In the fall of l990, cataclysmic events were taking shape and the world was on edge. Things were heating up in Kuwait between the advancing armies of Iraq and neighboring Saudi Arabia. A coalition of world powers, led by the United States, was standing by ready to intervene and push Saddam Hussein’s forces back to where they came from.
Retired Army Major Mike (Michoel) Neilander, who is now a Judaic silversmith in Newport News, Virginia, had been an Army captain and a helicopter maintenance test pilot for a decade before receiving notice that he was being transferred to the First Cavalry Division, which was on alert for the Persian Gulf War. As a practicing Jew, though, Major Mike had a problem: Jews are forbidden by Saudi law to enter the country. But in preparation for this war, American troops were required to base on Saudi Arabian land. The U.S. Secretary of Defense told the king of Saudi Arabia, “We have Jews in our military. They’ve trained with their units and they’re going. Just look the other way.” With Kuwait occupied and the Iraqis at his border, King Faud did the practical thing and did just that. However, this led to the Department of Defense’s “dog-tag dilemma” with regard to Jewish personnel. A dog-tag is an identification tag worn by military personnel and used primarily for the identification of dead and wounded soldiers, to convey essential basic medical information, such as blood type and history of inoculations, along with religious preference. Normally the dog tags of Jewish servicemen are imprinted with the word “Jewish.” But Defense, fearing that this would put Jewish soldiers at further risk should they be captured, substituted the classification “Protestant B” on the tags of Jewish servicemen.
Major Neilander did not like the whole idea of classifying Jews as “Protestants,” and so he decided to leave his dog tag alone, figuring if he were to be captured, it was in Hashem’s hands. Changing his tag was tantamount to denying his religion and he couldn’t swallow that.
In September, Major Neilander shipped off to defend a country he was prohibited from entering. The “Jewish” on his dog tag remained as clear and unmistakable as the American star on the hood of every Army truck. In December, all units were placed on alert, expecting to begin battle any day. Surely it was no coincidence then, that the Hand of Hashem placed a Jewish colonel in charge of Major Neilander’s unit. One December night, the colonel received a coded message through military channels that all Jewish servicemen are to report to a specific barrack, where a Jewish gathering was being held. It had to be coded since no one in Saudi Arabia was permitted to know that Jewish men were on the base. Colonel Schneider relayed the message to his unit immediately. Had a non-Jew been in that position, the information would likely have taken a back seat to a more pressing issue, like war. But it didn’t.
When notice of the Chanukah party was decoded, the Jewish servicemen all reported to a windowless room in a cinder block building. The first thing they saw when they entered the room was food – tons of it. Care packages from the States, cookies, latkes, sour cream and applesauce, and cans and cans of gefilte fish. The wind outside was blowing dry across the desert, but in the secrecy of that little room, there was an incredible feeling of celebration.
A Jewish chaplain spoke about the theme of Chanukah and the ragtag bunch of Maccabee soldiers fighting Jewry’s oppressors thousands of years ago. It wasn’t hard to make the connection to what lay ahead of them. There in the middle of the desert, inside a tiny windowless room, they felt like the Maccabees themselves. They lit the menorah candles and made the blessing acknowledging the King of the Universe Who commanded them to kindle the Chanukah lights. They recited the second blessing, praising G-d for the miracles He performed “bayamim haheim bazman hazeh” – in those days as well as now. And they all sang together the third blessing, the Shehecheyanu, thanking Hashem up above for keeping them alive and enabling them to reach this season.
One by one, each soldier removed his dog tag,
revealing the word “Jewish” on each and every tag!
War was imminent. All week long, reports of mass destruction, projections of the chemical weapons that were likely to be unleashed by the madman, Saddam Hussein, were floating about. Intelligence estimates put the first rounds of casualties at 12,500 soldiers. Major Neilander heard those numbers and thought, “That’s my whole division!”
But that first night of Chanukah, he sat back in his chair, gefilte fish cans at his feet. He and his unit were in the desert, about to go to war, singing songs of praise to the Almighty G-d Who had saved their ancestors in battle once before. The feeling of unity was as pervasive as their apprehension, as real as the sand that found its way into everything, from their socks to their toothbrushes. That small group of soldiers felt more Jewish there on that lonely Saudi plain, their tanks and guns at the ready, than most had ever felt back home in shul.
But it seemed to do more than that. That Chanukah in the desert solidified the urge for every Jewish soldier in the room to reconnect with Judaism. Any soldier will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes, and for the good major, he knew that part of his feelings were tied to the looming war and his desire to strengthen his bond with his Creator before the unknown descent in the clouds of battle. “It sounds corny,” said Major Neilander, “but as we downed the latkes and cookies and wiped the last of the apple sauce from our plates, everyone grew quiet, keenly aware of the link with history, thinking of what we were about to do and what had been done by soldiers like us so long ago.”
The trooper sitting beside him stared ahead at nothing in particular, absent-mindedly fingering his dog tag. Neilander turned to him. “How did you classify?” he asked, nodding to the dog tag. Silently, he withdrew the metal rectangle and its beaded chain from beneath his shirt and held it out for him to read. Like the major’s, his read “Jewish.” One by one, each soldier removed his dog tag, revealing the word “Jewish” on each and every tag! At that moment, every soldier proudly displayed his religion, believing with pure faith that Hashem, the G-d of the Jewish people, was spreading His protective grace over them. And somewhere, in a military depot someplace, there must be boxes of dog tags, still in their wrappers, all marked “Protestant B.”
(Rabbi Y. Tilles,
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com