Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Trip to Kirkuk

[as originally published in Hamodia, May, 2008]

(Names and events have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals where necessary)

Day 1

I was called over to the Aviation Medical Clinic to talk to an Air Force flight crew that survived a difficult mission. The other helicopter didn't make it. Their Flight Surgeon asked me to come by and meet them, and see if anyone needed to talk to a chaplain. After we meet, I offer them my help and mention a few normal stress reactions that they can watch out for. I also suggest doing a debriefing, which we agree to set up later in the week. At a critical incident stress debriefing, we'll go over the incident as a group, with each person telling their part of the story.

In a debriefing, as we go through experiences, thoughts and feelings, the surviving flight crew starts to put things in perspective and begin the process of grieving and moving forward. Perhaps, long ago, after a hard day on the battlefield, it seems that Soldiers might go back to their camps and, while cooking dinner over a fire, tell stories from their day. That act of telling, retelling and shaping stories is therapeutic, and I think it was part of how we used to deal with trauma.

While I had to turn in two weekly reports to the Task Force chaplain we are currently under, I have two soldiers come by. In the end, I spend time with each of them individually, quickly email in the reports, then miss my flight, which came and left over an hour early. Flights being late I know about, but early? I make phone calls to passenger terminals on other bases, to see if I can work something else out. This really makes me appreciate travel agents! I find a flight out of Balad going to my intermediate destination and with minutes to spare hitch a ride on a Chinook to LSA Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. Shortly after arriving there I'm able to hitch another ride, getting me to COB Speicher in Tikrit early in the morning. They have rooms reserved for us there until our next flight late that evening.

Day 2

We visited COB Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq today. I was deployed here in 2003/2004 with the 4th Infantry Division as an Aviation Support Battalion Chaplain. The place has changed, and mostly grown over the last couple of years. It was a productive day as I had a chance to meet with Chaplain Cox and LTC Cohen to coordinate Pesach plans.

I can't believe it's just over a month away. What I wouldn't give to be able to just clean a house and prepare a home for Pesach. Here we have to arrange for soldiers coming in to stay in tents, find a place to set-up for the Seder, schedule services for Shabbat and Pesach, plan events, shiurim (classes) etc... In a way, it's as if the Army sends soldiers to a 'Pesach hotel', only the 'hotel' is a bunch of tents in a combat zone, and I’m responsible for the whole thing :-)... Can I say "it's just too much - maybe we should just go away this Pesach?" No, someone's got to do it :-).

Day 3

It's Tuesday morning, and I'm in an Army chapel on FOB Warrior, in Kirkuk, Iraq. Soon I'll be doing Havdalah with some soldiers here, and leading a discussion group I've advertised as "Judaism in the 21st Century; an 'unauthorized' discussion." I had a little bit of trouble with the word 'unauthorized' as that doesn't go well in a military context. People think they need to call the general or have the Military Police (MP's) make an arrest before it's too late and people actually start thinking about what being Jewish means to them here in Iraq! I did something like this in Mosul last month and really enjoyed the time with folks there.

I had a good visit at FOB Warrior in Kirkuk, Iraq. I met with 2 Jewish personnel in the chapel, did Havdallah with them at 12 noon on Tuesday, and had a chance to visit with two other Jewish Soldiers later in the day. It's great having a chance to get to know them, where they're from and where they would like to go in life. They all have such interesting backgrounds and plans. One young Soldier was in a Yeshiva for many years growing up, and now is interested in being a Jewish lay leader when he gets back to FT Drum, NY.

One problem I run into (and it's not a surprise) is trying to get back to Al Taji. I was able to hitch a ride on a 'boxcar' mission (an aircraft called a Sherpa because of how much it can haul) to LSA Anaconda in Balad. Even though that wasn't what I planned, any place I go I can visit and do whatever I can for Jewish Soldiers on the way.

One of the reasons I'm able to do that is that I was able to get a list of about half of the Jewish Soldiers in Iraq and where they are located. Things change here so fast that the list is already outdated 2 months later, but it took me several years to get it, and I have no idea when I'll be able to get it updated.

Day 4

We were still trying to get back to Al Taji. We had incredible Siyata D'Shmaya, and got on an early morning flight from Balad to Baghdad International Airport. It's a short flight, but the maneuvers to land are pretty exciting. The aircraft makes some very sharp turns, almost roller-coaster like, on the approach in order to minimize the danger from enemy fire.

The passenger terminal there has a big sign up - "No Sleeping." We've been up all night, and it's pretty hard not to fall off the hard, wooden benches. We prop ourselves up against the wall and wear dark sunglasses indoors, making our closed eyes invisible.

Later that morning we climb onto a UH-60 Blackhawk and fly through Baghdad, stopping in a few neighborhoods to pick-up and drop-off Soldiers as needed, and finally get in to Al Taji before lunch. That was more than 12 hours earlier than I expected to get back, even if I had been flying on scheduled aircraft, instead of hitching rides from place to place. Baruch Hashem, even here in Iraq, where galus (exile) is more obvious, it feels good to be back.

I'm so exhausted from the travel, as is my assistant, that I tell him to go get some rest and come in tomorrow morning. I sleep for a few hours, then its back in to the office to work on Pesach planning and whatever has come up while I've been away. B"H, its good to be back with my squadron.