A time to killl, a time to heal

An Israeli Navy SEAL's book about his journey back to civilian life, his love for Israel, and how he now heals others. Review.

Dr. Harold Goldmeier ,

Navy Seals
Navy Seals

A Time To Kill, A Time To Heal: An Israeli Navy SEAL’s Journey (Gefen Publishing House. 2021) is an autobiography by Yotam Dagan. Palestinian Arab terrorists nearly killed him when he was eleven years old. It was an event that replays for Dagan repeatedly as a Navy SEAL:

The terrorists disembark from a large mother ship. They traveled by rubber boats to their destination. They come ashore while the young Dagan hides. The terrorists randomly kill photographer Gail Rubin and shoot others.

But the meat of the book is not about Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, heroes, fighters, or politics. The engrossing and eye-opening book is about Dagan’s growth and transformation from a highly trained killer of enemy combatants to a psychologist healing the souls of people who kill. Many suffer after-effects. Many cannot make the transformation from military to civilian life successfully. Dagan seems to succeed. He builds a healthy network of friends and colleagues, marriage and family, education and career.

He designs techniques and programs to effectively pre-select SEAL candidates. Along with their physical skill training, Dagan introduces techniques and programs to improve the emotional and mental management skills of military servicepeople and veterans. The IDF enjoys an image of invincibility; however, its members are fragile human beings who bring their foibles, fractures, and emotional fissures to a job no civilian can imagine.

The author weaves a plethora of exciting, mission-impossible combat stories. They explicate his emphasis on healing and keep the reader’s attention. There are nail-biting moments. He laces the stories with his love for Israel and his desire to protect her people. Dagan describes how SEAL commanders cultivate the warrior mentality in new recruits, but he does not glorify the warriors. The strategy complicates life for veterans after the battlefield. It seems the military commanders give short shrift to the psychic toll of the battlefield.

“Looking ahead into the dark, I could see the sparkling lights of plankton, tiny marine creatures illuminating the water. Underwater, my compass, depth gauge, and diving watch confirmed that we were headed in the right direction… toward our target in enemy waters. The mission was clear: to eliminate ships at anchor in an enemy port (carrying) Zodiac rubber boats, AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles, RPG anti-tank rockets, and plenty of ammunition” that were to be used in attacks on Jewish civilians. Everyone aboard the ships died once Dagan’s team detonated the explosives they planted.

Few recruits make it through the screening; fewer newbies make it through the training. A select few gets to be SEALs and have extended careers. The personal toll the missions take is high and forever affects their human relationships.

His demobilization leaves Dagan feeling adrift. What is he qualified to do? “It was a bitter realization, having served as a Navy SEAL, that this had little value in the outside world.” Dagan decides that helping others, Israelis and servicepeople from other militaries is the tack to help “me to grow and to heal my own invisible scars.” The most challenging battle each veteran must face is about “moving from the battle of war to the battle of life… putting their lives on track, and pursuing meaningful personal growth.”

When my son returned home for two weeks R&R from the IDF, we watched a gritty war movie together. He impatiently leaned toward me and said, “You know Dad, the only people who think war is fun are Americans watching John Wayne movies.” (My Max eventually took his own life after fighting his demons stretching back to his teenage years. Suicide is still a leading cause of death for IDF troops although it declined significantly since the IDF began its prevention program. Suicides jumped 30% among active-duty U.S. Army personnel in 2020.)

The book ends with a chapter about the crises of today and tomorrow. It is a message of hope for the future that every military organization will do well to read. The highlight is Dagan’s talk about the epidemic of loneliness. The book gets a 10 rating from me for its emotional grip and challenging presentation of issues. Courage and strength are in re-creating your life when, notwithstanding the fact that Israel's survival really needed you to do it, everything they train you to do is kill.

A Time to Kill, A Time to Heal-Gefen Publishing House

Dr. Goldmeier is manager of an investment firm, a former research and teaching fellow at Harvard University, and (ret) teacher to international university students in Tel Aviv. He served in the administrations of U.S. governors and the Surgeon General. Goldmeier a commerce and industry consultant, writer, and public speaker.