The Jewish American Warrior teamed up with Ch, Capt Dovid Grossman, USAF Auxiliary to interview Rachel Erlichman, fitness expert and wife of veteran Army Captain Marc Erlichman.
JAW: Thank you for coming to talk! Your husband began his service in 1984—when did you guys connect?
Rachel Erlichman (RE): We met in 1988 over July 4th weekend. He immediately became very much a
part of my family. We went out almost every night for the two weeks he was in town, often with my
JAW: Military spouses bear so much responsibility while the service member is away. How did that factor into your discussions?
RE: Marc had told me that Field Artillery hardly ever goes out on deployments, but after he was attached to the 101st Airborne, he was sent out a lot. Even before we were married he had orders to go to Fort Hood for six months. We got married on base partly because of my next-of-kin status—if anything happened the Army would notify his parents, not me. But in any case, Marc understood that as a traditional Jewish girl in an unfamiliar environment without family and friends, I would face many challenges including lengthy and painful separations. Marc agreed that if the situation became too difficult for me, he would resign. However, I put my heart and soul into my job as an Army wife.
JAW: So you were under the impression that your husband would be home more, but then he ended up being away a lot.
RE: Yes. Even when service members are technically “home,” they have field practices that can last weeks, and you’re separated a lot. If you don’t find a group of friends, you’re really alone.
JAW: You and Marc had initially discussed what your life together would be like, but it turned out not to be that
way. It seems you found a way to adapt regardless.
RE: I did. Before I met Marc I had my own apartment and supported myself for a long time, because my father died when I was 18 and my mother died when I was 22. When Marc was gone, I felt that sense of independence slip away. When he’d come in from the field, he was a mess. He wanted to take a shower and take time to decompress first, while I just wanted to spend time with him. It was the worst feeling sometimes. I understand why the Torah says you shouldn’t go out to battle during the first year of marriage.
JAW: What kind of expectations exist for a military spouse?
RE: When you’re an officer’s wife they tell you two things: Do not embarrass your husband, and memorize his social security number. You have to carry yourself with a certain dignity—how you act is a reflection of your husband. The expectations were high and I often felt scrutinized. I was really blessed that the full-bird Colonel (he later became a General) was Colonel Brickman, because his wife was an exceptionally wonderful person. The Light Colonel, Colonel Lawson, and his wife were also wonderful. I was lucky to have these women around. At one point the Colonel’s wife called and asked me to make my best Christmas cookie recipe to share at the officers’ wives coffee. I nervously told her that I’m Jewish and don’t make Christmas cookies. She asked what Jews do, so I told her about Chanukah and potato latkes. She said, “That’s perfect, why don’t you make them for everyone?” They were a big hit. But I remember feeling really anxious about telling her that I don’t do Christmas cookies. As the only Jew, you immediately stand out. You have to be very sure of yourself to be able to carry that torch in this environment. I was scared that being different would embarrass my husband. It’s difficult to go to an event and people are pressuring you to eat. I really did not want to draw that kind of attention.
JAW: This idea of not embarrassing the officer is very similar to the concept of making a kiddush Hashem. It sounds like you were very conscious of this.
RE: Yes. When Marc returned from Fort Hood, the officers threw a holiday party. When we walked in, one Colonel greeted Marc and said, “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Captain Erlichman! We’ve had the privilege of having your wife with us these past six months, and she’s done you proud.” I was so relieved to hear him say that!
JAW: So you were blessed to have people around who were kind, but did you ever encounter the opposite, people who were ignorant about Jews or even anti-semitic?
RE: In 1989 while my husband was gone I served as the director of a craft fair on base. I had to facilitate 400 vendors’ passes, set up the room and tables, and arrange security. Another military wife worked with me. At one point I said something to her about growing up poor. She asked, “Aren’t you Jewish?” I said yes and she said, “Jews aren’t poor.” I replied sarcastically, “Tell that to my mother.” She was like, “You don’t have to act that way with me.” Then she made a comment about horns, and I said, “You don’t really believe that?!” I was stunned at her level of ignorance, and that she was calling me a liar—as if there are no poor Jews!
JAW: Sounds like a prime example of ignorance. How did your Jewish identity impact your activities on base.
RE: It was my Jewish background, in which volunteering and chessed (acts of kindness) are such an ingrained part of me, that guided my activities. In addition to that fair I directed, the Airborne division had an Army Community Service (ACS) office. I volunteered there two days a week to help troubled individuals. Part of my job at Austin Peay University was administering the GED. There were people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who had dropped out of school to support their families. You don’t know the joy of telling someone in their fifties that they passed their GED! It means so much. To them, it’s like getting their college degree.
JAW: So how did you create your own network and support system?
RE: It can be hard to make friendships in that environment. But in the military you don’t have a choice. You’re trying to take care of the kids, go to work and survive, all on your own. Personally, I made sure I was involved with events on base, especially with the other officers’ wives. You are expected to do the teas and coffees—both to attend and to host. It’s an important part of your role as a spouse. But having children brings in different difficulties and different solutions. When the guys left for Saudi Arabia after Kuwait was invaded, seven officers’ wives were pregnant, including me. We were all due within the last two weeks of August. I wanted Marc to see the baby, and the doctor agreed to induce me if I reached 40 weeks. Then Marc had orders to leave. He mentioned to a higher up that I was about to give birth, but nothing was done. General J. H. Peay was the Garrison Commander. I called his wife and spoke to her about the situation. When Marc got home later he said that my actions had caused a storm. I was supposed to follow the chain-of-command but instead I had gone straight to the person who makes the decisions. That was a big no-no. Who knew that my request would create such a huge storm?! In the end our son Matthew was born September 1st, and Marc left for Saudi Arabia on September 17th. Matthew was very colicky and cried for hours most nights. I had two good friends who worked at the university, and one of them offered to rock my baby so I could sleep for a few hours. We’re still friends to this day. The other friend worked in the office above mine. She was also wonderful. Her husband would come check on things at the house, which I really appreciated.
JAW: What advice would you give to women that are currently in that environment?
RE: You have to go with your personality. I would say join a club or volunteer. You can either sit at home or figure out a way to fill your time doing something useful. At Fort Campbell they had a list of volunteer tasks they needed help with. I would volunteer for certain things like handling intake forms or answering phones. When we moved to Buffalo Grove I was in charge of the welcome wagon. That’s part of what the ACS did too—we welcomed families and helped them learn where to go for things.
JAW: What ultimately caused you and Marc to leave military life?
RE: I did not want to ask Marc to make such a big sacrifice. But I think his going to Saudi Arabia was the last straw. Had he not been gone for so long I wouldn’t have been as inclined to say that I wanted him to get out. When he came back he said that his next assignment was to go to Korea for nine months, return for a month and then leave for another nine months. I couldn’t agree to it, which was hard for Marc to accept. But the idea of him leaving again for such an extended period was too much for me.
JAW: How does Marc see his decision to leave the military today?
RE: It was difficult for him. The funny thing is that when he got out of the military he started selling pharmaceuticals, and he was always away again! He traveled three to four days a week for 17 years. I joke that now that the kids are grown, he’s home. But that’s the path we took…
JAW: Considering all the challenges you’ve been through, it shows real commitment.
RE: When I was 24, I had ideas about what my relationship would be like. The reality was very different and I sometimes didn’t recognize myself. I think that people are under the impression that every day is supposed to be like a romantic date, and it’s just not that way. There are problems that come up—somebody loses a job, someone’s sick, a kid’s struggling, whatever it is. Actually it’s particularly during the hard times that Marc and I make a very good team. We balance each other well.
JAW: Despite the stress and pain of separation, were there ways for you to connect?
RE: We are very patriotic in our family and I did feel that I was a part of Marc’s service to the country. I went to great lengths for my husband. When he went to Saudi Arabia, I would take Matthew to Sears every month to take pictures to help Marc track his son’s progress. I would also send gift boxes with special food. I figured out a very creative way of shipping a beer bottle in an empty pringles canister. In Saudi Arabia, they dug a six-foot grave in the sand and put a tarp over it. Marc described to me how he’d sit in his little “coffin,” drinking his beer!
JAW: What would you say was the highlight from that time in your life?
RE: I would say when the guys came home. It was really a sight to see. This one time, a plane landed at Fort Campbell, and the women waited in the hangar. The plane doors opened and all the guys came out in uniform. My first thought was, This looks good, 400 men coming home! Some guys were leaner, some were taller, some were shorter, and I wondered if I would recognize my husband. I remember thinking, Is that him? I could see Marc looking my way but waited to make sure it was him. By that point, a hundred other people had reunited with their spouses. You see your friend, her husband’s back and kissing their babies; and another one’s meeting his child for the first time. And here comes my husband who hasn’t seen his baby since he was two weeks old…You realize at that moment how much all these people have given up.
JAW: It’s ironic because we’re talking about the service member and everything they give up, and then in the same breath we talk about the spouse’s sacrifices.
RE: Right. Because service members give up so much they don’t always realize the sacrifice that their spouse makes. Families pack up and create new homes over and over again. The spouses deal with sick children, sick relatives, our own illnesses, cooking, cleaning, mowing the lawn, and more. I know someone who had two children and then had a special needs child, and her husband was gone for months. Her parents lived far away and couldn’t help. She handled it with a dignity that most people never see. You witness the strength of people in these situations.
JAW: The service member usually gets all the praise and thanks. But the spouse is the one who’s bearing and supporting all of it. They’re a hero of their own making.
RE: I remember my first month’s phone bill was over $300 because my sister and I spent hours on the phone while Marc was at the base all day. It’s especially hard for families with babies. The women are usually the ones taking care of the kids, so when their husbands get home they’re like, “Please take the baby!” You want a break but you forget he needs a break also.
JAW: Having spent this time revisiting these thoughts, what do you come away with?
RE: Military spouses need more support. If a service member wants to be successful in the military, you need to step up and facilitate a community to be there for your family when you’re not around. It makes a big difference. There was a terrible night vision accident in 1989 when a Black Hawk landed on another Black Hawk and 17 guys were killed. It was horrible. When the wives got word about their husbands, everybody came out to show support, bringing food and other staples. With community, you always have somewhere to turn for support. You see that in the numerous Jewish organizations. Yet many families are not lending the same support to our Jewish military. They do it for the Friends of the IDF, and that’s great. But they need to do it for American service members too. If you really care, you’re there.
JAW: Are you saying the opportunity to support should extend to the greater Jewish community?
RE: Yes. Of course some of us already support, but it should go further. For example, Anysoldier.com lists specific soldiers and what they need. For months, I sent care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan and other places. Whether it was soap, clean socks, books, crossword puzzles, or candy, these items helped distract them from their harsh reality. Many soldiers wrote back. Here’s another idea: Chaplains receive the names of soldiers. They could reach out to the soldiers and their families to see if they need assistance. For the holidays, I used to drive from Clarksville, Tennessee to Chicago to be with family as there was no other choice for me. I was lucky to be within driving distance. However, if you have small children and your family is much further away, the choices become limited. I would love to think that Chicago Jewish families might host Jewish Soldiers or their families from the Great Lakes Naval Station. I feel that in appreciating our freedoms, our gratitude should extend to those who protect us.
JAW: Thank you so much for sharing your story and perspective with us, Rachel.
RE: My pleasure.
Originally published in the Purim 5782 Jewish-American Warrior