By SFC Colton Baitch, USA
I was serving in the Scout/Sniper Platoon of 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. We were a tight unit that had recently done a 13-month deployment to East Baghdad and Sadr City, Iraq. The deployment we had was extremely kinetic, and our unit was the spearhead for the second siege of Sadr City. We were no strangers to enemy contact. Upon redeployment from Iraq, we were notified that after our unit was to move to Fort Carson, Colorado from Fort Hood, Texas, that we were to immediately deploy—once validated—to the Arghandab River Valley in Afghanistan.
The Arghandab River Valley was a rural agricultural area outside of Kandahar City which was the home and birthplace of the Taliban. The valley was nicknamed “The Devil’s Playground” by the Afghan people. It was a pocket of terrain that was never fully conquered by outsiders. Thick vegetation that was heavily mined and booby trapped provided ample opportunity for Taliban ambushes and restricted terrain and movement for coalition forces. Almost every village was occupied and influenced by the Taliban, and favor for Taliban control was indoctrinated in the region. The British could not hold it, the Russians had been slaughtered there, and now it was our turn to try and take that ground. We were all used to the tight urban battlefield of apartment buildings, alleys and neighborhoods. Hardly any of us had fought in rural terrain against an enemy with generations of experience fighting outside occupants.
I would say that my military service as an Orthodox Jew is not the norm of most. I never had the opportunities to live in the FOB and have easy access to care packages. I was not a chaplain. I was not a reservist or national guardsman with a tight Jewish community back home to return to. I was an active duty Cavalry Scout who served in a Battalion Scout Sniper Platoon. I was always away and always in the fight. I was always the ONLY Jew in my unit. I was raised Orthodox, had my bar mitzvah at the Kotel, kept kosher my whole life, went to a Chabad yeshiva and lived your typical Orthodox childhood in America on stories of Chassidic defiance against Soviet oppression; Jewish resistance against Nazi genocide; stories of the miracle of Israel and the Arab-Israeli wars; and our history in the Torah on how we became a people and conquered our oppressors. This molded and inspired me, and I decided at an early age that I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to be a Jewish Warrior like the Maccabees. Rather than join the IDF like my friends and the people I went to shul with, I took a different route: I joined the US Army. We were at war and I wanted to do my part. What I did not take into consideration was how isolating it would be, and how difficult it would be to maintain my momentum as a young adult far away from any other Jews. I slowly started to creep away from my beliefs and assimilate. I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to fit in and I was lonely.
We deployed to the Arghandab in the summer of 2010. It was the peak of fighting season. The moment we came off the helicopters at our combat outpost, it was not just the 82nd Airborne who we were replacing that greeted us. Within minutes of arriving, the Taliban opened fire on all of our positions with small arms fire, rockets and mortars. There were limited defensive positions and limited cover and we had to fight our way off the LZ and fight back a Taliban attack on our perimeter. We had not been in our new area of operation for 15 minutes. During that attack one of the soldiers from 82nd was shot in the head and killed. He was supposed to go home in 48 hours.
From that day forward, we were attacked at least three times a day. Resupplies had trouble getting to us, the roads were rigged with explosives, and helicopters were being run ragged supporting the valley. We were averaging a casualty a day. Our platoon lost three in
less than 24 hours; two amputees and one took shrapnel directly to the face from an RPG. We had no time to relax, no MWR, no USO. All we had was each other, our sand bag and HESCO fighting positions, and the Taliban to wake us up every morning.
Our morale was low. We had to fight for every inch of movement. Every foot we moved we lost a literal foot from someone we served with. I was very depressed. But there was one man there who would change my life forever during that fight. His name was CH (CPT) Dale Goetz. He was our Battalion’s chaplain. He was a devout Christian, and he was always there to help us. When we were in the fight defending the outpost, he would be right behind us in the fight supporting us by any means possible. When we killed people, he would sit with us and remind us that we were humans as well. Most importantly, CH Goetz reminded me every day that I was a Jew and that he expected more of me in my Judaism because he knew that I was raised Orthodox. He held me to a standard that no one had held me to since I was a boy in yeshiva. He would ensure I had kosher MREs (or at least try to get them for me). He would sit with me at chow and ask me, “What did you learn in your faith today?” He made me want to be a better Jew again. He knew that I was alone; he knew that I was lonely. He became my friend and helped me back on my spiritual path. In fact, he was planning to take me to Kandahar Airfield for the upcoming High Holidays so that I could spend Yom Kippur with my people. That did not happen.
As I write this portion of the story, tears run down my face. On 31 August, 2010, we were tasked with providing over-watch of a support convoy that would be taking CH Goetz, SSG Matthew West—our EOD specialist—to Charlie Company. Charlie Company had taken casualties and was heavily mined, so CH Goetz was going to talk to the troops, and SSG West was going to do what he did best: diffuse bombs. But their truck hit a large IED and everyone was killed. CH Goetz, SSG West, SSG Jesse Infante, SSG Kevin Kessler, and PFC Chad Clements were dead. Our team watched in horror as the vehicle was obliterated. There was nothing left. The Taliban killed our chaplain 9 days before Rosh Hashanah began.
I spent that entire High Holiday season fighting. Fighting for my chaplain. Fighting for survival and fighting for each other. I refused to get on the helicopter that was supposed to take me to KAF. I spent my Yom Kippur fasting and calling in mortar fire on Taliban positions. These were my brothers. I could not leave them. I prayed when I could. I sipped as little water as possible to stay hydrated and stayed in the fight. We cleared the entire Arghandab Valley from the south to the north that month. We cleared villages like Charbol, Sarn-e Sofla, Changol, Jabadadar, Jeleran, Rajan Kalla, and Maranjan, to name a few. We conducted forward reconnaissance for the main assault forces and conducted sniper kill team missions against IED facilitators, manufacturers and Taliban leaders. Chaplain Goetz was our battle cry. It was one of the hardest holiday seasons I have ever endured. Alone as a Jew, yet united with my comrades. Out of the struggle, pain and violence this brought something beautiful back to me. I became Jewishly observant again.
It started with a non-Jewish chaplain who contested my path to assimilation, who reminded me on a daily basis that I was a Jew and I should live as a Jew. In his sacrifice to our nation, I feel that he sacrificed himself for me. Now, I not only have a Jewish wife, two daughters and a baby on the way, but I have this because of CH Goetz. Because this is what CH Goetz would expect of me. His sacrifice ensured that I stay true to my beliefs as a Jew, not only out of loyalty to the Jewish people, but out of love and loyalty to my chaplain. His last words that he ever said to me were: “You are a Jew—be the Jew G-D expects you to be. Once you do that, you will find happiness.” This was my Chaplain.
SFC Baitch is still on active duty with his wife, two children and one on the way, living an Orthodox life while embracing the Active Duty hardships and succeeding miles away from the closest Jewish community and synagogue. He would like to dedicate this article to CH (CPT) Dale Goetz—may this righteous gentile’s memory be for a blessing.
Originally published in the Tishrei 5783 Jewish-American Warrior