Serving The Troops

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By Ayala Magder

Three weeks later, it’s all anyone can talk about. How did you do in the storm? Did you stay? Lose any cars? Sandy swept in Monday night, surged through our streets, and receded in triumph. We stood Tuesday morning on our sidewalk in Atlantic Beach gasping in awe. So much for thinking this would pan out like Irene. The kids started running up and down the street, scoping out the damage, snapping pictures on their phones. The heaps of debris piled on our front lawn didn’t look too photogenic to me. Neither did our flooded basement, upturned roots, and damaged roof.

We were considered lucky. Long Beach, which is a few short blocks away, looked like a set from one of those end-of-the-world movies. We are taught that everything happens for a reason, an ultimately good purpose. But seriously, G‑d, a hurricane? What good could possibly transpire from such destruction?

There was little time to rest. My parents and siblings all pitched in. We began filling garbage bags with the debris that was strewn all over our yard.

The sun started sinking and an eerie twilight crept in. In 18 minutes the street was black. My father fired up the grill and threw on the thawing meat that was in the no-longer-usable freezer. Suddenly, a loud rumble filled the air. We hurried out the front door to see what was up. I froze as a monstrous camouflaged amphibious army vehicle and accompanying Hummer stopped in front of our house. It looked like something out of Star Wars. Standing on the street were four Marines in full combat gear. It was a scene that is all too familiar on the streets of Israel, but one that no one has ever seen on Bay Boulevard in Atlantic Beach. I summoned my parents. We braved the cold and walked over to the disoriented group.

After we warmly introduced ourselves, the four soldiers explained that they were on a search-and-rescue mission. They received an emergency call reporting an overturned army Jeep containing a trapped soldier at their current location. We assured them that there was no such vehicle present. Shaking their heads, they asked for directions back to Farmingdale. My father asked them if they had a GPS on board their million-dollar vehicle. Mack, the commanding officer, told my father that he preferred handwritten turn-by-turn directions. Or, alternatively, he would take a map if we had one handy. My father smiled and asked, “Who in this day and age uses maps?”

We thanked them for all their hard work, for protecting our country, for dedicating their lives to defending us. I looked at their young faces, not much older than my brother’s, almost completely shielded by the heavy equipment attached to their green helmets. My mom, being the overprotective Jewish mother that she is, was immediately concerned for their welfare. “Do you need a bathroom? You must be hungry; would you like something to eat?” she asked.

They had been working for over 48 hours straight and needed to get back to their base, but they were happy to make a quick bathroom stop before their departure. Three of the young men came inside, and when they were done they hurried back to their awaiting vehicles. Mom wouldn’t let up. “Please join us for dinner. We are having a barbecue. We have no light or power, but the food is good.” One of the officers looked interested.

“Sorry, ma’am, it’s not our call. We will need to speak to the commander.”

“I’ll speak to him,” she said. She hurried over to the man in charge and pleaded with him to eat.

“I don’t know if we can, but thank you for the bathroom.”

I guess you don’t argue with the commander. Again, we expressed our appreciation to them as they turned to head back to the trucks, high-fiving the little kids and thanking us for our graciousness. As we turned around to head back in, my little sister tugged on my mother’s coat. “Mom, I think they really wanted to eat with us.”

“You think so?”

She looked at their eager little faces and back at the truck. Audaciously, Mom walked back over to the commander, “Come on, join us for a barbecue. We’ll feed you quickly and you’ll be on your way.”

Two feet of saltwater and sewage filled our basement and ten candles lit the kitchen of our powerless, cold home. The commander responded, “Thank you, ma’am, but I’ll discuss it with the boys.” Disappointed by his polite decline, we turned and walked back inside, Mom satisfied that she had done everything she could and that at least the offer itself would leave G‑d smiling.

We went back inside, and a few minutes later the monster truck with seven five-foot wheels backed up the street and parked in front of our house, blocking the driveway. Four National Guardsmen knocked on the door. They had arrived for dinner.

Under the romantic aura of several tea lights, we all sat down. The commander made sure his boys ate before he did. About 15 minutes into the meal, my mother asked him why he wasn’t eating. Politely, he replied, “I don’t have a fork, ma’am.” Mom wasn’t used to us waiting for a fork to eat. She apologized for the neglect and my brother ran to get him a utensil.

Through the course of the meal, we learned about being a soldier in the U.S. military, the challenges of being apart from your family for so long. Two of the boys had recently returned from Iraq. They shared with us their stories—what it was like in 140-degree heat in Iraq. My mom said she never knew that there was a base in Farmingdale. “I’m sorry, ma’am, there are certain questions we are not allowed to answer,” said the commander.

After a nice relaxing and informative meal, the commander said that they had to get going. Before getting up from the table, he asked my father for his e‑mail address. He was appreciative of our hospitality and said he would like to do something in turn for us. My father said that it was not necessary. “This is what we do. There is no need to reciprocate. We appreciate your hard work.” The commander insisted and took the address. We noticed the officers glancing at my father’s and brother’s yarmulkes. They wanted to ask, but dared not. The commander loved the pasta salad left over from Shabbos and insisted on getting the recipe.

They were all so polite and very appreciative.

“What about dessert?”

“Thank you, but we must get going.”

Mom packed them some food, and they all shook hands with the children, who were beaming with excitement. And then the commander shook my dad’s hand, turned to him slowly and said, “I’m going to take my boys and leave because if we stay any longer, I’ll start crying. You have been so kind.” They got up from the table and headed out into the pitch-black darkness, all the while thanking us profusely.

It was clear to me that these boys were on call and had not slept in days. Amidst everyone’s misery, no one had taken a moment to thank them for their hard work until then. At that moment it all became clear. G‑d puts us in situations—even hurricanes—that give us opportunities to make a kiddush Hashem. Without question, that has been the strongest message for everyone throughout our community affected by Sandy. The stories are endless. My family has been helping others in need nonstop. Many friends have reached out to us as well and have been so gracious. I’m happy that we were given this opportunity. G‑d is surely smiling at all our efforts.

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