February 24, 2008
I wrote this essay while smoking a cigar from a famous company that is located in a country below … Florida. We’ll just leave it at that. And by the way, it is exquisite.
I’ve been reluctant to speak about this because this blog is supposed to be about a cigar smoker going off to war, and I don’t want to skew the direction of the blog or turn it into something that it isn’t supposed to be. I also don’t want to give the enemy any more information than they need to make a positive ID on the schmuck who types this out every day. I’m furthermore reluctant to winnow down exactly who I am through the chain of command. Everybody already knows I’m a staff sergeant. This one tidbit could put a name and a face together. However, in order to tell the story of my experiences right, I’m going to have to give this up sometime.
Now the first thing that you are probably thinking is: “Big Tobacco, please don’t post any more pictures of your hairy chest.” But I thought about the subject of this essay when I got home from my radio course and took off my shirt. As always, my Magen David was intertwined with my dogtags. In order to put my dogtags back in my jewelry box, I had to separate the Magen David from the dogtag chain. This is something that I’ve been doing ever since I started wearing the star. Now here is the real start of the story.
Jewish people don’t join the military. Ok, well in Israel they do, but in America, it just isn’t something that we do. I wish I could offer a good explanation of why we don’t but here is my best guess: most Jews tend to be upper middle class. Wealthy people don’t tend to join the military because there are other options afforded to them. Look at my infantry unit. I would say that a good 50% of my unit is Latino — we are the Army of Juan. Why? Because Latinos in this state tend to be working class and view the military as a chance to improve their situation in life.
So this might not necessarily be a Jewish thing, but rather a socioeconomic thing. If it means anything, there aren’t a lot of software developers in the Infantry either.
But why now? Why am I bringing this up now? There are two reasons. The first is that I suddenly realized this week that I will be away at BNOC (Basic Non Commissioned Officers Course) Phase II during Passover. Passover is a commemoration of the Jews exodus from Egypt and during that time, Jews don’t eat leavened bread. A good rule of thumb for this is that you don’t eat anything that grows out of the ground. So potatoes are cool. Meat is fair game. Coffee is not. This means that I have to be at BNOC for 7 out of 21 days without coffee. The thought of this almost makes me want to convert to Christianity. So two months from now, when I am complaining that I am falling asleep in class, you will understand why.
The second reason is that I have my cousin’s bat mitzvah this weekend. A bat mitzvah is a celebration of a Jewish girl’s coming of age. The girl gets to read from the Torah and has a party in their honor afterward. Some of these parties end up being very extravagant, expensive affairs. It’s the party that I am afraid of. I am the only member of my family, or even my extended family who is in the military. News of my impending deployment has spread like wildfire. And I know what the conversation will be like already. I will be at the bar (smoking if possible) and relative after relative will belly up to the bar and ask me about Iraq. I’m sure that these kind of inane, uninformed, probing questions are rampant in any family right now who has a child in the military. But if I were in a more blue-collar family, or a family in the South, there will at least be a couple of people who were in the military and would understand. In my family, there is nobody.
I can see the conversations now:
Relative I’ve only met once : “Hey, I heard you are going to Iraq.”
Big Tobacco : “Yeah.”
Relative I’ve only met once : “So, uh. I thought we were bringing people back?”
Big Tobacco : “If you have 100,000 people, add 30,000 and then take 30,000 away, are you really bringing anyone back?”
Relative I’ve only met once : “Oh, yeah. Guess you are right. So what do you do in the Army?”
Big Tobacco : “I’m not in the Army. I’m in the Guard. It looks like the Army but with worse equipment, PT scores and leadership. My specific job is an Infantry Squad Leader.”
Relative I’ve only met once : “What’s that?”
Big Tobacco : “Did you ever see Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan?”
Relative I’ve only met once : “Yeah!!!”
Big Tobacco : “Yeah, I do nothing like that. It’s more like the movie Stripes. What I really will be doing is driving around in circles until I get blown up.”
Relative I’ve only met once : “Oh. So is where you are going dangerous?”
Big Tobacco : “Only if there are Air Force women around. Well, honestly, I’m going to [OPSEC] so I may have to worry about snipers and IEDs.”
Relative I’ve only met once : “What’s an IED?”
Big Tobacco : “Oh, right. You probably wouldn’t know that since we’ve only been fighting this war for five years now and it’s only on the news every night. An IED is a roadside bomb.”
Relative I’ve only met once : “Didn’t you just go away to Iraq a few years ago?”
Big Tobacco : “I went to Sinai for an MFO rotation.”
Relative I’ve only met once: “Where is that in Iraq?”
Big Tobacco : “It’s in Egypt.”
Relative I’ve only met once: “Where is Egypt in Iraq?”
Big Tobacco : “Oh, bartender! I need another drink; this is going to be a long conversation.”
Added to this, I am the only person in my Synagogue who is in the military. This is the point where I really have to give the congregation kudos. Everybody from the Rabbis to the membership director has been wonderful. They are literally tripping over themselves to help me in any way possible and it is good to know that I’m going to have 2000 people praying for me every Friday.
So now, I have to get to the part where I explain why a nice Jewish boy is running around in the mud with the infantry. Sigh… It’s a long story. In short, I graduated from high school in the early 1990’s and the recession was on in full force. My father was out of work and I needed money for college. If you can’t get it from your father, you can get it from your uncle… your Uncle Sam.
Why infantry? When I figure that one out, I’ll let you know. I had the scores to do anything. I guess it grew on me. For some reason, I enjoyed what I did. On drill weekends, I went out, shot a machine gun, drove an APC, and went back to work on Monday. It was fun. As I progressed in rank, I got a chance to fix the boneheaded things I’ve seen other NCOs do, and (I’ll admit) do a couple of boneheaded things myself. (NOTE TO ALL PROSPECTIVE NCOs: When the Brigade Sergeant Major asks you if there are any problems, YOU SAY NO!)
I can tell you that in 13 years, I have never experience one drop of anti-Semitism. There are jokes, but you have to have a thick skin to be in the infantry. I have gotten some strange questions like:
“Do you have sex through a sheet?”
“Does your wife shave her head and wear a wig?”
“Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?”
And finally: “Is it true that Jews marry outside of their race once in a while to increase their gene pool?”
The answers to that are:
“Because I’m not a Christian.”
Now I get to the part where I explain the title. Why did I call this essay “Intertwined.” I really can’t separate my faith from the military. There is a Hebrew word which describes a commandment from God. That word is “Mitzvah.” You saw it a couple of paragraphs up when I mentioned the “Bat Mitzvah.” The Bat Mitzvah is a celebration of the coming of age of a woman, but it is really a celebration of the fact that the girl has chosen to obey God and his commandments. Lately, the word Mitzvah has come to mean “a good deed” or an “act of kindness.”
Searching for body parts at Fresh Kills was a Mitzvah.
Guarding nuclear plants after the terrorist attacks was a Mitzvah.
Handing out water and patrolling in New Orleans after Katrina was a Mitzvah.
Teaching trainees how to be soldiers was a Mitzvah.
And going to Iraq and keeping my men alive is a Mitzvah. I cannot separate this commandment from my life in the same way I cannot separate my Magen David from my dogtags. They are one and the same.
That being said. It’s Friday. Shabbat Shalom.
SSG Big Tobacco