Reflections on a 34 year career
By: COL Jeffrey Yarvis, USA Ret.
Forward by Olivia Yarvis
My father placed me at the crossroads of two sets of traditions. From one end, a storied history of Jewish triumph and determination, and from the other, a valiant code of morals from the Army. Yet despite the fact that centuries of Jewish history are rooted in my blood and military values are woven into the fabric of my life, having a soldier as a father ensured that my childhood was anything but traditional. At every turn in the narrative that is my father’s story of service, the scope of my worldview and the lens through which I perceived Judaism altered in suit.
At three, I moved to a military post in Heidelberg, Germany, where the ideas rooted in the former Navy slogan, “A Global Force for Good,” initially took hold as I learned to communicate across cultural and ideological divides. At six, my father’s tour in Iraq would give me both my first Hanukkah through Skype and my first window into the realities of veterans’ mental health. At twelve, I held an early Bat Mitzvah to celebrate my womanhood in a familiar Jewish community before the Army moved us to a space largely unaccepting of our religious identity. At fifteen, I had my first overt confrontation with anti-Semitism and with my father’s guidance, learned how to implement military social work methods of conflict de-escalation first hand. And now, at nineteen, I am becoming more like my father every day: altogether headstrong, passionate, and a champion of causes pertaining to social work and Judaism at large.
In spite of these narrative turns, the lost birthdays and holidays, and the fact that I cry without fail at soldier-family reunion compilations, I will always be the little girl who was proud to see my father in uniform on career day. And in spite of my status as a “military dependent,” the pattern of valiant service and proud religious heritage that has had an unwavering presence in my life has rendered me strong and independent.
Even in the midst of the storied histories behind the Jewish faith and the Army, my father’s story has inspired chapters of his own traditions that I intend to uphold: the tradition of leading through compassion, the tradition of holding onto your identities steadfast and presenting them proudly, the tradition of diving into what scares you and proving you will nevertheless persist, and most importantly, the tradition of loving unconditionally. His story is very much my own.
Like many Jewish boys, I was born into a house filled with tradition. Being a Jew from New Jersey shaped my values, my cultural views, and my sense of community. Some might think I’d be politically bi-polar as a social worker in the Army, but I have found my Jewish, Army, family, and social work principles to be entirely congruent. All four value systems evoke selfless and honorable service to others.
I grew up listening to my own version of Biloxi Blues. My father had been a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, and from time-to-time he would reunite with his buddies from his time in the service. My Dad and his buddies, “Uncle Mark” and “Uncle Bob” as I came to know them, would sit around the kitchen table and tell stories from their glory days in the Army. They would laugh about how they stole a Jeep from the motor pool or go out and search for a lost lieutenant. They loved making fun of officers, always saying, “There’s nothing worse than a lieutenant with a compass!” I would have a front row seat to my own little Woody Allen-esque episode each time they met, laughing into the night. But what I noticed most of all was their comradery and love for one another— a love that still persists today. It was clear to me that this affection for one another was deep and special, indicating that their time in the service was formative and meaningful. I wanted to feel that connection and be part of that experience.
My father would say that there was nothing romantic about the Army, but throughout my boyhood I would fantasize about being a soldier; I’d dress up and play war with my neighbors and watch every war movie I could get in front of. One of my earliest significant emotional experiences occurred in 1972 when my Dad took me to see A Bridge Too Far at the old Cinema-10. The movie is about Operation Market Garden, in which many Allied strategic thinkers thought would have our troops in Berlin and the Second World War over by Christmas 1944. Instead, the operation was a complete failure and the Allies lost 17,000 troops. Impressed by the German counterattack in the movie, I made a comment about the Germans not being “so bad.” My father’s demeanor changed rapidly, and I was summarily dragged to the library where I saw my first images of the Holocaust and the atrocities the Wehrmacht committed in the name of Nazi-ideology. I cried the whole way home and my Dad reinforced the idea that there was nothing romantic about the service. However, despite the profound Jewish awakening I felt, my passion for military service burned more brightly than ever. I now knew there was true evil in the world and that the military represented as the U.S. Navy would say “A Global Force for Good.” I hate to borrow anything from the Navy as a soldier, but the U.S. military is indeed certainly a means of projecting goodness to the rest of the world. I was more emboldened to serve than ever.
Growing up, I was an average high school student, but I was fearful of many things; for example: public speaking, heights, and swimming. I didn’t like being that way, so I was enticed by the prospect that, through service, I could overcome my fears and become something better. In 1984, I joined the Indiana University Air Force ROTC program, but found that the program did not push me any harder than I might push myself. The Army had what I consider its best slogan to date, “Be All You Can Be!” This resonated with me, and in July of 1986 I enlisted in the Indiana National Guard. I was thrilled to tell my father about this decision. I expected him to be equally excited, but instead I was met with his concerned retort: “What the hell did you do that for?!” I responded by bringing him back to the kitchen table with Uncle Mark and Uncle Bob. He reminded me that it will not be romantic as they had made it seem. I knew I would be afraid and challenged but I also knew it would be good for me. With his full support, I went on to boot camp. Had I only done the few weeks at camp as my Army career, it would have been good for me. It was a life changing experience and for the first time I felt all the things my Dad must have felt with his comrades. Moreover, I overcame some of my worst fears and felt a confidence I had never felt before. I completely drank the Kool-Aid and was hooked on an Army career.
Those early days as a Private First Class or “PFC” in the Infantry were not so glamorous. There were freezing cold nights, long road marches, and lousy chow—but I was proud. One of my early underwhelming, not so romantic experiences as a Jewish soldier came during my first year in the Army. This unit was from a small town in Indiana that had a history with the Ku Klux Klan. As a college boy from New Jersey in a small guard town in Indiana, I didn’t go out of my way to advertise my religious affiliation. However, I didn’t hide it either. One day we were making ID tags, better known as “Dog-tags.” When I approached the table where the dog-tags were being stamped, the sergeant said “Name?” “Social Security Number?” “Blood Type?” “Religion?” When I said “Jewish” the sergeant behind the table had this look of both stupidity and confusion on his face and cocked his head to the side like a confused puppy. He said “But… But… But you’re not Black!” I said as loud as I could, “G-d, you guys are so [expletive] stupid you can’t even be good bigots!” The place erupted in laughter. I then spent the rest of my drill weekend explaining how I file my horns down before drill and tuck my tail in my boots so as not to give myself away. It was a humbling experience for me and a great learning opportunity for these soldiers who were simply products of their isolated upbringing. It was my first Biloxi Blues moment.
After speaking to my father about continuing on in my career, he said that if I were serious about the Army, I should get a commission. I was confused because he had always said that lieutenant was the worst rank in the Army, but he explained, “You’ll start at the bottom of the top”. As someone who has always been motivated by tangible reinforcers, the thought of getting the gold bar of a lieutenant was highly motivating for me. Shoot, I was excited when I received my first Bobcat Badge as a Cub Scout and I humbly submit that’s never changed. In 1988, I received my commission and became an Armor officer with my first assignment as a Tank Platoon Leader and “Soviet” Motorized Company Commander in the Opposing Force (OPFOR). I spent the next two years in the Mojave Desert “in the field.” My confidence was at an all-time high. Desert Storm broke out during this time and we had the critical mission of training units to go to war, but the OPFOR sat the war out. I also realized that I liked being a “Tanker,” but I didn’t love it like my peers did; I could turn into Superman when I jumped into my tank, but deep down I knew I was really Clark Kent. This insight helped me realize I would not be as competitive with my peers who “lived, breathed, slept” all things Armor, some of which deployed to Desert Storm in the Combat Arms. Instead, I realized I was a great leader because I could operationalize caring and motivate my troops to follow me without thumping my chest. But this made me a cultural outlier in this warrior profession of arms, so I left active duty to pursue my graduate degree in social work.
I stayed in the Army Reserves for the next three years, where I served in the 5th Cavalry as a Tank Platoon Leader. This was the most fun I had to date. In fact, my Dad was wrong: being a lieutenant was awesome! If the Army would have given me pay raises and let me stay a lieutenant, I would have refused every subsequent promotion. I loved this unit and experienced my first deployment: Iceland. I remain close to the soldiers in this unit, especially to the first Jewish soldier I ever served with, MSG Wayne Golosov, the son of Silver Star recipient LTC Robert Golosov, who is in the Infantry Hall of Fame and Infantry Museum at Fort Benning. We share a love of all things Army and all things Judaism. Unfortunately, this Troop of the 5th Cavalry was inactivated, necessitating my reassignment.
I became the first Aide-de-Camp for the newly designated 804th Medical Brigade. This assignment was the harbinger to a long and successful career in the U.S. Army Medical Department. I graduated with my advanced degree in clinical social work and found myself looking for work, so the general I worked for suggested I become a social work officer in the Army. I didn’t even know the Army had social workers. Fatefully, I was accepted for a commission as Medical Service Corps Officer in the MOS of 73A, social work officer, in 1994.
I returned to active duty and joined the 85th Combat Stress Control Detachment. Almost immediately upon my arrival I was shipped out to my old stomping grounds at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. One of my mentors, LTC Spencer Campbell, a Silver Star Recipient, told me to make the NTC rotation count and had lamented that no social worker had ever been allowed in the “Box” where the fighting/maneuvers occurred; they were only there to provide mental health support in garrison or “in the rear with the gear” as some like to say. So, I was hell-bent on being the first social worker in the Box. Indeed, our doctrine called for me to be out there on the battlefield with the troops providing preventive mental health services that would serve as a force multiplier or to conserve the fighting strength of the line units. Being young and filled with peas and vinegar, I was true to some of my not-so-good early evaluations that noted that I often had the “moral courage to speak (my) mind.” So once more I asserted my unsolicited opinions to get into the Box. The medical commanders didn’t want anything to do with me, so I found my way into the Box by way of a sympathetic chaplain.
Once in the Box, the chaplain brought me to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) of his Battalion Commander to let him know I would be in their battle space. These NTC rotations were highly stressful events. The chaplain’s commander saw the caduceus on my collar and my “REMF” (aka Rear-Echelon Expletive) or medical patch on my uniform, and promptly invited me to “Get the bleep’’ out of his TOC. I tried to tell this commander I had fought this battle they were about to fight on Hill 781 hundreds of times as a tanker, but he barked at me again, because all he could see was a social worker. Big-mouthed as ever, I walked over to his map and pointed to it, and said “Is this how you have this battle templated? You are going to die right here!” and walked out of the TOC. The next day the battalion died unceremoniously on that very spot and the commander told the chaplain “to get that bleeping social worker back here!” From that point on, I was a welcome guest with earned credibility. Sadly, days later one of the battalion’s soldiers was killed in a training accident, but I was there to help manage the loss as well as keep the unit in the fight. It was then that I realized the importance of my relationship with the Unit Ministry Teams. Together we rewrote doctrine and kept this unit functioning. The rotation was an immense success and for the first time in the NTC’s history, Combat Stress Control was included in the rotational training in the Box.
However, no good deed goes unpunished. As a result of the success my team experienced at the NTC, I was deployed twice within a three-year period to Haiti and then to Bosnia. Haiti was a disturbing and amazing experience. If I never did another day of social work in my life, Haiti would have been professionally fulfilling enough to hang my hat on. During that time, I treated and interacted with soldiers from over 70 countries and saw some of the worst and best things human beings are capable of. My work with the unit ministry teams was amongst the best experiences of my career. I also came to value the chaplain as a resource I could leverage after hearing the traumas of others all day long. Perhaps one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had as a Jew occurred in Haiti as well. I became close with the Haitian Consul to Israel as he helped me bring needed medical resources to the Haitian people. (Who knew there were Jews in Haiti?) Later, the Consul invited me and Jews from around the UN contingent to his home for Pesach, where there were Jews from 17 countries represented at the Seder, from Finland to Bolivia. We all spoke different languages but by the end of dinner we were laughing like we were with our own families. It was a profound experience as a Jew. It was then that I realized Judaism is like a river: It twists and turns through different lands, but our traditions are like the banks of the river, holding us together despite where we experience them. The only difference with this Seder was the smoking of “Kosher” cigars from Cuba at the end of the night.
Shortly after my tour in Haiti I met my amazing wife. I remember my Dad asking me if I was dating anyone and I said, “Yeah; like I’m going to meet a nice Jewish girl between deployments who likes the Army in Killeen, Texas!” Anyone who has been to Killeen, Texas knows the ratio of single women to single men is not good, let alone single Jewish women. In fact, I think I dated the only single Jewish woman within the three local counties around Fort Hood. Well shortly after saying that, my wife Laura and I met in a little coffee shop in Austin. She knew little about the Army and had this idea that nice Jewish boys don’t join the Army. She didn’t know that many Jews have served since the Dutch came to New York and since, like my grandfather and great uncles in WWII and of course my Dad. I knew she was “the one,” but shortly after our romance began, I found out I was deploying to Bosnia. I thought, “Great, I’ve found the right girl at the wrong time.” Laura accompanied me to the pre-deployment ceremony, and I wondered if I’d ever see her again as I boarded the bus to the airfield. But as the bus pulled away, she pushed her way through the crowd, ran into the middle of the street, and stood there crying as the bus pulled away. I leaned back in my seat on the bus and said to myself “We’re good.” She has served brilliantly for over 23 years along with me. I like to say to our often – unheralded military families that “we all serve.”
The deployment again validated the importance of UMTs and behavioral health providers working together. Once again, I found solace in my private meetings with our base camp chaplain. The biggest formative moment from Bosnia was observing the inter-generational hate and tribalism in the Balkans. I learned, as the Jews of Nazi Germany knew all too well, that individuals can be reasoned with, but groups of people can do some really scary things, as we saw in Bosnia with the Srebrenica massacre. My time in the bitter cold of snows of Bosnia ended, and I came home and married my Bride.
In the years between deployments, I was able to earn my PhD and study the deleterious effects of deployment and PTSD on soldiers. Because the Army gave me the privilege of getting a free PhD I was rewarded with a tour in Iraq. Once again Laura and I would have to endure military induced family separation, but this time she had two young children to manage on her own in Germany. She had told me once at beginning of our marriage that I could take her anywhere in the world, except Germany because of her family’s first hand experience during the Holocaust. So telling Laura that we were moving to Heidelberg was like telling her I was pouring battery acid on the babies. Moreover, I had to tell Laura I’d be leaving her alone there for a year with the “boogeymen” to go to Iraq. MG David Rubenstein, my Brigade commander at the time and my first and only Jewish boss, recognized that being in Germany caused Laura distress and gave us a “Jewish tour of Worms, Germany.” MG Rubenstein’s incredibly thoughtful intervention set the stage for a tour that ended up being a healing experience for our family, although Laura will still jokingly say, “Germany is great; except for the Germans.”
During our tour in Germany I became close with a Holocaust survivor, Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. She gave a deeper meaning to what it meant to be a Jew living in Germany and what means to be a soldier in the United States Army. Her book, “A Life Rebuilt”, speaks to her reclamation of so much lost to the Holocaust. Her story is one of survival, resilience, and forgiveness and her mere presence in Germany was victory for all Jews. She went to Berlin and swore she would not leave until the city put a plaque in front of her parent’s home recognizing their presence and subsequent removal and murder; Sylvia was not going to let the Germans or anyone else forget what happened to her family and to all of the Jews in Germany. Sylvia credits the U.S. Army for her liberation and her experience represents another example of that global force for good over evil. Her words were more stirring to my blood than any thought ever imagined possible, and her presence and ability to forgive made living in Germany not only tolerable, but empowering.
After nearly eight months of pre-deployment training, I went to Iraq. I tried to put the family at ease saying things like it would be “a bad day if they need a social worker in combat.” But little did Laura know before the deployment that the enemy does not care what Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) you have and that in an asymmetric environment there are no safe places in the rear. During my year-long tour I conducted civil-military operations, helping the Iraqi Army Surgeon General establish medical infrastructure across the country. I lived mostly outside the wire and off my forward operating base (FOB) and I experienced my share of “oh %@#!” moments. However, as with my other deployments, I had some very moving and fulfilling experiences. I found a “brother” in Iraq: COL Ali al Alameri, Deputy Surgeon General for the Iraqi Armed Forces, a tall and imposing figure who was battle-hardened during the first Gulf War, where he earned two medals for bravery under fire. He and I spent months in combat together as each other’s protector but rarely spoke. After one of our more difficult trips to the Syrian border we found ourselves waiting on a dirt pile next to a shack for over six hours for a flight back to Baghdad with only a windsock and a radio. We had not showered or really slept much in a couple of weeks and had been shot at throughout this trip. At some point as we sat there exhausted and alone together, waiting for what felt like forever for a helicopter, Ali broke the silence saying, “Tell me my friend, what is your Christian name?” To paint a picture for you, I was hungry and tired so like the bigmouth I am, I say “I don’t have a bleeping Christian name, I’m a Jew!” Poor Ali! All he wanted was my first name and to break the ice and I turned into a jerk. In response to my ridiculous and rude comment, Ali stood up and promptly walked over to me. Standing over me, he lifted me up by my uniform. I thought he was going to punch me in the face. Instead he kissed me on the cheek and said, “Then we are brothers!” He went on to say that his son’s name is Ibrahim, or Abraham. I apologized for my embarrassing outburst and we quickly became “brothers” and talked like two soulmates that had been separated for a long time. Ali is a “Mensch” if there ever was a mensch, and I would die for him.
During one of our missions, Ali took me to the City of Ur during Passover, which proved to be a very moving Jewish experience. Once again, the Army provided me a tremendous opportunity to be close to Judaism and the closest to G-d I’ve ever felt. The few moments I was not outside the wire I cherished. On Wednesdays I would lay Tefillin with the Chaplain’s assistant, SGT Moshe Lans, and on Fridays we would come together on Shabbat and enjoy the fellowship of some tremendous Jewish Warriors. Highlights were a couple of Bar Mitzvahs and low points were the loss of some of the members of our very closely-knit congregation. When our rabbi, CDR Mitchell Schranz left theater, Moshe and I platooned lay-leading responsibilities. It was a great and humbling experience.
Reintegrating from Iraq was tough. Here I was, a clinician who treated and trained others on how to manage trauma and reintegrate to them with their families, and I found now that my professional background didn’t mean a darn thing. Once again other behavioral providers and chaplains played a critical role in my recovery and reintegration. After this experience, reintegrating returning warriors suffering from the so-called invisible wounds of war became more than a professional vocation– it became a personal mandate. For more on my intimate journey home please read “The intimacy of trauma.” Since returning home, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on PTSD and present all over the world on the topic as a means of fulfilling this spiritual mandate.
As I rose in rank, I found myself in uncharted territory as an Army social worker. I was blessed to be selected as the first social worker to lead outpatient psychiatry at Walter Reed, was the first deputy commander for Behavioral Health at Fort Belvoir, and first Deputy Commanding Officer of the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood. The 34 years of my career have gone fast, yet culminated with the greatest honor: command. I was fortunate to be the last commander of the unit my Army Medical Department career began, the 21st Combat Support Hospital, and proud to be the first social worker to command an Army hospital. I also had the opportunity to command the Army’s largest medical brigade, the 1st Medical Brigade, and finished my career as the first commander of the 9th Hospital Center. I’ve stood on the soldiers of giants and am proud to have served with my fellow Jews along the way, like CH (COL) Sandy Dresin at Walter Reed.
As I reflect on my 34 years, despite what my Dad said all those years ago, I still find the Army romantic. I love putting on my uniform every day. I think you have to love it that much to remain in service for so long. I love anyone who chooses to wear the cloth of our nation. I feel a de ep connection to the soldiers who have come before us, especially we few, proud Jews who have been in every American conflict since the formation of this great nation. As I write this in the solitude of my home with my cherished family around me, the word “grateful” sums up my experience in the service. I’m so grateful to my family, I am grateful to so many people who have guided me spiritually and intellectually along the way, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to lead and serve at every level, finally, I am so grateful to have treated, healed, and counseled the best men and women in the world: the service members of the United States Armed Forces!
In my recent book, “Combat Social Work” (2020), I wrote, “When the wounds of war are hard to describe, it’s the social worker that heals the wounded and saves lives under fire, (p. 17),” and long after the physical wounds have healed it is the social worker who heals the wounds that persist long beyond combat. I am fiercely proud to have been able to serve for 34 years healing people physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and because I believe all human beings are integrated organisms, I have been fortunate to have reciprocal relationships with the men and women I’ve treated— they’ve healed and taught me many things as well.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.