Colten Baitch, SFC, USA, BDE SARC, 2SBCT, 4ID
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to serve in the military. I grew up in an Orthodox family with roots all over the country. My great uncle had fought in D-Day and was wounded in Saint-Lô, France. He was an Infantryman and I always thought of him as my hero.
As a child I heard stories from survivors about the intifadas in Israel. Some of my earliest memories are of meeting children at my Jewish day school who temporarily moved to the US to escape the ballistic missile threat from Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. I spent my teenage years in yeshiva in Brooklyn during the early stage of the Global War on Terrorism.
In 2004 I graduated high school. While most of my peers either went on to get their semicha (rabbinical degree) or go to college to become doctors and lawyers, I decided to make aliyah and become a soldier in the Israeli Army. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my parents filling out paperwork for Nefesh B’Nefesh, and the radio was on. We listened to a report of a major suicide attack on a coalition base in Mosul, Iraq. The reporter started reading what seemed like an endless list of names; they were American Soldiers who had been killed in the attack. At that moment I decided I was not going to fight for Israel, but would fight for my homeland. I felt that Jews should be willing to fight and die for the United States just like any other American citizen and that it would be a chillul Hashem for me not to volunteer.
Shortly after, I enlisted in the United States Army. Two weeks after I completed AIT as an 88M motor transport operator I was deployed to Al Abar Province, Iraq. I did not experience much on that deployment, however, and I felt that my MOS was not fulfilling enough. At that time Lebanon and Hezbollah were waging war with Israel, and I had IDF friends fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah. I needed to serve in a position that had more impact on the ground.
As soon as I redeployed, I reenlisted to reclassify my military occupational specialty to 19D Cavalry Scout. Once I reclassed I was assigned to HHC Scout-Sniper Platoon, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment with the 4th Infantry Division. I like to say this is where my career in the military truly started. I did three combat deployments with the same platoon which were extremely kinetic in nature in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our unit did everything from movement to contact missions, sniper kill teams, and provided observation for the maneuver companies.
My most meaningful deployment was my second one. Our unit was deployed to East Baghdad and Sadr City, Iraq in 2008. We spearheaded the second siege of Sadr City. After the elections in Iraq, Shiia militia groups led by Iranian Al Quds and Hezbollah groups serving as enemy combat advisors launched a relentless attack on our coalition forces. We were tasked with breaching the city and securing the southern corridor. Our Scout Platoon paired with an Iraqi Counter Terror Task Force and Navy Seals to provide overwatch and sniper missions as Combat Engineers secured a wall around the city, and the Infantry units could clear the city, one block at a time.
After the initial push into the city our platoon conducted kill or capture missions on high value targets. Most of these were Jaysh Al Mahdi, Al Quds, and Hezbollah facilitators. As a young 22-year-old Jewish Soldier, this was a chance to stand up to the same enemy forces that wanted to annihilate the Jewish people. I felt like the war in Iraq had a deep-rooted and personal meaning to me, and with every house we breached I felt like I was making the world a better place.
During the end of that deployment, the fighting transitioned back to sectarian violence. I was paired with a young Iraqi police officer while we were conducting a long duration joint operation in a more moderate neighborhood called Baghdad Al-Jadida. He was Shiia and his wife was Sunni and he spoke perfect English. They had very little money, and their son was sick and dying. Moved to help him and his family, I started bringing things to cheer the boy up such as a play station and TV set.
One day there was a bombing that killed a dozen or so children that we had to respond to, and my Iraqi partner was extremely upset. I told him I didn’t want to see what happened to my people happen here, that I sympathized with him and the children who were killed. He asked what I meant, and I disclosed to him that I was a Jew. He did not believe me, so I reached into my bag and showed him my siddur. Then I took off my helmet so he could see my kippah. The Iraqi started crying and said, “You are one of the nicest people I have met. They teach us that Jews are evil; I am sorry I ever judged your people.”
Over time, word spread that I was Jewish, but I maintained the loyalty of not only that Iraqi officer, but the rest of the Al-Jadida Station. They called me “Seeyooni Al-Jadida,” which roughly translates into the Zionist of Al Jadida.
Being an Orthodox Jew in the military is definitely a lonely experience and is not easy, especially in Combat Arms. I have never met another Orthodox Jew in my 16-plus years who does what I do. Most are in service and support roles or chaplains. What I took on is hard, isolating, and takes commitment. You are hungrier than your peers because kosher MREs lack the caloric intake that non-kosher ones have, and you are almost always training over Shabbat at least three or four times a year. Pesach and the chagim are usually spent in the field, JRTC, NTC, or deployed. Once you become a leader in the military you do not have the option to not go with your men to fight. You have a moral obligation to lead them into training and battle, embracing misery and hardship with your Soldiers. It is a true kiddush Hashem, and I have earned nothing but the utmost respect from my peers and subordinates.
The Jewish community refers to the American boys and girls who serve in the IDF as “lone soldiers.” But I like to think of people like me as the Jewish Americans’ true lone Soldiers. If there was one thing that I yearned for while serving, especially when I was younger, was to have a fellow Soldier like me in Combat who kept kosher and was one of the dirty knuckle-draggers breaching doors with me.
Now I am a Sergeant First Class and have a wonderful Jewish family with my wife Shayna. We have two daughters, Bayla and Naomi. I have the joy of spending every Shabbat with them. Even though my early years in the Army were incredibly lonely despite having an immense group of comrades-in-arms (who are still my best friends to this day), your world is what you make it. What you get out of life is what you envision and work toward.
During my career I have served as a Machine Gunner, Grenadier, Team Leader, Squad Leader, Reconnaissance Platoon Sergeant, Drill Sergeant, and currently serve as a Brigade Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. The Army has been good to me, and hard work pays off. Never once have I experienced anti-Semitism or been treated differently for my beliefs in my career.
If there are any other lone soldiers like me reading this, remember that there is always an opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem, chances for you to uplift your Jewish soul. Always fight to be the strongest, hardest, most empathetic and level-headed Soldier you can possibly be. This is how we earn our respect and recognition as a small but strong demographic in the military.
This article was originally printed in the Shavuot 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.