As the last US combat troops left Iraq on Sunday, bringing the nine-year conflict to a close, Jewish war veteran Ilya Bratman reflected on his time in the country.

The former US Armored Corps serviceman, who is in Israel for a Limmud FSU leadership summit, remembered the highs and lows of his military career and his near brush with death.

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“We were taking off from Baghdad International Airport in a Hercules C-130 when the pilot began maneuvering wildly,” he said. “It’s a cargo plane – there are no seats – so we were thrown around inside hitting the walls. Some people were knocked out and many others were screaming.”

Bratman grabbed a net and through the window saw two bright lights narrowly miss the aircraft. They were surface-toair missiles fired by insurgents.

Had they hit the plane, which carried 150 soldiers, it would have been the worst US military disaster in Iraq. The pilot released flares to draw off the missiles.

“We spent the rest of the flight to Qatar in perfect silence,” Bratman said. “We were in such a state of shock.”

The war launched in March 2003 with missiles striking Baghdad to oust president Saddam Hussein closes with a fragile democracy still facing insurgents, sectarian tensions and the challenge of defining its place in an Arab world in turmoil.

The final column of around 100 mostly US military MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicles carrying 500 troops trundled across the southern Iraq desert through the night and daybreak along an empty highway to the Kuwaiti border.

At least 37 Jewish men and women serving in the US armed forces have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to The Forward.

That Bratman’s name is not on that list is sheer coincidence, he said.

“My name came up on a list of soldiers that were supposed to go on R&R [rest and recuperation] to Qatar, but the night before my trip was canceled because I was needed on a mission,” he said.

Bratman was bitterly disappointed but the decision saved his life. The Chinook helicopter he was supposed to board was shot down. All 17 people aboard were killed – including two from his division.

Living close to death drew him closer to Judaism.

“They say we find God in the most difficult times,” he said.

“Some rabbis say we don’t pray when things are good, but when they get bad. In Iraq, everybody became religious with whatever it was they had.”

Bratman’s path to the US military was not an obvious one.

Born in Moscow, his family moved to Pittsburgh in 1992 where he attended a Jewish high school. After completing college he knew he wanted to do something different.

“I was looking for adventure,” he explained. “For me, as a Jew, it was important to have a strong physical experience.”

He considered joining the IDF but the induction process took too long, so he opted to serve in the US Army instead.

His first years in the military were peaceful. He was stationed in Korea and Germany, but that changed dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. He was one of the first to go into battle in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division.

Perhaps his fondest memory from Iraq was the Rosh Hashana he spent at the Al-Faw Palace, a luxurious residence outside Baghdad built by Saddam.

As the only Jew in a unit of more than 500 soldiers, it was a rare opportunity for Bratman to fraternize with his coreligionists.

“There were hundreds of Jewish soldiers who came from Takrit, Mosul, Baghdad; they were from the army, the navy and air force, and from the British Army,” he said. “We had a chaplain rabbi who led the services and I walked around this amazing palace with my kippa and my weapon. In the IDF that’s normal, but we don’t get to do that in the US Army.”

Exploring the sprawling corridors of the massive palace he came across a throne room where an inscription read, “The gates of Jerusalem belong to Islam.”

For a Jewish-American soldier who speaks Hebrew and has relatives in Israel, the inscription resonated deeply.

In 2004, Bratman was honorably discharged from the US Army after five years of service, and adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy. He recalls dealing with post-traumatic stress and feeling disconnected from his surroundings.

“I went to get a haircut in Pittsburgh and the hairdresser asked me where I had served,” he said. “She didn’t know which country the war was in.

People just aren’t aware of what’s going on.”

Spiritually awakened by his military service, he knew he wanted to be involved in Jewish activism. For the past several years Bratman has worked for the Kings Bay Y Jewish community center in Brooklyn. In addition he volunteers with Limmud FSU, an educational outfit organizing conferences for fellow Russian-speaking Jews around the world.

“It’s amazing to see how diverse the Russian Jewish communities around the world are,” he said. “We are so different and but have so much in common.”

Two months ago, Bratman got married. His wife was also born in Russia to a Jewish family who emigrated to the US.

He dreams of one day living in Jerusalem but for now is happy taking groups to Israel.

“I want to start a family and continue working in the Jewish world,” he said. “I want to be a Jewish leader that makes a difference.”

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