For West Points chaplain, war in Iraq would be a duty

NEW YORK — Rabbi Carlos Huerta is redeploying for a possible war against Iraq — but he doesn't want to be considered a hero.

"I'm just sand on a beach of heroes," he says of the soldiers who will be fighting if the United States attacks Iraq as part of its war on terrorism.

Maj. Huerta, who since July 2000 has been the Jewish chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., left this week along with the 101st Airborne Division, which was immortalized in the Stephen Spielberg miniseries "Band of Brothers."

As at West Point, Huerta will be catering to the spiritual needs of the soldiers in the division, no matter what their religion.

"God forbid I look at a soldier of a different faith and say, 'I don't want to serve you because I don't believe what you believe,' " he says.

Huerta, 52, is one of 27 Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, says Rabbi Nathan Landman, deputy director of the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council.

The council provides prayer books and food to Jewish servicemen and women around the world to help them celebrate holidays. On certain holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover, some of the chaplains travel around the world — wherever there are Jewish members of the armed forces — to help lead holiday services.

There are no precise numbers of Jews in the U.S. military, but it is believed to be less than the Jewish proportion — some 2 percent — of the overall U.S. population.

After 9/11, several rabbis wanted to join the chaplaincy, but all were too old, Landman added.

Men and women interested in becoming military chaplains must generally be younger than 40, physically fit and ordained by a recognized seminary or its equivalent.

Huerta, who was ordained at Jerusalem's Yeshiva Or HaTorah, came to the rabbinate after a career in the military.

Born in Brooklyn, he joined the army as a field artillery officer in 1972 and served in Korea, Turkey, Germany and Italy.

He joined the military chaplaincy in 1994 on the advice of Rabbi David Zalis, the chief of army reserve chaplains. Zalis told him, "Listen man, you know how it is to be a soldier without a rabbi," Huerta says.

During his time as a military chaplain, Huerta has served at Fort Sill, Okla., and in Heidelberg, Germany, He also has written a paper on religious accommodation in the military.

The match between Judaism and the military suits Huerta.

"When you look at traditional Jewish values, they overlap very well with American traditional values and the army's traditional values: loyalty, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage, respect. That translates 100 percent Jewish," Huerta says.

He's circumspect when asked if he feels a special determination regarding Iraq because it may affect Israel.

"There are many countries — Muslim, Christian and obviously Israel — fighting in the war against the disease" of terrorism, he says. "I am proud to be serving not just as an American, but as an American Jew."

But he's much more direct when addressing the loneliness that soldiers and their families face.

Like many of the soldiers he will be serving, Huerta left family behind to head overseas. He and his second wife — he is widowed — have 12 children between them, ranging in age from 4 months to 31 years old.

Those left behind should also be thought of as heroic, he says.

"I took an oath; my children and wife didn't," he says.