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|Visions of Greatness
A Collection of Inspirational Stories
Rabbi Yosef Weiss
When Mark completed officer training school, he was assigned to a variety of flying missions. Some of these lasted only a week or two; others lasted for months. Mark left for each mission with a satchel of kosher food in his hand, subsisting on tuna and cereal instead of the usual rations.
Kosher food was only one of the many challenges that Mark faced as a religious Jew in the Air Force. He soon developed his own method for dealing with any potential complications. First, he made sure that he did the best possible job, in order to command the respect of his fellow officers; second, he learned to be tactful and discreet, explaining situations before they deteriorated due to misunderstandings. With these two techniques, Mark found himself capable of dealing with his fellow officers and superiors in all sorts of different circumstances.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Mark Seigel earned a reputation as a bright, gifted child. His father, a Korean War , often encouraged him to consider a career in the military. When he turned seventeen, Mark enlisted and became a member of the United States Air Force.
It was during his years of training that Mark began to seriously learn about his Jewish heritage for the first time. Despite his secular upbringing, he had always felt a close connection Creator. Now, as he became acquainted with other religious Jews, he began to observe the laws of the Torah himself. At age of twenty-one, when he was stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, he met his future wife. They were married by Rabbi Eliezer Fetmen, who inspired the young couple to become Shomer Shabbos and live a true Torah life.
In 1989, Captain Mark Seigel was assigned to a top priority mission that would last for an entire year. He'd been selected for two of his most-valued skills: his superb aircrew abilities, and his uncanny expertise in meteorology. Both skills would be in high demand on Shemya Island. This little speck of land, some eight square miles in size, was a dismal place about which officers quipped, "This may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here!"
Shemya Island is the last in a string of islands, called the Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska, near the Kamachtka Peninsula, off the east coast of Russia. The little island, dubbed "The Black Pearl" for its black volcanic sands, housed 20,000 U.S. troops during World War II. Even in peacetime, however, the island retained a crucial strategic status. The highest levels of strategic reconnaissance took place on its lonely shores, as multibillion-dollar aircraft flew over enemy territory under meteorological conditions. With mission briefings in by the CIA and the White House, only the best officers were selected to be stationed there.
Mark could not refuse the assignment, but he worried about his ability to keep the mitzvos especially the laws of Shabbos under such extreme circumstances. Hashem sent the cure before the illness in the form of Colonel Rayburn, commanding officer. Rayburn recognized Mark's sincerity competence and showed a sympathetic respect for his ideals. Thanks to the kiddush Hashem that Mark made with his exemplary behavior and obvious respect for his own religion. Rayburn allowed Mark enough leeway to observe the mitzvos properly. He actually permitted Mark to have every Shabbos off completely, so that he could observe the holy day. Mark did not abuse the privilege; he put in extra luring the week, participating in 14-18 hour reconnaissance missions on a regular basis.
As he had done in the past, Mark ate nothing during the his assignment except vegetables and the ubiquitous cans he had brought along. He soon had reason to be grateful to Hashem for the laws of kashrus. The hazardous weather conditions meant that supplies from the mainland were often and at one point shipments could not be delivered for weeks. The situation deteriorated so badly that the men were to subsist on twenty-year-old C-rations dredged out of storage rooms. The sight and smell of the old rations had Mark counting his blessings fervently. Some of the troops came running on his door, begging him to sell them some of his tuna; Mark, who had enough to spare, willingly shared his supplies. Kiddush Hashem would surely stand him in good stead.
A year's time spent under difficult, dangerous conditions can cause a great deal of stress. Some of the troops on the island, in a spirit of mischievousness, decided to blow off some steam by periodically trashing the officers' quarters. The hapless officers would arrive in their rooms to find the place looking like a tornado had blown it apart.
On one such occasion, Mark heard that all the officers' quarters had been ransacked. Resignedly, expecting to find his personal items strewn all over the place, he went to inspect the damage. To his surprise, he found his room completely untouched the only officer's room to escape the mayhem!
A few days after the puzzling incident, a burly soldier came up to him in the corridor.
"I'll bet you're wondering why your room wasn't trashed," he said.
"I did wonder," Mark admitted. "I thought you guys might have just overlooked my room."
"We did plan on ransacking your room, too," the man told him sheepishly. "But when we were unlocking the door, we noticed something you put on your doorpost. I don't know why, but when we looked at it, it made us all feel nervous. We backed off and decided to leave your room alone."
Mark was amazed. The man was a hulking bear of a soldier, and he and his friends had been frightened off by the mezuzah Mark had affixed to his door!
Part of Mark's duties on Shemya Island included forecasting weather conditions for the reconnaissance missions. This was no small matter. In such harsh meteorological circumstances, a correct forecast could literally make the difference between life and death. Mark's weather predictions were so accurate that Colonel Rayburn would accept his forecast over a contradicting one from the mainland. During the year-long mission, one particular incident regarding Mark's ninety-eight percent accuracy in forecasting caused a tremendous kiddush Hashem and earned Mark the respect of all his fellow officers.
During the preparations for one reconnaissance mission, Mark calculated the weather forecast, giving approval for the fourteen-hour mission. On the way back from the target area at mission completion, the island experienced horrific weather conditions that appeared to make landing at Shemya impossible. The pilot radioed to Rayburn to ask for advice: should they try to proceed toward the island or should they turn back towards the mainland, which was some four hours away with no alternate landing location?
Rayburn consulted Mark. 'They have only thirty minutes left until they hit bingo fuel.("Bingo fuel" is an expression that indicates the moment when fuel limitations require that a final decision must be reached regarding destination.) What's it going to be?"
Mark re-examined his charts, then looked up at the colonel. ''In approximately thirty minutes, sir, conditions will change. The plane will be able to return to our base as scheduled."
Rayburn accepted Mark's prediction and relayed the message that the pilot should continue towards the base.
Twenty minutes passed. Mark monitored the situation in the control tower nearby, anxious to see if the plane would return safely. The runway weather observer's voice crackled over the radio to the aircraft as he reported no change in the weather. The strong crosswinds, blowing at forty-five knots per hour in just the wrong direction, would make it impossible to land.
Another five minutes crept by. There was still no change. Just five more minutes remained before the aircraft reached bingo fuel and ran out of alternatives. Mark was praying silently, begging Hashem that his prediction would not be wrong.
Then, at thirty-one minutes, the winds suddenly veered. As the aircraft was beginning to break away from the landing pattern and head back to the mainland, the wind dropped to five knots per hour, blowing towards the west right down the runway!
As the plane touched down safely at Shemya Island, Mark saw Colonel Rayburn looking at him in something akin to awe. The man was clearly convinced that the incident was nothing short of a miracle!
On one mission, Mark and his crew were privileged to witness the open Hand of Hashem.
The EC-135 jet was flying an exercise over Madrid, Spain, with thirty-six F-4 fighter aircraft. As they began their final descent, Mark radioed to land for an updated forecast.
"There are some small rain showers," came the reply, "but nothing to worry about."
The aircraft descended smoothly, until the plane was just under five thousand feet and four miles away from the landing strip. Until that moment, the weather radar had remained clear; but then, without warning, the craft was caught in a sudden fierce storm. Mark realized that the storm was too much for their craft to handle, and they were all in very real danger. The jet suddenly screamed downwards at the rate of five hundred feet per second. In moments, they would crash to their deaths. The pilot pulled back frantically on the yoke, but the plane would not respond. It seemed clear that there was no way they could survive.
The crew yelled as one, "Brace for impact!"
Mark cried out, "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad"
At that moment, an open miracle occurred. The downdraft came to a complete stop, and the plane pulled out of its nose-live with barely eight hundred feet to spare 1.8 seconds before impact!
The entire crew turned to stare at Mark. No one said anything; there was no need. They all knew that they had just experienced a great miracle.
In the last month of the year long mission, Mark found himself faced with a terrible dilemma. Of all the officers stationed in Shemya Island, he was one of only four with sufficient raining, experience and certifications to participate in a particular reconnaissance mission. Two of those primary officers were on leave, leaving Mark with only one other man to substitute for him if necessary. Mark had worked out a system with the other officer to ensure that the man would take over or him from Friday afternoon until Saturday night. But on hat Friday morning, the other officer fell ill. A new reconnaissance mission was imminent. How could Mark avoid desecrating the Shabbos in such circumstances?
With a prayer to Hashem on his lips, Mark went to confront his commanding officer.
"Sir," he said formally to Colonel Rayburn, "unless it is a matter of life or death, I will not be able to support you for the next twenty-five hours."
In the moment before Rayburn's reply, Mark braced himself. His statement was material enough for a court martial, if he colonel should choose to charge him for insubordination.
No officer can tell his commander, especially in a hazardous area of operations, that he will not be obeying any further commands for a period of time!
To his astonishment, Rayburn smiled at him warmly. "Captain, there is no problem too big for us to solve," he said reassuringly. "I understand how important your Sabbath is to you. If your replacement isn't, back on his feet on time, then the commanding general at headquarters is going to receive a very apologetic phone call from me. I'll explain that our airplanes are undergoing repairs, and that the maintenance crews predict that it will take about twenty-five hours to get them mission-ready again. In the meantime, all operations to support our mission will just have to be flown from the mainland." Rayburn smiled again. "I think that will take care of the problem, don't you?"
Mark could only stand there in shock at this open miracle that would allow him to observe Shabbos properly.
Mark was part of a crew that reached the Kuwaiti theater of operations long before the general population of the U.S. had even heard of the little country. Their plane landed in a remote desert area and the crew was directed to change into civilian clothing before disembarking in order to avoid alarming the local populace. Mark could not help but feel uneasy as he and his fellow officers were directed to a diplomatic compound, surrounded by Arabs on all sides.
At the compound, each man was handed a questionnaire to fill out. Mark skimmed through the list of questions and came to an abrupt halt at one particular query:
"What is your religion?"
Mark did not know what to do. He was the only Jewish person in the crew. True, he and his fellow officers had come help the people of the Persian Gulf region; but as a Jew, he knew that they might very well cut his throat! Even before embarking on this particular mission, he had asked for advice; he'd been told that as long as he did not make any overt reference to his religion, there would be no difficulty. Now, however, was being explicitly asked to name his religion. What should he do?
Hesitantly, he shared his concerns with the other members crew. The men discussed the matter briefly among themselves, then turned back to Mark.
"We think we have the answer." they said. "If none of us answer the question, they'll have no cause for suspicion on Mark. We'll all just leave that particular question blank." Mark was greatly relieved. He knew that he had managed to gain the respect of the crew, and that was why they came through for him when he needed them.
During his last two years of duty, Mark and his family stationed at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, spending one Shabbos in nearby Lakewood, they decided that they had found the perfect place to make their permanent home.
Today, Captain Mark Seigel is a part of the Lakewood community. He is an activist on behalf of a great Torah institution. To the seeming excitement and glamour of his Air Force he says with all sincerity that there is no greater thing he could have done all his life than contribute to the dissemination of Torah.
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