'I'm Jewish. Here's How a Christian Pastor Helped Me Through The Iraq War'

I joined the army after law school. I wanted to serve my country. I thought that being an army lawyer would help me grow in the legal profession in a unique and challenging place. I had also graduated during the recession and I could not find another job. I knew that I made a mistake pretty much right away, but I did not realize how painful a mistake it was until the summer of 2010 when I got orders to deploy to Iraq as part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

We were stationed at a small outpost about an hour south of Baghdad and it was about 115 degrees outside. I was the lawyer, so I got a sense that people didn't really like me—after all, I was the guy who told people that they couldn't do what they wanted to do. And even though combat operations were over, our bases still got shelled pretty much every night by rocket attacks. Now, when somebody is shooting rockets at you, there's not much that you can do, except get on the ground as flat as you possibly can and hope that they don't hit you.

You can imagine that after about five months of this, everybody on that base was scared out of their mind. The regimental command decided to send out a questionnaire to every trooper on the base to gauge unit morale. Some of the questions were really basic, like whether we were getting enough sleep. But one question that really stood out for me was: "Do you have a spiritual support network?" Now, I was not a religious person. So, I checked the "No," box, handed in my survey and didn't think any more of it.

The next day, I had a knock on the door of my containerized housing unit. It was the regimental chaplain, Major Claude Brittian.

Major Brittian was a Baptist pastor from Georgia. He had a big gap between his front teeth that you could always see, because even though there was a war going on, he was always smiling. The chaplain said to me, "Brother Daniel, I noticed that you are of the Jewish faith and you said that you do not have a spiritual support network. Would you like my assistance?" Now, I don't remember telling the chaplain that I was Jewish, but he knew that I was a lawyer from New York, so he could have put two and two together.

I didn't think that I needed help, but here was this man standing in my doorway smiling at me, offering me kindness. And who was I to say no to a Baptist pastor who outranks me? So, I said: "Yes, I would like some help." The next day, a box showed up at my door. It had four yamakas, a box of Hanukkah candles, a dreidel, and a pamphlet entitled Judaism: Customs and Practices.

This was all stuff that I didn't really know that I needed, but I was very touched by the gesture. A month later the chaplain approached me a second time and said, "Brother Daniel, I have found that there are other Jews who are living on this outpost. Would you like to get together with them on Friday night for Shabbat services?" Now, I had two major objections to this. The first one was, I wasn't a very religious person. The second one was something about my people's history that told me that we shouldn't put all the Jews together in one place. It was like putting all your eggs in one basket, but here was this man smiling at me, offering me this kindness again, so I didn't want to say no.

iraq, iraq war, jewish, christian
US soldiers stand at attention during a handover ceremony of the "entry control points" of Baghdad's Green Zone, now referred to as the International Zone, to Iraqi control inside the heavily-fortified compound in Baghdad on June 1, 2010. Daniel Sperling served as a JAG as part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in an outpost about an hour south of Baghdad. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

So, on Friday night, I went down to the post chapel. It was a little awkward because it was a multi-use chapel, which meant that there were crosses and Christian iconography everywhere. Only one of the three Jews on post spoke Hebrew, and it wasn't me. And, the chaplain's assistant, perhaps he had never really seen a Shabbat service before, was very curious. So, he stayed in the shadows and watched us the whole time. We got through the service. We said the prayer over the candles and we were about to say good night, when the chaplain's assistant jumped up and said: "Wait, there's more! Follow me."

We followed him to the back of the chapel where he opened up the door to the closet so we could all see a box in there. "Open the box," he said. Inside the box are 16 glistening bottles of purple Manischewitz wine.

Not grape juice, wine. The chaplain's assistant then said: "The service is not over until you've said the prayer over the wine and you've all had a drink." My lawyer alarm goes off like an air raid siren: "Wait a minute. General Order Number one specifically prohibits imbibing intoxicating beverages in a deployed environment." "No lawyer, you're wrong," the chaplain's assistant replied. "There's an exception to that policy for Jews. On Friday nights, Jews are allowed to have one glass of Manischewitz wine with Shabbat services."

We raised our glasses, we said the pair over the wine, and we all had a drink. And because it was the first time any of us had had a drink in about six months, that was all it took to get us completely smashed. I had found my spiritual support network.

The alcohol and the companionship on Friday night, it really helps, but that in and of itself wasn't really enough to get us through the pain of a yearlong deployment. What helped much more than that was knowing that there was somebody out there who was there watching out for us, helping us find the spiritual support network that I didn't know that I needed.

The Iraq War ended, or at least it did for me when I went home to the U.S. I found out a few years afterwards that Chaplain Brittian actually passed away. He was in his early 50s. A lot of people came out to remember him because I wasn't the only one on that post who he helped out during a very dark time. There were about 1,200 troopers on that base, and I suspect he helped find a spiritual support network for all of us.

So, now on Friday nights when I drink wine, I drink to the kindness and the memory of a Baptist pastor.

Daniel Sperling grew up in Queens, NY, surrounded by animals that his biology professor father liked to bring home from his laboratory. After law school, he served as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the U.S. Army for six years. Following the army, he moved to Minnesota, where he still lives with his wife and their dog.

This is an edited version of a story originally told live at The Moth– one of the more than 40,000 true personal stories shared from stages around the world since 1997. It can be found on their website and heard on The Moth Radio Hour and podcast.

All views expressed in this piece are the author's own.