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By Chaplain Captain Chaim Aaron, USA

The journey to military chaplaincy, as most of our stories go, is exciting, complex, and completely unique. Initially, out of high school, I set out to become a licensed physical therapist. Having a background playing American football at the collegiate level and internationally, I was inherently inclined toward the field of athletic rehabilitation and the study of kinesiology. But as the famous Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and G-d laughs.” Despite our most careful planning, the path of life can be unpredictable. Instead of physical healing, I was destined for spiritual care.

As a young high school student looking for direction, I had to make a decision on whether my pursuit of college football was my ticket to success or serving my country. Until this point, I had been pushing away an opportunity that was literally staring me in the face for years. It started with the family across the street, who happened to be a dual military couple. The wife was an active duty Air Force Major who encouraged me to enlist after high school. Through her and her husband’s guidance, I came to realize that I could receive my college education another way through our fateful conversations. My neighbors shared with me their pride in serving, the ability to make something of myself, and of course the many benefits that come along with it. I like to say this was my “Lech Lecha1” moment!

Regardless of the benefits and accolades I might have received in a football career, I chose to serve and be part of something bigger than myself. On May 18, 2010, I reported for my first day of Air Force Basic Training and went on to serve as a munitions systems technician (2W0), responsible for the assembly, storage, and safety of aircraft conventional munitions and equipment. As the only Jewish trainee in my flight, I felt an immediate sense of pride in my faith, tradition, and heritage. Those two months of spiritual growth in a military environment impacted my life forever.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of my journey to the chaplaincy. My experience in the USAF instilled a sense of pride and a love for the military which continues to this day.

I joined for many reasons. It is a meaningful calling that I have found most suited to my strengths coupled with a prior enlisted relatability, the means of a rewarding career and, of course, financial stability for my family. Most importantly, I joined to make a positive impact on the lives of Jewish and non-Jewish service members and their families. I want to be a mentor for those searching for meaning and finding their spiritual identity. Throughout my life, I have frequently been called upon as a confidant for close friends and family. Taking that approach, I had to take a mental account of where I was holding and ask myself, “Am I living up to my true potential?”

Close to a decade after my service in the USAF I found myself living in the holy city of Tzfat, Israel with a wonderful family and a desire to make an impact. Military chaplaincy had been brewing in my mind for years. My desire to serve again in the United States military never truly left. One would have assumed I would choose the Air Force. But after some soul searching and speaking with each respective branch recruiter, I became sold on the Army Chaplain Corps mission to “Bring Soldiers to G-d and G-d to Soldiers.” That means being in the field and going where the soldiers go, whether in training or operations. Bringing a spiritual element to the fight is truly where I am meant to be.

As chaplains, we engage in the spiritual and mental warfare that life brings. For me, this goes back to my origins. For the sake of this article I found it critical to discuss a pivotal and defining moment in my life that correlates with the deeper meaning behind the “why” of my joining the chaplaincy. On Lag B’Omer in May 2015, I learned that my mother, of blessed memory, had tragically taken her life. She was an amazing woman and mother, academically brilliant, and distinguished in the veterinarian community. She was a very loving person and cared about all creatures, human and animal alike. Unfortunately, she was suffering from severe depression and a chronic drug addiction, which led to a spiraling of events and developed into suicide. Needless to say, this experience had a profound effect on my trajectory and led me down a path of self-discovery and spiritual healing. One could argue that this subconsciously created an innate desire to help others who have experienced trauma. It’s not just about being there for people when times are hard, but also celebrating the good.

Being a chaplain in the United States Army and one of a handful of rabbis in this position, it’s humbling to say the least. I feel we have a sacred duty when we encounter people in such remarkable ways. I have opportunities to bring Torah to those in places they may never have imagined it would be possible. Although my chaplaincy career is still very new and the experiences that await are fruitful, there is nothing like having a young soldier at your Shabbat table yearning to learn more about their heritage and faith. I have immense gratitude to Hashem (G-d) for allowing me to live this dream as an Army chaplain. There are days it can be challenging, but it is by far the most amazing career for me.

My amazing wife and two kids also join me every day on this journey. Without their support, none of this would be possible. For anyone thinking about this path, it is critical that the family be on board and understand the realities of military life. We are currently stationed in Washington, where we serve a wonderful Jewish community that continues to grow weekly. My goal is to continue to learn and provide religious support that meets the needs of my people.

In the military I have learned that no matter your background, never forget where you came from. Stay humble. Be present. Love everyone.

Originally published in the Shavous 5783 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.