By Chaplain Lt. Col. Yaakov Bindell
New Jersey was one of the early states to get hit with the coronavirus. As the disease spread across the state, the New Jersey National Guard was swiftly called to action. As the State Command Chaplain of New Jersey, within just a few weeks, my job duties suddenly changed from training and developing chaplains, to leading chaplains through one of the biggest challenges this country has seen in over 100 years. I quickly organized groups of chaplains to go visit soldiers and airmen at COVID-19 testing sites, field hospitals, mortuary affairs operations, veteran homes, and long-term care facilities across the state. While I could share countless stories of heroism during the early stages of the pandemic, I feel most inspired by how our service members helped their fellow veterans during the pandemic.
During the early stages of the pandemic, there were many deaths at veteran homes across the state. While soldiers tried to help in any way they could, seeing our state’s heroes make their last stand in the face of COVID-19 took a heavy toll on the soldiers assigned to the homes. In order to make sure the veterans who died during this tough time were properly honored, several soldiers working in a dementia unit called Old Glory provided flags in honor of the veterans.
But these soldiers and airmen didn’t just go out of their way to make sure the dead received their due honor, they also provided assistance for the living veterans at the homes. At the beginning of the pandemic, for safety reasons, visitors were not allowed to see their family members in person. After several lonely months of not being able to see their family and relatives, veterans were finally given a special day when they would be allowed to see family, albeit only from a window. This day was hugely important for the veterans. Until then, their companions were their adopted military helpers and staff. Despite only being able to see family members through a thick window barrier, soldiers and airmen stepped up to make it the best experience possible. They helped veterans communicate with their families by making sure all cell phones were ready and that windows were clean so residents could see their family members clearly. You could feel the excitement of that momentous day from the firsthand account of one chaplain. “This mission was so encouraging to the soldiers and airmen. It was like they were walking on air. And for good reason! The event wasn’t scheduled to take place until the end of the day, but the whole day was full of excitement and preparation.”
The connection between service member and veteran has always been strong but this pandemic has brought us even closer than we could have imagined. For instance, when Memorial Day arrived after months of little human contact, the ceremonies held at the veterans homes were powerful and emotional events for service members and veterans alike. As military members and veterans, we remember the dead and fallen every year, but this year is different. We have lost so many heroes to COVID-19. However, the virus has not only taken our veterans. Many others have died in this most unusual and surreal war. Something that makes this war different than the wars we as service members are used to is that non-service members and family members are in just as much danger as the servicemembers themselves.
I have also been impacted by the deaths this war has caused. The morning I was asked to write this article, I found out the mother of a soldier had passed away. By noon that same day, I had to make a shiva call to a friend of mine whose father had passed away. That evening I got a call that a cousin of mine had passed away. It has been a tremendously difficult year of death and sickness. I hope and pray that the Jewish New Year brings health and recovery to our great nation. The High Holidays are almost upon us. This year, let us pray for life and good health. And at this year’s Yizkor service, let us remember and honor those who have left us. Shana Tova and may you all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Volume 74. Number 3. 2020