Hal Brewster had spent the summer of 2001 between his junior and senior years of high school at Buckeye Boys State. This in-depth, selective educational program allows high school students a hands-on week in civic engagement, aimed at teaching the rights and responsibilities of being an American. Run by the American Legion—the nation’s largest veterans’ service organization—it had a strong undercurrent of service, which appealed to Brewster, whose father and brother had served in uniform. But even after leaving Boys State, he was not considering a stint in the military for himself.
DECIDING TO JOIN
When school began that fall, Brewster began filling out his college applications but not looking into ROTC scholarships in any serious way. But then America was attacked in an unthinkable way.
“It certainly changed me,” Brewster says of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in which 2,996 were killed and thousands more injured. “Like so many, I have very clear and vivid memories of the planes and the looks of shock on the faces of everyone in the school, myself included.” And although he was safe in Boardman, Ohio, just south of Youngstown, and not in harm’s way, something clicked. “After the attacks, I knew I was going to enroll in an ROTC program at the college I ended up choosing.”
A STUDENT IN UNIFORM
The following fall, he arrived on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, and by that time the nation was already at war in Afghanistan. During his freshman year, the United States invaded Iraq. Three mornings a week, Brewster would dress in uniform and walk through Red Square, the area of the campus specifically reserved for student organizations’ promotions and protest. As it became increasingly clear that the United States would invade Iraq, student protestors set up a camp of tents in protest. No one who saw him in uniform ever said anything negative, but the encounters stick in his memory to this day. “They were protesting the war, not my choice to serve, but it was such a stark juxtaposition.”
Of the Georgetown class of 2006, there were only about a dozen graduates combined joining the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy as commissioned officers.
“The military has large contingents from certain geographic regions, like the South, and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” he says. “I was one of only three Georgetown graduates going into the army. When it comes to the military, the country is segmented along lines of class and region, and to a certain extent, religion.”
BEING JEWISH IN THE ARMY
Brewster, the son of a fifth-generation Episcopal minister and Jewish mother, attended Jewish day school growing up. His father had served in the Navy at the end of the Korean War and his brother was an Army reservist during the first Gulf War, although he did not deploy.
Between Hal’s junior and senior years, he attended a five-week cadet training at Ft. Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) south of Seattle, Washington. During one particularly miserable, rainy day out in the field, someone announced that a chaplain was visiting and would hold a non-denominational service in a nearby tent. Eager to get out of the rain, and comfortable with Christian services, Brewster attended. “It ended up being a traditional Catholic mass,” he recalls. After the service, he made an offhand comment to one of the cadre (the officers leading the camp) that the service had been pretty targeted to a specific set of cadets and not, as it had been advertised, non-denominational.
“A few days later, I’m out sitting in the dirt in the forest, and I hear, “‘Cadet Brewster, get over here.’ I was convinced I was in trouble.”
They told him there was someone there to talk to him. It was the Jewish chaplain. “You want to talk?” he asked. “No, not really,” Brewster responded.
“They had called him to speak to me; they thought my comment was me lodging a Jewish protest,” he says.
After graduation, Brewster attended basic officer leader courses in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and Fort Knox, Kentucky before joining his unit, the First Infantry Division, in Ft. Riley, Kansas. He deployed to Iraq in early fall 2008 for one year.
While stationed overseas, he occasionally had the opportunity to engage in Jewish activities around holidays. Before the unit moved north to Iraq, he was stationed at Camp Buehring, a staging post for U.S. troops in the northwestern region of Kuwait. While there, he saw a flyer for a pre-Kol Nidre meal. “I remember sitting in a tent with eight to 10 people I didn’t really know. This woman, also a soldier, went to great length to cook a meal. She did a great job. It was a sense of community I did not expect to find and was very comforted to have found just days before I would leave for Baghdad province.”
Brewster’s battalion was initially stationed in a small forward operating base near Mahmudiyah, about 25 miles away from Ur, where the Bible tells us that God first spoke to Abraham. Later, Brewster’s battalion moved to one of the largest bases in Iraq, on the outskirts of Baghdad. With the bigger base came more opportunities for religious services. He heard that on the other side of the base where the generals lived—Camp Victory—there was going to be a service and meal for Rosh Hashanah. Because the base was so large, he drove one of his platoon’s Humvees to the service.
“I had this tremendous sense of relief. My platoon had not suffered any casualties, and we were all going to make it home to our families alive,” he says. “The feeling was all the more powerful because it once again coincided with the traditional time of reflection for Jews.”
In all, Brewster spent four years as an active duty U.S. Army officer, achieving the rank of captain. During his deployment, as a scout and sniper platoon leader, he led 40 specialized soldiers in more than 150 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and is the recipient of Bronze Star medal for service.
Upon returning home in 2010, he was the veterans outreach coordinator for Ohio’s Gov. Ted Strickland, who was defeated in his gubernatorial reelection bid. Following that, he attended Princeton, where he received a Master of Public Affairs, and then graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center.
“My time in the military will forever be one of the defining chapters of my life,” he reflected. “It was not until years later, however, when I had some distance, that I began to see how my Judaism was such an important thread running through that time. I am not the most devout Jew—far from it—but the Jewish traditions that I got to participate in while in theater hold great meaning for me. I will never forget the High Holy Days bookending my time in Iraq.”
To read Hal Brewster’s reflections at the time, read these blog entries from the New York Times.