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 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.
Doubts, fears nag Iraqis as US pulls out
“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
Bratman grabbed a net and through the window saw two
bright lights narrowly miss the aircraft. They were surface-toair missiles fired
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
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
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
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
“I was looking for adventure,” he explained. “For
me, as a Jew, it was important to have a strong physical experience.”
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
“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.”
sprawling corridors of the massive palace he came across a throne room where an
inscription read, “The gates of Jerusalem belong to Islam.”
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
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