CPT Robert Schapiro, USAR.
One hot summer night in 2001, I was volunteering at my local volunteer fire department. I hadn’t yet even started training to be a firefighter or EMT, so I was merely a ride-along. I wore a reflective vest that read “OBSERVER” in big letters on the back. Sometime after dark, the tones went off and the bells rang. As we raced down the road, I looked out the window. I could see the flashing lights reflecting off the houses as we sped through our small suburban town.
Upon arrival, I noticed we were in a middle school parking lot and there was a Jeep Wrangler on its side with blood everywhere. Someone yelled at me, “Stay at the engine!” So I did. A few minutes later, there was a lot of noise coming from over the trees and suddenly, a black, gold, and yellow helicopter appeared and landed on the soccer field. It was the Maryland State Police in their Dauphine helicopter.
There were a lot of moving pieces for the next 15 minutes, but right before the helicopter took off again, I watched one of our paramedics climb inside. Two hours later we went to retrieve the paramedic. On the drive back to the fire station, I asked him, “How do you become a helicopter pilot for the Maryland State Police?” He told me, “You join the military and get them to train you.” The seed was planted.
I didn’t come from a military background. My grandfather was drafted in World War II, but he didn’t speak much about it. I got a lot of, “Nice Jewish boys don’t join the military.” My wife, Lori, and I have an ongoing joke that my mother probably thinks I’m enlisted in the Salvation Army. As recently as the day before I shipped out on my current deployment, someone in my family said, “He’s not going to deploy. He’s just in the Reserves. It’s not the real Army.”
From 2001 to 2008, I traveled down the difficult road of joining the military; between Air Force and Navy recruiters who wouldn’t return my phone calls to multiple failed attempts at joining the Marine Corps. In 2007, I was preparing for my second attempt at being a Marine. Lori, who at the time was just a casual friend, told me, “Don’t forget to pack your tefillin!” I laughed. On Day 5 of Marine training, they do this thing called “Pick-Up”, where they have you dump all of your possessions on the ground outside, rain or shine, stomp all over them for about 12 hours, and then tell you to go retrieve them in the dark. Good luck finding any of your stuff, let alone getting it back in one piece. I told her that I will not be bringing my tefillin. She responded, “Oy vey! How are we ever going to find you a nice Jewish wife?” I was not exactly the tefillin-wrapping type anyway. I was more of the “Light candles and eat Shabbos dinner on Friday followed by go to the firehouse on Saturday” type.
During those years of trying to get into the military, I took private helicopter and airplane lessons and eventually became an FAA Certificated Flight Instructor – I taught civilians how to fly. In 2008, I was filling up a helicopter with fuel , and my phone rang with a Maryland phone number. It was an Army ROTC recruiter – and I finally had my “in.”
For four years I was enrolled in ROTC. In our battalion of about 80 cadets, I was one of two Jews. I was the only one who wore a yarmulke in uniform, but the other cadet was Shabbat observant. We balanced each other out. Also during those years, I dated, proposed to, and eventually married Lori. I guess she figured that if she couldn’t find a nice Jewish girl for me, she would have to marry me herself. Throughout my entire military career, which is now pushing ten years, she has been the only person in my family who has supported me being in the military.
During my third year of ROTC, I had to go to a month-long program called Leadership Development and Assessment Course. The night before I shipped out, Lori jokingly asked, “So, are you going to pack your tefillin?” I didn’t pack them. A day later, when I landed at training over 2,700 miles from home, someone spotted me wearing a yarmulke and very soon thereafter I was greeted by the unit chaplain – CH (CPT) Daniel Goldman. The first thing he told me was, “I hope you brought a pair of tefillin.”
When I first joined, I never would have thought I would meet so many Jews in the US military. More surprising is how many of those Jews are from religious communities. And most surprising is how many of them didn’t join to become doctors or lawyers, but rather infantrymen, paratroopers, medics, and Army Rangers. Several of them were born American, served in the IDF for a few years, and then came back to the US and wanted to continue serving. On one of my many trips to Israel, Lori and I had a 6-hour layover in New York City. A friend told me, “There is someone I want you to meet. He’s a Jewish American soldier, too! We should all go grab dinner.” That Jewish American soldier had just finished serving 3 years in the IDF where he was a paratrooper. Then he came back to the US and joined the US Army and became a paratrooper again.
Three months after our Israel trip, that soldier invited himself to our wedding, much to Lori’s frustration. However his presence was worth its weight in gold. First, prior to the photos, he noticed that my dress uniform was missing a handful of things – so he literally pulled them off his own uniform and gave them to me. Then, at the Ketubah-signing, our Shomer Shabbat friends who were supposed to be our witnesses hadn’t arrived yet, so he filled in for them; and finally, during the reception, he led the 175 guests in the hora.
About 24 hours before I boarded the airplane for my current deployment, I received a phone call from a religious friend of mine. “Hi Robert. I just got a new pair of tefillin and I was wondering if you wanted to take my old pair with you on your deployment. No pressure.” He reassured me that his old tefillin had just been inspected and are still Kosher. I mulled over the idea in my head for a second and told him I would meet him to get the tefillin; thinking, “Yeah, maybe I’ll wrap them a few times while I’m over there.” So we met up in a grocery store parking lot and made the exchange. Not three hours later, I was checking my email when I saw something from Rabbi Katz at the Aleph Institute with the subject line, “Tefillin for Jewish Service Members.” The email went on to list six reasons why it is so important for deployed service members to wrap tefillin. While the FROM line of the email read “Rabbi Katz,” I believe this email was from the One Above. I am now 173 days into this deployment, and I have probably wrapped tefillin at least 150 of them.
So here I am, living the dream. I am currently deployed to the Middle East – 6,000 miles away from my wife, kid, and four-legged kid. The hardest part about being over here isn’t being a Jew. The Army has been more supportive than I could imagine. For instance, when the Army told me I would be deploying, they were initially going to send me some place where getting vegetarian food, let alone kosher food, was not going to be an option. I addressed this concern with my supervisor and he told me to call him back in 48 hours. Less than two hours later, he called me back. He had pulled some strings to swap my position with someone else’s where food options were much more diverse. While I can’t get a Kosher hamburger or steak where I’m at, at least I have a small group of us who can get together for Shabbos dinner every Friday; and with the help of great organizations like Kosher Troops, the Aleph Institute, and the Jewish Soldier’s Project, as well as my wife back at home, I feel like I am receiving as much Jewish support as one could expect on the battlefield.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.