Interview with MSgt Mike Ekshtut, USMC and USAFR.
Jewish American Warrior (JAW): MSgt Ekshtut, you’ve had a pretty long, diverse career. Tell us about your time in the Marine Corps, and how you went from there to the Air Force.
MSgt Mike Ekshtut (ME): I enlisted in the USMC in February 1989, just four days after my 18th birthday, and two days after I graduated high school. I chose the Marines, because, as I tell my kids, “Why do something halfway?” I spent four years Active Duty as an Artillery Meteorologist, and participated in the first Gulf War, including a 7 month “cruise” to the Persian Gulf. I got out in Dec ’92, and came back to Seattle to go to college. Ten months later I joined a Marine Reserve unit at NAS Whidbey Island, WA, close to home, and served as a Combat Engineer for 8 years while I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Washington. After college, in ’98, I went on a summer trip to Israel and decided to start learning more about Judaism.
As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, I grew up as a proud Jew. I never hid that, but I didn’t have much depth, knowledge or understanding of what it really meant to be a Jew. In Israel, I got inspired and found myself turned on to the religion. I knew nothing about Yeshivas that teach about Judaism to those like me who didn’t grow up with any religious background, so when I came back home, I enrolled in a Jewish adult evening learning course, the Melton program, and studied for three years. The more I learned, the more I saw the wisdom and truth of Judaism, and I slowly became more observant. At one point, I realized the difficulty of being fully Shabbat observant and as a Marine Reservist. Every month I would have to break Shabbat to serve on drill weekend. I was conflicted. God made the decision even easier for me, since my Reserve unit was now closing down. Now, I could either find another unit to serve in or get out. So I put in my discharge papers in December 2001 and left my beloved Corps.
Just two months later, I was at my rabbi’s house, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, for Shabbat dinner. At his table I met Air Force Chaplain, Lt Col Brett Oxman, who was then the Wing Chaplain at McChord Air Force Base. Chaplain Oxman suggested I join the Air Force Reserve as a Chaplain Assistant. Prior to that, in the Marines, I had almost nothing to do with chaplains – I didn’t even know what a Chaplain Assistant was! But the idea intrigued me, and I missed the military.
So Chaplain Oxman set up the job interview with the Reserve chaplains. They were thrilled to have an observant Jew and a former Marine to serve on their team, and agreed to my condition that I don’t drill on Shabbat. They hired me on the spot! It was an “unorthodox conversion” but 12 years from my first go, I went back to the same MEPS in Seattle and reenlisted in the Air Force Reserve. They even allowed me to keep my rank of E-6.
Now I was able to stay in the military and still be Shabbat observant, doing duty on Fridays and/or Mondays of the drill weekend instead. I stayed attached to McChord AFB with the 446th Air Wing for over 11 years until my family and I moved to Dallas. There I transferred to Joint Base San Antonio, the home of Ft. Sam Houston and Lackland AFB, where I served another 2.5 years. I retired in August 2016 as a Master Sergeant (E-7), when we decided to move to Israel. Ultimately, it came down to family over the military. Also, after I got married in 2006, we had 4 kids in six years, so I did not have the time to go to the Senior NCO Academy and advance my military career. But in all, I have no regrets. I’m very happy with my 26 years in uniform. I was able to proudly serve my country as a proud Jew.
JAW: Did you have any significant experiences, either positive or negative, being Jewish in the military?
ME: During all my years, I experienced no real anti-Semitism. Real anti-Semitism was in the USSR, where my 12 year-old sister had to fistfight with boys because they called her a Zhid… In fact, I found that the more observant I became, the more respect I was shown by my peers. They thought it was cool that I was committed and standing for something.
During those drill weekends, I’d get to the barracks on Friday night, and try to do as little Shabbat-prohibited work as possible. I also taught my buddies about these practices and restrictions. My fellow Marines would even bring my bags from the car, and watch as I made Kiddush on grape juice. On Sunday mornings, I’d put on Tefillin in the Company office; as a recent returnee to Judaism, wearing black boxes on my head and arm was pretty weird, so I was uncomfortable and tried to do it in private. With an office full of working Marines, that didn’t work out so well. But, it did give me an opportunity to explain to them what Tefillin were. They thought that was cool too.
While I was with the Marines, we didn’t really have much to do with chaplains, and certainly didn’t get to see or know any Jewish chaplains. One time when I was on an Annual Tour in the California desert, a non-Jewish chaplain came through the tent and dropped off a box. There happened to be military issue bibles and siddurim inside, which I thought was really cool. I still have that little black siddur. In general, chaplains weren’t really part of my military experience at that point; I’d say that USMC culture doesn’t include chaplains very much.
JAW: What drove you to become a Lay Leader, and where did you perform those duties?
ME: I was a Lay Leader when deployed. In 2003, soon after the Iraq war started, I voluntarily deployed with Air Force Special Ops out of Hurlburt Field to Kuwait and Iraq. I volunteered again in 2005, to go to a small air base in the UAE. I was one of the few Jewish personnel in the AOR, so I took on the role. I held Shabbat services, and tried to find Jews and invite them in, as well as arrange religious accommodation when necessary. Things were somewhat different in the deployed settings, but I was still able to keep Shabbat. Although there may have been few of us, there were definitely some experiences worth noting. In one instance, I met a fellow airman in Iraq, Phil, who was really not very connected to his Judaism. He mostly left it when he was a teen. I started inviting him to my Shabbat dinners. We became friends and hung out regularly. At some point, he was talking about getting older and not meeting Ms. Right. We were both in our 30’s and still single. I told him that putting on Tefillin is a spiritual catalyst for finding the right girl. I also just happened to have an extra pair that I shlepped with me for just this purpose. I was on a mission to find a fellow Jew to give them to, who would start wearing them on a regular basis. That was my ‘segula’ for protection. Phil started putting on these tefillin again in Iraq. When he finished his deployment a couple months later, he went back home and promptly met his future wife in Philadelphia.
JAW: What should Jewish chaplains know, from the perspective of a Chaplain Assistant Master Sergeant?
ME: Young chaplains can learn a lot from the Chaplain Assistant. They have a lot of experience from prior duties and assignments. And a good CA is a real force multiplier, as well as a spiritual partner for the chaplain, if they are a person of God. The Chaplain Assistant doesn’t need to be a spiritual person per se, but being one helps them understand the chaplains’ work, and then you’re not just an administrator – you can be an actual partner in being a “visible reminder of the Holy.”
During my time in the Air Force, you could only cross-train into the career field, which I’d personally advocate for; having the additional experience and maturity greatly benefits this field. I had the seniority, experience, and the wisdom, so was able to help with suicide prevention, counselings, PTSD issues and critical incident stress management.
Ultimately, chaplains should realize they’re not alone in their role. They’re not the Lone Ranger. They should try to make a good partner with the senior Chaplain Assistant. That would be a big plus for their work, and likely also keep them out of trouble.
While deployed with Special Ops, it was just me and the Pentecostal Chaplain (rank of Captain), for the entire unit. This was his first deployment. When we arrived at the air base at Baghdad International Airport, they didn’t have any space for us, but finally gave us a GP tent as our office. We transformed this tent into a chapel: I took the initiative and went to look for volunteers. In no time I had guys at the hobby wood shop make benches, a table (bima), and a shtender for us. They were happy to do it, especially for the Chapel. We set up Sunday worship services in no time. I also networked and made friends with the Navy SEAL support guys on base. They sewed for us a cool chapel flag and a cover for the table out of camo material. The Chaplain was very proud of these adornments. I mention these things just to say that a resourceful CA can network with fellow troops and get stuff done.
Additionally, I went to the Army medics and got extra medical supplies donated to give to the Ukrainian security forces who were providing security for the Uzbek Combat Engineers, who were tasked with clearing minefields during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Ukrainian medic had almost nothing for medical supplies. They were incredibly thankful – and even gave me a huge bottle of vodka as a “thank you” gift. They wouldn’t let me refuse it, despite the regs against having alcohol in a war zone! So I wrapped it up in a sleeping bag and shipped it home.
JAW: What should Lay Leaders know, from the perspective of the Chaplain Assistant?
ME: Oftentimes, the Lay Leaders are locals, and they may have issues with the chaplains. They’ve been living and serving in the community for many years. Then a new chaplain comes in and is all gung ho. He wants to transform the Chapel and wants to do it his way, so heads collide. The chaplain will only be there for 2-3 years, but the Lay Leader has often been there for 10-15 years already, and already have their own program established, even if it is something basic. A wise chaplain should try and establish an amicable working relationship with the local Lay Leader(s).
Understand your authority, but respect the fact that this person has been here for a while – even though the standards may not be exactly what the Chaplain wants or expects. And that goes both ways.
JAW: What should we be looking for in Lay Leaders?
ME: People who have more than a basic understanding of Judaism. People who want to contribute and to do good, and have an awareness of spirituality. The key to this spirituality needs is having a significant Jewish education of some type, alongside certain benchmarks of layity, so they’re not shooting from the hip. No matter the denomination, Lay Leaders should have certain standards that they abide by so there is consistency and authenticity in their Jewish observance.
JAW: MSgt Ekshtut, thanks for taking the time with us!
ME: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my experiences. I hope it inspires other Jews to serve both HaShem and the US military, which is a force for good in America.
Originally printed in the Tishrei 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.