By: SrA Daniella Bert, USAF
Jewish American Warrior teamed up with Ch, Capt Dovid Grossman (CAP) to interview SrA Daniella Bert, USAF. The following discusses her journey and some of the challenges that she overcame as a Jewish enlisted airman.
Jewish American Warrior (JAW): Thanks for joining us today, Daniella. What’s your MOS?
SrA Daniella Bert (DB): I’m a 2R0X1, or maintenance management analyst. A lot of people don’t know what that entails. When I found out what my job was, the TIs were like, “Good luck; we have no idea what that is!” Basically there’s a system that aircraft maintenance workers use. We ensure that all the data in that system is correct. We track how many sorties were flown in a day, if there were any breaks, and so on. We collect this data, give it to our commanders, and it goes up the chain from there. It’s a lot of Excel spreadsheets and statistics – fun stuff.
JAW: Is that something you wanted to do?
DB: No. When I took the ASVAB it was one of the jobs that I scored high on. I went to basic open general, and they said “This is going to be your job,” and I said alright. I got to my first base, Barksdale, which is where I learned everything. Although I like the people I work with and I’m good at my job, it just doesn’t fit my personality. I’m more interested in medicine and I like taking care of people, so I’m working toward getting into the Nurse Enlisted Commissioning Program. To get into that program, you have to finish prerequisites first. Then you apply and take a break from service for two years to attend nursing school full time. During that time you still get paid by the military and get benefits. Once you’re done you go to OTS and you come out a lieutenant and a nurse. I do want to be a doctor eventually but I’m not ready to be in school for so long and take on all that debt. In the meantime I’ve decided to try out the medical field as a nurse and figure out what area of nursing feels right for me. From there I might go on to medical school. We’ll see.
JAW: Where did you get the idea to join the military?
DB: In high school, there were a couple people I knew who joined the Israeli army. After I graduated high school in 2012, I tried college and different jobs, but none of them really worked out. I had no direction. At my first job, I met a girl who said she was planning to join the Air Force after high school. I told my dad about that. He did some research and said, “This could be good for you.” When I was 18 he brought it up again and said, “If you join the air force you’ll get direction,” adding that he would get me a Camaro. At the time I wasn’t interested. When I was twenty-two, I realized that I wanted to go back to school, but it’s expensive. So I did my own research about the Air Force. I felt stagnant in life, so I decided to join, do it for a few years and see how I liked it.
JAW: Did you get the Camaro?
DB: Unfortunately no, he said it was too late.
JAW: Did you ever second-guess your choice, and how did you get through that period.
DB: Absolutely. I got to basic training, and did all the intake forms. By the time I was done, it was two in the morning. They said, “Okay, you can go to bed.” Next thing I knew, at 5:00 AM I heard reveille and thought, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?!” In any case, I kept my head down, stayed quiet, and did what I was supposed to do. I counted down those eight weeks until I finished basic. Fortunately there was a Jewish chaplain on base, Chaplain Alan Kahan. I was excited because once a week I would take a break, get spiritual, and focus on something other than where I was at the moment.
JAW: How did Shabbat and holidays factor into your training?
DB: I would go to services on Friday night (everyone else went to theirs on Sunday). I was able to light candles, the chaplain made kiddush, and we had challah. During basic, we didn’t use electronic devices or go in cars anyway, so that part wasn’t difficult for me. I was there on Purim, so Chaplain Kahan read megillah for me. I’m grateful because he really made a big difference for me. Passover actually turned out better than I expected. In April that year, I went to Shepherd Air Force base to attend tech school. When I got there, there was a mishap with my paperwork and I couldn’t start my class until about three weeks later. It worked out because the second week was Pesach. The Air Force granted me leave so I could go back to Boca and spend the holiday with my family.
JAW: What has been your biggest ordeal in your military service?
DB: If we’re talking about Judaism, it’s the fact that nobody really knows what a Jew is. I’m typically the first Jews anyone’s met. For example, I was once talking to an employee at the BX about food and mentioned that I don’t eat pork. He asked why, and I said because I’m Jewish. He asked if I’ve ever “been back to visit,” as in, “Aren’t ‘you all’ from Israel or Europe?” I replied, “My family is originally Eastern European, but no.” He had thought that all Jews came from there. Of course historically, many Jewish families come from Eastern Europe, but not all. Plus we’re all over the world now.
My observance of Judaism has faced challenges as well. When I was living at the Barksdale dorms I had to go to a chaplain for help because there was pork or meat in everything at the DFAC, and I needed something more substantial than salads every day. So I got that approved. I wouldn’t say it’s been a serious fight, but it’s definitely a challenge.
In addition, there are times where I’ve had to fight for time off for holidays. Where I’m at right now, Dyess, the closest shul is three hours away in Dallas. COVID has made things extra hard. In order to listen to megillah this year, for example, I Facetimed with my mom when she went to hear megillah. For Pesach this year I was on a training assignment far from home, but I was able to go to the Chabad nearby along with my chaplain – he was curious to experience a Seder, so he came as well. I was so grateful to have had that opportunity!
JAW: Did anyone specifically inspire you to launch your military career?
DB: My paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. That played a big role in everything I’ve been doing. They lived in Netanya, Israel and passed away a few years ago. In basic training, you have to go visit a gas chamber. That was rough because I remember hearing my grandparents’ stories. My grandmother had a tattoo on her arm from Auschwitz. To this day I keep their stories with me. I make sure that not only am I representing the military, but as a Jewish girl from a family of Holocaust survivors, representing them keeps me in line every day. They had nothing but G-d protecting them at the time. So now I feel like I get to help protect others and keep G-d with me.
JAW: That sounds like a powerful motivator. How does that move you on a daily basis?
DB: My grandmother could never really talk about her experiences in Auschwitz. She had severe PTSD. Because of that, I’m a big advocate for mental health. I do what I can every day to be mentally healthy. By speaking my truth, I keep her memory alive. I silently tell her, “I know you couldn’t do it, but I got this for you.” In that sense, my grandmother has been a mentor for me. If she can get through her time in a concentration camp, I can do anything. She must have been strong. If it wasn’t for her getting through that, I wouldn’t be here, and neither would my sister, my dad, my aunts… I learned that no matter how tough things get, I can still do it.
JAW: In addition to your grandmother, who else has served as a mentor to you?
DB: This might sound cliché, but truly my mom. I’m very close with both my parents, but they got divorced around my bat mitzvah when I was twelve. My dad struggled with alcohol, but he has been sober now for about 14 years. When I was young, he was trying to get sober. We had money when I was growing up, but then when my dad started to get sober we lost a lot of that. So as my parents were getting divorced, we pretty much went bankrupt. My mom had to go on food stamps, and then she went back to school. She had not planned on going to college initially. She grew up in a Baltimore town where men and women walked on separate sidewalks. Her father was a rabbi, and she went to Bais Yaakov. Then she got married to a Jewish guy, had babies, and became a stay-at-home mom. So when they got divorced, my mom had to start over completely. She went to school, also worked, and found a way to raise her kids through all of it. She was, and is, a strong woman. She became a physical therapist and now has her own business as a parenting and life coach. She has a website and gives talks. I’m so proud of her. Both my parents are still in Boca, and have since remarried. My dad really worked on himself too. He was a tough cookie (and still is). He grew up in Montreal, went to yeshiva, the whole deal. I have a lot of respect for him. Now he works as a therapist at a treatment center, and has made a new name for himself. I love his wife – she’s sober too. I’m very proud of both my parents.
JAW: So now you’re following in your parents’ footsteps by choosing the hardest thing you could possibly do. Nothing fazes you.
DB: Yeah, I would say so! “Jewish girl from Boca joins the Air Force” is an unlikely headline.
JAW: The military can be a lonely place, but what’s the most exciting part of your service?
DB: Growing up in Boca I was extremely sheltered and innocent. Pretty much everyone is Jewish and that’s all I knew. Coming into the military I got to meet so many different kinds of people. That’s been really cool. I’m big into meeting diverse groups and learning about other cultures and languages. It’s humbled me a lot and opened my eyes to things I didn’t really know about. I would say that’s been a really good experience for me and broadened my horizons. I will say that growing up, my mom and I were always into salsa dancing and the Spanish culture, so I did have that side of me. But other than that, Boca’s a country club town with lots of Jewish people. Being in the military has also helped me realize who I am and be comfortable with myself and figure out what I want to do. I’m really grateful for that.
JAW: What draws you to the medical field?
DB: I find the human body fascinating. Growing up around my mother who is such a science nerd influenced me. I’ve always been really good at science and math. At first I started out going to school for physical therapy like my mom. I quickly realized it was not for me, but am interested in the medical field – I watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. I don’t want to be a therapist – I’m a little too empathetic – but I figure that as a nurse I can be there for somebody and also study the human body, which is so cool. On top of that I had a number of friends who talked to me about their issues. I really enjoy helping people through things, and nursing school just seemed right. So I am going for it. It’s been a wild ride, that’s for sure.
JAW: It sounds like you and mom had no problems talking about squeamish things at the dinner table.
DB: We definitely never had any problems with that. I purposely look at videos of surgical procedures. Anytime I go to the doctor and they take x-rays or whatever, I always ask to see.
JAW: What are your thoughts about your upcoming deployment?
DB: I’m scared, which I feel is normal. It’s my first time deploying. I can’t say where I’m going, but I did reach out to a chaplain to see if there’s going to be a chaplain in that area. I’m hoping there is one. I’ve never been in a situation like this. It’s uncomfortable, and there’s a fear of the unknown. But I’m told it will be a good experience. I’ll meet new people so it will definitely be an adventure that I’m trying to prepare for.
JAW: In Judaism we talk about how everything that happens is G-d’s will. We still have fear of the unknown as you describe, and that’s 100% normal. But at the same time, we can remind ourselves that the journey will provide opportunities for immense growth. Sometimes that’s not comfortable, but the Hebrew term nisayon, test, comes from the word l’nasot, to lift up. This means that the challenges we face are for own benefit.
DB: That is very true. I was talking to my dad recently and telling him that I’m scared about my deployment,
and he said, “It’s G-d’s will. Whatever is meant to be will be.” Put your trust in G-d, and that’s all you can do.
JAW: It’s important to ask oneself the hard questions, such as: What is this going to be about, what will I learn, what am I supposed to get out of this? If you pair that with curiosity, then the fear becomes excitement.
DB: Yes. From what I’ve learned, fear and excitement feel very similar. So if we can turn that fear into excitement, it’ll help a person get through it successfully.
JAW: A fighter jet pilot once advised a young cadet I know to find what you’re terrified of and explore it, because that is where your excitement comes from. By embracing the fear, that enables you to find your passion. Thank you for sitting down for this interview. You are a phenomenal person!
DB: Thank you so much.
Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.