My brother: U.S. Marine to an Orthodox Jew

My brother: U.S. Marine to an Orthodox Jew

This is a continuation of How war affects its solders—an interview series between Dean and his brother Ben—today others call him Binyomin—on events that took place before, during, and after Ben's time in the Iraq War.


Camp Habinyah, Iraq

Perspective on Judaism

Dean: How did your time in the military change your perspective of Judaism?

Binyomin: Last time we spoke about my experience seeing people being blown-up, and my experience working in the Shock Surgical Trauma Platoon (or SSTP). During that time I met David, a Jewish Marine located in a nearby unit in Iraq. David helped me to calm down by teaching me Modeh Ani (the Jewish statement of gratitude) — which I still sing every morning. He shared Jewish music and literature with me.

He would write out prayers in Hebrew for me to learn; we would pray together. I went to a Reform Jewish synagogue growing up but was not serious about religion; this was the first time I read any books from an Orthodox perspective. It was mind opening.

It gave me something besides the hospital to focus on—something to do after work. I listened to the music, read the books, and began to learn the prayers.

Before meeting David, I began saying Shema—the most central prayer of the Jewish people—along with Psalm 23 (a psalm of G-d's protection). I recited Psalm 23 over and over again quietly—in a panic-stricken way; I was resigned to die.

But David gave me more substance to the prayer I already had. I admire him because of this. He gave me a Jewish role model and showed me it was cool to be Jewish. I was proud to be Jewish. So proud I once got into a physical fight over my Judaism. But that's another story.

I felt I had unearthed a gem of some sort and needed to find out more.

Though I never witnessed someone being blown up, I saw dozens of dead and blown up bodies at the hospital. Dozens—and it is absolutely awful. If it was a person that just killed an American or a Marine, it was awful, still the same. Just misery and wanting to help as best I could. That's what we did, and Judaism helped me.

Relationship with David

Dean: Tell me more about your relationship with David.

Binyomin: David—who though not completely observant at the time— had a very different perspective on Judaism than I did. He had a different upbringing, a unique set of knowledge, and a wider view of Judaism. We went to a seder together on the base in Iraq, where a Reform Rabbi led us in prayer. It was mind opening to me to see David's response to the seder and Rabbi.

I didn't get David's number, but once in Kuwait, getting ready to depart, it just so happened his unit was rotated at the same time. I was headed to the porta potty and bumped into him serendipitously. Out of the thousands of people across dozens of bases—where everyone looks the same—we managed to find each other. We exchanged information and have kept in touch.

When I returned to California, I needed to figure out a way to get from airport to Camp Pendleton, and figured I'd call David. I called him, he picked up, and it happened to be his last week at Pendleton. He was packing to return to Atlanta; it was his end of active service.

So he picked me up and brought me to a kosher restaurant to eat. This was my first time as an adult going to a kosher restaurant. During this short time before he left, he introduced me to Chabad—one of the world's best-known Chassidic Jewish movements.

After the Marines, I went to the local Conservative and Reform synagogues near my childhood home (BTBJ and Or Ami). Or Ami Synagogue is where I read from the Torah for the first time, but I hadn't returned in several years.

I spent time praying and sharing my gratefulness with G-d; I truly feel as though He saved me.

Binyomin built this combat outpost for the Iraqi Army

Have questions for the next interview? Email dean at deankroker.com to see them included!