By Lt Col Jesse Arnstein, USAF
From a letter home, 2012
I want to take this opportunity to thank my friends, loved ones, and neighbors in the US who have placed yellow ribbons near their homes and workplaces on behalf of myself and other service members. I speak for the majority of those in uniform when I express that more than food, toiletries, and other goodies, we wish to be remembered and appreciated for our sacrifices. Your expressions of concern, gratitude, and support are humbling and so very meaningful.
My time in Afghanistan was a mix of emotions: happy, tired, scared, depressed, and adventure filled. I spent long hours at work, creating lasting memories as I made trips through Kabul to large airbases, helicopter flights, and even ran a marathon.
Passover was unique. I did my best to follow the laws and customs, but being in Afghanistan and in uniform presents challenges. I learned that there are great advantages too! Cleaning an 8’ x 10’ room is so very simple. Clearing out food is a snap when all items fit in a small drawer; swapping dishes and silverware is a breeze when you only own two spoons and a bowl (and nothing else!). This may be the first year when I truly disposed of all my chametz! In total, my Passover preparation took one hour.
Aleph Institute and Kosher Troops were amazing as they provided all the food one could eat for the holiday. Additionally, they sent a wonderful Passover seder kit complete with seder plate, haggadahs, and everything you’d need for a seder, including salami and gefilte fish. It made all the difference to make this special holiday feel different than just a regular week.
SGT Yoni and I searched for the ten pieces of chametz, burned them together, and shared the first seder in a shed (see photos).
We certainly appreciated our freedom more so than in the past. I’ve made good friends from Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Nepal. They all long to go to the US. Many people come to work in the military, leaving loved ones behind in their home country. It’s fairly common for them to only see their spouse and children every two years. These are hard-working, warm people, and it’s a shame they are separated from their family and country (not to mention living in a war zone), but they are content and appreciate earning an income here. It reminded me how fortunate we are to live in America.
For the second seder I was mostly solo. SGT Yoni had an important mission. His commander could have found a replacement—but Yoni was committed to his unit and said he could never live with himself if someone else took his place and there was “an incident” that night. (Fortunately, all went well for his unit on that occasion).
Three quarters of the way through my solo seder I recalled the words of Rabbi Snyder to make a Kiddush Hashem. It inspired me to search for any wayward Jews. I was able to find a Sergeant, SSG E., who had a Jewish upbringing but hadn’t done anything Jewish in years. At first he was reluctant because he was planning to go on a mission the next morning. But I brought him matzah, marror, and the Pascal offering. Slowly, the light of his Judaism began to flicker. He actually recalled quite a bit as the night went on, and he was very appreciative of the experience.
It was a special evening for both of us. I offered him some kosher for Passover food and he was eager to take it. I also put matzah in the dining hall entrance periodically throughout the holiday. It got eaten, but I’m not sure by whom.
Later in the week I flew to Bagram Airbase and was in the company of a very, very, very senior military leader (can’t say who). He’s a brilliant man.
After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, I was pleased to learn that Bagram was hosting the official “shadow” Boston Marathon the next day. My commander allowed me to stay the night to race. I had to wake up at 0045, since the race began at 0300. I ran the first half easily, but the second half was hard. I finished in 3:17, 16th place out of 450. It was very meaningful after what happened in Boston, and I knew some of the National Guardsmen that had been involved in the emergency response.
Another first for me was rushing to take a helicopter back to base camp in Kabul. I was back to work by lunch time.
A few days later, I had a pleasant surprise. A Jewish chaplain stopped by Camp Phoenix briefly and gave me a traveler’s prayer before my trip through Kabul the next day.
Kabul is a dusty, filthy, third-world city with a lot of character. It is a hodgepodge of activity filled with vendors, cyclists, pedestrians, traffic, and mayhem. The trip was unnerving since there had been a spate of magnetic bombs placed on vehicles—but hey, it’s not every day you get the opportunity to be awarded a Purple Heart. Fortunately, the journey to and from the Green Zone went routinely, thanks to everyone’s prayers.
ISAF HQ reminded me of Disney World Epcot International Village. Small compounds from many nations are close together. The only difference is that everyone has guns. I met Brits (we talked about Royal Baby George), Italians (spoke a bit of Italian), Swedes (got info for my friend Carl), and of course, Afghans.
My mission there was fascinating, and I worked with some of the finest people I have ever known. I still can’t talk about the work for security reasons, but I dealt with reporters from national level news outlets, as well as communicated with Congress about detainee operations. I’ll have so much to tell one day. Best of all, I genuinely felt like I helped keep Americans safe as we worked to ensure these Al Qaida and Taliban senior members were kept behind bars. No doubt they would have been trying to kill Americans back home if they were free. These were very bad people.
My wife Jill and I had challenges communicating between the time difference and unreliable phone/internet connectivity. But it warmed my heart that her social calendar remained full throughout that time. I am grateful to everyone that supported my wife as well as my children, Aaron and Sarah. They did their best under the circumstances, and the community support enabled them to be in good spirits. Knowing they were safe, I was able to focus on the military mission.
Work at Camp Phoenix was very busy and 12- hour days were the norm. Your support and encouragement still mean so very much to me, and made it a privilege to serve there.
Originally published in the Pesach 5782 Jewish-American Warrior