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In and Out of the War Zone
As the sky threatened to unleash a Sunday afternoon storm, a crowd gathered around a fire truck blocking an otherwise quiet residential street in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Like the onlookers, however, police and fire officials were not there last month to respond to an emergency, but to welcome home a local hero: Avi Behar, a 24-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was back from his first tour of duty after a year in Afghanistan. He was deployed to command a convoy mission last August, just a month before the High Holidays.
Behar stood, grinning, at the center of attention; an American flag hung from the fire truck providing a patriotic backdrop. For once, he said, he was at a loss for words.
He had been expecting his parents when he arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport, he said, not a full-blown motorcade to escort him all the way home.
"I felt like the president today, just going through the red lights. If only I had this kind of protection in Afghanistan, I would've been a lot happier," joked the young officer, who has shared occasional letters with the Jewish Exponent about his experiences abroad.
In truth, Behar said, he misses being there. Even 10 years after the terrorist attacks that brought the U.S. Army to Afghan terrain, Behar said he felt like his unit had "truly made an impact" in the villages they'd worked to stabilize. Just the week before, he was leading yet another "eventful" convoy, though he said he couldn't give more specifics.
"It makes it real, the fact that we did so much game-changing operations," he said.
Last year around this time, he commemorated the ninth anniversary of the attacks with a 5K run and memorial services with fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. This month's milestone anniversary falls during his leave, so he'll be with his family and perhaps take part in a service with members of the Yellow Ribbon Club, a South Jersey-based volunteer group that sends care packages and organizes homecomings for local soldiers.
Behar was only 13, walking his dog, Pongo, in Modi'in, Israel, when his mom called to break the news of the 9/11 tragedy. The family had made aliyah when he was 8. They moved back to the United States in 2003, where Behar was graduated from Cherry Hill High School East.
He joined the ROTC while majoring in criminal justice at the University of Delaware. After graduating in 2009, he went right to work for the Army, one of roughly 14,000 Jews among 1.4 million active military personnel, or less than 1 percent, according to the Jewish Welfare Board's Jewish Chaplains Council.
When his unit arrived last year at Shindand, a former Russian base in Afghanistan that had been abandoned, they lived in tents and ate one hot meal a day, Behar said. In addition to building that base up "from scratch," they spent most of their time helping Afghans recover overturned vehicles, standing guard during elections, attending community meetings and delivering supplies to various villages. Sometimes, Behar said, they would give the goods to Afghan soldiers to hand out, to encourage the communities to trust their local officials.
Opinions toward soldiers -- native or foreign -- varied dramatically from place to place, he said. They would walk around with the people in one village, he said, while "three miles down the road you'd be shot at."
Altogether, he traveled more than 12,000 miles during convoy missions throughout the year. He was reminded why he was there every time his unit stopped at Forward Operating Base Stone near Herat in western Afghanistan. Outside the entrance to the dining hall, a piece of scrap metal from the Twin Towers served as a sobering memorial to the attacks.
Before returning home, Behar was awarded a bronze star for merit and service. He declined to talk about his experiences in combat, saying only that he was grateful so few of his fellow soldiers were injured.
"The best feeling is that all my soldiers came back alive," he said.
His entire 200-soldier company had its official homecoming in mid-August at Fort Carson, outside Colorado Springs, Colo. His mom and stepfather watched via web cam.
Here in South Jersey, his live audience included at least 40 friends, neighbors, family members and strangers, including political candidates.
"You're like the all-American boy and we love you," said Yellow Ribbon Club president Leslie Drummond, presenting him with an oversized coin stamped with the army symbol -- a nod to the custom of high-ranking officers handing out coins to recognize good work.
Although Behar said it will take a while to adjust to the culture shock, it will also be nice to enjoy the comforts of home -- like video games, and his dog, Pongo, who happened to match his outfit that day in a camouflage bandanna. Sleeping in a bed instead of a cot, "that's good," he said, smiling.
Once again, he'll be away for the holidays -- back to his U.S. base -- though this time he might at least be able to attend services at a Conservative synagogue in Colorado Springs, or call in to say hello to his family via web camera.
Beyond his military duties, he's considering night classes toward a master's degree in international relations or a business degree. He also plans to look into sponsoring his Afghan interpreter, Khalil Arbob, to come for a visit.
He's also hankering for a motorcycle. He took a course to get his motorcycle license after arriving back at Fort Carson. And if his mother clucks over the dangers?
"I survived a year of doing convoys in Afghanistan," he said, suggesting that riding a motorcycle should be small potatoes in comparison.