American veterans use archeology to dig through traumas in Israel

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BEIT SHE & # 39; ARIM, Israel – Like many veterans, Nichol Fuentes struggled with some aspects of life since he left the marines in 2013.

Image: Nichol Fuentes
Nichol Fuentes, 38, a married mother of three, spent six-and-a-half years with the Marines.Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Fuentes, 38, a retired sergeant, suffered recurrent ankle injuries in Iraq and while stationed in Japan. She is also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

But the New Jersey mother of three and wife of an active-duty Marine has been reinforced by an unexpected field: archeology.

"It's almost like therapy," she told NBC News amidst the dust and stones of an excavation site in Beit She-arim, a world heritage site and national park in northern Israel. "It helped me a lot, it gave me something to focus on and a goal."

Fuentes said that a grave where she recently participated helped her win back the feeling of "camaraderie" she had lost since they left the army.

Fuentes traveled to the Holy Land with American Veterans Archaeological Recovery, or AVAR.

Stephen Humphreys, a former aircraft maintenance officer for the US Air Force, leads the program. He served in the army for six and a half years before returning to the university to become an archaeologist.

Image: Archaeological recovery program of American veterans
A site in Beit She & # 39; arim, Israel, which is run by the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery program.Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

"I realized that archaeological excavations really bring people together," he said. "You build up this fantastic sense of community that really focuses on this mission … I thought there were a lot of parallels between that and my military service. & # 39;

Joshua Sooklal, an Iraqi war veteran who served in the US Navy Hospital Corps, said the project has given him a new sense of belonging.

"My job was to protect people, to actually serve them, and when I lost that, I felt I had no purpose in life," he said. "Restoring that goal is what happened to this program, connecting with other veterans, showing that my goal is still needed and desired, and it has also restored the motivation to be a passionate person."

Image: Joshua Sooklal
Joshua SooklalKhaldoon Eid / NBC News

Humphreys said that the veterans with whom he works "usually have a combination of physical and mental problems they have to deal with."

Some have been injured by improvised explosives and suffer from traumatic brain injury or PTSD.

"Because of these problems, because of their separation from military culture, many of them are really isolated," he said. "They do not feel comfortable going out, they do not think people understand them – we usually talk to them."

Humphreys hopes that the program will not only give veterans an amazing transformative experience to reconnect, but also offer potential job opportunities in the field.

AVAR is working with specialists from the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, including Dr. Adi Erlich, who is in charge of the excavation at Beit She & # 39; arim, a site rich in history.

"Ancient Beit She & # 39; arim was an important Jewish city in Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine periods," said Erlich.

The site was the birthplace of Rabbi Juda – an important Jewish leader in the late second and early third centuries – whose cemetery became a famous necropolis.

Image: Stephen Humphreys
Stephen Humphreys, a former air force officer, leads the American archaeological recovery program for veterans.
Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Humphreys said that one of his favorite things about working with Erlich and the Haifa University team is that they are "proud & # 39; to bring in people from different religious backgrounds – whether that is Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

And for the veterans that AVAR works with, "this area reminds them of some of the places they have served," he added. "Allow them to get this truly positive experience working with Muslims in such a setting … it makes them realize that the people here are very friendly and hospitable, and that's something nice to see."

However, Humphreys said that it is the connection of the area to the Bible that brings some of the most rewarding moments for those in the program, and for themselves.

"We have many veterans with a Christian background, and one of the things we wanted to do is actually give them the chance to do archeology in Israel, in the Holy Land, and touch some things that maybe it's heard about in the church. "

Beit She & # 39; arim – and its history – has also left its mark on Fuentes.

"This is one of the best places in the world to dig … it is amazing," she said. "The earth here keeps giving."

Paul Goldman reported from Beit She & # 39; arim, and Francis Whittaker from London.

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