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For Jewish veterans of Afghanistan, feelings of relief and betrayal

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A week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Captain Joshua Zager, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, stood in the historic Beth Israel synagogue in Beaufort, South Carolina, praying the Rosh Hashana liturgy.

“Who shall live, and who shall die/who will die at his predestined time and who before his time/ who by water and who by fire, who by sword,” he said, chanting the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer along with the congregation.

Zager was especially focused on his prayers that year. The next day, he was scheduled to fly his F/A-18 Hornet onto the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had already begun sailing for the Middle East to start striking al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.

Zager, who would fly 42 missions over Afghanistan in the ensuing months, was one of many Jewish soldiers who would fight in the distant country over the next 20 years, including at least 23 who died fighting there.

As America’s longest war comes to its inglorious end, Jewish soldiers reflected on their service in Afghanistan, their experiences as Jews, and their feelings on seeing the scenes of panic and flight in Kabul and beyond as the Taliban retook control of the country after twenty years of sacrifice.

Zager, 49, grew up in New Jersey, and always dreamed of being a fighter pilot.

That plan took a significant detour when he came to Israel for the first time as a teen on a United Synagogue Youth summer program. The connection to Israel he formed on the trip brought him back to Israel for his junior year of college, and to the IDF after graduating Franklin and Marshall College in 1992.

Zager joined Battalion 890 of the Paratroopers Brigade, where he eventually became a squad commander.

In addition to serving in Hebron in the aftermath of the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre, Zager spent most of his service in the Security Zone in southern Lebanon, battling Hezbollah fighters as part of another long and costly occupation by a powerful Western military that ended up in hasty retreat and years of painful national soul-searching.

After finishing his IDF service, Zager returned to the US, where he joined the Marine Corps within a year. He did his Officer Candidate School training in Quantico, Virginia, then headed south to Pensacola, Florida, for Navy flight school.

On the day al-Qaeda terrorists crashed civilian jets into the World Trade Towers in New York City, a field in Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon — killing a childhood friend of his — Zager was stationed in South Carolina, preparing for a scheduled deployment.

“I was fighting Hezbollah and Hamas here in the IDF,” Zager told The Times of Israel, speaking from a Tel Aviv hotel, “and then I go back to home to the United States, and the terror came to the United States and I had to go fight them in an American uniform.”

Exactly a week after the attacks, the USS Theodore Roosevelt left its port in southern Virginia to head for the Middle East as part of Carrier Air Wing One. It was unclear exactly where they were headed and what the precise mission was, as then-president George W. Bush would officially order the beginning of the operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban only on October 7.

He would spend the next seven and a half months away from home and family.

“The whole world wanted to go kick........

© The Times of Israel

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