Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Typical Week on Taji Begins

[as originally published in Hamodia, May, 2008]
The following are some events drawn from my notes during a typical week on Al Taji, Iraq, 2008.
(Names and events have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals where necessary)

Saturday night, motzei Shabbos

Two soldiers come by for a Hebrew reading class. They're regulars on Friday nights. We're trying to finish up learning the Aleph-Beis before one of them redeploys back the states, and the other one has to leave Taji as his unit pushes out to a COP at Rustamiya (an old, unfinished shopping mall converted to an Army Combat Outpost). Another Jewish Soldier, who started learning Hebrew, has already left to work with as a military advisor to an Iraqi Army Division. He learns with another Soldier here on Taji over the phone. It seems a bit funny that one night a week, in an Iraqi Army Division Headquarters, there's a Soldier learning Torah, over the phone, with another soldier in Iraq. Yes, I told him to be careful.

They join me for Havdallah, which I make over beer. I only had one bottle of kosher wine when I arrive in country. Now, our kosher wine supply is pretty good, but as I can't be sure how long it will take for the next case to show up in our supply closet, I try not to use any more wine than I have to. The Soldiers are not allowed to have any alcoholic beverages (religious use in a chaplain led event is the one exception) and the beer was confiscated from a Soldier during a room inspection. The Command Sergeant Major gave it to me in order to put it to a more 'elevated' use.

Later, around 2300 I walk through the hangers, visiting Soldiers working on helicopter maintenance. Our Soldiers work shifts, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to keep our aircraft flying over Baghdad. While it's the aircraft that are the 'tip of the spear', there are many Soldiers and civilians working behind that spear to keep things going, not just the mechanics and fuelers, but also the supply and administrative personnel just to name a few.

As walk through the hangers, I visit with the Soldiers, often reminding them to call home, and inquiring about specific issues with those Soldiers I've talked to before. I have been with this unit for a year now, and have put a lot of effort into getting to know most everyone. If I visited them or a family member in the hospital back in the states, I may ask about how things are going now, etc... The way the Army approaches chaplaincy, the chaplain is very much embedded into a unit, and he get's to know people very well. That may be the main reason that chaplains can make such a difference in unit morale and in combat effectiveness. Commanders seem to understand and appreciate their chaplains for that.

By 0130 I call it a night and head back to my containerized housing unit (CHU).


Sunday afternoon I have an appointment with a married couple. Both are in the military, but stationed at separate locations in Iraq. In order for them to see me together, he has to fly here every other week. The issue that brought them to seek me out is that he has been unfaithful to her, and she caught him. Now they both say they want to work things out, out of love and care for each other, and out of concern for their three children staying at home with family. Neither of them are Jewish or in my unit, but my experience as a Marriage and Family Therapist is pretty unique out here, and they sought me out for it.

The path towards reconciliation, even when both spouses claim to be motivated to change, is often a long and difficult one. Trying to forgive and forget just doesn't work. Typically the spouse who has been unfaithful is ready to move on fairly quickly and the other spouse is still hurt and unwilling to trust. Rebuilding broken trust takes time and effort. It also takes some time for the couple to stop blaming each other, and start looking at how each of them contributes to their mutual challenges.

The Kotzker Rebbe put it so well when he said "At first I wanted to change the world, then I realized that in order to change the world I had to change my town, then in order to change my town I had to change my family, then I realized that in order to change my family I had to change myself." It's a real change in a relationship when even one person realizes the marriage version of what the Kotzker Rebbe put so succinctly and starts to work on changing themselves rather than trying to change their spouse or their children.

As I work out on an elliptical trainer in the gym (in a converted warehouse across the street from the chapel), I see a soldier start walking around the aerobic machines holding out a 9mm pistol. He walks slowly, showing the weapon to each person he passes. I realize that he must have found it in the water bottle holder, left there by the previous exerciser. Everyone carries a weapon here all the time. The gym is full of weapons as usual. As a chaplain, I'm considered non-combatant and so chaplains and civilians are the only ones who don't carry a weapon. I have a soldier assigned to me who's main task is to protect me on the battlefield, followed by setting up for and protecting any personnel at services I lead. Eventually, the owner of the pistol is found, and life continues here in the heavily armed gym.