By Aviva Perlman
When looking for places to go on a soul-finding mission, Iraq is probably not most people’s ideal choice. But for Michael Schwartz, it was exactly the right destination.
Having drifted away from Judaism as a teenager and losing site of the direction he wanted his life to take, 21-year-old Schwartz reconnected while completing a 15-month tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
"I had been relatively disconnected from who I was up until that point,” said Schwartz. “But being in Iraq woke something up inside of me."
Schwartz's journey began three years earlier after an unfulfilling first semester of college.
"I wasn't enjoying my college experience," he said. "I didn't feel it was the right place for me to be at the time and felt I needed to get out into the world to figure things out and find my own way."
Initially interested in joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Schwartz ultimately chose the U.S. Army after his family was not keen on the idea of him being in Israel during the start of the second intifada.
Even still, his decision was met with resistance.
"I was really the only one who thought I was doing the right thing for myself," Schwartz said. "My mom was not in favor of it and had a very negative idea of what I was doing, my friends thought I lost my mind and though I am uncertain if my dad agreed with it, he did support my decision because it was what I wanted to do."
As expected, things did not get any easier when he went through basic training. According to Schwartz, he was the only Jew in a company of between 150 to 200 people.
“For whatever reason a lot of people believed that Jews can’t make good soldiers because they aren’t hard working enough or aren’t blue collar or can’t do what other people can do,” he said. “Here I was, a suburban, middle-class, Jewish kid who had pretty much everything he needed growing up, trying to prove himself.”
Schwartz would soon find himself battling his own stereotypes.
After basic training, Schwartz was placed with the Alpha Company of the 37th Engineer Battalion as a paratrooper. In 2002, they were sent to Nicaragua to prepare humanitarian assistance in remote villages to build schools, roads and hospitals. One year later he was reassigned to the U.S. Army, Europe Command in Germany.
“I wasn’t initially happy about the idea of having to live [in Germany],” said Schwartz. “But, the same way I was able to change the perceptions others had of Jews, being in Germany helped change my perceptions I had of Germans.”
At the end of April 2003, after four months in Germany, Schwartz’s division was mobilized and sent to Kuwait. A few days later, he was in Baghdad and his tour in Iraq began, marking the turning point in his emotional and spiritual journey.
While in Iraq, Schwartz spent several weeks as a military escort for a battallion chaplain, where he engaged in discussions about religion and faith and visited ancestral grounds.
“I was able to go see Babylon and much of the area described in the Old Testament, like the birthplace of Abraham,” said Schwartz. “Walking on ground my ancestors walked on thousands of years ago made me understand the connection I had to that part of the world and the connection I had to my people."
When his overseas deployment was completed in January 2005, Schwartz decided to return to college. After taking some time off to unwind and acclimate himself to non-army life, Schwartz enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study political science and economics.
Now 25 and a junior at Pitt, Schwartz is very satisfied with the choices he has made thus far.
“At times it felt like I should have been further along in my life, that I should have been done with a BA and already working on my MA,” he said. “But, I chose to do things my way and it worked. It made me a stronger, better, more focused person. Had I not made the decisions I made, I can’t say that I would have made it to this point quite so successfully.”
According to Schwartz, his decision to join the army was a carefully chosen one and that enlisting should not be viewed as a negative action.
“You need to make sure you get what you want out of your decisions,” he said. “Do what you want to do because you shouldn’t have to conform to anyone else’s standard beliefs.”
Aviva Perlman is the Communications Associate at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.