Berkeley native returns from eye-opening Army stint in Afghanistan

Common themes in the war in Afghanistan are bullets, bombs and the policies behind a decade-long conflict. During his recent tour of duty there, Maj. David Eigner thought about those things. But he was more focused on combat injuries, rare skin conditions and the massive amounts of shampoo used by the local Afghan populace.

“The Afghan men are very vain about their hair,” Eigner said this week during a visit to the Bay Area. “They’d always come in going ‘shampoo, shampoo.’ They don’t speak English, but they learned the word shampoo.”

That’s because whenever his outpost received care packages, they’d often give the shampoo to the locals.

Maj. David Eigner with a boy he treated and the boy’s father.

A pediatrician by training, Eigner has been an Army medical officer in South Korea and at Fort Bragg, N.C., since he graduated from U.C. Davis and the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. The 40-year-old Berkeley native grew up attending Congregation Beth El, and spoke at the Berkeley synagogue July 14 about his experiences in the Army.

Eigner returned from Afghanistan last month, after serving there since last October. Stationed at Tangi, in eastern Afghanistan, his primary tasks were “sick call” among those in the light infantry unit and tending combat injuries among U.S. personnel.

Jews compose a small minority in the military, and many cite past allegations of Christian proselytizing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs as evidence that Jews and other religious minorities are unwelcome. However, Eigner emphasized that he himself never had any issues.

“The Army in general is a very religious organization,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “That’s just partly because most of the culture of the Army is a little more Southern and Christian. There’s a lot of respect for religion in general.”

In fact, Eigner said fellow soldiers helped him celebrate the Jewish holidays. He was the only Jew at his outpost in Afghanistan during Chanukah, and celebrated the holiday with the medics in his unit. “I don’t know if they liked it [just] because of the chocolate and gifts, but they liked it a lot,” he said.

Maj. David Eigner

While there was no Jewish chaplain at his base, Eigner said that chaplains are trained to help soldiers of all faiths, be it Jewish, Christian or even Wicca. And organizations such as Kosher Troops send food and supplies to help Jewish service members celebrate holidays and make it easier for them to be observant while in uniform.

Being openly Jewish when dealing with Afghans was a bit more difficult.

“That was a little tricky,” Eigner said. He believes some Afghans he worked with knew he was Jewish, and he told some of the Afghan interpreters when they asked him, but  he tried not to emphasize his background. He never encountered any anti-Semitism from the local population, he said.

When Eigner was in South Korea his work was similar to what a civilian doctor would do, but “when you’re deployed, it’s a little bit different,” he said. No more delivering babies, for instance, and “there’s not a lot you can do for chronic health problems,” he added.

One case does stand out in his memory. An Afghan man came in with a genetic skin condition called Ichthyosis, which causes flaky, scaly skin.

“We ordered as much skin lotion as we could,” he said, noting a difference between Afghanistan and more developed countries. A case of Ichthyosis could happen in the U.S., he said, “but we would know before you were 5.”

After his speaking engagement at Congregation Beth El, Eigner was to return to Fort Bragg, N.C., and resume his duties as a medical officer. He said his experiences in Afghanistan, from lighting a menorah at the outpost to giving away shampoo, will remain with him wherever he goes.

Eigner worries that Jews are forsaking the military, and he says that without a Jewish presence in the armed forces, incidents like proselytizing at the Air Force Academy can re-occur. “The Army is an important part of our national fabric,” he said. “I think it’s important for us as Jewish-Americans to be involved in all parts of our political sphere.”