The photo above is of LTC Berkowitz receiving an award from the University of Prishtina and the people of Kosovo for the work she has done there.
I joined the army reserves in 1974. I was a high school teacher, and one of the other teachers everyone called COLONEL. (I thought he liked Kentucky Fried Chicken; I didn’t have a clue that he was in the army.)
One day he comes into my classroom and says, “Why don’t you join the army?” And I said, “Are you nuts?”
To make a long story short, I joined and here I am today some 37 years later still loving it. I joined at age 30 so you do the math.
I joined at the time there was a CASP program — Civilian Acquired Skills. I already had a skill, dental assisting, and all the army had to do was teach me to salute, march, be able to identify the ranks, etc.
It was for only two weeks at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, and that was long enough for this woman who hated summer camp as a kid.
I got credit for my skills as well as only having to go a short time to basic and came out an E-4, 91 E, dental assistant.
I was an enlisted reservist for 13 great years. I took many courses such as audio-visual specialist, went to summer camps at Ft. Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania and Ft, Dix in New Jersey, to name a few.
In 1975 I attended NCO Academy (names have changed since then numerous times). The following year I was asked to leave the 339th General Hospital to join the 99th Army Reserve Command and be the female supervisor for the Non-Commissioned Officers program.
Shortly after that I was asked to change my MOS to 71L Administrative Specialist, and I worked in the Training Division. I was a WAC, wore my uniform proudly and loved it.
After weekend drills I would stop for pizza in my old neighborhood and loved the attention. Sometimes people would mistake me for a meter maid and that made me angry.
The man that owned the shop always called me LT [lieutenant]. I kept telling him I was a sergeant but he kept insisting on calling me LT. He had recently arrived from Italy and I’m sure he didn’t know the US army system.
The years went by and I eventually became a LT. Then I was promoted to captain and told him he needed to get with the program.
I went to dental school at age 38. The army didn’t pay for my schooling and I never got a bonus as the army provides today.
But I’ve stayed in, even past the age of collecting a pension, because I am extremely patriotic and love being deployed and working on the troops. I love the army.
I’ve made some lifelong friends and had some wonderful experiences in the army reserves.
I am writing my autobiography as so many friends and relatives have coaxed me. I have had an extremely interesting life both in the army and as a civilian.
After dental school I took a residency, and that year I was commissioned a 1st LT — probably at 43 the oldest person to be a LT in the army reserves. Every time I’d see a grey haired, bald or just an older-looking LT, I’d go over and ask them how old he/she was … always younger.
I did some officer training classes and then, around 2000, I started getting called upon to do some really fun things with the army.
In 2000 I went to Kenya for 18 days to work at the US Embassy on the troops, the embassy personnel and their dependents. What an experience!
A dental assistant/maintenance tech went with me and we used field equipment. We lived and worked in a guarded compound that had five mansions.
We converted the first floor to our dental office. The living room was the reception room, and the dining room was our operatory. We put the compressor outside the dining room door in the garden.
We lived upstairs, and when we went up at night, we had to lock a metal gate at the top of the steps in case someone got past the guards as it was so dangerous there. Obviously, I didn’t sleep too well. But I worked all day and was wined and dined at night.
It was two years after the bombing of the US Embassy and still rather dangerous. You had to keep the windows up in the vehicles because, if you were at a stop light and had rings on your fingers, they would reach in and cut your arm off at the wrist.
In 2001 I went to Pakistan to also work in the embassy. We were housed at the Islamabad Marriott.
Each morning a driver would pick us up (again a dental assistant/maintenance person) in a bulletproof vehicle and drive us a different route to the embassy. We worked in the medical clinic at the embassy and met lots of interesting people.
The Islamabad Marriot was flattened a few years ago and I often wonder if the nice young men who worked at the reception desk and in the dining room that I spoke to daily had still worked there then and were killed.
I did Medretes in Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru and Suriname from 2003-2008:
About 35 medical personnel spend 18 days caring for the native population in the remote villages. I extracted teeth, all day every day, with another US dentist and two dentists from that country. Between the four of us we probably extracted 100 or more teeth each day.
The optometrist examined eyes and gave out glasses; the nurses and physicians were there. The vet treated the animals in the villages. It was very fulfilling.
We had either Peace Corp or Mormon youth helping us with the language. The villages all had their own dialect so we went from their dialect to Spanish to English. People walked for miles to see us.
In 2004 I turned 60. I was thrilled to find out that I could apply for a two-year extension past the retirement age. The packet was thicker than a promotion packet.
At age 62 I did it again. At 64 they gave me three years, and I thought, boy, they really like me.
The reason I got three years is that 67 was the limit. While deployed last year they raised the age to 68, so I applied again and am waiting to see if they make it 69. I’d love to stay till I am 70.
Most of the time I have had my religion respected and have been taken to religious services during important holidays. While in Iraq in 2005, although my Jewish chaplain back home told me the chaplains would help me get to services on a large base, that did not happen.
A Jewish soldier who had been there for awhile made all the arrangements. The non-Jewish chaplains were no help at all.
I was in Suriname in 2008, in Kosovo in 2007 and 2010. The Christian chaplain found out where to go for Jews, Muslims and those of Orthodox Christian faiths before he even knew there would be any of us on the base.
The rabbi I spent Rosh Hashanah with in Iraq in 2005 I reconnected with a few years later at Ft. Benning. He is a great guy and all the soldiers love him and more than just the Jewish soldiers attend his weekly services. He is an army reservist on a two-year tour.
Yom Kippur in Iraq at another base was with a navy chaplain and we had about 30 soldiers (a few not Jewish). What a wonderful feeling of being so far from home and spending it with other military folks.
I am an observant Jew and am as adamant about my religion as I am about being a female in a man’s world. The toughest place to get to practice my religion has been Kosovo. There are no Jews here, and I have to travel one hour to Macedonia or four hours to Greece or Bulgaria and the commanders do not make it easy.
In 2010 I wasn’t permitted to travel to services for Yom Kippur, and I spent the day alone, fasting, praying and crying.
In 2011 for Pesach I wasn’t allowed to go to Macedonia (where I had been invited to a home for seder), so I had two seders here in Kosovo and invited 10 soldiers each night.
I am now waiting as I have been told that I can go to Macedonia for Rosh Hashanah but not to Greece for Yom Kippur due to some rioting in the north of Kosovo.. The rabbi in Greece has invited us for meals and there is a kosher hotel among others and the Jewish community has full services.
Unfortunately, Macedonia has very little in the way of services as they have to bring a chazan in from another country and it usually is just erev Rosh Hashanah.
Early in 2005 I got a call to see if I wanted to spend my three months at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. (Dentists, physicians and nurse anesthetists in the reserves only spend three months deployed at any one time so that they are not away from their own dental/medical practices for longer than that.)
I said if I can’t go where the action is I’m not going. Six weeks later I was notified — Iraq.
People asked me if I volunteered. Well, kind of since I stayed past 60. The name of the base was Q-West. We pronounced it Key West. No resemblance at all.
It was a small base of 5000 civilian contractors, DOD [Department of Defense] civilians and military personnel. I was the oldest person on the base.
There I worked on our soldiers and the Iraqis that were on our base (we taught NCO academy at Q-West) and all the civilians. I worked six days a week and had an assistant and a hygienist.
I was actually able to go on a mission to two villages while I was there. Got to do little dentistry but did some first aid and gave out toothbrushes.
I try to make the best out of every situation I am in. I love my work and I love working on the troops and I love to relax, so I did it all.
Two years later, in 2007, I was invited to deploy to Kosovo. I had to find it on the map as I hadn’t a clue where I was going, but I do love adventures.
One of our hospital interpreters was a dentist and he made sure I met several dentists in town. I lectured at the dental school and worked with an oral surgeon in his office.
Since June 2011 this is tour #3 in Kosovo and tour #4 total. When I leave I will have been here 16 months and loved 98% of it.
Our mission is a bit different now as we are to teach the healthcare providers. I get the children involved, and my U.S. colleagues are extremely generous in providing dental hygiene supplies.
The dentist’s job here on Camp Bondsteel is to clean the teeth of every US soldier, to work on civilians, and to take emergencies for all the foreign soldiers.
I also make bruxism (night) guards for those who are grinding their teeth. I do sealants on those teeth that have deep grooves in the chewing surfaces and I am afraid they might decay as the soldiers are deployed for so long and get a bit lazy with their oral hygiene.
I’ve gotten to know so many people in Kosovo. They say Kosova with the accent on the so but the army says and spells it Kosovo with the accent on the k.
The Muslims speak Albanian and the Serbs speak Serbian. The Kosovo people speak Albanian, but there are Serbs here and the two do not get along.
The Albanian Muslims saved 100% of the Jews from the Holocaust. I have met a righteous gentile’s grandson and great-grandson. I have read books about the Muslims and heard many stories about them smuggling the Jews into Albania and getting them new papers.
When I tell my friends in Kosovo I am Jewish they get so excited and tell me stories. It is great being in a country that truly loves the Jewish people.
They also love America and Bill Clinton. They feel that the Jews in American persuaded Clinton to help them during their war in 1998-9.
I’ve had a great ride with the army, and I’ll be kicking and screaming when they finally put me out to pasture.
Did I have some negative things happen? You bet I did.
Did I have to put a stop to some high ranker calling the male officer by his rank and me Elaine? You bet. And I did it for the women in the army now.
I am so proud of my army career and wish it could go on forever. It won’t, but I sure will have some wonderful memories.