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SSG Brian Kresge, USAR Ret. 

In July of 2019, I hit a milestone: it was exactly twenty-five years from when I shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia for One Station Unit Training and Airborne School, to become a parachute infantryman. As of March 27 , a few months shy of 26 years, I’ll be done.

My time spanned days as an infantryman with the 101 , a paratrooper with the 1 Battalion, 501 Parachute Infantry Regiment in Alaska, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and the Maine Army National Guard, with breaks in service for college and graduate school.
As I prepare my “shadow box” to round out my “I Love Myself ” wall in my study, I realize that each award, decoration, or plaque represents not just my own service, but they channel the memories of the people with whom I did these things.

I have things to fill my time, now that my days of lacing up combat boots are done. I was elected President of our Bangor, Maine synagogue in November. I wrote a book and give lectures on “the kosher outdoors.” I recently released open source synagogue management software. And then there’s all the time I get to spend with my wife, Leah, and my children, Adrian, Amelia, and Nezzie, all of whom have patiently dealt with the divisions in my attentions.

But none of that fills the void of military friendships. I treasure all of them, from my buddy “Stretch,” with whom I jumped out of a SkyVan over British hedgerows, to Rabbi (Colonel, Retired) Eli Seidman, with whom I deployed to New Orleans with the Pennsylvania National Guard for Hurricane Katrina Relief. Those little moments of beshert remind you that there is a benevolent Creator out there – Rabbi Seidman and I met when he arrived as a temporary chaplain for my battalion, and spied me laying tefillin and davening in a corner of the armory. When a friend from the Maine Guard deployed to Poland this year, he was adjacent to units from Pennsylvania. On a whim, he asked them if they knew me, and the response was, “Oh, the Hebrew Hammer!” As nice as it is to be known and beloved in so many places, I have to admit I’m happy to leave that nickname behind.

These days, the kids we’re absorbing into our units are the same age as my oldest children, born well after I first enlisted. Some of them will fight in a war that started before they were born. When friendships started shifting from camaraderie to paternal care and mentoring, I realized that it was going to get harder and harder for me to sustain this.

And that’s because, of all the things about the last 25 years, it’s the losses that are too much to bear. I think we’ve all lost friends. We’ve lost them to battles and war, but the lost to their internal battles is profoundly difficult to come to grips with. Starting with my good friend, James C. Wilson, a beloved police officer who took his own life after our OIF mobilization followed by an Afghanistan deployment, my Pennsylvania Guard unit has lost a considerable number of people to suicide. These tragedies are a call to action for all of us, and I am grateful that our rabbinical chaplains have been leading from the front. It’s something I’ve made a personal commitment to, between working with veterans in addiction recovery and those caught up in the criminal justice system. Judaism has a salve for moral injury and post-traumatic stress, and I’m glad that we’re bringing it to bear.

It’s not all maudlin. The most important part of the last 25 years, to me, has been how my Judaism has matured and grown in the same way my military service did. I am matrilineally Jewish, but like so many of us, my grandmother was the last generation to go to shul. Establishing my religious preference for my dog tags was kind of a watershed moment, as in, “maybe I should do something about this.” I started going to services at Fort Benning, and again with the wonderful community at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

My ex-wife worked the desk at the hotel that Chabad of Anchorage, Alaska used for Shabbos and the high holidays (again, beshert). That’s when my true interest in becoming shomer mitzvot (Torah observant) began. I started and completed daf yomi, the seven year study cycle of the entire Babylonian Talmud. I learned Hebrew and Yiddish. Today, in addition to being President of my shul, I frequently lead davening in our community, serve on the Chevra Kadisha, and work hard for Jewish causes, especially for Jews in Green (or blue, or khaki). (I was the founder and original administrator of the site by that name, and an administrator for the Facebook group that emerged from it.) Most people are surprised to find out that I came from a secular background. To me, becoming observant and maturing as a soldier and leader were entirely complimentary. I think becoming a better Jew informed becoming a better leader, and the reverse was true as well. What better metric for serving G-d than how we serve others?

I already miss drill weekends. My OCPs are still folded over the footboard of my bed. I haven’t been able to bring myself to put them in the closet yet. I run my fingers over the infantry badge, my Airborne wings, and my Air Assault wings. I caress my 28 Infantry Division patch. How do you surrender something that has constituted such a large part of your adult life, and been such a driving part of who you are? How do you end that yearning to go out with your squad and break things, as we did in the good old days?

I don’t have that answer, but I will figure it out. It’s been a grand ride.

Originally published in the June 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.