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October 25, 2005

Heading into harms' way

I spent last week up at Camp Roberts, a World War II-era military base about 250 miles north of Los Angeles, helping California Army National Guard troops get ready to deploy to Iraq.

I've driven past the post many times on my way up to Sacramento on business, my attention always caught by the dilapidated barracks and chapel visible from the highway. The buildings seemed like they'd been little changed since the war, and I was curious to take a look. My grandfather had been a cavalryman from before the First World War until the 1920s, and I could imagine him on a base just like this one.

As it turns out, I was placed on active duty for the week and had a chance to experience life on post as an officer -- at least for a little while. I arrived in the afternoon, was scrutinized by the armed sentries at the gate, then saluted and allowed to proceed.

I drove slowly past the enormous grinder -- marching field -- now off limits to foot traffic and serving as a helipad. Up ahead was a new one-story building, containing an internet cafe, a snackbar, barbershop, and the billeting office. The gals at billeting were closing up for the day, and I managed to get my key before they locked the doors.

Building 7001 was a two-story structure that had seen better days, white paint peeling in long strips, cars parked in the gravel along the front. I grabbed my bag and climbed the three steps, opened the door and stepped back in time. The floors were wood, covered with burgundy linoleum, a ratty chair, bulletin board and fountain standing guard.

I walked down the long hallway, looking for room 2; it was at the end, held shut with a padlock. The sound of the hasp swinging open and the lock banging about seemed shockingly loud as I let myself in.

The room was spartan, clean, and -- aside from the TV -- looked like it hadn't changed at all since the 1940s.

I drove around base, getting the lay of the land. A number of buildings have been updated over the years, but many have had minimal upkeep since the base was transferred from the U.S. Army to the California National Guard back in the early 1970s. Plenty of barracks stand empty, doors open, snakes, tarantulas and jackrabbits the only residents.

The next morning I was up early, driving by moonlight up the hill to the chow hall. Troops stood in line in the pre-dawn chill, and I made my way to the end of the line with another captain -- another JAG. A white-jacketed sergeant was by the doors, keeping count and sending GIs in in small groups, as others, done with breakfast, boarded the buses to the compound to begin their predeployment briefings.

I sat and finished my coffee and looked around at the balconies overhead, the dark bar off to the side. This had been the old officer's club, and it was easy to imagine the air thick with cigarette smoke as couples danced to Glen Miller's Army Air Corps Band.

Later on in the day, I stood in the back of a briefing room, as another JAG officer spoke to about 150 Iraq-bound soldiers about putting their affairs in order. The troops listened to talk of wills, trusts, advanced medical directives and power of attorney. In the coming days, I'd help some of these soldiers with their plans for the aftermath of battle.

The officer finished his briefing, then said, "the chaplain finished his talk by blessing all of you." He placed an olive drab yarmulka on his head and began unfolding a talit, a prayer shawl. "Would you mind if I gave you a very old Jewish blessing, too? Would that be all right?"

I looked around; as far as I could tell, there were three Jews in the room, including the JAG officer giving the briefing, and I was one of them, the third, another JAG officer standing next to me.

The room echoed to the sound of the GIs saying, "Yeah, that'd be good," and the captain standing to my left said, "There are no atheists in foxholes."

The JAG at the podium said, "The blessing I'm going to give in the original Aramaic was given by a Jew named Joshua many times; do you know what name the Greeks gave him?"

Some GIs called out, "Jesus!" and the officer nodded his head.

"That's right. Jesus gave this blessing more than 2,000 years ago. Please bow your heads."

As one, the GIs looked down and the room fell silent. The captain raised his arms and closed his eyes and began speaking, the ancient prayer filling the room. After a few moments, he paused and began translating it into english.

"May G-d bless you and your loved ones; may his countenance shine upon you and keep you safe; may he protect you and keep you from harm in the perilous days ahead. Amen."

It was interesting to see the reaction of the troops. While religion is often derided on the outside, these non-Jews appeared only too glad to receive another blessing before they entered a war zone, and I found myself deeply moved.

To be continued. . . .

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:15 PM

October 24, 2005

The flower lover

Bogie is a dog of many interests, ranging from annoying the cats to following me about the house, but after a couple of doggie treats, when his defenses are down, he'll admit to a lifelong dream of being a florist.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:30 AM