by Beau Burriola -
SGN European Correspondent
"YOU SAD SACKS OF MUD AREN'T SOLDIERS YET!" Drill Sergeant Anderson boomed at the 700 recruits standing in front of him. "MANY OF YOU WON'T BE, BECAUSE YOU ARE TOO WEAK! MANY OF YOU WILL GO CRYING HOME TO YOUR MOMMIES! I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THOSE. FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO SURVIVE THE NEXT EIGHT WEEKS AND WILL HAVE THE HONOR OF BECOMING REAL SOLDIERS, YOU ARE MINE! I OWN YOU. THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OWNS YOU!"
I was standing in line with all of the other rankless and terrified hopefuls just starting basic training. We had already been at Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri, for three exhausting weeks before even officially starting basic training, just learning how to take care of uniforms, clean (walls, floors, shoes, ceilings & even dirt) and make a bed. We were anxious to finish and we hadn't even started.
It was Day One on a cold January morning and we were lined up in front of our bags, arranged into squads and platoons, and shaking in our boots. One by one, the drill sergeants went down the line asking each of us what our religion was so they would know which services we would attend and what to put on our dog tags. One by one, as a name was barked, a soldier would step forward and respond (in our company, almost unanimously with some evangelical Christian denomination), the drill sergeant would scribble something on his clipboard, and then the soldiers would step back into line.
When he got closer to me, I had no clue what I was going to say. I was still angry about having been kicked out of the house by my super-religious father because I was Gay, and I had no desire to join the throngs of worshipers in Sunday services. But also, I didn't want to join the unfortunate atheists who had to clean while everyone else was at Sunday services. So, in just a couple of seconds, I made my decision.
Drill Sergeant Anderson, as terrifyingly tall and scary as a praying mantis, finally got to me, stood just a few inches from my face, and shouted "BURRIOLA!" as if I were a hundred feet away. Dutifully, I stepped forward, replied with "Jewish, DRILL SERGEANT!" and waited for him to finish scribbling before I stepped back into line. It seemed like a decent compromise - and there was the added bonus of having a Jewish military funeral that would surprise the hell out of my super-religious father if I ever had to have one - but I had no idea what I had just done.
When the first Saturday arrived, I was surprised when, while the rest of the platoon was getting ready for morning physical training, Drill Sergeant called my name in morning platoon and instructed me to instead go to another building on base. A soldier in training doesn't ask questions, so I went without having a clue what to expect - until I got to the base synagogue and realized, for the first time in my life, that Jewish people have services on Saturday. Delighted to be free of the Saturday hell the Christians had to go through, I stepped into the building, where four other soldiers and a Rabbi Sergeant were waiting.
It hadn't occurred to me up until this point that I might actually have to pretend to be Jewish. I thought that the chances there would be any more Jewish people on this base would be so small I would probably be sent off to pray for a while on my own, but here we had four soldiers and a Rabbi, and when I stepped in, they were all looking at me.
The Rabbi, a kindly looking lady with dark hair and round spectacles, gathered us all together and asked us to introduce ourselves. We went down the line, each giving our name and place of birth. When she got to me, she looked down at my nametag and back up to me, pausing after I said my name. She looked at me for a long, painful pause before continuing down the line.
When the Rabbi left the room for a moment to get prayer books, the guy next to me, a guy named Kline who didn't get so much as a glance from the Rabbi, called me out right away. "You're not Jewish, are you?"
Knowing I had just a few seconds, I quickly and quietly tried to explain how I ended up here. I begged him not to rat me out, and just as our Rabbi headed back to us, he gave me a smile and told me just to follow along with what he did.
So I did. Looking perfectly normal, I stumbled through a singing of the "Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah," two other sing-along sort of hymns, a talk and response section, and then a bit of listening. Most of the Hebrew was wasted on me, so instead I just drifted and imagined what painful hell I was missing in this cozy, safe little synagogue.
After the first service, the second was much easier. After the third, I knew most of the services and was even given a yarmulke and little prayer shawl with Hebrew writing in gold along one side. Here I was, an imposter to the world, hiding as much from the heavens as from the hells on earth. Nobody but Kline knew I wasn't Jewish, and since that first week we were instantly friends.
At the end of training, I continued to go to a local synagogue on my base for about a year, just happy to be part of something that was for me a secular connection to a people and culture I was never born into. I was an imposter who celebrated Christmas and Easter with trees and eggs, but who needed and badly wanted a place to hide from my own lost faith. Judaism was an emergency shelter for a lost Gay man looking for a place to hide. Nobody ever ratted me out, and when I felt I was ready to leave hiding, I did.
Twelve years later - just a few days ago - I got another e-mail from an old Army buddy we called Byrd who I shared a bay with back in the days. "Happy Channauka and Happy New Year," it started, "to the only red-headed Jew I ever knew."
These years, celebrating any religious holiday is only a passing thought. I am not Christian or Jewish, but I still have my prayer shawl and my dog tags. Religion for me now is so much more about culture. The culture of the buildings, the shawls, the rituals, even the language - it's just beautiful for its own sake. My faith has changed over the years and I'm more likely to pour a glass of champagne if I celebrate anything at all, but after this long journey to where I am today, it is fitting to me that when people ever remember my faith, if it ever comes up in their minds, they won't remember the hateful rhetoric of the anti-Gay church I grew up in one tiny bit. I'll take being a red-headed Jew over that any day.
"The cloak is precious to its wearer."
Beau Burriola is a Brussels-based writer more interested in yoga than kowtowing. www.beaubrent.com
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