A week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Captain Joshua Zager, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, stood in the historic Beth Israel synagogue in Beaufort, South Carolina, praying the Rosh Hashana liturgy.
“Who shall live, and who shall die/who will die at his predestined time and who before his time/ who by water and who by fire, who by sword,” he said, chanting the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer along with the congregation.
Zager was especially focused on his prayers that year. The next day, he was scheduled to fly his F/A-18 Hornet onto the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had already begun sailing for the Middle East to start striking al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.
Zager, who would fly 42 missions over Afghanistan in the ensuing months, was one of many Jewish soldiers who would fight in the distant country over the next 20 years, including at least 23 who died fighting there.
As America’s longest war comes to its inglorious end, Jewish soldiers reflected on their service in Afghanistan, their experiences as Jews, and their feelings on seeing the scenes of panic and flight in Kabul and beyond as the Taliban retook control of the country after twenty years of sacrifice.
From paratrooper to pilot
Zager, 49, grew up in New Jersey, and always dreamed of being a fighter pilot.
That plan took a significant detour when he came to Israel for the first time as a teen on a United Synagogue Youth summer program. The connection to Israel he formed on the trip brought him back to Israel for his junior year of college, and to the IDF after graduating Franklin and Marshall College in 1992.
Zager joined Battalion 890 of the Paratroopers Brigade, where he eventually became a squad commander.
In addition to serving in Hebron in the aftermath of the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre, Zager spent most of his service in the Security Zone in southern Lebanon, battling Hezbollah fighters as part of another long and costly occupation by a powerful Western military that ended up in hasty retreat and years of painful national soul-searching.
After finishing his IDF service, Zager returned to the US, where he joined the Marine Corps within a year. He did his Officer Candidate School training in Quantico, Virginia, then headed south to Pensacola, Florida, for Navy flight school.
On the day al-Qaeda terrorists crashed civilian jets into the World Trade Towers in New York City, a field in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon — killing a childhood friend of his — Zager was stationed in South Carolina, preparing for a scheduled deployment.
“I was fighting Hezbollah and Hamas here in the IDF,” Zager told The Times of Israel, speaking from a Tel Aviv hotel, “and then I go back to home to the United States, and the terror came to the United States and I had to go fight them in an American uniform.”
Exactly a week after the attacks, the USS Theodore Roosevelt left its port in southern Virginia to head for the Middle East as part of Carrier Air Wing One. It was unclear exactly where they were headed and what the precise mission was, as then-president George W. Bush would officially order the beginning of the operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban only on October 7.
He would spend the next seven and a half months away from home and family.
“The whole world wanted to go kick their ass, and I got to go do it,” Zager recounted.
The US battle group sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar to the eastern Mediterranean, where the pilots flew into Syrian airspace.
“Syria was on the table too,” Zager explained. “We weren’t sure if we were going to strike Syria… We were planning strikes into Syria, probably from these waters I’m looking at right now.”
Carrier Air Wing One was ordered through the Suez Canal under the cover of darkness, then took up station due south of Afghanistan about 100 miles off Karachi, Pakistan, where it would spend the next five months.
Zager dropped bombs on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets across Afghanistan, including during the November 2001 battles of Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.
“Every single battle, I was in it,” Zager said.
Zager flew an especially dramatic mission that December.
He and his partner were heading back to the carrier after patrolling over the Tora Bora mountains, each plane carrying two laser-guided bombs.
The pair received a call from their mission commander, who asked if they still had their bombs. When they answered in the affirmative, Zager and his partner were ordered to turn around, and were handed off to a drone pilot with the call sign Doolittle flying a Predator drone.
Doolittle had been tracking a convoy of Toyota Landcruisers all night. The vehicles stopped at a compound in a Tora Bora villa, where the occupants bedded down for the night.
The pilots were told that the individuals in the compound were leadership targets, and they dropped their bombs on the site after they were cleared to fire.
“We were both sure we killed Osama bin Laden that night,” said Zager. “We went back to the ship thinking that the war was over.”
Zager received a decoration for the strike, which described it as the first time in history a UAV operator talked a fighter pilot onto his target.
Despite the medal, to this day Zager still does not know whom he struck in Tora Bora.
“I started Afghanistan, we kicked it off, we pummeled the crap out of the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” he said. “I came home thinking it was all over, and somehow we found a way to stay there for another 19 and a half years.”
The place to be
Brett Sander, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, joined the Army as a lawyer on a direct commission after studying law at Vanderbilt University.
After a year in South Korea, Sander deployed to Afghanistan in April 2013 from Fort Hood, Texas.
Sander spent eight months at the New Kabul Compound — a small base only three-quarters of a mile in diameter — working on contracts, including vetting local Afghani contractors to make sure the US wasn’t funneling funds to the Taliban or to hostile warlords.
Warren Gross, an optometrist in Florida, joined the Army much later in life.
In 2010, Gross, then 56 years old, received an unsolicited letter from the US Army Reserves informing him that health care providers between the ages of 40 and 60 were now eligible to join as officers.
Seeing it as both an opportunity to serve and an unexpected adventure — what he called “boy scouts on steroids” — Gross signed up.
Based out of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, Gross received his deployment orders to Kandahar in 2011.
“I was fist-pumping and my wife was crying,” he said.
Gross conducted eye examinations for US servicemen, Afghan soldiers, and even captured Taliban fighters. He treated quotidian issues like ordering glasses and eye infections, as well as battle injuries like shrapnel in the eyes of soldiers.
“I wore my yarmulke the entire time,” he said, “even when we went out in MRAP vehicle between bases.”
Kandahar was a major NATO base, housing 26,000 troops at its peak, and Gross served there with Brits, Canadians, Australians, Bulgarians and more.
He was especially struck by the caliber of the officers, and how approachable the generals were.
“One could walk over to a general,” he recalled, “They had open-door policies.”
Adam Wojack grew up in the California Bay Area, with a Polish father and Turkish Jewish mother. He dropped out of college in 1988 to enlist in the Army, and served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
After finishing college, Wojack returned to the Army as an officer, and spent 22 years on active duty, mostly as an infantry officer. He deployed five times — three times to Iraq, once to Kosovo and once to Afghanistan.
As a public affairs officer, Wojack deployed to Afghanistan in May 2012 with the US Army V Corps, assigned to the NATO ISAF Joint Command based at Kabul International Airport.
“I fielded calls from major media and developed releases based on breaking events,” Wojack recounted. “We had some very busy days — insider attacks, civilian casualties and the day Camp Bastion was attacked with Prince Harry on location.”
When Wojack reached Afghanistan, he hadn’t been around real-live operations in almost five years. He was impressed at the maturity and sophistication of the organization — “support, work culture, relations with the media, info systems, collaboration among the multinational team, size and scope of the effort.”
Though there were constant civilian casualties and growing numbers of insider “green-on-blue” attacks, Wojack saw the media team and the larger organization learning lessons from every event.
Wojack said that several memories stand out for him from his time in Afghanistan: “The smoky haze in the air over the Kabul airfield; the camaraderie of the NATO team, especially on the soccer field during breaks; the great chow in either the American, British or Turkish dining facilities; my visit to the Joint Special Operations Command operations center at Bagram to see what went on behind the velvet curtain; and all the positive people in uniform, happy to be there to do this job, which felt more important than anything else any of us might have been doing at the time.”
“It might have been a forgotten deployment for most American people,” said Wojack, “but for those deployed, I don’t think anyone would have wanted to be anywhere else. It was the place to be.”
The Manischewitz loophole
Though they were stationed in a devout Muslim country, thousands of kilometers from any organized Jewish communities, the servicemen did enjoy unique Jewish experiences while in Afghanistan.
Gross, who always wears a yarmulke on his head, remembers heading out to a small military hospital for Afghan soldiers.
He said to his commanding officer, “Look, I’m not going to jeopardize my life or any other soldier’s life with this yarmulke. If you want, I’ll remove it.”
His officer looked at him and said, “Captain Gross, I want you to wear it, because we want to show the Afghans that we are a very tolerant society.”
“Colonel, then you wear it,” Gross said to laughter in the room.
Gross was able to keep kosher in Kandahar, enjoying freeze-dried food he described as “real good” flown in from Chicago.
On a base without a trained Jewish chaplain, Gross led services every Friday night for 15-20 soldiers, followed by Shabbat dinner, with challahs flown in from New York by the Kosher Troops organization.
Zager also felt comfortable as a Jew on the aircraft carrier. “I got so much respect for being Jewish in the Marine Corps. From day one all the way to the end, there was nothing but the utmost respect.”
There were nine soldiers who were at least “somewhat Jewish” on the USS Roosevelt, Zager said. On Hanukkah, he lit candles every night, but in his room so he wouldn’t have to explain why he was lighting an open flame on the ship.
Besides the camaraderie, there was at least one clear advantage to being Jewish in a country that forbids the consumption of alcohol.
Sander went into the chapel on his small base alone on a Friday night, and stumbled upon cases of kosher wine for ritual purposes.
“I discovered that there was Manischewitz, or maybe it was Baron Herzog,” he remembered.
Sander became a Friday night regular at the ecumenical chapel.
“I would pour myself a cup or two and do a little prayer by myself,” he said. “It was enough to relax, then I would walk outside for a bit just to enjoy the Friday evening buzz.”
Gross discovered the same loophole in Kandahar. Other coalition forces were allowed one beer a month, while Jewish soldiers enjoyed sacramental wine every Friday night.
Wojack participated in a Passover seder on a different base in Kabul.
“It was one of the few times I was able to get off Kabul Afghan International Airport on the ground, in an Up-Armored Humvee, and I remember being stuck in traffic and getting out, like I would have done on previous tours in Iraq, to direct traffic,” Wojack recounted. “I think I just wanted my boots to touch the ground off base.”
The seder was attended by about 25 Jewish soldiers around a table in a conference room.
“And of course, we drank wine, which is normally not allowed.”
‘You’re glad it’s over’
The collapse of the Afghan Army and government in recent weeks sparked a complex mix of feelings among the men, and frantic attempts to help their Afghan friends and partners.
Sander has been in touch with Afghan contractors to try to help with their US special immigration visa applications, speaking to the office of Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and to the US embassy in Kabul.
“On a personal level, I’m receiving these WhatsApp messages that these people are in hiding,” said Sander. “I’ve been sending the embassy some emails on behalf of these contractors, saying hey, these guys deserve evacuation too.”
“Like most soldiers, I am really heartbroken for the interpreters and the Afghans that I know,” said Gross. “There is a feeling of betrayal.”
“When I found out, I was just heartbroken. I have images in my mind of these American soldiers in the ICU, just wounded, and my heart goes out to them. Hopefully, they don’t think they were there and got injured for nothing.”
“My personal feelings about the end of the war are complicated and seem to change every day,” said Wojack.
“I think that even if we as a nation are done with this — and we still have about 5,000 troops at the airport, so apparently not — the Afghans are not. Those that have gotten used to certain freedoms may not give them up too easily, and others who are traditionally antagonistic toward the Taliban will find opportunity — and allies — to begin resisting. I definitely think the Afghanistan’s war is not over, sad to say.”
Zager reflected on the three Marine pilots he knows, one a Cobra helicopter pilot and two forward air controllers, who were killed in Afghanistan.
“They each had two sons,” he said. “There’s six sons out there, if they ever ask me what my father died for, it would be hard for me to come up with a good answer, especially when you look at the final chapter.”
He compared the Afghanistan war to watching someone terminally ill die slowly over the course of nineteen and a half years.
“The last couple days have been a very ugly death, but you just knew it was coming, and it’s been a very bad illness for nineteen and a half years,” Zager said.
“It’s almost like you’re relieved that it’s over.”