COL J. Prowisor, US Army (1988-present)
During 2007-2008, I was part of the surge of 50,000 additional US troops implemented by the Multinational Forces in Iraq (MNFI) Commander, General David Petraeus. My assignment was to serve as a US Army Advisor to Iraqi Defense Forces—the “other” IDF. Incorporated into the mission was to be embedded with Iraqi forces, sharing living space with an Iraqi Army Armor battalion.
My team was composed of a Joint Task Force of only ten US service members, as well as six local Iraqi interpreters, “terps” as they were called in the CENTCOM theatre. Although we were only a checkpoint or two away from the nearest Allied Forward Operating Base (FOB), we were still remote; removed from and outside of coalition forces’ perimeter security.
Jewish life in Iraq was not strong, to say the least. Since the 1941 Farhud (translated from Arabic as “violent dispossession”) carried out against the Jewish population of Baghdad in which 1,200 Iraqi Jews were murdered, and Jewish property and homes repossessed or destroyed, most of the community fled. There were no longer many shuls in the country of Iraq; maybe just a small handful, if that. During Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), there were Jewish military chaplains that might happen to rotate into the area of operations (AO), but they were never in any one place for long.
In early March 2008, I got my hands on a letter signed by a US Army General officer, encouraging all commands in the region to authorize Jewish service members to attend the closest of three Pesach seders that were taking place in Iraq; two by land, and one by sea. Permission to leave was nevertheless disapproved by most leadership at the nearby FOBs, to include my own acting-officer-incharge (OIC), far removed from “the flag” in Baghdad. This now became personal. I made it my mission to ensure that if there were Jewish personnel around, we would all fulfill the mitzvah of conducting a seder on Pesach.
As an Enlisted Private in the ‘80s and even over 20 years later as a Commissioned Captain, I personally faced harassment and numerous trials and tribulations with leadership refusing even basic rights to religious observance. I have seen young chaplains brushed off many a time when they tried to intercede for either Jewish or even Christian soldiers – although when I was junior enlisted, there were cases where all of my Christian brothers-in-arms were provided opportunities to attend a multitude of religious services and weekend retreats.
The tides had changed at this stage in my career. At this point, I was no longer a junior enlisted soldier or junior officer. While deployed to Iraq, I already held the rank of Major, an Army Field-grade officer. I figured that there might have been yet another reason that I happened to be in that particular place, in that particular time. This time, things would be different. As we say in the haggadah, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Moses may have asked Pharoah to let our people go, so they could serve G-d in the wilderness, but my mission was to get my people let go, so they could serve G-d at a seder between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
FACT: Only General or Field-grade officers could requisition aviation transport – and in my case that meant Blackhawk helicopters capable of carrying nine passengers each.
ASSUMPTION 1: There were Jewish service members in my approximate vicinity.
ASSUMPTION 2: I could find them.
ASSUMPTION 3: I could get them released from their commands for aerial transport out of the area.
One fact, but three HUGE assumptions! It is widely said that to assume is to make an “a$$ out of u and me.” That did not stop me.
Just a few days before Pesach, I had been given what we call “ c o m m a n d e r ’ s time”; time to take care of personal effects like washing one’s clothes, cleaning one’s weapons, prepping one’s kit for the next combat mounted patrol, and even calling home if one has the availability to do so. This was a perfect opportunity to conduct a search; not for chametz (that mission was already completed), but for Lantzmen. So off I went.
My Military Occupational Specialty at the time as Adjutant General (AG). Historically, the Adjutant General officer speaks for the General. I traveled from the IDF compound to Camp Taji, the closest FOB. I reconned locations of all company command post tents there, and went from one to the next, requiring to be presented each manning roster that listed all the soldiers’ names in that company. I called for any soldier whose name sounded a little heimish, or might be.
When the company clerks summoned their company commanders I dictated to them that this trip was not an option, but by direction of the General, and that they will be requesting augmentees to fill for upcoming missions, the same as procedurally done if soldiers are sick and assigned to quarters. I directed these captains to prepare their soldiers of Jewish faith for upcoming transport at the flightline, and advised them not to risk a General Letter of Reprimand (GOMOR) at this point in their careers if they hesitated. Due to my rank and missionfocused bearing, all company commanders complied with my direction. My three assumptions were now FACTS!
Miraculously, I was able to reserve the last two Blackhawks out of Taji, and quickly got word to the units that housed those attending to have these soldiers driven to the Blackhawk flightline to rally on me at the designated time.
When the troops showed up with duffels in hand, the senior-most soldier in the group asked me, “Sir, how in the hell did you get us permission to go to the seder? We tried to no end, then gave up; we were told we were mission essential.” I responded that they are mission-essential—the mission is to execute and fulfill the mitzvah of taking part in a proper kosher Pesach seder with as many Jews as possible, and experience some great espritde-corps taking part in Ahavat Yisrael. “In addition,” I said, “the General demands you to fulfill that mitzvah as well!”
There was much more to the story I can tell, such as enduring the incoming mortar attack during the singing of Dayenu, or waking up the Australians upon victoriously returning to their tents from the seder after midnight, having consumed the Four Cups. Much more to tell but I won’t, to keep both classified information and everyone’s humility intact.
In the Army, we always use the phrase Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) to transform a long-winded message into a one liner. So here’s the BLUF:
When you find that you have the capability to prevent wrongs that you may have experienced, or can use your position (that was deemed for you to have earned) to make things right for others, don’t hesitate for even a moment. There’s always a reason why you are where you are.
Am Yisrael Chai to my Jewish-American brothers and sisters in arms, Hooah! —COL P.
Originally published in the Pesach 5782 Jewish-American Warrior