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On Retiring From the Army

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

When I first raised my hand 37 years ago and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was doing. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY. Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls. So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service. No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.

That was 1978. When I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, my endorsing agency was thrown into turmoil trying to figure out how to endorse a woman. It took years before I was finally endorsed as a chaplain. It has been an amazing journey ever since then, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College. I was mobilized in support of Operation Desert Storm and spent a year as an MI BDE Chaplain following Sept. 11th for Operation Noble Eagle.

The lives of Soldiers are challenging. Too much work and too little appreciation, following orders with little explanation, sacrificing time with family. What an incredible privilege to be the one person who sees each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. I recall flying in a C-130 into Afghanistan with a Soldier who confided that in 7 years of marriage he and his officer/wife had been together in the same household for only 2 ½ years. Strive to see the holiness in each person you meet and never lose your sense of compassion. MG Lennon shared an incredibly moving story yesterday about literally going the extra mile to reach out to a Soldier who “just didn’t seem right.” He concluded with the words, “We care 24/7.” That could and should be our motto.

CH Fisher spoke yesterday about the challenges of our hyper-connectedness, and the need to blend work and family life rather than trying to achieve a balance the two. I want to underline the importance of remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy, however you define Sabbath and however you define holy. The more connected we become, the more vital it becomes that we take some time to disconnect. Creation was not complete until the concept of NOT creating entered creation. Ahad haAm said that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Give yourself and your family the gift of, if not an entire day, some time for spiritual reflection and restoration away from the almighty screen.

I came to the 807th from the 63D RSC, where I had the opportunity to serve as the first Command Chaplain. In that assignment I had responsibility for the regional Strong Bonds program, where I worked with couples and families to strengthen relationships through better communication and problem solving. I was able to bring those skills to bear assisting a deployed unit in Kuwait who were experiencing too much togetherness and requested assistance in overcoming an environment of “hostile mistrust, hatred, fear and discontent”. I was incredibly grateful for the Strong Bonds training in my tool box, and I truly hope, with all due respect to CH Fisher that the Army continues to fund this vital program even in the face of contemporary fiscal restraints and that UMTs continue to play a vital role.

We use the term “ministry of presence,” meaning that if we show up where Solders are- in training, putting up tents, in a foxhole, we build that trust which is the foundation of relationships, as MG Tatu noted in her comments. Irwin Federman said it so well- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”  Ante up, lead by example. Be ahead of the curve on your own military education, don’t be on your company commander’s hit list for deficiencies, find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no. And while I have your attention, let me say this one more time- Spelling counts! Don’t sign an OER or NCOER with spelling or grammatical errors. Undoubtedly someone like me will serve on your promotion board and wonder about your attention to detail.

I am also a huge advocate of written, quarterly counseling. We give lip service to this requirement, but rarely, if ever, do we make the time to have these sometimes challenging conversations. There is a saying, “What you don’t INspect, don’t EXpect.” As UMTs, we know the fundamental importance of communication. Don’t let more than 3 months go by without thanking your subordinates for their support and acknowledging their great accomplishments, establishing goals for the coming quarter, and gently yet firmly addressing any concerns that may have emerged. CH Boggess was wont to say that quarterly counseling is a moral responsibility, to which I say, “Amen!”

Never forget your calling as a spiritual leader- always have a verse or teaching at your fingertips. Here’s one of mine-

A famous rabbi once suggested that we each need two slips of paper in our pockets. On one is written, “The whole world was made for my sake,” on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret of wisdom lies in knowing when we need to read each message. It is tempting as we rise in rank to focus only on the former- “The whole world was made for my sake.” Yes, it is important to be confident and decisive. Yet, we should never lose our sense of humility. One of the things the Army taught me was how to say the words, “I don’t know, let me find out and get back to you.” We need to forgive ourselves for our own imperfections and treat each other with kindness and understanding. Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.” No matter who we are, we should never imagine that we are too important to apologize when necessary- it is vital to our own spiritual well-being.

When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond. No one knows what to say, what to do. It is the Army chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command in being that first line of defense. We need to be prepared emotionally and spiritually for our core roles of nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring the dead.

Serving in CONUS has provided me with many opportunities to grow as a leader, yet it is the OCONUS deployments that are the most poignant. I recall a Passover seder at FOB Sykes, where one participant began by saying, “I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.”  When the moment came to open the door and invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath.  There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly raised our voices in song. It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place.  Anyone who has been present at a ramp ceremony will never forget the cost of that freedom.

Then there was one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A SGT who attended each night told us that his Soldiers inquired, “What exactly goes on at these Chanukkah gatherings and why is it so important for you to be there?”   The Soldier replied, “We sing some songs, tell some stories, play some games, then sit around for 3 hours and talk”.  “Well,” they answered, “you do that here with us.  Why do you need to go there?”  “Because there”, he answered, “they get my jokes!” Then, he added, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.” Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.” These moments encapsulate what it has meant to me to serve in the chaplain corps for 37 years.

To be a religious person is to be a grateful person. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin challenges us, “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” There are always things to complain about. In April 2005 I was in Abu Ghraib visiting Jewish Soldiers. A very grim place- muddy, dangerous, and demoralized. I flew from there to the palace in the International Zone. Thirty minutes later, Soldiers were complaining about how hard it was on their feet to walk in boots on the marble floors- no traction! Focus on the positive; appreciate the many blessings in your life that allow you to experience this very moment.

I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve. I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.

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