Why I Serve in the Military
A lot of people ask me why I do it. Why do I serve in the Army?
Earlier this month, I finished serving two wonderful years as the student rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in Petoskey, MI. Petoskey is a beautiful little town of 5,000, surrounded by massive birch bark forests and nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan, about 40 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the upper and lower peninsulas. It’s peaceful, tranquil, and quiet. The air is fresh and the people – Jews and Gentiles alike – are some of the most welcoming and friendly I’ve ever met.
The congregation is located on the corner of Michigan Street and Waukazoo Avenue. On the second corner is Parr Memorial Baptist Church; the third corner houses the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and the fourth corner is home to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Parish.
Think about that for a minute.
Four different religious institutions – each of which sees God and faith differently – nevertheless dwell together in harmony and friendship. Most Americans don’t think twice about this scene because, thankfully, it’s such a common sight in this land of ours that we accept it without question.
Sadly, though, much of the world isn’t like America. In many places, one’s religion, political affiliation, race, or world view can be a death sentence. In these same places, diversity is not a rich cultural tapestry that illuminates people’s lives; rather, it's the cause of hatred and genocide.
A minute’s walk from the synagogue is the town’s war memorial, where the names of Petoskey’s fallen sons are forever enshrined. One of those names belongs to Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Heath Robinson, z’l. Senior Chief Robinson was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down on August 6, 2011. Although I didn’t know the Senior Chief, I was in Afghanistan on the day he and 37 other brave warriors died, making it perhaps the single worst day of that deployment for me and a lot of other folks serving there. Before each Shabbat in Petoskey, I went to the memorial, knelt down, put my hand on his name, and simply said “Thank you.”
I do what I do – carrying a 50-pound rucksack up the side of a mountain; marching and running until my feet are tender, bloody, and blistered; getting gassed, “tased,” and pepper-sprayed; sleeping in rain, mud, heat, and cold; and, most important, missing birthdays, b’nai mitzvah, and family reunions due to deployments and training missions – because I want my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren to enjoy the same hard-won liberties I have had all my life.
I want them to be able to wear a kippah (yarmulke) in public, build a sukkah on their front lawns, affix mezuzot to their doorposts, and place lit hanukkiyot in their front windows – as I have done – without fear of retribution. I want them to be able to be best friends with a Roman Catholic from Rhode Island, a Methodist from Oklahoma, and a Kosovar Muslim from Virginia – as I have been – without it being a crime. As they walk into a synagogue, I want them to look at the church or mosque next door, wave to the priest, pastor, or imam, and not think twice about it. I want them to be free – just as I have been free.
As a country, we’ve worked extremely hard to get where we are today, but it hasn’t been without cost. A lot of that price has been paid by incredible men and women who, l’dor vador (in each generation), not only have served in the armed forces, but also have sacrificed their bodies, their minds, their spirits, their youthful days, and, yes, their lives for the rest of us. We live in the land of the free, and it remains that way because of brave men and women like Heath Robinson.
That’s why I do it. That’s why I serve in the Army.