In harms way

The Army told Pvt. Andrew Sosnick he’d be heading home from Iraq in May. Then it was June. Then September. Then October. So the 19-year-old won’t be spending Yom Kippur with his family in Burlingame but at the base in Kalidiyah.

Yet it’s not the Day of Atonement but Passover that will be forever seared in Sosnick’s mind.

Whatever thoughts were floating through the young soldier’s head on April 6 were interrupted when a rocket-propelled grenade whistled into the turret of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Blood and bits of burned flesh splattered onto Sosnick. “A brilliant white explosion” engulfed the cabin, he wrote.

“I think the lieutenant is dead!” wailed the gunner, who, along with the lieutenant, was perched atop the smoldering turret.

But the officer was not dead. The grenade had cleaved off his right leg before blowing off the gunner’s right forearm.

As bullets whizzed by, Sosnick sprinted across open ground to the nearest vehicle to seek help.

As the ashen-faced soldiers were loaded into rescue helicopters, the grateful gunner latched onto Sosnick with his remaining hand. “Sosnick,” he barked. “Happy Passover!”

No one ever thought Andrew Sosnick would end up exchanging gunfire with anyone, let alone Iraqi insurgents. But, like so many Americans, Jewish or otherwise, he was deeply affected by Sept. 11. And, like so many young men and women who joined the military for reasons other than economic necessity or family tradition, he finds himself on the frontlines of a war.

“Giving blood wasn’t enough,” notes his mother, Diana Sosnick.

The Sosnicks are just one of many Jewish families in the Bay Area and across the nation offering additional prayers for their soldiers in Iraq this High Holy Day season.

Brad and Arleen Reetz of Redwood Shores have been praying a lot longer than over the holidays.

They recall the joy when they discovered their son, 22-year-old Matt Rosenfield, had been granted a couple of weeks R&R to attend his sister’s wedding.

But on the November morning Rosenfield was shipping out of Iraq, Brad, his stepfather, and Arleen were awakened by a chilling news broadcast: A pair of helicopters full of soldiers heading off for R&R had been shot down. There were no survivors.

The Reetz’s world was ripped apart as they fired off e-mails and made calls, hoping to figure out if Rosenfield was on one of those choppers. Hour after hour, they lived in an adrenaline-infused state of anxiety.

Eight long hours later, Rosenfield phoned his parents from a base in Kuwait. He didn’t know about the two choppers. He didn’t know how Brad and Arleen had lived and died that day. He just wanted to say hello.

“The emotions were so high I almost passed out,” said Brad Reetz.

Like the Sosnicks, the Reetz family was shocked when their son broke the news he’d joined the military.

Brad, who served in Okinawa during Vietnam, and Arleen had brought up the possibility of Matt joining the Army during a troubled period in his teens, but — to put it mildly — he was unreceptive. That, however, was before 9/11 and before saber-rattling about Iraq.

Unexpectedly, after Rosenfield had worked through the problems of his youth, was gainfully employed and had a steady girlfriend in San Mateo, he dropped the bomb on his mother and stepfather: Not only did he join the military but opted to become a combat engineer, a demolitions expert.

“I asked him if there wasn’t a clerical or gardening position. What made him think having the word ‘combat’ in his job title would make his mom happy?” exclaimed Arleen Reetz.

“But he was 20 years old and interested in adventure.”

He got it. Rosenfield spent his 21st birthday guarding captured Iraqis.

“He talked to these guys; he thought they were very interesting people,” his mother noted.

Rosenfield was called on to demolish caches of hidden Iraqi weapons. At one point, he went 26 days without bathing before taking a dip in the Euphrates River.

Rosenfield is currently stationed in Germany, and it doesn’t appear he’ll be heading back to the Mideast. The Reetzes can’t put into words how joyful they are about that.

“I don’t know if you ever saw the movie ‘Ransom’ with Mel Gibson? At one point he says, ‘Give me back my son!’ That’s what my husband wanted to say to Mr. Bush,” said Arleen Reetz, who can now laugh at the memory.

“There’s a certain level of relief knowing he’s sleeping tonight somewhere in Germany instead of the Persian Gulf. … But I still watch the news, and every day someone else’s child is on that list of casualties. It just breaks my heart.”

Brad and Arleen Reetz were able to talk Rosenfield out of one thing: He’d proposed getting a tattoo of a Hebrew letter before heading out to duty.

Even before the grim examples of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg, the Reetz family weighed in against the idea. Besides, having the name “Rosenfield” on your pocket is enough of a giveaway.

“It’s good to be proud of who you are,” said Brad Reetz. “But it’s not smart to flash it in the face of somebody else.”

Imagine the Sosnicks’ dismay when Andrew opted to have Stars of David printed on his dog tags. Sosnick chose to defy the notion that Jews do not serve in the military — in a way his family would rather he didn’t.

“He said he is who he is and he’s not going to hide it. He’d rather die than be a prisoner. Oh my God! He told us that,” said Diana Sosnick.

For many soldiers, being the rare military Jew is a point of fierce pride. One 21-year-old Army Ranger from the Bay area stood atop an Afghan hill, unfurled his arms and crowed, “I am the only Jew in Afghanistan!”

The response from his fellow soldiers was nearly immediate: A second Ranger ran up and yelled, “Oh no you’re not!”

Even though the elite Rangers do not carry any identification when on missions, their parents worry.

“Some of the countries he’s been in, I don’t even think they allow Jews,” said the first Ranger’s mother.

Some soldiers are especially cautious — even if they are not Jewish.

It’s not often a wife begs a husband heading overseas for months on end to leave his wedding ring at home, but that’s exactly what Yehudit Sherman did with her husband, 40-year-old Aurelio Velazquez.

Sherman, who grew up in Lafayette, is Jewish and a dual Israeli citizen — as is the couple’s daughter, Tikvah. Velazquez is not Jewish, but his wedding band is engraves with a Hebrew phrase, “My soul will be bound with your soul.”

Velazquez balked at the idea of taking off his ring, but his good friend — who has served alongside the Navy medic on each of his five tours of duty in both Iraq wars — agreed with Sherman. The ring is resting safely in the couple’s San Diego home. Velazquez is working, not so safely, in the Middle East.

“Whenever I mail him things, I never put my name on the outside. Only my first initial. For our daughter, I just put an initial or some other term. In fact, I can’t write any of my family member’s names,” said Sherman, who fears any suspicion that Velazquez is Jewish or has a Jewish family would endanger him.

Maryjane Ichelson had an even less pleasant experience with a ring than Velazquez.

The 45-year-old Mountain View resident is “a dual-trained 92 Mike” — in non-military jargon, a medic and mortician in the California State Military Reserve. Her job is to “clean up battlefields” and ensure that soldiers’ possessions (and this includes body parts) end up in the right place.

For the purposes of this article, military policy regarding troop movement prevented Ichelson from directly confirming or denying she had served in Iraq. She did, however, serve six months of active duty attached to a unit “that had heavy deployments.”

Ichelson’s job required a calm and often disturbingly businesslike approach to horrific scenes of death and destruction. You can’t assume, for example, that the ring you found next to a finger belonged on that finger. You’ve got to do blood tests from the remnants found on the inside of the ring and match them to the severed digit. Otherwise, the wrong man’s grieving relatives may end up with it.

“If you fall apart while you’re doing it, you’re not doing your country’s service. You have to have a sense of humor and a certain amount of sensitivity. So much sadness crosses an embalming table every day, you have to find happiness someplace,” said Ichelson, a 4-foot-9 mother of three who fellow soldiers affectionately referred to as “Sgt. Icky.”

Jokes like “work was dead today” or “I was buried in my job” are OK. But making a crack about the specific dead body in front of you is a major no-no.

“I take it seriously. When I’m processing these guys, they’re heroes. Every one of them. They made a decision that lasted forever,” she said.

However, “sometimes I would get kind of scared when I was doing my work. For instance, during training, I was in a prep room for the first time doing embalming. And the body started to tense up and made a noise because the air was coming out. And I got really scared. And I started singing — and what should come out of my mouth but the Sh’ma.”

The notion of a her son ending up on Ichelson’s embalming table makes 2nd Lt. Reuben Timineiri’s mother “very glad he’s safe and really bored.”

The 28-year-old, who grew up on a Marin houseboat, is currently stationed in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, where he works in a compound creating itineraries for visiting VIPs.

Timineiri joined the Army three years ago to pay off his college loans, and he hoped to lead a platoon. In a letter to his mother, Jonquil Kohls, he said he wanted to put his business acumen to the test and open a coffee shop when his hitch was up. But, unbeknown to Timineiri at the time, the Army added two years to his three-year commitment, and he now won’t be out of the military until 2007.

With Timineiri in Iraq for the foreseeable future, Kohls requested care packages for her son from her fellow congregants at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon — and Timineiri was delighted when one arrived containing back issues of his favorite magazine, The Economist.

In his spare time, Timineiri pens haiku for his mother. One reads:

Whatever I do
Wonder what I am missing
The time passes, gone.

Beyond fears for their child’s survival, the worry of every Jewish family mentioned in this story is, will the soldier who comes home be the same person who left?

The Reetzes were relieved at how well-adjusted Rosenfield seemed at his sister’s wedding in November.

“Of my four children, he’s always been the most affectionate. But I was still surprised when he put his head on my shoulder and said ‘I love you, Momma’ when he came back,” said Arleen Reetz.

Like Sosnick, Rosenfield has grown more spiritual in the face of adversity; both requested and received prayerbooks from their families.

The Reetz family, however, isn’t eager to pry into their son’s memories.

“Some things in life,” said Brad Reetz, “you’d just as soon not know.”

Violence has been reduced to a banality of everyday life for Andrew Sosnick. His base in Kalidiyah was attacked 62 times in one recent month alone. His family relishes his brief weekly calls, but the conversations are often disturbing — in many ways.

“He almost sounds numb to killing now. A couple of weeks ago, their base was being fired at and hit while he was talking to me on the phone. There were bomb sounds in the background and guys yelling,” Diana Sosnick recalled.

“I asked him if he wanted to get off the phone, but he said that as soon as someone was hurt they’d shut [phone service] down.

“He’s been so lucky so many times, he’s missed being hit so many times, I can’t tell you,” she continued.

“He’s got to get home before his luck runs out.”

In his own writings, Andrew Sosnick acknowledges he’s grown up a lot. But he isn’t sure exactly who he’ll be when he walks back through his parents’ front door.

“I’ll try to be a nice guy when I return from this hell. … Probably just leaving the zone will be therapeutic for me. Yeah, I think I’ll be more or less the same old Andrew when I return. Writing letters like these helps me get stuff off my chest,” he wrote in the newspaper of his alma mater, Mills High School.

“I’ll write again soon. War sucks. Your Jewish Soldier, Andrew T. Sosnick.”


Sukkah in Iraq


Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.