November 19, 2018

Jewish Values Guide Marine’s Life in Iraq

We lost e-mail contact with our son, Kayitz, when he and his Marine unit disembarked from their ship on Feb. 24. From just about the beginning of the Iraq War, though, we knew what he was going through.

Though incessant Internet searches, I found two reporters embedded in his unit, the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 1st Marine Division. I discovered that my son, a 21-year-old corporal, was in the midst of a series of nasty battles — notably, Nasiriyah, Al Kut and Baghdad. I discovered later that he had been in battles every day — small, violent actions routing Saddam Hussein loyalists and Fedayeen militia from one city or village after another.

About two weeks after the war began, we suddenly received a message from him, when an embedded photographer let him use his e-mail. We heard firsthand of the violence, the destruction — battles to the death with a fanatical enemy. And we heard tender stories, too — combing through the bodies and wreckage, helping Iraqis find relatives, helping the wounded. Once the fighting had ended, he and other Marines immediately tended to the civilian and enemy injured, before getting into their vehicles on their way to the next battle.

He spoke of being welcomed exuberantly and tearfully by Shiite populations. He heard stories of massacres and executions. His battalion later uncovered one of Saddam’s killing fields near Al Hilla.

My son shared with me that he had hoped the Iraqi people would receive him as a liberator. It was that thought that kept him going, ever since he realized that he might be deployed. It was not that American security was not a concern; it was, but his sense of American and Jewish values made the idea of acting as a liberator primary in his mind.

A word about those values: I taught him in his confirmation class some years ago that a value is something that, once said, demands that it be lived, acted on, served, protected. We discussed a few of those core values at length before he left for the Afghanistan theater in December 2001, and while he was on his ship, we corresponded at length.

We began that conversation again, once he found out that he was being deployed to Iraq. In retrospect, I am sure it was a way that he and I both were dealing with the possibility of his, God forbid, not returning. If he were going to die there, he and I wanted to be clear about why.

The core American value about which we spoke is contained in John Kennedy’s inaugural address. "Let every nation know," Kennedy said, "whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

My son realized that the price Kennedy spoke of was, at least in part, the lives of military personnel. The American commitment to liberty throughout the world could only be realized if men and women were willing to die for it. His last e-mail from the ship before they flew off to take positions prior to the liberation told me he was willing.

On the Jewish side, he was taught over and over again the meaning of the "Mi Chamocha" prayer in the siddur, where we celebrate God delivering us from Egypt. He asked me as a child, as all children whom I teach ask me, why God does not directly liberate the oppressed any more. I gave him the same answer I give other children: God did it once to show us what God wanted. Now it is up to us.

While on the ship en route to Iraq, my son wrote movingly of that thought: a Jew, an American, willing to risk his life to bring liberation to Arabs. Whether they were grateful or not, he wrote, he knew it was his duty, as an American, as a Jew. God redeemed us so that we could redeem others.

While he was still home, we discussed at length the brutality of Saddam’s regime and what it meant that he might be in a war to destroy that regime. For him, it was worth fighting for, worth risking his life.

Just as the war was concluding, he celebrated Passover — at the former Secret Service headquarters of the Special Republican Guard. He, the chaplain and the other Jewish Marines present marveled at the moment and the location.

Once the war ended, his unit was assigned to the province of Babil, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, with a population of about 1 million. His unit, Headquarters Company, was stationed in the regional capital, Al Hilla. The 200 or so Marines had the responsibility, in addition to coordination with the rest of the battalion spread out over the area, for security and reconstruction in that city of about half a million.

Kayitz has been assigned to training new Iraqi police officers at the regional police academy, infrastructure work at the fire department and a local elementary school, security at city hall and, in general, anything he and the others could do to improve and make more secure the life of the population.

He writes in an e-mail that over the approximately three months in Al Hilla, he’s been involved in every aspect of rebuilding the country at one time or another.

He gives charity daily. Kayitz receives many packages from his family and well-wishers in our synagogue community. He gives away much of what he receives. He knows he’ll get more, and, God willing, will be home in a few months. The food, clothing and odds and ends that he gives away mean so much to the children and their parents.

Kayitz works long, hard hours every day of the week, as do the other Marines. He is among highly motivated, highly disciplined, highly dedicated warriors who have become builders. He writes of being utterly exhausted but his morale being very high.

He also writes that every single day he knows he is doing good deeds, helping rebuild a country. His expertise in the police academy, because of his special operations training, is searching and securing personnel, vehicles and buildings.

Kayitz finds that he has to teach the Iraqi cadets not only police and weapons skills, but basic human interaction, basic human regard. He thinks of it as teaching core American and Jewish values of respect for the individual and only using as much force as necessary to accomplish the task safely.

He wrote home the following story: "Some Baath activists had evicted a family from their home before the war and then fled before the Marines arrived. Now that the city is secure, the Baath members are slowly trying to reinsinuate themselves into the life of the city."

They again forcibly threw this family out of their house. My son found out and took a few Marines and some new Iraqi police officers to the house. They arrested the Baathists, reinstalled the family — father, mother, 13 children — and he visits the family daily on his rounds.

He lets the neighborhood know that the family is under the special protection of the U.S. Marines. As the Army has slowly taken over the police academy, he spends more time with the new police force, especially addressing the constant problem of Baathists trying to disrupt the peace in the city.

Another problem he faces daily is homelessness, both as a result of the war and Baathist cruelty to the local Shiite population before the war. His main resources, he writes, are common-sense problem-solving skills mixed with compassion for the suffering and passion for justice. He daily feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, solves conflicts and tries to do his part in teaching an American and, from his perspective, Jewish approach to setting up a civil society.

On the Jewish issue, my son has a dark complexion. His mother, Ruty, is an Israeli Yemenite. Iraqis know that Americans have a diverse ethnic heritage, and he does look Middle Eastern.

They regularly ask him what kind of American he is. He used to answer forthrightly: Jewish (Yahud). Iraqis looked at him uncomprehendingly, and then tensed up. Some ran away.

When he first encountered this, he was hurt. He had risked his life for them and he wanted them to know he was a Jew; part of what motivated him to help them was his Jewishness. He wrote me that he had to learn to distinguish between those who hate and those who are simply taught to hate.

Kayitz also knew that his good deeds were not based on whether he was appreciated. Appreciation would be nice, but that was not what was motivating him.

Now, he does not talk much about his being Jewish to the Iraqis. It just complicates things. In his inner life, it is a different story. Those prayers we used to study together are still with him. The liturgy is filled with images of God supporting the fallen, releasing the prisoners, helping the bowed down stand upright, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. And, he was taught, we serve God by imitating God.

Though he very likely would be doing these things without grounding in Jewish liturgy, he tells me that the Jewish sources come to mind constantly. He is deeply moved by the idea that he daily lives out the ethical demands of the religion in the clearest way imaginable. He is aware that he probably is doing more tangible and direct good for other people than he would do in years anywhere else.

A Marine motto is, "No worse enemy, no better friend." The U.S. Marines fought courageously and brilliantly. Their efforts at peace and rebuilding have been no less impressive, perhaps just less spectacular. Kayitz is just another one of the Americans — one of those Marines — who has fought for liberation and now is helping rebuild.

He feels he is living out American and Jewish history, destiny and values in his work of liberation and getting a nation back to its work of creating a just, secure and prosperous life for its citizens.

When Kayitz was in grade school, I would drive to school to help him and his brother, Lev, memorize liturgy.

Several times a day, I think of that little 8-year-old boy, sitting behind me in my car, reciting prayers. Then I think of the Marine in Iraq living them out, making prayers come true.

Mordecai Finley is rabbi at Ohr HaTorah in West Los Angeles and Provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.