At first, Rickey Slezak was not happy when her husband, William, told her he wanted to go to Afghanistan. He is a career civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers and “he thought it would be an interesting experience,” said Slezak. “But I wouldn’t let him go until he said to me, ‘Maybe we could do it together.’”
Child care was not a consideration. Their three children range in age from 26 to 31; none lives with them in West Orange.
So, said Slezak, who teaches customer service and office skills at the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, “my husband and I deployed together.”
The two returned in February after more than a year in Afghanistan, where William served as a project manager overseeing construction of housing and offices on the base and was involved in training Afghans to someday replace Americans in many supervisory roles.
Rickey, confined to the Kandahar Air Base, worked as a temporary employee collecting and disseminating reports and helping people with travel arrangements.
Some 30,000 Americans are stationed there in the dangerous Pashtun region of Afghanistan that is rife with Taliban fighters.
Although she described the experience as “intense,” Slezak added quickly that “it was not very scary” — at least most of the time.
“Yeah, there was danger there, but when we were on the base we didn’t experience it too much,” she told NJJN in a March 29 phone interview. “We did have rocket attacks regularly and we went into bunkers. We had two close calls. One of the rockets landed right behind our compound and almost everybody saw and heard it. There was quite a bit of damage to the building it landed next to, but fortunately no one was inside it at the time. Shrapnel pierced the building.”
On another occasion a suicide bomber attacked the outside of the base in a truck filled with explosives, taking not only his life but those of several Afghans waiting to deliver supplies inside.
“We were about half a block away,” said Slezak. The explosion “shook every building in our compound and set off all the fire alarms. Everyone started running for the bunkers. It felt like it was right nearby.”
Because she was a noncombatant, Slezak could not leave the military installation. That meant her movements were limited to an area the size of West Orange.
“You can’t go sightseeing in Afghanistan. You can’t leave the base unless you are on a mission, and when you do leave the base, you have to wear full-body armor, a helmet, a bulletproof vest, and a fire-retardant jump suit to go two kilometers away in an armored vehicle,” she said.
‘Sometimes a minyan’
Although Slezak grew up in the Westchester County town of Armonk in what she described as a “very non-Jewish setting,” the confinement of Kandahar drew her close to the small but important Jewish community on the base.
“When I first arrived I was very aware of being different,” she acknowledged. “But within a week of being there I found there was a Friday night service on the base. On Shabbat we would get maybe seven or eight people to have dinner together. Sometimes we had a minyan. The most we had on a regular Friday night was 12 and the least we had was four. But it was a really meaningful part of my life. It was great.”
Not all of the Jews stationed in Kandahar attended services, and those who did sometimes found themselves worshiping in a war zone.
“If you had to work on a Friday night, you worked, and if you got a phone call, you left and did what you needed to do,” she explained.
With the exception of a rabbi who visited on the High Holy Days, lay leaders conducted services until shortly before the Slezaks left, when the Army stationed a Jewish chaplain at the base.
Since February, her husband has been back in the Corps of Engineers’ New York office. She has just completed her volunteer stint as co-coordinator of the NJ Jewish Film Festival and is preparing to return to her job teaching customer service and office skills at the JVS in East Orange.
Asked to reflect on the American mission in Afghanistan, Slezak paused for a moment before commenting.
“We are so removed from the war here. It is so far away from us physically and in our consciousness,” she said.
“We don’t want to do what the Russians did in Afghanistan — just go there to slash and burn. We want to win hearts and minds. So we send our soldiers into villages in these big mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. But when they get out, they don’t know with each step they take whether they are going to step on an improvised explosive device. They go with their translators and they are supposed to make friends with the people. Can you imagine being in that position? It is a really hard thing to do.”
She added: “They are supposed to be fighting the ‘bad guys,’ but if you are one of the villagers you know by talking to the Americans that the ‘bad guys’ are going to come in and destroy your village. It is such a complicated and difficult thing. It’s a mess.”