Acceptance in the US Marines

Survivor's granddaughter "loves freedom, independence we have here."

marine 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
marine 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger)
At the age of 20, having lost most of her family to the Nazis and having spent time herself in Auschwitz, Magdalena Feuerstein arrived in the United States. The salvation America provided - both in sheltering Holocaust survivors and by defeating the Axis - helped instill in her granddaughter, Hannah, a deep appreciation of the country and what it represented. So deep, in fact, that she joined the Marines. "I love all the freedoms that we have here, the independence that we enjoy. It's one of the greatest countries for freedom of expression and acceptance of all people, and that's even more so in the Marines," said the 22-year-old officer-in-training. "You're just a Marine. You're not a female Marine or a black Marine" - or a Jewish Marine. In contrast to some of the well-documented difficulties Jewish enlistees have faced in other US armed services, particularly the air force, Feuerstein said that in the Marines, "for all races and religions, you're fully accepted, and there's no problem." In fact, the other female Jewish soldier in her 50-person platoon has even been given a rare exemption to live off-base so she can keep a kosher kitchen. And kosher MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) are readily available, though their contents - granola bars, raisins, pita chips - can pale in comparison to the chicken with pasta and beef stew that comes in the non-kosher variety. When it comes to being Jewish at the Quantico training facility, Feuerstein said, "it's really not an issue. It's like, 'Oh, you have green eyes.'" On a recent day of stakeouts, patrols and ambushes, those green eyes were covered by oval glasses and peering out from under a hard olive helmet to scour for signs of the enemy gathering in the distance. In the leafy woods of the Virginia base, she was helping claim and defend a hilltop post from a rival platoon's attack that was sure to come later in the day. Her face had been smeared with black and tan marks to match her green-, black- and brown-speckled fatigues. Across her shoulder a black machine gun hung, her 163-cm. frame carrying a canvas rucksack stuffed with food, rain gear, first aid supplies, sleeping pads and much more. There are days when the equipment she has to carry weighs 56 kilos - as much as she does. Feuerstein is no stranger to the rigors of military life, having planned to join the armed forces since high school and enrolling in the Reserve Officers Training Corps as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. But her drive got a boost from the semester she spent in Israel last year. Experiencing life in a country under constant threat of terrorism made her "more motivated to fight against these radicals, the fight we're fighting in the Marine Corps right now," she said, hastening to add that despite similar goals, the countries are not fighting the same fight: "It's not a fight for survival for us like it is for them." Given her interest in military service, she was frequently asked whether she would make aliya and join the IDF. "I love Israel and I love knowing Israelis there," said the political science major, who is eager to practice the Hebrew she learned from her time at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. But, she stressed, "I'm an American and I identify as an American." Besides, she said, she considers the Marines "the best," and that's what she wanted to be part of. "There are definitely higher standards, since it's such a small, select force," she argued, recalling how surprised she was at the relaxed approach in the Israeli military. "I think that we're a better service than they are because of the discipline the Marines require." Her grounding in American values also made her uneasy with some aspects of Israel, especially what she saw as discrimination toward Israeli Arabs. She admitted that America was hardly free from racism and inequality, but maintained that "the goal is there, and that's what our ideal is." In a few months, Feuerstein will likely find herself returning to the Middle East in an American uniform, one of the few new Quantico graduates to have set foot in the region before. Though he graduated years ago, Second Lieutenant Donald Valasek of the media office has also been to the Middle East. Now a guide for journalists visiting Quantico, Valasek visited Israel as part of his first tour with a Marine expeditionary unit visiting Mediterranean forces. "Fantastic" is the word he used to describe that experience, though for all that he absorbed by being in another country, he was struck by the commonalities more than the distinctions. "Military understanding and military approaches are very similar," he said. "Really it was the language barrier that was the only difference." Pressed, he did come up with one other significant difference: Israel's female Armored Corps soldiers. He described being "a little taken aback," but what threw him the most was their pitch-perfect English. Laughing at the memory, he explained that he later found out they had immigrated from Michigan. Feuerstein noted that she had had a somewhat romanticized ideal of women in the IDF, only learning once she arrived in Israel that females' roles are limited there, as they are in the Marines. Though she performs the same tasks as her male counterparts in the six-month officer training program, once finished, she won't be able to serve in the combat roles that many of her male peers will fill. Of the jobs available to her, Feuerstein would like to enter the public relations division, one of the most competitive fields. In the meantime, she and her fellow female recruits make it a point to pull their weight so that their relative size is the only thing that distinguishes them from the men who make up the majority of the platoon. "I work really hard never to fall behind so it won't be an issue," said 23-year-old Naval Academy graduate Diana Zempel, adjusting the positioning of her automatic weapon, as she insisted that women were accepted and treated equally by the men in the unit. Even if Feuerstein's platoon-mates have fully integrated her into the unit - a Marine setting out the plan for a patrol willingly took her suggestions - she still stands out on at least one count: She's a Democrat. She joked about her "minority" status in that regard, but said that views on political parties and presidents didn't change the dedication she and her fellow Marines brought to the job. At any rate, the Boulder, Colorado, native is used to standing out politically. "It's very liberal and in some ways not supportive of military action," she said of her hometown, while still expressing deep affection for the city. "We have to be here for them to have these freedoms to disagree," she added. Her own family also greeted her career path with some raised eyebrows, as it was not the standard choice for a Jewish woman with an Ivy League degree. "It was very atypical, but it was what I wanted to do," she said. "They're very supportive now." Or mostly. Her grandmother is decidedly less than enthusiastic about her choice. "The Holocaust definitely affects her wanting me to be in the military less, because she knows the reality of death," Feuerstein explained. "She's supportive, but she doesn't want to lose any more family in war."