Lt. Dan Ludmir sat next to Afghan civilians at meals, sharing food from the same plate. Hosts poured him cups of chai tea. It is well known among U.S. Marines, he said, that Afghan families reserve the nicest mattress for guests.
And yet, beneath the handshakes and generous hospitality, Ludmir, a Philadelphia-area native, said the most urgent and constant threat he faced during his six-month deployment was Afghan security forces turning their guns on their American trainers — the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks that have increased in recent months.
The attacks have moved the United States to revise its strategy in the region, including limiting joint operations between Afghan and American-led coalition forces, even as it prepares for the withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014.
Ludmir, 25, was raised in an Orthodox household in Penn Valley. His family belongs to Lower Merion Synagogue. Before Ludmir went to Afghanistan, friends asked him and his father, Jack, whether he would be able to keep kosher, observe Shabbat while deployed. “Our rabbi said, ‘He should be truthful to himself and do whatever he has to do,’ ” said Jack Ludmir, a physician.
The younger Ludmir, who describes himself as agnostic, said he never told any of the Afghan people he was Jewish because he didn’t think it was relevant to the mission.
Ludmir entered the Marines’ Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., in 2009 after graduating from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and then the University of Pennsylvania. He was based out of Okinawa, Japan, and returned there last week after three weeks at home.
Ludmir spent the majority of his time in Kabul training members of the Afghan National Security Forces to become a self-supporting military that can fight the Taliban independently once coalition forces leave.
Progress on that front was slow, he said, and he realized he was not going to see much of the fruit of his efforts between the start of his deployment in March until his exit in September. The threat of violence and a constant turnstile of different coalition troops entering and leaving made it difficult to build a relationship with Afghan soldiers. “You’re fighting a common enemy — the Taliban — but when you always have a gun on you during meetings, which you have to, you’re portraying a sense that you don’t trust them,” Ludmir said.
Even with little tangible progress, Ludmir asserted, the soldiers he worked with were in a better position when he left than when he arrived. He took pride in seeing Afghan soldiers train one another, rather than rely on an officer in the U.S. forces.
The Afghan civilians in Kabul, an urban environment where there is modern commerce, “like us being there because it keeps a level of stability,” said the soldier.
Ludmir said he had always wanted to serve in the military. At Penn, he studied history and economics and took courses on military strategy and the history of warfare. When he told his parents that he planned to join the Marines, he said there was shock, but once that wore off, they were very supportive. “They said, ‘If you’re happy, than we’re happy,’ ” he said.
Ludmir’s deployment was originally supposed to last until March 2013, but with his new orders he made it home in time for the High Holidays.
As the family arrived for Kol Nidre services, a banner saying “Lt. Dan Ludmir, we are all proud of you,” hung on a tree outside the shul. Jack Ludmir said no one questioned his son as to whether he had kept kosher or observed Shabbat. The rabbi asked Ludmir to carry the Torah and told congregants that part of the reason Jews are able to practice their religion was because of servicemen like him.
On his son’s earlier than expected return, Jack Ludmir said, “It was like a gift from God.”