At Veterans Day, soon-to-retire Army chaplain reflects on career
In another two months, I will conclude my military career.
That career stretched over eight years of active duty as a chaplain in the Army, and another 16 years in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
I enjoyed every minute of it.
I do, however, recognize that the Army of 2013 is very different from the Army I joined way back in 1987.
After several years in chinuch (Jewish education) teaching in Savannah, Ga., and Tucson, Ariz., I decided what I really wanted to do was to reach out to Jewish soldiers, serving as a chaplain as my father had done. Since I had no previous experience in the chaplaincy, I decided to enlist as an Army chaplain.
In the late 1980s the Armed Forces went through a period of rebuilding. As an all-volunteer force, it attracted a different kind of soldier. Some enlisted out of patriotism. Others joined to learn a trade and have a career.
We were assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., the headquarters of I Corps. The commanding general was Norman Schwartzkopf, who later achieved fame as the theater commander for Operation Desert Shield. I was a battalion chaplain for the 62nd Medical Group.
My wife and I loved the sense of camaraderie, adventure and being able to relate to people of all faiths. We decided to apply for overseas duty, and were assigned to Augsburg, Germany.
We arrived in Augsburg in the summer of 1989. The Army had been in Germany since World War II, but we knew we were entering a new era symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November that same year, and, shortly thereafter, of the Soviet Union.
We did not have long to rest before the Gulf War broke out in 1991. Many soldiers were sent from Germany, and many came from the Continental United States to fill in for those who were deployed to the war zone. The Army began to change slowly.
We moved from Augsburg to Frankfurt when the war broke out. We were always on the alert for terrorists, and told to keep a low profile. Our family was growing as our daughter was born in Germany. (Our son had been born at Ft. Lewis).
I left active duty in 1995 and came to Pittsburgh to serve as the director of pastoral care for the Jewish Association on Aging. I joined the National Guard in 1997.
The changes we had seen in the Army in Europe accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The National Guard changed from a strategic reserve to an operational force. Many soldiers were deployed to Iraq, some multiple times. There was an upsurge in patriotism, and many enlisted to fight the Global War on Terror.
Today, as the American part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan decreases, the Army is a very different place. Today’s Army is still a place for young men and women to advance in their careers. But there is also an expectation that a person will be deployed several times in a career of 20 years.
Today’s chaplains need to be soldiers, both technically and tactically. They need to be able to wear both hats well — of religious leader and of soldier. I wish them well, and I will miss them.
I will miss the people, who take the Army as a concept and make it real. They are like the hooks in the mishkan (tabernacle) that held the walls together and allowed the entire structure to stand and function.
I will miss the sights and sounds and feelings of soldiers training to be ready to do their jobs under the stress of combat, while hoping and praying that it never comes.
I am proud that I had the opportunity to serve. G-d bless America.
(Rabbi Eli Seidman is retiring as a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He is director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging.)