By Staff Sgt. David MeyerDecember 23, 2014
MONROVIA, Liberia (Dec. 23, 2014) -- Whether it is a quick phone call home, a package from a loved one or a small celebration of a major holiday, it is a huge morale boost for deployed Soldiers when they are able to keep connection with some of the things they miss.
Far from home and family, Jewish Soldiers deployed to Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, Liberia, as part of Joint Forces Command - United Assistance, were able to hold on to a major traditional holiday, Hanukkah, Dec. 17.
Soldiers deployed to Liberia are there in support of Operation United Assistance, a Department of Defense operation in Liberia to provide logistics, training and engineering support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts to contain the Ebola virus outbreak in western Africa.
Major Jason Nagy, Capt. Kevin Harris, a native of Orlando, Florida and logistics officer in charge for the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Capt. Martin Nosenchuk, a native of Byram, New Jersey, with HHB, and Spc. Stacy Koff, native of Elk Grove, California, a medical logistics specialist for the 583rd Medical Company, 61st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 1st Medical Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, were able to participate in an evening Hanukkah service via video teleconference to the U.S.
While deployed, Soldiers are rarely able to attend religious services via VTC. Thanks to some ingenuity on the part of the HHB 101st Airborne Div. (Air Assault) JFC-UA, Nagy, Harris, Nosenchuk and Koff were able to watch as Capt. Menachem Stern, chaplain for the 92nd Military Police Battalion, out of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, led an evening Hanukkah service through a video chat projected onto a television screen.
Harris said that the ceremony was the first time he had ever celebrated Hanukkah away from home and while deployed, and since Stern is one of only eight active duty Rabbis in the Army, this opportunity to participate in services held by an official Rabbi was particularly rare.
"I was excited to hear that the ceremony was going to be held by an actual Rabbi," he said. "There are so few Rabbis serving in the Army in general, and all of the other services that I have attended while deployed were lead by whichever Jewish Soldier in our camp that knew the most."
Lieutenant Colonel David Bowlus, native of Pemberville, Ohio, and division chaplain for the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), said that coincidentally, he is Stern's former instructor from Fort Jackson's Chaplain Officer Basic Course and that it was an added blessing to be able to work with Stern again.
"There are few Rabbis in the Army and often Jewish Soldiers aren't afforded the opportunity to have the usual religious leadership of their faith group leader," said Bowlus. "Thanks to Chaplains like Capt. Stern, important events like this are made possible; it gives everyone a chance to connect."
Stern said that it was an honor to hold last night's service.
"When the request to support the 101st came in, I looked at it as an opportunity to utilize technology to benefit the troops," Stern said. "[We have] the ability to enhance the holiday celebration for Soldiers who do not have a Jewish chaplain with them wherever they are. The success of the event encourages me to make this into a new annual tradition and enable Jewish troops wherever they may find themselves to join virtually and participate in the Hanukkah celebrations."
Stern said he understood that with the added pressures of being away from family and home, getting to participate in celebrations such as Hanukkah means a lot to Soldiers.
"For troops in general, who serve to protect the constitution, it is vital that they be able to observe their religious faith and the traditions that are special to them," said Stern. "Especially during the holiday season, when being away from family and friends can make it more difficult and may affect the morale of the troops. Having the opportunity afforded to them to join a celebration - even if only virtually - raises the morale and the spirit of the Soldier."
Even though the number of Jewish Soldiers currently deployed to BTC is small, they still managed to come together this holiday season to create a sense of community.
"We are a smaller religious community within the Army, and sometimes it feels like our holidays get a bit overshadowed, so it was especially nice to get to come together last night and be able to share in our common belief," said Harris.