Etan Anthony
1st Lt/USMCR
E Co, 4th Recon BN

Towards the end of my deployment in Afghanistan, I learned how to don the tefillin in my hooch between patrols with my platoon from one village to the next. There, I had fifty other Marines with me protecting each others' back. We felt almost invincible. But when I was deployed to Iraq, a lone Jewish Marine Corps Officer among hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in a remote region of the Syrian border, I had to live with keeping my religious identity to myself.

I recall the loneliness I would feel while standing on the berm separating Iraq from Syria, staring across the desert and dreaming about being in Israel only a couple hundred miles away. I would laugh to myself how I could drive there and back in a day and nobody would have to be the wiser. So close, but a world away. It was like a kind of torture. Maybe Moses felt similar when he wasn't permitted to enter Canaan. I hope not.

As an embedded trainer among 1,500 Iraqi soldiers, I had to conceal my identity twenty-four hours a day. In the eyes of the Iraqis that I was training, I was just another blue-eyed, Christian American. My teammates (all nine of them) understood my situation and knew that my religion had to be kept a secret. I couldn't even have "Jewish" on my dog-tags. We had two Iraqi translators who lived with us, and after a few months we built trust and they learned of my religion, but still I always felt I had to watch my back extra carefully. I was always afraid that somehow my religious identity would get out and an Iraqi officer smiling at me one moment would put a bounty on my head ten minutes later.

My one moment of consolation was going into our team hut on our compound, stepping behind my poncho liner hanging from the ceiling, putting on my tefillin and tallit (which I received from the Aleph Institute) and saying the Shema and daily prayers. My teammates thought it was a strange ritual, but respectfully showed understanding and once in a while even a slight curiosity. I've been told that Jewish Marine Corps officers make up one half of one percent of the USMC. Truly, the very few and just as proud.

Raised as an unobservant Jew in Hollywood, CA, I never considered putting on tefillin. On a visit to Israel with a youth group, a group of Chabad Hassidim in Jerusalem offered to help me put on the tefillin and say a prayer. Being a rebel teenager, I thought it was a silly novelty. But in Iraq where IEDs, roadside bombs, snipers, and gunfights were an everyday occurrence and I knew that each and every day might be my last, I cherished my tefillin.

It was my invisible shield. I would physically put it on while I said my prayers, but even after it was removed, I felt that the presence of G‑d would stay with me and see me through one more day. Or at least give me the courage to face my death if my number was up. I've always believed in G‑d, but being in a high stressed combat environment helped bring my love of G‑d closer than ever.

Since returning from Iraq, I have returned to an almost normal life and, feeling less vulnerable, have since placed my tefillin aside. But after writing this message, I realize that whether in a combat zone surrounded by potential enemies who may or may not hate Jews (let alone a Jewish Marine Officer), or home amongst the tribulations, chaos and temptations of American life, placing my "shield" of G‑d over my body and mind to keep me grounded in His power and love is as important now as it was in the Iraqi desert. I may have felt more at risk in Iraq, but with my tefillin, tallit, and prayer, I feel more whole and complete, as if I carry the spirit of G‑d closer to me.

Maybe that's why I recently started putting them on again, here in the States.