Leah Dunne, a native of Patchogue, L.I., had to go to the Persian Gulf to shore up her connection with God.
Dunne, 23, a six-year Air Force veteran, since December has been serving at the Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait. Her job is to watch third country nationals, those from such countries as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Egypt, who work at the base.
"It is not really police work," she said in an e-mail. "I would say it’s more like a mix of baby-sitting grown men and [serving as] a security guard. I don’t have a weapon (I haven’t even touched one while here) but sometimes I have a radio."
Dunne, who said she is the only Jewish woman she knows of in the theater of operation, says the Iraq War has "definitely made me more spiritual."
"I have been to services more here as well," she wrote. "It is very hard to go to services back home because there is not a big selection of synagogues I can go to [and] there is no one my age. I look and feel out of place.
"[But] I think [this experience] will affect my life forever because I have seen how other people live and been through some things that I wouldn’t want to be in again. Because of this, my motto lately (if something is not going well) is, ‘It can always be worse.’"
She said the chaplain, Rabbi Joshua Narrowe, is "very knowledgeable, easy to talk to and nice to be around, as is the congregation. So all that makes it more enjoyable and meaningful. We also have a Bible study class once a week and a Havdalah service on Saturday evenings."
Dunne said she plans to attend a seder led by Rabbi Narrowe to be held in a tent for the estimated 40 Jewish Marines and Air Force personnel on and near the base in Kuwait. The expected menu: matzah, matzah ball soup, tuna fish and salad.
Although Dunne was told she had the option of changing her dog tags to remove the word "Jewish," she did not. Dunne says she knows of some soldiers who did.
"I don’t really feel any anti-Semitism, but I don’t announce that I am Jewish either," she confided.
Dunne, a graduate of Patchogue-Medford High School, said her day starts at 5:30 a.m. After working out, she watches the men work to "make sure they are not writing anything down or taking pictures of the base, since that could be harmful to our safety. I watch them until they are finished, then I go back to my room, hang out with friends, relax and do whatever: lay out in the sun, watch TV, play cards, listen to music."
Because of her desire to be closer to her family and live in a Jewish community, Dunne said she is considering leaving the military once her hitch is up in three years. She would like to be a sign language interpreter. The military did train her for the job she held before being deployed to the Gulf, pharmacy technician.
"I like working in a pharmacy because people go to the doctor to get better [and] what gets them better? Drugs. So I am helping them get better," she said.
Along with raising her spirituality, her hitch in Kuwait has taught Dunne that "the simple things in life are so important. But most of all I have learned that the ones you love should be a very high priority in your life because you might not be able to communicate with them or see them for a long time. I am so grateful for a supportive family. I am not sure what I would do if they weren’t so supportive."
Dunne says she is anxious to write to other members of the Jewish community. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Soldier to the Corps
Jonathan Gurfein spent three years in an Israeli combat unit, carrying out missions in Lebanon and on the West Bank. And he still wants to lead men on the battlefield.
This time, Gurfein wants to be part of "the few and the proud."
The 24-year-old Manhasset, L.I., resident, who holds American and Israeli citizenship, is studying at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va., aspiring to be an infantry commander. Gurfein says he would be "more than happy" to serve in Iraq or any other theater of operation.
Gurfein has always wanted to be a career soldier. His father and great-uncle served as officers during World War II. His father also served in the Israel Defense Forces after making aliyah in the 1970s. His uncle David is a Marine major who served in the Corps during the first Persian Gulf war, then re-enlisted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In one of the first triumphant images of the Iraq war, David Gurfein was pictured across the country last month tearing down a poster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to the delight of his parents on Long Island.
Jonathan Gurfein was on hand last week to accept on behalf of his family a gift from Gov. George Pataki at a model seder program in Manhattan. The governor presented the family with a framed copy of the picture of Major Gurfein and the shredded Saddam poster with Pataki’s handwritten greetings.
Gurfein, a slim man of average height who keeps his red hair in a crew cut, speaks in crisp and polite sentences that emanate military discipline. He attends the OCS school for six-week periods while studying for his bachelor’s degree at SUNY Stony Brook, where he is majoring in philosophy and political science.
As an officer, he says, "You need to know how to use your brain. Philosophy gives you a new way of looking at things, and political science helps you understand government and other societies."
Gurfein views the war on Iraq as "the correct decision" because Iraq was "an immediate threat to the United States and all it stands for." As for the outcome, he adds: "It’s a wonderful thing to see [the Iraqi] people (although some are still protesting) living so freely."
Regarding American anti-war protesters, Gurfein quotes the late Father Dennis O’Brien, an ex-Marine, who said in a legendary sermon: "It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag."
Gurfein spent most of his life in his native Jerusalem, and served in the Golani commando brigade from late 1997 to early 2001. But aside from family visits, he plans to remain in the United States.
"I love Israel, but I am happier here," he says. "As one who served there, protecting my country and the ideals it stands for, that was my obligated duty. But my desired duty is to serve [in the Marines]. I appreciate the type of person the Marine Corps makes you."
As a dual citizen, Gurfein says he is not concerned about any perception of divided loyalty among American Jews in some segments of the population.
"They can say whatever they want," he says. "But I see being loyal to Israel and to America as very similar. They both stand for freedom and democracy. I can’t see any conflict between the two."
A war in the family
Chris O’Brien, who turns 36 on April 30, is a native of Bethpage, L.I., and is deployed in the Persian Gulf. A member of the Colorado National Guard for the last two years, he was called to active duty and last saw his wife, Becky, and 10-month-old child, Brendan, seven weeks ago. Becky, 30, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., is Jewish; Chris is not. They live in Lafayette, Colo., near Boulder. The Jewish Week interviewed Becky O’Brien via e-mail.
Jewish Week: What has life been like these last few weeks?
Becky O’Brien: Having my husband gone is miserable; that he’s gone to fight a war is that much worse. I don’t know if it would make it any better if I actually felt the war was a worthy cause, but it certainly doesn’t help when I feel it is so wrong. … While [my husband and I are against the war,] … we obviously support our troops.
Has your family been brought closer by this experience?
To a certain extent, yes. Before my husband left we had a discussion about the positive things that would come out of this. One thing I mentioned was that it would help us not take each other for granted, but the truth is that we don’t anyway. But I do think that when he comes home the intensity of emotion and joy will inevitably create a stronger bond.
Meanwhile, Chris is missing Brendan’s second tooth coming in, his first step, his first claps, hours of cuddling and playing. I know in hindsight this period will be just a blink, but right now it is excruciating and it makes me angry. This is time we will never get back. He’s just in the Guard for godsake!
Is your husband’s fate constantly on your mind, or are you able to find distractions?
My husband is on my mind constantly. Fortunately thoughts of him now make me smile instead of cry (most of the time at least). It took me awhile to get to that point. … I have something called a God Box. I put in it those things over which I have no control. In that box right now is a piece of paper that reads "My Chris’ safety and health." Whenever I get the urge to worry and obsess about what could happen to him over there, I tell myself that I have to go get the piece of paper out of the God Box, which implies that I don’t think God can handle it and that I can do a better job. What chutzpah! So I leave the paper in the box and try to focus my energy on more positive things over which I do have control, like care packages, letters, e-mails and, of course, MY life.
Have you been in touch with other families of servicemen?
Mostly I feel out of place with other military families because, well, we aren’t a "military" family. Politically we just don’t fit in. I went to a potluck held on base two or three weeks after Chris left and pretty much hated it. They were showing film clips of the jets that his unit uses and the weapons on them. They were actually showing footage from the first Gulf War and people were cheering after things were blown up. I wanted to stand up and scream ‘Hello, these are people that are dying!!!"
But I really appreciate a friendship [I developed] with another wife who is also against the war. It does help knowing I’m not alone in this. Hell, there are a quarter million other American families going through this!