A Jewish Soldier's View of Iraq
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Military duty in Iraq is difficult for anyone. If you're Jewish, there are added challenges; trying to find kosher MREs, for instance, or dealing with anti-Semitism. Only about 4,000 of the almost 490,000 active-duty Army soldiers identify themselves as Jewish, and among them is Army Specialist Joe Kashnow. He spent about six months in Iraq before he lost a leg in an explosion. Specialist Kashnow told producer Jessie Graham that there was always a strong sense of Judaism in his home and a strong sense of duty.
Specialist JOE KASHNOW (US Army): I think I've wanted to be in the military pretty much since I was about five years old. It's about as far back as I can remember. It's something that I've always wanted to be a part of--military work or police work or law enforcement or the protection of other people--and it was something that had been always something that I saw as more of an honor and a privilege to serve, and a bit also as a duty to serve as a Jew and as an American citizen.
I think that as Jews, we have something to give back to our country as we do in other fields. And as Jews, we have something to be grateful for, no matter how religious we are, simply for the fact that we can walk the streets and not have to worry about an attack or any kind of problem. And we do have a need to give something back to that. There've been many times that I've been asked, both by Jews and non-Jews, `If you're Jewish in the military, why aren't you serving for Israel?' I'm not an Israeli. This is my home. This is the country where my freedoms come from. This is the country that we choose to live in. This is what we choose to be a part of. And if I'm going to support a country and defend that country, my country is the one I should support and defend.
It was a big fight trying to get kosher food. When I first got to Iraq, I took with me two cases of kosher MREs, as well as a set of six meals in my bags. The cases of meals disappeared very quickly; they were stolen in Kuwait. But it took about six weeks until I was able to get kosher rations back through the Army properly. And at that point, they still weren't coming in on a regular basis, and it got to the point where my direct supervisor didn't seem to be doing quite a lot about working on it, about getting it squared away for me.
And I told him I just--I'd lost patience with him and I very nicely said to him--I said, `You don't need to worry about it anymore,' and I told him I was going to walk down the hall and go to the battalion commander's office and explain to him what was happening and ask if there's anything he could do to help me out. He basically freaked out, I think, in fear of his own job and asked me not to do it and promised me he would be able to take care of it and it shouldn't be a problem and nothing else would happen. And the next day, I had three cases of MREs magically show up.
I wasn't so much scared to tell people I was Jewish, but I was hesitant to because I didn't want to deal with the repercussions and it seemed to me to be an unnecessary thing to deal with. I didn't hide it in any way. And when we were within the compound, I wore my yarmulke. When we were out, I wore a Kevlar helmet, so it didn't really matter if I had a yarmulke on or not. I had Jewish on my dog tags; I never changed that. I didn't think it was worth changing it. I figured if mortar rounds were going to come flying in at the compound, I didn't think my yarmulke would be a target point on a radar system anywhere.
We were doing security in an area where we had to stop because the convoy we were escorting has stopped. And we were at the meeting site and we were outside working, and I was speaking with one of the locals there. And one of the things he had mentioned to me was he didn't understand really why the Americans were there because Saddam wasn't quite such a bad fellow, `After all, at least he wasn't Jewish.' So the sentiments towards Jewish people in that country weren't the greatest, and I politely asked him to leave.
When I was wounded, I had another six months to go, so I got to come home a little bit earlier. Not the best way to get out of Iraq, but you know--and thank God I lived through it, especially at Walter Reed, where I've been going for treatment, you see the people who are really hurt. And you look at them and you look at yourself and you say, `I don't even belong in the same room with these guys.' And the way I see it, as long as I didn't come home in a box, I'm very happy.
CHADWICK: Army Specialist Joe Kashnow's story came to us from producer Jessie Graham and Nextbook.org. That's an online magazine devoted to Jewish literature, culture and ideas. And you can go to that site for more stories of Jewish veterans.
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CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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