BY: MSGT MIKHAIL EKSHTUT, UMSC AND USAFR, RET
There are only a few hundred practicing Orthodox Jews in the US military—and I was one of them. Why am I telling you this? Before I answer that question, I should tell you my story.
I was born in Kiev in 1971. When I was five years old, my parents, sister, and I were lucky (and blessed) to get out of the Soviet Union and immigrate to the US, settling in Seattle, Washington. Other than the antisemitism, my family didn’t know much about what it meant to be a Jew. However, the local Chabad rabbis soon got hold of us and there began my journey of discovery.
We would go to Seattle’s Chabad House for Jewish events and holidays, but mostly for the free food. I was enrolled in an Orthodox day school up until the middle of third grade and maintained some connection to Judaism during the summers when I would attend a Chabad day camp. After that I went to public schools and grew up not observant. Nevertheless, the foundation of my Jewish pride was set.
As an immigrant kid I was grateful to America and always wanted to serve my country. I was also machmir (strict) by nature and never did anything in a half-hearted way, so I decided that I would join one of the world’s best fighting forces, the United States Marines!
The typical Jewish reaction was: “What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in the Marines?” My parents, who escaped the USSR to keep me from having to serve in the Soviet military and then also chose not to immigrate to Israel for the same reason, were in shock. But my destiny of being a Jewish warrior was not to be denied.
On February 8, 1989, at age 18 plus four days, I shipped off to Marine Recruit Depot, San Diego. On the third day of boot camp, our platoon was sitting in formation, waiting for something, when a drill instructor marched up to us and barked, “All my Jews, stand up!” I had heard of the stories of antisemitism in the Soviet military, and really all militaries throughout history. But I was not going to cower or hide my identity. Out of 87 recruits, I was the only one to stand up. He yelled “come here” and then ordered me to report to a Major standing off in the distance, which I nervously did.
I saluted and said, “Sir, Private Ekshtut reporting as ordered, Sir.” I will never forget the first thing he said to me. “Do you know that you are one tenth of one percent of all Marines in the Marine Corps?” I gave him a confused stare so he repeated himself. “As a Jew, you are one tenth of one percent of all of the Marines in the Marine Corps!” He then introduced himself as Major Goldberg or some similar Jewish name, and explained that only one in a thousand Marines is Jewish. He was the Jewish lay leader on MCRD, and invited me to attend Friday night worship services. I accepted. That weekend, a van with a driver picked me up and took meto the nearby Navy Training Center Jewish Chapel for Shabbat.
During the first Gulf War in 1990, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California with HQ, 11th Marine Regiment (artillery). At the start of Operation Desert Shield, our unit deployed on a Navy ship out of San Diego to the Middle East. That winter, while everyone else was celebrating the other holidays, I acquired candles and a large potato and foil from the galley (kitchen), carved a menorah, and lit Chanukah candles in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
After four years of active duty, I came back to Seattle, went to college, and continued to serve in the Marine Reserves. After graduating, I spent a few months in Israel where again my Jewish pride was rekindled. There, I decided to learn more about what it really meant to be a Jew.
After several years of weekly studies and reading, I was putting on tefillin every morning, going to synagogue every Shabbat, and trying to keep kosher. The only time I couldn’t keep the Sabbath was when I was doing my monthly drill weekend in the Reserves. It was not that I wasn’t allowed–on the contrary. The more observant I became, the more supportive everyone was! My fellow Marines were impressed by my commitment and dedication to my faith. I lit candles and made Kiddush in the barracks on Friday night, and my buddies would even do some of the “labors” for me prohibited on the Sabbath. But on drill weekend, Saturday is the main training day, so you can only observe so much. There’s no time for long prayers or festive meals.
It was time for me to make a decision: Leave my beloved Marine Corps, or stay in the Marines and not be so machmir one weekend a month? After nearly 13 years of service, I left the Marines to be fully shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant).
I missed the military, and the Almighty also promoted my continued destiny of being a Jewish warrior. Just two months later, I met Lt. Col. Rabbi Brett Oxman, an active duty Chaplain stationed at McChord Air Force Base. He was visiting our synagogue and suggested that I look into becoming a Chaplain Assistant in the Air Force Reserves. He said his counterpart Reserve Chaplains would gladly accommodate my religious needs and work around my Shabbat schedule.
The idea of transferring from the Marines to the Air Force seemed very… well, unorthodox to me, but after one interview, the Reserve Chaplains at McChord were ready to hire me on the spot! They seemed thrilled to have a Jewish Marine on their team. So in March 2002 I joined the US Air Force Reserve as a chaplain assistant, and as an observant Jew.
In Fall 2003 I volunteered for a four-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq with Air Force Special Operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I volunteered again in 2005, for a two month deployment to Al Dafra Air Base in the UAE, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During each of these deployments, and in a war zone, I still managed to put on tefillin daily, keep kosher, and keep Shabbat. It wasn’t easy or without its challenges, but with G-d’s help, it all worked out.
Now to answer the question I started my story with, I am telling you all this to let you know that the more you try to lead an observant Jewish lifestyle, the more accommodating people will be to your needs, especially in America. It may seem counterintuitive, but G-d makes things happen. He provides us with challenges yet also with the opportunities that we may have thought were unattainable for observant Jews. You can find your destiny and fulfill your purpose in life and still be a practicing Jew at the same time. The two go hand in hand.
MSgt Mikhail Ekshtut retired in 2016 with over 26 years of combined US military service. He now lives in Israel and works for Philips Healthcare as a Site Planning Engineer.
Originally published in the 2023 Purim issue of The Jewish American Warrior.