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CDR Laurie Lans, USN (Ret). 

Iraq is a beautiful land. It is where our patriarchs, Avraham and Sarah, are from. It is where the Prophet Yonah is buried. The Talmud was written in Fallujah. The Tigres and Euphrates rivers flow through its borders, and large communities of Jews lived there for thousands of years. Personally, I was originally sent to Iraq via the island of Bahrain in 2003, but arrived once again in 2005 to spend a year with JIATF (Joint Interagency Task Force) stationed at Camp Victory. It was a huge base where General George Casey, who had initiated the JIATF, was running the war. It was an honor to serve the General.

U.S. military and civilians celebrate Hanukah during a candle lighting ceremony at Camp Victory, Iraq, Dec. 25, 2005, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong. Released)

I lived three miles away at FOB (Forward Operation I Base) Slayer and had to hitchhike to work to Camp Victory. This was easier than might have been expected, as these bases and FOBS were all connected via protected roads. I just hung out my thumb and someone from Australia or Poland or England would give me a ride to Victory. The problem was that I had to walk through a tunnel prior to hitchhiking and it became a bit dangerous at night. Being a Jewish person who doesn’t travel in a car on Shabbos unless someone’s life is at stake, I had to miss Jewish services being held on Shabbos at Camp Victory. Rabbi Mitchell Schranz, now a retired Navy Commander, was the chaplain there at the time. He was a wonderful gentleman and a great chaplain.

A few weeks prior to Chanukah, CDR Schranz told me that he was traveling to Italy to be with his wife and children and that while he would be back in time for Chanukah, he would not be able to service Camp Victory, as he would be traveling throughout Iraq. The Aleph Institute had shipped cases of menorahs and candles for the deployed service members, and he asked me to hand them to military personnel and if needed, could I show them how to light.

While I was happy to help out, to be honest, it really hurt so much. When you’re here in the US, you wonder sometimes whether you should go to the synagogue on Shabbos—perhaps it’s raining, or there might be another issue, so you have the luxury of deliberating about it. When you’re in the military, and to top it off, you’re in middle of a war, you so much want to go to Shabbos services, even if all you talk about is lox and bagels. You just want to be with other Jews; just to say hello! I couldn’t go to Shabbos services on a regular basis, and now I wasn’t going to have Chanukah with my family Jews either. Out of desperation, I asked CDR Schranz if I could pull together a party at Victory for the troops. “Of course,” he responded. Having never run such a program before, I asked if it should be small or big, where it should be, and who I should invite. He looked at me and said that I should have “a good time.” I knew this meant that the party was on me, and that if I fail or hurt someone, then that was on me as well.

All this was going on in the middle of President George Bush’s surge, with tens of thousands of troops being called up. After considering my options, I came up with what I figured would be the safest place for the party. General Casey was running the war from Saddam Hussein’s Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory. With 140,000 troops on the ground, I sent out a general email announcing that we would have a giant menorah, kosher potato pancakes. Everyone was invited for the first night of Chanukah—December 25th… Yup, with my responsibilities for the JIATF and everything going on, I had completely forgotten what that day meant to most of the world!

As the date loomed closer, I figured that hardly any Jews would be arriving at the palace since many Jews work for non-Jews on December 25th. I also became very busy with work. On the 23rd, I suddenly realized I had done nothing for the party! I rushed to the Chaplain Ministry Building and spoke to the Army command chaplain, a Catholic Priest with the rank of Colonel. I told him that I had no menorah, and had not been granted permission to use the Al Faw Palace for the program. He provided both for me, procuring both permission for use of the palace for our Chanukah party, as well as a 12-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide electric menorah, and could not have been any nicer.

On the evening of the party, to my great surprise, a significant number of Jews showed up! They all stated that their non-Jewish partners insisted that they go to the menorah lighting! With tremendous joy, we said the blessings on a small menorah at the base of the gigantic menorah, lit its candles, and then turned the lights on the big menorah. It was magnificent.

Saddam Hussein was alive then, going to his trial every day, not far from the palace. Here we were, lighting the light of freedom in the home of a man who called himself a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar, a man who chose to extinguish light all his life… How I wanted to show him that menorah shining bright in his palace! How I wanted to express to him clearly that it is not evil and destruction that lasts forever; that it is not his darkness that will continue to grow, but rather it is the light of each person, the good that each person can do that will expand evermore. It is Hashem’s light that will always shine brightest of all.

Fourteen years later, it still boggles my mind that I witnessed Hashem’s light glowing in Saddam Hussein’s palace, and I suspect it always will.

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