Reflections on 20+ Years of Service
July marked exactly 25 years from when I shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia, for One Station Unit Training and Airborne School. Around this time 25 years ago, I was wrapping up the first 8 weeks, getting ready for the next 5 or 6 weeks.
If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!The Joker, The Killing Joke
I’ve given myriad reasons why I joined the military all those years ago. Sometimes I tell people it was a futile attempt to impress my then high school girlfriend. Sometimes I tell people it was because I wanted to wear the cool maroon beret of a paratrooper. Sometimes it was for the college money. Sometimes it was to defy that I was the nerd that got sand kicked in his face.
Those things are all partially true, and I had always wanted to serve in the military for a variety of Hollywood-related reasons. I’ll get to this later in this piece, but the ultimate motivation for enlistment was none of those.
My “I love myself” wall actually covers two walls. My infantry school diploma, which has more emotional resonance than my bachelors and masters simply because I remember standing at the base of Iron Mike and having one of my new “brothers” put the blue infantry cord on my shoulder for me.
Every single certificate, award, or plaque, channels memories of dear friends, people with whom I’ve done so much. I don’t remember all the names anymore, but I remember faces, and I certainly remember what we did together.
Three sets of foreign jump wings. The back of a SkyVan in the United Kingdom, jumping out the tailgate and taking in the incredible view of autumnal hedgerows as far as the horizon. The hot air balloon in Thailand. A C-130 with the Jordanians.
I remember the Kurds we took to Guam from what used to be the No Fly Zone in Iraq.
I particularly remember 2005 in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, and how many people we helped in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans.
I remember all of the preparation for our OIF mobilization in 2008. I remember coming home early because of Amelia’s custody situation.
I remember Operation Iron Angel, when the World Meeting of Families brought the Pope to Philadelphia. I call it “Operation Pope Tarts” when I think back on it. I think about inaugurations, snow storms, floods – all the times we served our primary role as the Guard. Coupled with Hurricane Katrina relief, the times we helped others, foreign or domestic, that was the service that meant the most to me.
The Real Gold is the People You Meet Along the Way
The best part of my service wasn’t any of the derring-do. It was the lifelong friendships I made, and the models of leadership that have stuck with me.
Sergeant Major Willard Burfict comes to mind first. When I was at Fort Campbell with the 101st, I ended up in the Rakkasan S3 shop, basically working as what was then a 71L. I was struggling with adapting to the Army, and worse, I wasn’t in a line company anymore, but rather a staff position, where direct supervision began and ended with our morning physical training. Here was a man, close to retirement, past his years directly supervising troops, and he took the time to mentor me so thoroughly that my default leadership this style is to this day a deliberate effort to approximate him.
He cultivated me without coddling me. With humor, and I believe with an almost paternal love, he put me, as a young soldier, on the right path. I watched as other soldiers turned to a Sergeant First Class brought on as the Air NCO for mentoring. He had a combat patch for every day of the week, Ranger tab, HALO wings, SCUBA bubble—knew better than everyone and had nothing but obnoxious condescension for the young, slick-sleeve officers in the S3. He didn’t impart much knowledge; he liked the sound of his own voice. It was tempting to be bedazzled by badges and Ranger stories from Grenada, Panama, and Mogadishu, but I was always more impressed by SGM Burfict’s focus on building up the people around him, from E-3 to O-3.
But in addition to that, I have a coterie of friends from my days as a paratrooper to today as a Maine Guardsman in a transportation company. I value my oldest friendship with Jim, who some called “Stretch,” from our days in 1/501st in Alaska. I value all of my Central Pennsylvania friends across the 56th Stryker Brigade. It’s edifying when a friend from the Maine Guard, currently deployed to Poland, meets Pennsylvania Guardsmen from a cav unit also deployed there, and says, “do you know Kresge?” and they say, “Hell, yeah! The Hebrew Hammer.”
We like to say the Jewish world is small, but the military is also a small place. We all overlap somewhere or another. I’d like to do my friends justice by talking about all of them and why I specifically value each and every one of them, but there’s not enough storage space in the world to hold what I might say about them all.
That gold I found has taken on something more significant as I approach the end. About six years ago, it hit me that many of my young soldiers weren’t even born when I first enlisted. Now, many young soldiers weren’t even born as of 9/11. I think every generation of service member goes through this, but the fact that the war kicked off by the horrible events of that day still churns makes this a generational shift distinct from all others in the history of the United States. What makes it worse, to me, is how unremarkable this seems to so many.
The Losses Can Be Too Much To Bear
We’ve all lost friends.
In the late 1990s, my first experience with this was with a squad leader. His wife was leaving him, taking his kids after she went on an infidelity rampage with soldiers within the unit. One morning, he didn’t show up for formation. We went to his housing unit on post, to find him contemplating blowing his head off with a shotgun.
The story we told, because we didn’t know the full scope of things, was that we had talked him out of it, and he accidentally killed himself as he set the shotgun down. This wasn’t true, sadly. As it turned out, he just wanted an audience.
We’ve lost so many friends in the course of the Global War on Terror. Specialist Chad Edmundson was killed in Iraq in 2009. As I mentioned, I came home early and served out the remainder of the mobilization on Title 10 in the rear, so I could attend my custody situation. When Chad was killed, I had the honor of serving in the honor guard at his funeral. I’d say that all of Huntingdon and Blair Counties in Pennsylvania turned out for his funeral. It was moving how many cared for this young man and were there for his family in their grief.
There was my friend from the Jewish military sphere, Major Stuart Adam Wolfer, who was killed in a rocket attack on the Green Zone in 2008. We met at a Jewish Welfare Board event and hit it off immediately, and happily, I’ve developed connections with some of his childhood friends and many members of his family. They’ve made something beautiful in his honor, supporting troops deployed and making that an effort that Jewish communities can participate in.
But when the suicides started to afflict our old unit, that’s when my service really started to hurt.
First, there was Jimmy Wilson. I met Jimmy in 2005, when I came to the 2/112th Infantry. A salty prior service Marine and a Jewish paratrooper were an unlikely pairing, but we hit it off. He wanted to go in on a skip tracing business after the OIF mobilization was over, but he volunteered for a rotation in Afghanistan, and after returning, he took his own life after a likely alcohol-involved accident.
He was followed by another young man. Rich was a former classmate of my younger cousins, and myself and another NCO were his team leaders. He smoked weed at college, and the PA Guard’s zero tolerance policy saw him out the door in spite of our best efforts to keep him in. We kept in touch, as I never saw my duty to mentor him as truncated just because he made a silly mistake. I provided several job references for him, gave him advice and a loan when he had a baby daughter. I thought his life was on track, and abruptly, one night, he shot himself.
In recent years, we’ve lost even more soldiers from the unit to addiction and suicide, including a recent “suicide by police.” It’s hardest on those closest to these people, of course, especially the mother who watched her son shoot himself in front of her. And yet, for us, sometimes it’s background noise, and other times it’s a stark reminder that resilience is a group effort.
In speaking to our old rabbi about these losses, he suggested I get involved with a new Veterans Court program in our county run by a judge who was the husband of a congregant. Right away, I found a means to make good on a commitment to stop veteran suicide.
But even in that program, there were losses. There were setbacks for our assigned court participants. But I think we helped many of them. Several of the people I’ve mentored are leading fulfilling, successful lives, generally free of addiction and the negative behaviors that took them down.
My proudest moment came when I was able to help the son of my 4th grade teacher, a Desert Storm veteran who had a run of bad luck. I tried very hard to get him into the program, but the DA wasn’t going to budge because of the number of priors. So I went and spoke on his behalf in front of now retired Judge Farina. Instead of what could have been an inevitable jail sentence, he was given another chance, one he made good on.
Having a victim of Military Sexual Trauma break down in my car when I drove her to a court date in another county. Watching too many friends estranged from their children. Losing friends and realizing in hindsight all the opportunities you missed to remind them of their value.
You can’t stop it all, but to paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, “you aren’t required to complete the work, but you aren’t allowed to desist from doing it, either.”
But at this point, I’d like a reprieve from being a component in the machine that helps create these situations. I have these young soldiers, some of them the same age or slightly older than my oldest child. They demand mentoring that I don’t know if I have to give anymore, and yet, it’s second nature. I want them to have the resilience to reconcile with all the hardships they’ll endure. My hands itch whenever I see them with that “what did I get myself into?” look in their eyes.
I don’t ruminate on what separates me from the people who end up harming themselves. I’ve been desperate, I’ve been lost, and I’ve suffered significant personal blows, but I still can’t relate to their desperation and sense of futility. If I have some magic beans, I don’t know what they are. All I know is finding a sense of purpose and “repairing the world” allows me to see beyond my immediate problems.
We can and should all strive to save each other.
It’s Not All Maudlin
The Northern Lights danced overhead as we’d go for 4 mile runs in the dead of winter in Alaska.
The floating market in Bangkok.
Giza and the pyramids.
The Jewish community of Sarajevo.
A desperate mother receiving baby formula and diapers at a distribution point in New Orleans.
The labor-calloused hands of an elderly man taking mine as we left his house in the 9th Ward.
Staring over the Alaska Range from the top of a 17,000 ft peak.
The gallows humor we enjoyed together.
The realization that we’re only as limited as our imaginations, that we’re at our best when the chips are down and we find the capacity to overcome.
How the Service Intersected with my Faith
I was raised in a Methodist household with the knowledge that I was matrilineally Jewish. My curiosity about my Jewishness was piqued when I was in junior high and I started going to services at the synagogue where my grandmother was confirmed. When I enlisted in the Army, I declared my religious preference as Jewish as an outward sign of my emancipation from something I didn’t believe in. I knew I was Jewish from the time I learned that technically, I was Jewish, but the adult declaration was necessary, and the Army gave me that.
I joined Fort Campbell’s Jewish community, and visited with Chabad Lubavitch of Nashville. I did the High Holidays with a Reform congregation in Nashville. At that point it was still a novelty.
When I was stationed in Alaska in 1996, Chabad Lubavitch used my ex-wife’s hotel for Shabbos. The shaliach, Rabbi Greenberg, sent my ex-wife home with a book about Lieutenant Birnbaum, an observant Jew who served in WWII. Shortly after, I learned to lay tefillin, and I formally became ba’al t’shuvah, undergoing hatafat dam bris and having an adult bar mitzvah.
Becoming observant as I matured as a soldier was entirely complimentary. The appeal of a shomer mitzvot lifestyle wasn’t terrifically distinct from the martial discipline of a soldier’s life.
I’m at the point where I’ve been meaningfully Jewish longer than I was a confused halfsie with an assimilated background, and I believe my religious growth and my growth as a soldier and leader were tightly woven.
25 Years Goes Quickly, and It’s Delightfully Surprising
It really does seem like just yesterday that I enlisted. A recent news item about a high school teacher in trouble with the law reminded me of how unlikely a pivot this path was for me.
From the time I was very young, I was Brian the Violinist. I was the youngest violinist to participate in county-wide orchestra, and the youngest principal chair of the county-wide orchestra. I was going to be a musician, you see. I had an excellent high school band. Things were groovy.
And then, in my senior year, I ended up in third chair, first violin. The jazz band/band director tried to help me out, but my dreams had been hollowed out by a vain, capricious, and profoundly unprofessional music teacher in his first year with our school district. A French exchange student beat me for first chair, which was reasonable, but a monied sophomore beat me for second, and took my chair in the string quartet. Only a pervy offer from the teacher, which I took as a joke at the time, apparently could have offset my future.
Now, based off that he’s in jail with $2 million bail set for trying to seduce a student, it wasn’t likely a joke he was making.
I talked to a recruiter and enlisted after this disappointment. I had always wanted to serve, I think, but I didn’t know why and to what extent. So crushed were my at that point lifelong goals at that point, that the seeming opposite of violin nerd—parachute infantryman!—seemed appropriate.
And I’ve never regretted this path. When I pick up the violin and play, I do sometimes wish I could make more of it. And maybe I can, but I’m not sure I want to. I like surprising people with my range. Oh, you were a paratrooper? Oh, you can daven shacharit? Oh, you can play violin? Oh, you wrote a novel?
Oh, you’ve written invoicing used by state-wide healthcare exchanges? Oh, you wrote that software? Oh, will you consider the nomination for President of the shul?
The most profound lesson I’ve taken from the military is that if you want to do it, go for it. Never let someone else become your excuse not to do something you do or do not want to do. It’s a lesson I could have used at that pivotal point in my high school career, but one I may not have learned had I not joined the military.
The military has given me so much more than I could ever give it back. It’s why with Veterans Day coming up, I’m never eager for the awkward thank you for your service. I say, “no, thank you.” Your taxes funded my growth at every point in the last 25 years.
It’s been a grand ride.