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Honoring the service of specialist Moshe Eliyahu Cerezo, Combat Medic, USA (Ret.)

Moshe Eliyahu Rafael Cerezo’s journey is not your average Jew’s; nor is it your average soldier’s. Neither the Army nor Judaism were part of his life growing up as a Brooklyn-born, Florida-raised Puerto-Rican American. In fact, Cerezo was not even born Jewish. Yet, growing up in a Pentecostal household, he always felt an affinity towards the text of the Torah over the Christian New Testament, and it would be in the Torah that he would find a soothing balm for the intensity of a battle-scarred mind.

At the age of 18, Moshe Cerezo, then known as Moises, lived with his grandparents while taking college courses. One day, Cerezo’s grandfather suggested that he think about joining the military. Cerezo refused the option outright. However, second thoughts slipped into his head and soon he found himself enlisting in the Army.

After going through basic at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Cerezo became a certified EMT at Fort Sam Houston, and was stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York with the 10th Mountain Division, 3-71 Cavalry RSTA (Reconnaissance Surveillance and Target Acquisition). Despite a robust medical background that started in high school, in which he participated in some inpatient surgeries, his eventual deployments would demand a very different type of experience and expertise: traumatic injury.

In 2006, Cerezo deployed on his first tour to Afghanistan (February 2006-May 2007), serving as the senior medic for Charlie Company with the 3-71st Cav. He would not be in the AO for vacation. Instead, he was inserted deeper and deeper into the country, moving from their initial base at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Naray to being attached to a Special Forces unit in Nuristan, at a tiny isolated base in northeast Afghanistan, later known as Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, located in Kamdesh. This was the most northern spot where Americans were stationed. The outpost was situated at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by Taliban-held mountains. Cerezo’s unit patrolled the mountains, and engaged in a dangerous game they called “King of the Road”: the units would drive out in their Humvees, wait for the Taliban to shoot, and then take them out. Finally, Cerezo was sent to Kamu, the site of several major firefights.

Cerezo’s first bout with the capriciousness of war was in May 2006. Charlie Company’s Squadron Commander LTC Joseph Fenty was visiting 2nd Platoon Alpha Troop, Cerezo’s future platoon, during a nighttime exfiltration. His Chinook hovered over the ground just low enough for the guys to board, when the rear blade hit a tree. The helicopter lurched forward, crashed into the mountain, and exploded. Fenty and the entire flight crew were killed instantaneously— just one man, Nick Pilozzi, jumped out at the last second (although sadly, he later committed suicide). When Cerezo heard that the Chinook went down, he waited tensely next to the radio, expecting his team to be called in for a rescue operation. Tragically, all that was left was recovery. Not long after, a close friend was killed by a sniper. These incidents hit him deep in the gut; he felt powerless.

Although Cerezo had been in Afghanistan since early 2006, his baptism under fire would only occur many months later—September 11, 2006, to be exact. His teammates in Alpha Troop had already been in hundreds of firefights in Kandahar, so they knew what to expect. On that fateful day, Cerezo was seated in the back of a Humvee during a routine patrol, when suddenly RPGs and bullets began flying all around with vicious intensity. The Humvee driver, Specialist John Barnett, reached behind the seat and grabbed Cerezo’s hand pulling him closer, saying, “Congratulations, Doc! It’s your first firefight!” Over the commotion, Cerezo yelled back, “Thanks!” At that moment, a bullet suddenly hit the windshield near where Cerezo’s head had been just seconds before.

The enemy was attacking from the south side of the truck. On the left of the very narrow road was a sheer cliff, overlooking a deep river valley. SPC Barnett drove confidently through the hailstorm of bullets. Just ahead of them, clouds of dust rose up, accompanied by high-pitched whines. “INCOMING!” Nearly half a dozen RPGs landed in the immediate proximity. Without warning, one RPG made a successful one-in-a-million shot, entering through a tiny gap in the armor of the Humvee. The missile went through the Platoon Sergeant’s chair, through Sgt Dennis Cline’s arm, and finally hit the duke, a device used to jam signals to prevent IEDs from exploding. Then the warhead exploded outward, throwing shrapnel away from Cerezo. Miraculously, the detonation missed four cans of grenades and four 60mm mortars by an inch. But the compression concussed the driver.

In the initial impact, Cerezo blacked out. He quickly came to, dazed and confused, hearing someone yelling “Doc, doc!” He looked to his right. Sgt Cline lifted his hand—his fingers were hanging on by naked tendons, about 12 to 15 inches lower than they should be. Cerezo’s training kicked in, and he jumped out of the truck to a safer spot to provide tactical combat casualty care.

Barnett, severely dazed, exited the slowly moving vehicle and began heading in the wrong direction. The vehicle rolled dangerously toward the cliff. “Barnett! Get over here!” Cerezo barked sharply. Hearing his name, Barnett snapped back into focus, and ran back to take control of the Humvee.

The group was somewhat protected by the Humvee and the road’s retaining wall, and in the shelter, Cerezo examined Cline. He had a gaping hole in his bicep, as shrapnel had pierced his arm. There was blood everywhere. Cerezo threw a tourniquet and wrapped Cline’s injured fingers. Billy Stallnaker, the senior medic, slapped Cline with morphine. Now stabilized, the pair lifted Cline back in the vehicle, intending to return speedily to base for further care.

It was nearly impossible to make a three-point turn in such a tight space—their motorized about-face was more like a 20-point turn. First Sergeant Todd Yerger navigated from outside, while still under murderous Taliban fire. After an eternity, the team extricated itself and managed to get back to COP Keating. Besides Cline, almost everyone was hurt—Platoon Sgt SFC Milton Yagel had shrapnel in his shoulder, the gunner had shrapnel in his entire left side, and Barnett had a severe concussion. “I was the only one untouched,” says Cerezo, attributing his incredible luck to G-d’s will and his grandmother’s prayers.
Cerezo dealt with mass casualties on several other occasions. One time, after someone reported seeing 16 men entering a house in Kamdesh with assault rifles, they requested immediate air support. Apache pilots came in with a 30mm cannon and shot up the house. A huge bale of hay burst into a tower of fire, and women ran out of the building screaming. Twenty minutes later, the locals brought the injured civilians out of the building. One elderly woman had a hole in her arm, a two-year-old suffered a broken leg and had a piece of intestine hanging out. Cerezo and another medic treated them all.

On a different occasion in May 2007, shortly before they were due to leave the region, Alpha Troop endured yet another attack, resulting in over a dozen allied Afghan casualties as well as several American injuries. The troop had left the wire to engage the enemy—however, two of their men were wounded almost immediately, along with an embedded Irish reporter named John D. McHugh. McHugh lay on a stretcher with his kidney hanging out; seemingly unimpressed by his wounds, the plucky photographer continued taking pictures of the hellacious maelstrom. The amount of work was so intense that the flight medic from a Blackhawk landed and stayed to help Cerezo while the helo took eight casualties to the hospital on multiple return flights. Despite Cerezo and a second medic’s best efforts, it wasn’t enough to treat everyone. Afterward, they counted 14 Afghans dead. All the Americans survived.

A week later, the platoon got ready to leave Afghanistan. Their replacements, mostly coming from Germany, came to swap them out. The new medic was as green as they come; an E2 who didn’t know the first thing about battle wounds. While Cerezo was showing him the ropes, telling him what to expect, someone appeared and said he was needed at the front gate—the body of an allied Afghan soldier that had been in the river for five days was brought in, bringing the total death count up to 15. Cerezo threw a body bag at his erstwhile trainee, saying, “Welcome to Afghanistan. Get that body in there.” Training on the job—there’s nothing like it.
Sometimes soldiers know that a mission is destined for disaster. A November 2006 mission would end up haunting its participants, and mark a defining moment in Cerezo’s life.

It started as a rescue mission —not of humans, but a vehicle. The commander, a colonel replacing the previous commander who had been killed, decided that he wanted the unit’s LMTV truck, which had been left behind at COP Keating, returned to FOB Naray, about a six-hour drive away. Cerezo’s unit advised the colonel against it, for multiple reasons: for one, the road needed extensive repairs. In addition, the truck was too big for such a narrow and muddy road. Shaking off all arguments, the colonel ordered them to get moving.

1LT Benjamin D. Keating (posthumously promoted to Captain) told everyone he would drive the truck back, even though he knew the mission was an impossible task. “This was the kind of person he was,” Cerezo says. “He led from the front and was loyal through and through. Keating always put his men first and did what he could to protect them.”

Cerezo himself was driving the last truck of the convoy, listening to music, when he saw lights flash. Moments later, a soldier came running with terrible information: the LMTV had rolled off the cliff, with Lt Keating and the senior-most mechanic, Staff Sgt Vernon Tiller, inside.

Cerezo and his group spent the next 45 minutes trying to get down the cliff, digging their boots into the side of the mountain. After a brutal climb into the river valley, the rescue team approached the crash site. Just the rear tires of the truck could be seen— the rest of the chassis was covered by the rushing water. In the brush nearby, Cerezo found Staff Sgt Tiller, who’d been thrown from the truck. Tiller’s back was broken and he was clearly in pain; yet between clenched teeth, he told the team not to worry about him, and to take care of the XO first.

The team found Lt Keating facedown, wedged between two rocks. He was in terrible shape—suffering from bilateral femoral fractures and internal bleeding. Cerezo began rendering medical aid. To his surprise, Keating suddenly woke up and muttered, “Get me out of here!” And then he immediately lost consciousness once again.

Using their extremely limited resources, the rescue team used every possible technique to extricate  Keating and Tiller from the valley. Despite their efforts, Keating did not survive; but thanks to the dedication of the entire group, Tiller lived.

The action that day, as well as others throughout the Battle of Kamdesh, gained some infamy, when published in a book by Jake Tapper of CNN called The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. A movie directed by Rod Lurie was released with the same name.
After returning to the States, Cerezo began to feel the full impact of his 16-month Afghan experience.
He started having vivid nightmares at night and getting the shakes during the day. Trying to cope, he turned to alcohol and popped pills. He bought a motorcycle and drove recklessly; he got into bar fights. Working in an emergency room, dealing with stabbings, suicides, gang shootings, and burn victims certainly didn’t help — the work was a painful slog. He was sent home twice after the smell of burnt flesh triggered him.

Life did not get easier with time. Cerezo continued to struggle with PTSD and self-medicating, and was briefly hospitalized after attempting suicide.

But a light started appearing to his weary mind. His father finally went through with his lifelong interest and converted to Judaism. Inspired by his father’s spiritual metamorphosis, Cerezo started dabbling in Judaism himself. He read articles online and attended occasional Torah classes. He found himself being uplifted by what he was learning, and slowly, instead of going to bars on Friday night, he began participating in services at a local synagogue.

Intrigued by Jewish culture and history, Cerezo traced his own genealogy, and to his surprise, revealed Sephardic ancestry in the person of his father’s grandfather. His newfound Jewish roots made him feel even more connected to Judaism. Despite the positive energy it brought him, Cerezo didn’t have much time to explore Judaism in depth—his next PCS took him to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, far away from anything Jewish.

At Ft Wainwright, Cerezo was appointed the senior medic for Alpha Troop MSH, alongside Cavalry and Infantry units. Only two or three of them had been to Afghanistan; the rest were veterans of the war in Iraq and cherries (i.e. new guys).

When Osama bin Laden was finally captured and killed in 2011, Cerezo left for Afghanistan the next day. In anticipation of this deployment, Cerezo briefed the entire squadron on conditions in Afghanistan and the enemy they would be facing. Afghanistan is very different from Iraq: it is much poorer and primitive, a wild and untamable place with no government or infrastructure. The squadron understood that the enemy in Afghanistan would be very different from the enemy they previously encountered in Iraq.

Sure enough, the squadron deployed to Afghanistan in May 2011. For Cerezo, his second deployment to Afghanistan was a very different experience from the first one. First, Cerezo’s grandparents had passed away in the intervening years. Without having his grandmother around to pray for him, things didn’t feel right. Second, the facilities were better this time around. During his first tour at COP Keating, there were no buildings. He lived under his truck and didn’t shower for two months. By contrast, on the outskirts of Kandahar, his base had the facilities of a police station, and even technology such as video games and cell phone reception. However, even though the circumstances were physically more comfortable, the enemy was still a looming threat.

Cerezo was attached to a Striker Unit. He drove a medevac vehicle with a back hatch that had space for four patients. The first time his medical skills were used reminded him of the need to shift gears: one of his soldiers stepped on a small “toe popper” landmine—his leg got jacked up and his toes were blown off. As Cerezo heard the urgent “Medic!” call over the radio, he was reminded eerily of his first tour. Subconsciously he thought, “That’s it, I’m here.” In those first moments, the urgency was absent. He felt spacey and absent-minded. But this was a luxury he and his men could not afford. He was the senior medic, with five medics under him throughout the country. He could not let his guard down. Game on.

The unit’s tasks largely involved clearing square agricultural areas surrounded by walls built out of rocks and mud. Cerezo’s unit would clear IEDs that had been placed in the walls. The IEDs were connected to pressure plates on the ground. When a person stepped on and off, the explosives blew outward.

During one such mission, an allied Afghan soldier lost both his legs above the knee, and a close friend of Cerezo, Sgt Anthony Knight, lost his right eye. One platoon medic under Cerezo took care of the allied soldier, barely getting him on the bird alive. The team urgently wrapped tourniquets, one after the other, with no time to spare; adrenaline pulsing in their desperate attempt to save the lives and limbs of the wounded. When the work was concluded, the guys were sacked. But there was no rest for the weary. Instead, their commander told Cerezo to re-enter the fray. Cerezo responded with total exasperation, saying, ”My guys need a break.” They were new to the Army, and this was their first firefight. One of their guys had just gotten hit, and an allied soldier had sustained a heavy injury. Cerezo wanted to give them a chance to breathe. The CO agreed and gave them about four or five days before they had to go back.

But they could only rest so long, and several days later, they were given an IED search mission. The unit left base before dawn for a 12 hours-long patrol on a scorching hot summer day. At long last, they found an IED and radioed EOD to come to dismantle it. Earlier, the platoon sergeant had encouraged Cerezo to call the mission; it was 120 degrees, the guys were getting restless, they didn’t have much food or water, and were carrying a lot of weight. Although Cerezo had the authority to call the mission, his sense of integrity wouldn’t let him. “We’re soldiers. We can do this,” he thought to himself. And he paid for it.

Sometime that afternoon, Cerezo sat with SSG Greg Gorski alone in an unfinished mud hut with no windows or doors. Out of the background came a slight hissing noise. Cerezo looked up just in time to see a rifle-launched grenade flying through the air. His mind took it in as if in slow motion: the grenade arched, came down, and bounced towards him. He had no memory of the ensuing explosion, but he woke up facedown and in tremendous pain. Apparently, he had instinctively reacted by covering Gorski, who received only three light scratches, while Cerezo bore the brunt of the shrapnel himself, injuring his hand—strangely enough, giving him a boxer’s fracture—and cutting his tendon almost completely in half. Grenade fragments embedded themselves in the upper part of his leg, where they remain today.

Sharp pain seared through his body. It took all his self control not to curl up in a ball and cry. He thought he was going to die.

But the day wasn’t over. “Hargrett is hit!” squealed the radio, the squad expecting Cerezo to respond immediately. Cerezo responded, “I’m hit!”

“Medic down!” came the frightened response, the vocal pitch heightening in intensity. With no other medic in the area, utter chaos reigned; things were on a downward slide from bad to worse.

And then Cerezo heard a voice in his mind, clear as day, saying, “You are not going to die today. I have a bigger purpose for you.”

Ignoring his wounds, Cerezo took command; he established a 360 perimeter so the troops could fire toward anything that moved. With his men in a secure defensive position and help on the way, Cerezo finally examined himself. He was able to bandage his own hand, but needed outside help with his leg injury. An MP tried but couldn’t wrap it properly; however, Cerezo had preemptively trained others in the unit on how to deal with battle injuries. Now he was thankful for thinking ahead—a close buddy bandaged Cerezo’s leg skillfully.

Exhausted, Cerezo finally laid down. Worried that he would pass out, someone yelled, “Doc, get up! Get up!” Cerezo wearily barked back, “Shut up, I’m the medic. I know what I’m doing.” Eventually, Cerezo and the other casualties were medevaced to the hospital in Kandahar.

During triage at the hospital reception, a chaplain came over and asked him how he was doing. Cerezo’s mental stamina crumbled, as he broke down in tears while relating the events of the day. Eventually, the sedatives he’d been given kicked in, and he passed out, waking up after his hand had been surgically repaired. Several officers came to his bedside, and he was presented with the Purple Heart.
Thus marked the end of Cerezo’s second deployment, a month-and-a half into what would have been a year long rotation. He returned to the USA few weeks later, arriving in Texas, where he joined the Wounded Warrior Battalion and went to school, getting a BA in history and a BA in 7th-12th grade US history education. In 2013, Cerezo retired from the Army.

Seeking to enrich his education, he applied to Texas A&M University, and enrolled in a joint Master’s PhD program on history, continuing his undergraduate thesis on the Puerto Rican Young Lords gang and their reactions to police brutality.

About a year later, Cerezo revived his interest in learning about Judaism, attending Shabbat meals with local Chabad rabbis, and taking classes with a Chabad campus shliach named Rabbi Rafi Filler.

Cerezo’s military service may have been over, but PTSD continued to impact his ability to function for a long time afterwards. Cerezo felt deeply conflicted. On the one hand, throughout his life and military career, Cerezo always felt pulled internally to do better and be better. However, for years he ran away from that inner voice, instead trying to still his pain by drinking, riding motorcycles, and partying. Yet that internal voice never waivered, while his mental and emotional trauma refused to subside.

Things had an interesting way of playing out.

In 2019, Cerezo was invited by Heroes to Heroes to join them for a short visit to Israel, alongside other veterans. The trip would be life changing. In Israel, Cerezo felt himself being drawn through a process of self-healing and refinement. Praying at the Western Wall on his birthday and visiting King David’s tomb heightened this religious experience. The more he learned, the more he felt G-d’s presence. “G-d is experiencing everything together with me, I’m not alone,” he says. That realization helped Cerezo achieve deep healing. Finally, he found himself no longer running from that internal spiritual voice. He now understood that he had to be a part of something bigger than himself.

The next stage of his recovery was while serving as the PR representative of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association (CVMA). Blaine Decker, owner of VetCor, an organization that specializes in emergency water restoration, heard Cerezo give a talk about CVMA at an event. He was so impressed with Cerezo’s background that he offered him a job on the spot as the deputy project manager. Cerezo happily accepted, proud to be on hand to help restore pipes that burst during the Texas deep freeze of winter 2021.

Through VetCor, Cerezo met a client who connected him to Dr. Carrie Elk of the Elk Institute, who treats vets suffering from PTSD. After a few trauma sessions, he felt immediate and sustained relief. His sleep improved, the shaking subsided, and he no longer felt stuck in the past. Elk’s therapy was a major turning point that allowed Cerezo to start thinking clearly and consider what he wanted in life.

VetCor and Elk Institute then led him to secure a position as a veteran case manager for Project Unity, a nonprofit company that helps fellow vets find employment and homes. Balancing all his responsibilities was taxing work, but he loved it. He found that the more active he was in helping others, and the path forward clarified itself.

A combination of all these pieces coming together allowed him to pursue conversion with a fiery passion.

Cerezo’s father, mother, and brother, who had already converted to Judaism, encouraged him along his Jewish journey. His younger brother, Shai, was now studying at a yeshiva in Israel, working on his rabbinical degree. Over time, he convinced Cerezo to join him. Moises became Moshe in Israel, and during that year of immersive  study and experience, Moshe Cerezo joined his parents and brother, finally converting to Judaism.

This intense personal growth soon led to the feeling that he wanted to meet someone with whom he could build a Jewish home. He first saw his future wife while she was praying in a synagogue; something deep inside clicked, and he felt drawn to her on a soul level. Elisheva was in Israel only for the summer, after which she returned to New York. After dating for a few weeks in Israel, Cerezo followed her back to the US in December 2022, and the couple was married several months later.

Moshe Eliyahu and Elisheva Cerezo currently live in Manhattan, NY, where he is studying at Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah and simultaneously working on getting his real estate license. He still feels deeply impacted by his Army experience, and thinks about it often. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, he was deeply concerned about the men with whom he had fought. Ultimately, he was able to use personal connections to rescue 15 allied Afghans from under Taliban control. Now, his feelings of the past aren’t torturous. Instead, they are invigorating.

Perhaps it isn’t just ironic that it is the Book of Lamentations that states, “From the darkness, He returns me.” Chassidic masters teach that the darkness itself brings the return, and Cerezo is certain that the difficulties of the past are, in fact, that which built the future he now enjoys.

It’s all part of a bigger purpose.

Originally published in the Tishrei 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.