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Nearly 40 years after the Yom Kippur War was fought, retired Navy Cmdr. Itzhak Brook, a physician and professor, continues to help others heal from the trauma of war and cancer.

The cancer survivor and veteran of two wars spoke about the similarities between the two, discussed the psychological challenges and shared his personal experience during a Stages of Healing presentation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), May 22.

Brook’s first war in uniform was the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967. A Soldier finishing up medical school at the time, the Israeli Army assigned him to work in an emergency room. Brook said his biggest challenge was to help soldiers deal with anxiety and fear. They came to him with confessions of how scared they were of the war, and asked him for medication to deal with their fear.

“It was very, very scary,” Brook said. “I, too, was afraid,” he admitted. “I have never felt fear like that before in my life.” The physician said in a “macho” society like Israel, “No one admits fear. Fear is not normal; [if you are afraid you] must be crazy.”

If you’re afraid, you can freeze, runaway, or take out your enemy, said Brook, a former paratrooper. He then explained he gave his patients two choices: to stay or go. All chose to stay but one, according to the physician. He said his biggest contribution to the war, Soldiers and his patients was to tell them, “It’s okay to be afraid.”

Brook faced war for a second time in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War as a 32-year-old lieutenant in the Israeli Army as a father of two young children. During this conflict between Israel and Egypt, the nuclear superpowers that supported the two, the U.S. and Soviet Union respectively, nearly came to blows.

In times of pressure, people turn to religion, Brook said. Religion played a major role in dealing with fear in the Yom Kippur War, he explained. “Every day I saw more people praying.” According to the physician, two of the most religious medics in his unit, “were more active and fearless than anybody else. They said, ‘We have nothing to fear.’”

Egypt lost a reported 18,500 service members in the Yom Kippur War; Israel lost 2,800. Brook was determined to stay alive, and told himself, “I’m really not ready to die, yet.” He remained with his unit 16 hours after he sustained a shrapnel injury to his leg and a broken bone near his eye.

When he was evacuated by helicopter, the former paratrooper said he experienced a mixed feeling of relief and a tremendous amount of guilt, “What many [service members] may feel when they leave their friends behind.”

Seven years after the Yom Kippur War ended, the physician joined the U.S. Navy, and retired 27 years later as a commander. “I enjoyed every day of it,” Brook said. “I realized [I was] fighting the same cause, just in a different uniform.”

He was 65 when doctors at the former National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda diagnosed him with throat cancer that claimed his voice box. Brook said the Yom Kippur War and his fight against cancer were two situations in which he was unsure if he would live. The physician likened three similarities between cancer and war: the lack of control in the situation, fear of the future, and a greater appreciation for life. 

Using a voice prosthesis, Brook now lectures groups around the country, and offers advice to other survivors of trauma. Talk about it, go to counseling, join a support group, write - get your feelings out, he urged.

“I have a voice disability. Try to make something good out of the tragedy in your own way,” said Brook, who returned to work as a patient advocate and lets the pages of his book speak for him, “My Voice: A Physician’s Personal Experience with Throat Cancer.”

Tears welled in the eyes of Dr. Zizette Makary during Brook’s Stages of Healing presentation at WRNMMC. The physician in the internal medicine department explained she was an Egyptian teenager during the Yom Kippur War and came to hear a viewpoint from “the other side.” She spent time with him after the lecture, and thanked him for presenting.

Makary said she questioned the “winning” and “victory” of war when she didn’t feel it. “It was not easy,” she explained. “I lived days, talking to my dad and mom about it, [asking] what is the country happy about?” So many families in her community lost loved ones, she said; her uncle returned from fighting in the war, crying and not speaking to anyone. “He has changed,” the physician said.