Judy Isaacson Elias is Supporting Veterans in Healing “Crisis of the Soul”

NRB | May 16, 2024 | Member News

Judy Isaacson Elias, an associate NRB member and the founder and CEO of Heroes to Heroes, is helping veterans heal from the invisible wounds of war, particularly what Elias calls “moral injury”—the damage to one’s conscience after experiencing traumatic events.

Elias’s own connection to war trauma began with her father, a World War II veteran who participated in the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of a concentration camp. Although his military service took place before his daughter’s birth, Elias experienced the long-term impact on their family life firsthand.

“In many ways, he never came home,” Elias said. “I don’t remember smiling and laughter. We had a very chaotic home.”

She described her father as withdrawn, struggling with job stability and family connections. Her mother, too, was affected by his lack of presence. By age 16, Elias rejected her religious Jewish upbringing, rebelling against rituals and synagogue attendance. Suffering from disconnection, she avoided home, dodged school, and turned to drugs and alcohol.

A turning point came when Elias’ father encouraged her to attend an Israel tour for teenagers. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, she experienced a profound awakening.

“The next thing I knew, I had my hand on the wall,” Elias said. “I felt like for the first time in my life, I wasn’t alone. I have a mission, and I have to figure out what it is.”

This experience ignited a desire to explore her faith and understand her father’s trauma. After his death in 2001, Elias began volunteering with veteran organizations. She became disillusioned by approaches that focused on relaxation and extended vacations, which could create more harm than healing by worsening substance abuse issues. Elias concluded that post-war trauma is “a crisis of the soul.”

Her own journey of deepening her faith in God led her to believe that spiritual renewal was key to healing.

“People choose to live when they feel a connection to their faith, and when they have faith, then they feel as if they belong,” Elias said.

With this vision, Elias founded Heroes to Heroes in 2010. Initially focused on trips to Israel, the program expanded its offering based on positive feedback from veterans who finally felt at peace and reconnected with God.

Heroes to Heroes now offers a 12-month curriculum alongside the ten-day Israel trip. Veterans work in teams led by a program alumnus who serves as their coach.

In August 2018, Heroes to Heroes partnered with Dr. Joseph Currier, a professor of Clinical and Counseling (CCP) Psychology at University of South Alabama, to strengthen their curriculum and improve their impact. The curriculum emphasizes identifying core values, exploring the Christian faith, and integrating these learnings into daily life. Veterans grapple with concepts of forgiveness, understanding the complexities of war, and the difference between killing and murder.

“We prepare our soldiers physically and mentally to go to war, but we don’t prepare them spiritually,” Elias said. Heroes to Heroes bridges this gap by fostering connections with local churches and building veteran support teams within existing congregations.

The program equips veterans with a life plan that incorporates all aspects of well-being, with spirituality as a cornerstone for ongoing support and belonging within their communities. Alumni can volunteer as coaches or build teams in their local churches through the Heroes to Heroes Alumni Pro program.

To date, 400 veterans have graduated from the program. On May 14, 35 veterans embarked on their journey to Israel, accompanied by Elias and her husband, a program chaplain.

“The miracles that I’ve seen here are just phenomenal,” Elias said. “The reconnection to faith is just the most beautiful thing to watch. My belief is once you heal from within, all the other healing is easy.”

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