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Soldier Describes Daily Life in a Combat Zone

October 25, 2007 By:
Jared Shelly, JE Feature
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Lt. Cmdr. Risa Simon
For many day-school students, it would be difficult to imagine Shabbat services held not in a decorative sanctuary, but in a small white room, where the "Torahs" are really just makeshift paper constructions, and the prayers are not led by a rabbi, but by someone no different than the rest of the congregation.

Such is life in the middle of a war zone.

Lt. Cmdr. Risa Simon, a naval-intelligence officer who just finished a tour in Iraq, spoke last week to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Robert Saligman Middle School of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park about living a Jewish life while serving at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

Shortly after she arrived at the base last October, Simon assumed the position of lay leader for the 10 to 15 Jews who attended services. Along with leading the prayers, the 35-year-old advocated that troops get time off during Jewish holidays and receive kosher meals, even when stationed away from the base.

"They didn't have a rabbi," said Simon, who is the sister of Shawn Simon Hazani, the school rabbi at Saligman. "They had Muslim, Christian and Protestant chaplains, but no rabbi."

However, Jewish chaplains, she noted, did come to the base during holidays.

Simon is fluent in Arabic -- as well as Hebrew and German -- and has served as an intelligence officer on a team that counters Improvised Explosive Devices, the weapon of choice for many insurgents. She also has a master's degree in Middle Eastern and North African studies from the University of Michigan.

Her toughest day at war, she said, came when a Jewish soldier named Daniel Agami was killed by an IED blast. Wearing a silver memorial bracelet bearing his name, she described the 25-year-old as a "great kid."

"One of the most validating parts of being a lay leader is knowing that I gave that kid his last Chanukah party," she said after the event.

Still, she added, "that doesn't make it feel any better that he's not coming home."

She noted that the attack was particularly tough on her because it's her job to help defeat or suppress the IED threat.

"It's a professional blow when someone you know is killed by an IED -- the very thing that's my job to prevent."

For her personal safety on the job, Simon wears a Kevlar helmet, body armor and fireproof gloves. She also carried a Colt M4 carbine machine gun whenever she left the base. Ironically, the closest she came to being seriously hurt was when a rocket fell just outside her living quarters.

"I was standing on that spot with my bike a mere seven minutes before," she said, as she displayed a picture of a large crater in the ground.

Yet Simon seemed anything but shaken by the incident. "Gosh, rocket attacks happen all the time," she stated simply, when asked about the attack. "That's just something that's a fact of life. Usually, they don't do much damage. They fly off course or land in a lake somewhere."

Because she was deployed for a calendar year, Simon got to experience every Jewish holiday overseas. She showed students pictures of a Chanukah party in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, as well as a Purim party where uniformed troops wore Queen Esther and Haman masks.

Since returning from Iraq on Oct. 16, Simon is now stationed in Bremerton, Wash., where she'll live for two years. For now, there are no plans for her to return overseas.

After the talk, Zoe Heilitzer, 13, described Simon as "really strong" and said that she was surprised soldiers celebrate holidays: "I didn't really think that they did that, because it's kind of dangerous to take time off to do that when you're vulnerable."

 

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