It’s a win-win.”


Former St John’s Wood Synagogue President Keith Breslauer, managing director of private equity firm Patron Capital and another key figure behind the Veteran Games, said on Tuesday: “It is brilliant to hear and to see the building of these relationships. It was one of the core principles behind these games.

“We saw it today, Israeli guys with one leg hugging British guys with one leg. Then you’d hear the discussions that followed on living with a disability and how to cope,” said Mr Breslauer, who has been involved with the Royal Marines Charitable Trust for nearly a decade.

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.

This enabled the entire British delegation — which totalled 250, including the families of veterans and the doctors, academics and charity chiefs — to be put up in Tel Aviv’s five-star Carlton hotel.

Dinners in the city’s port, in the Judean desert, and in the Arab village of Abu Gosh, along with visits to the Dead Sea, Yad Vashem and the British military cemetery in Ramla, were also factored in.

Andrew Wolfson, chair of Beit Halochem UK, came up with the idea for the games 18 months ago.

Mr Wolfson told the JC it was his belief that Jewish communal charities must be proactive in “collaborating” with organisations from outside their own.

“If we do so, we can get so much more done,” he said. “In the past we might have suffered from being a bit too inward-looking.”

It is an ethos that has paid dividends this time around, with the Royal Marines Charity, RAF Benevolent Fund, Rock to Recovery, Veteran Scotland, Combat Stress, the Not Forgotten Association and the Association of Jewish ex-Service Men and Women (AJEX) all offering support to the Veteran Games.


Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn, who attended the opening ceremony with his wife Nicola, head of Facebook Europe, also heaped praise on the work of Mr Wolfson, telling the JC he was “one of the exciting new generation of communal leaders” who wants to try to “do things a little bit differently.”

There was no doubt the British soldiers and their families were impressed both with the way they were treated and Israel itself.

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.”

Ben Ward was serving in the Royal Welsh regiment in Afghanistan when he was seriously injured by an unexploded device. One can only imagine the mental and physical torment suffered by Mr Ward and his family in the years that followed.

But on Monday night he was full of smiles as he dined with the rest of the group in Tel Aviv port. 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, was invited to Israel by Band of Brothers, which is linked to the Not Forgotten Association.

She spoke openly about the impact of sport on her mental health issues.

Being in Israel also 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.

As if to prove the point, on Monday night, an IDF veteran took a group of British former soldiers drinking. The UK contingent was stunned to see how well the ex-IDF man was treated by the bar owner, who offered them all free drinks.

The event’s three-day conference also had a profound impact. High calibre speakers from the UK including Sir Professor Simon Wessely from King’s College London; and Kate Davies, the Director of Health and Justice, Armed Forces and Sexual Assault Referral for NHS England were among those to outline treatment approaches for veterans.

Melanie Waters, Chief Executive of Help For Heroes, also outlined the vital role played by the charitable sector in the UK in helping veterans.

In one session, Israeli Professor Sara Freedman outlined developments in how “virtual empowerment” can be used to treat veterans suffering from mental illness.

There was real hope that techniques — whereby patients are shown footage changing their perception and boosting their confidence — can be also used to treat those suffering from mental health issues in wider society.

As the conference progressed, there was chatter in the corridors of Beit Halochem. Two British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland could be overheard discussing with an IDF veteran the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as a future Prime Minister.

The British men feared possible retrospective actions by long-time Republican sympathiser Mr Corbyn against soldiers who served in Ireland during the troubles. The Israeli was shocked that the UK could elect a PM who has counted Hamas among his friends. There was genuine solidarity among the three men.

On Wednesday, as the competition came to an end, there were emotional scenes as both Israelis and British competitors and families came together for a photograph.

Israeli organisers took to the microphone to praise the UK contingent. “We have learnt a lot from you over the past few days,” said Ora Seidner, director of project management at Beit Halochem.

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