Rabbi Jon Cutler thought his one tour of duty in the sweltering Persian Gulf would sum up his war-zone career.
But 16 years after returning home from Operation Desert Storm, he will again be returning to the Middle East to serve as a Jewish chaplain.
"I never thought I would go back again," said the 51-year-old commander with the Navy Reserves. "You read about people going to war, and they only go once in a lifetime. I had no idea that I would be going twice."
Cutler, the head rabbi at Conkgregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington, said his goodbyes during Shabbat services last Saturday.
His first stop will be at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in Southern California in late November; from there, he'll go to Al Asad Air Base just north of Baghdad about two or three weeks later.
He doesn't plan to return home for good until March 2009.
Cutler reported that of the 170,000 American troops now serving in Iraq, about .5 percent — or about 850 — are Jews. While he plans to offer comfort and guidance to soldiers and sailors of all faiths, he said that his dealings with such a minute number of Jewish servicemen and women should lead to very personal relationships.
As he said: "There's a tremendous amount of isolation for Jews. They're in a Muslim country, among all Christians, so they're really feeling isolated. Who can they really relate to? So when a rabbi comes along, they say, 'This is one of mine.' There's a real camaraderie."
Cutler — whose deployment is mandatory, not voluntary — will serve as the only full-time Jewish chaplain for the Navy and the Marines in Iraq, he said.
While deployed, his primary task will be to pray with dying or wounded, and help mourn with those who have lost a comrade and friend. With such daunting tasks ahead of him, Cutler sites teamwork with chaplains of other faiths as a key component for getting through tough situations.
"No matter what your theological differences, we all pull together because what we really understand is human dignity."
Cutler has a good idea of what he'll be facing come December. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, he spent four months in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"I know what the environment is like. The problem is that I was there before, so I know what it's like, and it's pretty miserable," he noted.
To promote a sense of Jewish normalcy at his base during Desert Storm, he created an actual Passover seder complete with matzah and wine — never mind that it was raining oil instead of hail.
"This is like the closest thing to the plague and the real Passover seder because here we are, Jews, eating matzah in the desert with three of the 10 plagues impacting us — flies, darkness and oil."
Besides the Gulf war, the 22-year veteran of the Navy Reserves has been deployed in Japan and the Philippines. He also served as a grief counselor after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But this time around, the war in Iraq has proven much more deadly. His main security concern, he said, is traveling from base to base in convoys, which are susceptible to Improvised Explosive Devices, more commonly known as IEDs.
"That's what scares me the most — the traveling," he admitted, "because that's where you're most vulnerable."
At the Al Asad base, Cutler plans to run regular Shabbat services Friday nights and Saturday mornings, as well as provide study sessions upon request, to make sure there is a consistent Jewish presence where none may have existed before.
"I'm going to offer the normalcy and stability," he insisted, "that others are getting." u