Capt Mark Seigel
Mark Seigel was born into a military family. His father was a proud Korean War veteran who encouraged his son to follow his footsteps and serve the country. Seigel didn’t disappoint his dad; he enlisted in the Air Force at age 17. Several years later, he commissioned as an officer, with a primary AFSC as a 15W3A: Advanced Airborne Wx/Reconnaissance Officer.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Seigel first began to explore his Jewish heritage during his military training. He had always felt connected to G-d, and as he gained more knowledge, he slowly began increasing his Jewish observance. His journey was propelled further when he met his future wife, who shared his passion for exploring their heritage, while he was stationed at Offutt AFB. After they were married by a rabbi, they began to keep Shabbat and live an even more outwardly Jewish life.
Like many, Seigel quickly learned that observing Judaism in the Air Force wasn’t a cakewalk. He soon developed his own COAs to handle potential complications: First, he did his best to excel in order to gain the respect of his fellow officers; second, he learned to be tactful and discreet, explaining religious requirements and circumstances well in advance of any holidays. In this manner, Seigel was able to circumvent problems with his peers and superiors, avoiding any significant confrontations for most of his career.
In 1989, Seigel found himself attached to the 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing with a one-year, high priority mission at Shemya Air Force Base, Alaska. Now known as Eareckson Air Station, this tiny eight square-mile speck of land is the furthest military installation in the Aleutian Island chain, residing just outside Russian airspace. It’s a dismal place about which airmen regularly quipped, “This may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here!” During those Cold War years, highly sensitive RC-135S Cobra Ball and RC-135X Cobra Eye flights took place from its forlorn and weather-beaten shores. Mission briefings were fed directly to the White House. Considering the volatile weather conditions of the Arctic alongside the foreign policy implications of the intelligence gathered, only the most highly skilled airmen were selected to be stationed there. Seigel’s deployment to Shemya was a backward compliment to the reputation he had gained, among other things, for his uncanny expertise in meteorology.
Of course, Seigel could not refuse the assignment, but he worried about his ability to keep certain mitzvot, especially the unique Alaskan Shabbat. Fortunately, his commander, the late Colonel Michael Rayburne, recognized Seigel’s sincerity and showed a sympathetic respect for his ideals. Rayburne willingly gave Seigel plenty of leeway to carry out his Jewish practices, including granting Shabbat off. Grateful for the reprieve, Seigel put in extra hours during the week, regularly participating in 14–18-hour reconnaissance missions.
Kosher cuisine of the 80s was not as developed as it is now, to say nothing of its availability in Alaska. Seigel therefore ate nothing during the year-long asignment except vegetables and cans of tuna, giving him yet another reputation as the finickiest eater on the island. But a surprising turn of events turned the good-natured ribbing from his fellow airmen into virtual jealousy: The hazardous weather meant that supplies from the mainland were often erratic, and at one-point shipments were not able to be delivered for several long weeks. The island’s food supply deteriorated to the point that the men were forced to subsist on 20-year-old C-rations that were dredged out of the storerooms. The sight and smell of the old rations had Seigel counting his blessings. But soon enough, he was humored as some of his former sparring partners began asking him to sell them some of his tuna. Fortunately, Seigel had plenty to spare and willingly shared his largesse.
A full year in one of the most forsaken strips of land in the world undoubtedly placed a tremendous amount of stress on the men at Shemya. Stricken with utter boredom, some of the younger enlisted men would occasionally blow off steam by ransacking the officers’ quarters. On one such occasion, Seigel went to inspect the damage to his room, expecting to find his personal items strewn all over the place. To his surprise, he found his quarters completely untouched—the only officer’s room to escape the mayhem!
The reason for this good fortune was a mystery until a few days after the incident, a burly airman approached Seigel. “I bet you’re wondering why your room wasn’t trashed,” he said.
Seigel admitted, “I thought you guys might have just overlooked it.”
“Nah, your room was on the agenda as well,” the airman responded sheepishly. “But when we were picking the lock on your door, we noticed something you put on your doorpost. I don’t know why, but when we looked at it, it made us all feel nervous, so we decided to leave your stuff alone.”
The next time he entered his apartment, Seigel found himself giving his mezuzah an appreciative tap.
Part of Captain Seigel’s duties at Shemya AFB included forecasting weather conditions for the reconnaissance missions. The responsibility was intense: in such harsh meteorological conditions, the safety of aircraft and aircrew is a serious concern. But Seigel felt blessed from Above; his weather predictions were so consistently accurate that Colonel Rayburne would accept his forecast over a conflicting one from the mainland. One particular forecasting incident during this deployment earned him the respect of all his fellow officers.
During the pre-flight prep for one reconnaissance mission, Seigel calculated the weather forecast, granting approval for a 14-hour mission. But while the plane was on its way back from the target area, the island experienced nasty weather conditions that appeared to make any landing at Shemya impossible. The pilot radioed into the airfield to ask whether he should proceed to the island or turn back toward the mainland, four hours away. No alternate landing location existed.
Colonel Rayburne consulted Seigel. “They have only thirty minutes left until they hit bingo fuel. What’s it
going to be?”
Seigel re-examined his charts and looked at the colonel with confidence. “In approximately thirty minutes, sir, conditions will change. The plane will be able to return to Shemya as scheduled.”
Rayburne instructed the pilot to continue toward the base.
Twenty minutes passed. Seigel continued to monitor the situation, anxiously watching the weather patterns. The runway weather observer’s voice crackled over the radio to the aircraft as he reported strong crosswinds, blowing at 45 knots in the wrong direction.
Another five minutes crept by, and the wind gusts continued tearing across the runway with no let-up. Just five more minutes remained before the aircraft reached bingo fuel and ran out of alternatives. Seigel prayed quietly that his prediction would not be wrong.
And then, 31 minutes after Seigel’s forecast, the winds suddenly veered, dropping to a leisurely five knots an hour, blowing toward the west—right down the runway! The entire command post reacted with relief, respect and appreciation, and Seigel’s own tachycardic heart rate eventually subsided a few hours later.
With less than a month to go on Shemya, Seigel found himself faced with a terrible dilemma. Of all the officers stationed on Shemya AFB, he was only one of four with sufficient training, experience, and certifications to participate in a particular reconnaissance mission. Two of those primary officers were on leave, leaving Seigel with only one other person to substitute if necessary. Seigel had worked out a system with the other officer to ensure that he would take any responsibilities from Friday afternoon until Saturday night. But on that Friday morning, the officer fell ill, and a reconnaissance mission was imminent.
Seigel wondered how he would avoid working on Shabbat this time. With tremendous trepidation, he
entered Colonel Rayburne’s office.
“Sir, unless it is a matter of life or death, I will not be able to support operations for the next twenty-five hours.” He braced for the expected furious response.
But to his astonishment, Rayburne smiled warmly. “Captain, there is no problem too big for us to solve,” he said reassuringly. “I understand how important your Sabbath is to you, and this is what we’ll do: if your substitute isn’t back on his feet on time, then Command at headquarters is going to receive a very apologetic phone call from me. I’ll explain that our airplanes are undergoing repairs and that the maintenance crews predict that it will take about 25 hours to get them mission-ready again. In the meantime, all operations to support our mission will have to be flown from the mainland.” Rayburne smiled again. “I think that will take care of the problem, don’t you?”
That Shabbat was a restful one, indeed.
Captain Mark Seigel retired from the Air Force in 1995, with over 1500 flight hours and dozens of overseas deployments, including Operation Desert Storm, to his credit.
Originally published in the Shavuos 5782 Jewish-American Warrior