“Hi mom, I got my orders today.”
“Orders for…?” she said, not finishing her sentence.
“Saudi,” said David, clutching the telephone receiver. “I have to leave first thing tomorrow morning.”
“’Oh, no,’” his mother said, her “no” echoing in her twenty year old son’s head.
“I was assigned to the 101st,” David said with a sinking voice, as he slumped against the glass wall of the phone booth. “I cried when they told me.”
The 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles,” fought on the front lines during many of the wars–World War II, the Korean War, Viet Nam. An endangered species, the soldiers of the 101st were trained to be fodder for the enemies: only a fraction of the early ranks had ever returned alive.
David doodled on the foggy glass of the phone booth while waiting for his mother to speak. She tried to find encouraging words for her only son, but it was difficult. She had never been able to get used to her son’s rebellious nature. When he was sixteen, he chose an orthodox lifestyle and keeping kosher made her feel like he was separating himself from the family. Two years later, when he joined the Army, she just about gave up.
Now, upon hearing this ominous news, all she could think of was, “I told you so”.
The Gulf War had broken out a month earlier, on January 17, 1991. David knew he would be on the front lines, facing the open jaws of the ravenous enemy.
“They said we’ll be there at least a year. I don’t know when I’ll see you again.” He cleared his throat and added faintly, “Take care, Mom. I love you.
Returning to his barrack, David took a deep breath and felt revived by the cold air. He looked up and gazed at the snow-covered hills surrounding Fort Knox Army Base, in northwestern Kentucky. He was awestruck by their quiet beauty and wondered if he would ever see them again. As he ambled back, he thought of the preposterous story circulating around the army base. Apparently, someone had predicted that the war would end by Purim, the Jewish holiday that praises G-d for saving the Jewish people from a decree of annihilation some 2,300 years ago.
“End by Purim? I can’t believe that! Purim’s only a month away,” David said to himself.
Saddam Hussein certainly fit the character of Haman, the villain of the Purim story. In the story, the wicked Haman paid off the King of Persia in exchange for a decree to massacre all the Jews in the Persian Empire, G-d forbid. For a whole year Saddam Hussein publicized that he would “burn half of Israel” with Scud missiles laden with deadly chemical gas. Those missiles would surely maim and kill thousands of Israelis and prove to the Arab nations that Israel was vulnerable. Then the world would clearly see that G-d had forsaken the Jews as the “Chosen People,” and that he, Saddam Hussein, had been chosen to rule the world. The scenario sounded preposterous… until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Later, back at the barracks and standing beside his cot praying the evening prayer, David felt grateful for having reached his Mom, who lived with his younger sister and stepfather in New Hampshire. Still, he wished that his Mom would accept him as an observant Jew. He kissed his prayer book and placed it in a small cardboard box. His personal belongings were being shipped home, while he was being shipped to war to defend Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi law, any Jew found within its borders would be executed. As a precaution, the US Army had rewritten the military tags and records of David and the two other Jews in his battalion to conceal their Jewish identities. The Army also ordered David not to pack his prayer shawl, prayer book, or any other Jewish paraphernalia.
David vividly recalled seeing news clips of Scud missiles being fired at cities in Israel. Those Soviet-made missiles stretched 40-feet long and had been enhanced with a 600-pound German-made payload of explosives. Designed to flatten buildings, the explosion of a Scud warhead created a frontal pressure wave. This powerful wave can blast away concrete and can send shattered glass flying up to 1400 feet away in all directions, creating a torrent of lethal “knives.” David felt safe in his bunk in Kentucky, but he could not help but feel pain for his fellow Jews in that narrow strip of land called Israel. As he lay in his bed, he continued to recall the news he had heard from Israel. The first night that the Scuds were fired at Israel, one of them made a direct hit on an apartment house in a crowded Tel Aviv neighborhood. As a result of this midnight strike, 400 apartments, housing 1200 people, were either destroyed or badly damaged. Learning from the experience during the Iran–Iraq War, when Iraq fired Scuds into Teheran’s neighborhoods in 1988, Tel Aviv hospitals were prepared to handle mass casualties, G-d forbid. The ambulances arrived at a Tel Aviv hospital. One young man had some scratches from broken glass; a woman had a sprain. The injuries were all minor.
“The ‘victims’ could have doctored themselves,” said the emergency room nurse. Even the non-religious declared it a miracle.
“During the first week of war, Iraq fired about two dozen Scuds at Israel and damaged or destroyed thousands of apartments and other buildings. On the first Saturday of the attacks, one Scud scored a direct hit on a bomb shelter. This shelter had been converted into a makeshift synagogue and had two hundred worshippers packed inside. The blast flung the people around like rag dolls. Only the shelter’s eastern wall, upon which the ark housing the Torah scroll leaned against remained standing. When Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir visited the site, he asked if there were any people still alive in the bomb shelter.
“Yes,” replied Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, “Two hundred. They were saved by a miracle. No one was injured.”
How long would their good fortune last? To protect Israel, David was ready to risk his life. With that thought, David whispered the Shema Yisroel prayer and fell asleep.
The next morning David and another 300 soldiers boarded a chartered 747 towards Saudi Arabia. They refueled in Rome at midnight and took off after two hours. Within minutes, David drifted into a deep sleep. In what seemed like minutes later a blinding light flooded the cabin of the jet.
“Oh, my!” David said, covering his eyes. The two other soldiers in his row were still sleeping. David squinted at the numbers on his watch. He had slept six hours. David peered through the thick window next to his seat.
“So, this is Saudi,” he mused. A harsh sun reflected off the whitest sand he had ever seen. Miles and miles of sand. If only Israel’s land was one thousandth of Saudi. For the next hour and a half, all that David could see below was white sand, with the occasional darkened areas that appeared to be some sort of man-made rock formation.
“Our guys are going to die defending this sand?!” David thought to himself. These thoughts and any other thoughts about the war were not discussed among the soldiers. Only small talk would be tossed around, or they would play cards or chess, anything to distract their mind from the gruesome reality of war. Otherwise, as it had happened too many times in the past, a soldier might become severely anxious thinking about the grim future. The 747 landed in the coastal city of Dhahran. David stepped down from the plane into the 115-degree heat. He felt like he had marched into a huge solar oven. The soldiers were transported across the burning sand to a stadium-sized tent. They were directed to their cots and told to go to sleep. As he lay on his cot, David wondered what the morning wake-up routine would be.
At 5:30 the next morning, blasting alarms shattered the dawn. In a heartbeat, David reached for his gas mask, took the required quick breath, strapped the mask to his face. The maximum time limit for this procedure was fifteen seconds – David did it in six. Thousands of gas mask rehearsals had finally paid off. David’s heart pounded uncontrollably. Three minutes later, an officer came into the tent and announced: “The Iraqis fired a Scud and our Patriot missile intercepted it. No gas has been detected. Keep your masks on until the signal is given.”
“So, Saddam did the wake-up for us,” David mused to himself. No gas was detected, and no one was injured but Saddam had won a round on the psychological battlefield. Besides the constant fear of chemical weapons, Hussein had another silent ally: the desert. The first troops sent in August had all become sick with heatstroke. Even in the “winter,” the midday temperature rose above 110 degrees. The desert proved to be a harsh environment. The precious water had to be rationed. Showers were allowed only once a month. Hussein proved himself to be more cunning and his soldiers more entrenched than anyone had originally thought. David was hearing reports that Hussein could drag out the war for years. Every day, just before sunset, the hot, white sun would turn bright red. When sunset came, the sun would appear to melt into the sand–orange-red lava flowing onto the endless white sand. Then, within minutes, the temperature would drop fifty degrees. Everyone put on thermal gloves and a warm jacket to keep from shivering. The temperature was actually only 60 to 70 degrees, yet because of the rapid, drastic change in temperature, the soldiers would feel as if they were freezing.
In addition to his attacks on Kuwait, Saddam Hussein kept firing Scuds into Israel. Civilian targets were hit, buildings were destroyed, but the human injuries were surprisingly light. Back in the States, many Americans concluded that the Scuds were basically harmless, giant firecrackers.
February 25: Back in Dharan, David and one hundred other soldiers received orders to fly that evening to the city of Al-Khobar. They were to stay at a large steel-framed warehouse that had been converted into living quarters for the army. Unfortunately, the transport plane malfunctioned and was not able to carry the soldiers to the Al-Khobar army base. In this scorching desert with its frequent sandstorms, equipment often malfunctioned. Later that evening, Saddam Hussein’s men fired a Scud toward Al-Khobar. It was suppertime in the US Army barrack and the soldiers were chatting and laughing and reading letters from… RRRIPP! BOOM! BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! BLAAAAST! The gigantic explosion was heard for miles around.
The following morning an officer came into the soldiers’ tent in Dharan and announced, “Last night, at twenty-hundred hour (8:23 pm), Saddam Hussein launched a Scud missile, hitting the Army barrack in Al-Khobar. An eight-foot-deep crater was all that remained of the Army barrack. Twenty-eight soldiers were killed in the ensuing explosion; and eighty-nine others, wounded.”
No one could speak upon hearing the news. Shaken and white-faced, David felt faint.
“I’m supposed to be dead,” David said to himself. “If that transport plan had not malfunctioned, we would have been in the Army barrack eating our final meal.”
Before that attack, the American soldiers felt no real anger towards the Iraqis. They were attacking their neighbor, not Americans. Now, however, they were enraged. They wanted Saddam Hussein dead. Like Haman, the evil advisor to the king in the story of Purim, Hussein was the enemy–the embodiment of evil. And just as when the name of Haman is said during the public reading of the Scroll of Esther on the Purim holiday, everyone stamps their feet and makes noise to drown out the name and remembrance of Haman the Evil One, these soldiers felt pure rage toward Saddam Hussein and wanted him stamped out, once and for all.
The Gulf War intensified, and the American and Allied forces became more aggressive. Countless air-raids zipped across Iraq. The Army transferred David to the front line, a mere fifty miles from the village of Ur Kasdim, where our Jewish forefather Abraham had refused to bow down to the idols of the king. The pagan king subsequently threw young Abraham into a fiery furnace, yet he emerged miraculously unhurt. David, too, felt totally protected by the G-d of Abraham.
On the quiet nights, when sorties were not taking off from the Army’s makeshift runway, David often gazed at the stars. There were no lights for hundreds of miles and David could see thousands of stars in the Milky Way. Here the promise to Abraham, “I will increase your seed as the stars of the heaven” (Genesis 22:17), had heartfelt meaning.
Up until now, Saddam’s army had fired more than thirty Scuds into Israel. If only he could drag Israel into the war, the other Arab nations would unite with him, and he would rule the oil-rich Middle East. The world would be at his mercy. Day after day, the Allies carpeted Iraq with bombs. Then, on February 27, after a mere one hundred hours of Allied fighting, the BBC announced that the Persian Gulf War was over. Not for a moment did any of the soldiers believe it.
Two weeks later, on March 11, 1991, Newsweek published a cover story on the war and called the Persian Gulf War – “A triumph of almost Biblical proportions.”
Only after returning to the United States, did David find out that the war had actually ended on Purim! David was so happy to return home to America. When he received his box of personal belongings, David removed his tallit, kissed it, hugged it, and flung the prayer shawl open over his head right in the middle of the army base parking lot.
Not only did David return from the war, but every single soldier in the 101st Airborne Division–the “Fighting Eagles”–returned home alive. Like in the days following the miracle of Purim, joyous celebrations and prayers of thanksgiving were held in towns throughout America, and the days of darkness were converted to “light, joy, gladness, and honor” (Scroll of Esther).Thirteen months after the Gulf War ended, David was stationed at Fort Campbell, Tennessee, and spent Shabbat at the home of Rabbi Zalman Posner, of blessed memory, in Nashville.
“David, have you seen this booklet?” the rabbi asked him. The booklet was titled: “I Will Show YouWonders”. It included published statements of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson before and during the Gulf War.
David had never before heard of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. That Shabbos, Rabbi Posner told David about the Rebbe’s predictions regarding the Gulf War, how the Rebbe publicly proclaimed that the Land of Israel would be safe and that nobody in Israel would need gas masks.
Following the Gulf War, David completed a two-year stint in the army and joined the ranks of other young men learning Torah in the world-renowned Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim at the Rabbinical College of America, in Morristown, New Jersey. David felt as if he, too, were following in the footsteps of his forefather Abraham, who had also emerged alive from the inferno in the Saudi desert and was ordered by G-d to claim his heritage in the promised Holy Land.
Upon entering the hallway leading to the study hall of the Yeshiva, David saw a payphone.
“Hi, Mom, I got my orders! I’m off to Yeshiva!”
Postscript:During the second Gulf War (began March 20, 2003), the evil Saddam was captured on another auspicious day on the Jewish calendar (December 13th, 2003), Yud-Tet Kislev, the 19th day of the month of Kislev, which is the anniversary of the liberation of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Chassidic masterpiece, the Tanya.
Story with permission by the author of: From the Heavens to the Heart by Tzvi Jacobs
Tzvi personally interviewed the soldier, David Zuk, for this story.
For more stories by this author, please visit his website: www.fromtheheavens.org