Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Visiting Mosul - part 2

[as originally published in Hamodia, April 30, 2008]
Mosul, Iraq - 12 February 2008

In the evening, I set up in a local chapel to meet with a small group of 7 Jewish soldiers. We schmooze for bit, introducing ourselves, watch a short film clip on Jewish identity and then talk for the better part of an hour. After that I'm at the air terminal, waiting for a Chinook (a large, dual rotor, helicopter) and a ride back to FOB Speicher in Tikrit.

I was stationed in Tikrit back in 2003/2004, when we found Saddam Hussein hiding out there. FOB Speicher has grown in size over the last 4 years. I have great memories of holding High Holiday Services in one of Saddam's palaces downtown, and of our schul on FOB Speicher - a 100 square meters Iraqi tent, open on all sides, perhaps looking like a small version of Avrohom Avinu's.

My assistant and I get to spend a day there on COB Speicher so I can look around. I get to visit with some Jewish personnel and do a site survey for Passover planning. I met several personnel, some working on Division staff, several in the Aviation Brigade, and some wonderful civilians working to support Soldiers. I really had a great time meeting people on COB Speicher, and I left really looking forward to coming back and visiting them again. Finally, much later, I'm back on Taji, dropping off my rucksack in the office and calling it a night.

I expect to travel for Jewish coverage about 4 days a month. That's not very much, but my main job as a chaplain is to take care of the entire 700 plus soldiers in my unit, the 4th Squadron of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment. That keeps me very busy, and I only get to run Jewish programs as a sideline. For example the main Jewish programs I run are for a small group (typically 8-12) meeting on Friday nights at Camp Taji. I've also been teaching a Hebrew class on Saturday nights in my office, after Havdallah. Much of the direct care I provide to my soldiers consists of pastoral counseling; often counseling the Soldier and the spouse or other Family members.

The past few weeks, I have been seeing a lot of relationship issues coming up between Soldiers and their spouses back home. The strains of deployment and family separation will cause any difficulties in relationships to show up; usually in the first couple of months.

Shortly after I became an Army chaplain, about 7 years ago, I had a young officer come in to see me. She was very upset and worried about her husband's immanent return from a short, 6 month Kosovo rotation. Her husband, an Army Captain, would be returning from a deployment in the next few weeks. As she cried, we spoke and I offered her what counseling I could (which turned out to be helpful, as I found out later from the couple) but I realized then that I would be seeing a lot of these problems, and I had best learn how to help.

As a result of that experience, I went back to school and studied counseling psychology, eventually becoming a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I use my experience and skills as a therapist, plus a Torah based perspective, to counsel my Soldiers with many aspects of their personal and professional lives, and to advise the command on how best to approach the typical issues that come up.

Now, in addition to the chessed of taking an interest in and talking with the soldiers in my unit, I do a lot of individual and couples therapy for relationship issues, depression, anxiety as well as treating post-traumatic stress disorder amongst the soldiers (using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - EMDR or using Clinical Hypnosis). All of that is done with the spiritual aspect of the person being an important part of what we do together to achieve healing. Otherwise, the soldiers I see could as easily go to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. It seems that here in Iraq their access to behavioral health care is even better than it would be at their home station.

While it might sound strange that non-Jewish Soldiers and spouses would come to a rabbi for counseling, I have found that my perspective is appreciated. Perhaps since we don't try to convert them, a wider spectrum of Soldiers seems more comfortable approaching me on personal matters. Also, good chaplains are seen by their Soldiers as caring and approachable, regardless of their religious background. So I am kept very busy caring for these fine young men and women, serving their country so far from home.