City Girl to Solider Girl
“Just call him and tell him you changed your mind,” my mom said as she tore up the piece of paper I had just handed her to which I replied, “Mom, that is not how it works.” Just a month later, on a sunny morning in July 1985, my parents waved goodbye to me, their 21-year-old only child as I left to become a soldier in the United States Army.
As a child, I grew up secular. I attended Sunday school and we observed Jewish holidays, but we were not affiliated with a congregation (even though part of our family is Orthodox). The first time I traveled to Israel, I was a teenager on a youth group trip. I became a Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall.
When I got to basic training, I became very conscious of my Jewish identity. The cadre was quite attentive to religious needs if you were Christian. The commanding officers and drill sergeants wanted to ensure that any trainee had the opportunity to attend Sunday church services. My hand shot up immediately. I said, “I am Jewish. I do not go to church on Sundays. I go to temple on Friday nights.”
Throughout my four-year Army career, I waited for Jewish chaplains who were not always stationed on bases but traveled around to attend to Jewish soldiers’ needs. Church services were published on a regular basis, but I had to wait for a Jewish chaplain to come to our location to have a service. Families were often paired with single soldiers for major Christian holidays, but not for Jewish ones. Being Jewish, I had to seek out religious services and/or families to share a holiday on my own.
After training, my first duty assignment was to Hanau, West Germany. I met and married a fellow soldier, a non-Jew. My mother, a Holocaust survivor, flew to visit her future son-in-law in West Germany, to a place she never thought she would return. My parents then both flew to West Germany when their first grandchild was born in October 1987. That little girl is now a 25-year-old woman and an intelligence analyst, also proudly serving in the United States Army.
I was honorably discharged in 1993. In 1994, while stationed at Ft. Huachuca, AZ, where my husband was still in the Army, we had another bundle of joy, a baby boy. Now 18 years old, our son is a graduate of the American Hebrew Academy and attends college, majoring in computer science and minoring in military science. His goal is to follow in his parents’ and sister’s footsteps by joining the United States Army.
My children were raised in a secular household where celebrating both Jewish and non-Jewish holidays was our tradition. After my divorce and a move back east, I slowly eased them into a primarily Jewish home and a stronger Jewish identity.
My daughter left for college and a secular life away from home. My son and I (through a then stranger at a youth football game) discovered Beth Sholom Temple, Fredericksburg, VA, and our journey into Jewish practice and life began anew.
While I had always identified as a Jew, I did not openly celebrate my Judaism while I was in the Army. Whatever the reasons, I now feel regret for that decision. However, I am a firm believer that the past creates who we are presently. Being in the Army was a great ride, like one at an amusement park. Now there are other rides ahead of me. I feel that because of my past, I am more a woman of Reform Judaism than I could ever have imagined and I could not be happier.
Karen Maes has been a member of Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, VA since 2006 where she has held several positions, including serving on the temple’s Board of Directors. Currently, she is 2nd Vice-President of her sisterhood for Programming, Fundraising, and Events and Chair of the Caring Communinty Committee.