Religion & Beliefs

A Rabbi at War

My 15-month deployment to Iraq as a chaplain in the US Army just came to an end, and in a strange way, I was a bit sad to go. I’m going to miss the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve … Read More

By / September 23, 2008

My 15-month deployment to Iraq as a chaplain in the US Army just came to an end, and in a strange way, I was a bit sad to go.

I’m going to miss the people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made, and, of course, the action and adventure. But I know it was time to go home.

I left my house in Malden last year and reported to the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, S.C. Upon graduation, I was assigned to the Third Infantry Division in Savannah, Ga. By mid-May 2007, I was on a plane to Iraq.

I’m a battalion chaplain with a Blackhawk helicopter unit. We were based in Baghdad.

My primary responsibility was to look after the spiritual and religious needs of the roughly 400 soldiers in my battalion. I performed Jewish services on my base. About once a month, I’d take a ride in a Blackhawk to visit Jewish soldiers at other bases around the country, giving them a taste of home, if only for a day or two.

For the first half of my deployment, I was the only Jewish chaplain in Iraq.

I wore a yarmulke everywhere, a strange sight in a place like Iraq. I ate strictly kosher food: lots of salad, cup o’ soups, dried salami, dehydrated camping meals, and more tuna than most people eat in a lifetime. I fasted on all the fast days and celebrated every holiday in the Jewish calendar – a few of them twice.

I lit the menorah on Hanukkah with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California on a live TV simulcast; I met Condoleezza Rice and shook hands with General David Petraeus, ran frantically for cover during rocket attacks, and stood on the banks of the Tigris River.

Twice I had to stick an IV into someone’s vein. I got a mezuzah hung on one of the last Jewish homes in Baghdad, and when Rosh Hashana came along, I taught myself how to blow a shofar.

I answered hundreds of e-mails from schoolchildren, reporters, long-retired veterans, and countless Jewish mothers asking me to look after their sons, "who seemed a little sad the last time we spoke on the phone." One sent along a photo of her daughter, who was on her way to Iraq, and asked if I knew of any nice Jewish boys – in Fallujah.

I learned on the fly how to be a social worker and an advocate for soldiers who needed help with their personal affairs, listening to them for hours or giving a hug if it was called for. I coached more than a few broken-hearted guys through their tears when they found out their wives had betrayed them. I even wrote love letters to unhappy women for their husbands who wanted to win back their hearts but didn’t know how to say it.

Over the course of 15 months, I served close to 650 kosher meals for Shabbat and holidays – all using an electric burner I bought at Walmart before I left – without a kitchen, sink, or running water.

But in a place like Iraq, it was only a matter of time before death paid a visit.

The newspapers referred to them as "Shiite extremists." In late March, they started aiming their missiles at the Green Zone in central Baghdad. During the course of about six weeks, militants fired more than 1,000 rockets and mortar rounds from Sadr City, some falling short and landing in Iraqi neighborhoods just outside the walls of the district.

The week before Passover, a 107mm shell went right through the roof of a makeshift gym in a coalition compound in the Green Zone. It hit someone I considered a friend, a Jewish Army reservist days shy of his 37th birthday, who left his wife and three young girls back home and had arrived in Iraq about three months earlier. He was killed in the attack, along with an Army colonel about to retire after a long military career.

Two days later, I received word of another Jewish casualty, also an Army officer, a father of two young boys. He’d been hit by an improvised explosive device and rushed to the combat support hospital in the Green Zone. By the time I got the news, his remains had already been flown to the mortuary affairs center at an air base down the road from me, to await the long journey home. I dropped what I was doing and got a ride to the airbase.

Once at the morgue, I asked one of the young soldiers who work there if I could sit for a while with the body, in accordance with ancient Jewish tradition. A young private walked me down the hall to a small room, where four large gurneys seemed to fill every bit of space, save for a giant ice machine that took up the entire back wall.

On three of the gurneys lay black plastic body bags. A lifeless arm lay on the fourth, still in its camouflage sleeve. The Army doesn’t risk the chance of error in the awful task of match-up, so detached limbs and body parts are sent along separately.

The soldier showed me to my Jewish casualty. The body bag hadn’t been zipped up yet. I sat in a chair next to him and recited psalms while they filled plastic bags of ice and steam-cleaned the creases out of the American flag that would drape over the transfer case for the flight.

I looked at the body bags and thought about the three women back home who’d probably just received news that they were now young widows, single mothers of fatherless children. And of the little boys and girls who’d have to stop crossing off dates on the calendar, waiting for Daddy to come home.

I thought of the parents who were soon to get that horrible phone call letting them know the baby they’d carried home from the hospital, taught to ride a bike, watched graduate from high school, get married and start a family of his own, was coming home on an Air Force plane in a metal transfer case, packed in ice, paperwork fitted neatly in a large manila envelope, his last name written across it with a black, felt-tipped marker, taped to the inside of the lid.

At that moment, sitting in the makeshift mortuary among the body bags, so quiet except for the ice machine, I realized maybe it’s time for me to go home.

I want to drink coffee in the morning and wash the mug out in the sink. I want to take my daughters to the park and push them on the swings until they giggle; then we’ll go home and play a board game with new rules we’ll make up on the spot.

But the first thing I did was give my beautiful wife, Lori, a big hug for looking after everything at home while I was there, paying the bills and taking care of the house and going shopping and mailing me care packages. I’m going to make time to sit on the couch with her and hold her hand, and buy her a new dress or something.

Maybe I’ll write her a love letter. I’m getting pretty good at it.

[This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.]

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