Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

A Tale of Two Jewish U.S. Soldiers: a Commander and a Rhodes Scholar

December 5, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As he sped north to Baghdad on March 22, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter was looking for signs of ancient Babylonian Jewry.

But there was no time.

That’s because Rutter, 41, was leading nearly 900 soldiers driving 150 vehicles, including 14 M-1 battle tanks and 30 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as they shot northward from Kuwait to Iraq’s capital city during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Our focus,” Rutter said, “was on direct combat.”

As commander of one of the lead forces into Iraq — the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division — known as the 2-7 — Rutter was the highest-ranking Jew in the U.S. armed forces, one of some 300 Jews among 130,000 troops in Iraq.

Rutter is one of two Jewish soldiers who talked to JTA recently about the fighting in Iraq. A veteran soldier, Rutter recently returned from Iraq and last month retired from the service. 2nd Lt. Daniel Helmer, 22, a recent graduate of West Point, just won a Rhodes Scholarship and is awaiting orders to get shipped off to Iraq.

It remains rare for a Jew to rise as high as Rutter in the military’s ranks.

Rutter said he didn’t encountered much outright anti-Semitism during his rise through the ranks, just ignorance. But in some ways, Rutter said it was difficult to be a Jew in a what he called a “Christian-oriented” military. “There was always a lack of senior officer mentorship” for Jews, he said.

On April 3, Rutter and the 2-7 captured Saddam Hussein International Airport in a bloody and decisive battle against the Republican Guard. He quickly renamed the facility Baghdad International Airport.

“I knew there was a George Bush Airport in Houston, so I couldn’t name it that,” he said.

Rutter was no stranger to Iraq. A veteran company commander of the first Gulf War who had won a Broze Star for valor for heroism in ground combat, Rutter won a Silver Star in combat this year in Iraq.

His victories did not come easily. Rutter’s company lost 10 soldiers, and more than 35 were badly injured.

Rutter notes that two Jewish soldiers — Mark Evnin, 21, a Marine corporal, and David Bernstein, 24, an Army lieutenant and West Point honors graduate — also lost their lives in the war.

“The price was very significant,” Rutter said. Yet “sometimes there is a cost of victory in regime capitulations.”

Still, Rutter said his faith in the ongoing operation in Iraq and the war on terrorism generally will not waver, calling the attacks of Sept. 11 the Pearl Harbor of the current generation of troops.

When an Iraqi sniper killed one of his soldiers and a suicide car bomber killed four more on the same day, Rutter said he told his forces, “We’re not animals. We’re in this to protect our country and the world.”

A Philadelphia native and 1983 military graduate of North Carolina’s Campbell University, Rutter retired Nov. 1 after 20 years in the military in order to spend more time with his wife and two young sons. Since then, he’s begun lecturing at colleges and synagogues and is even considering a run for Congress.

While Rutter settles into civilian life, Helmer is gearing up to get shipped off to Iraq.

Stationed in Ft. Knox, Ky., Helmer, who one Jewish official termed a “Tom Cruise look-alike,” just last month learned he was among 32 Rhodes Scholars selected to study at Britain’s Oxford University for 2004. But he may have to defer those plans.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Helmer grew up in Haddonfield, N.J. His Israeli-born father is an attorney, and his mother is a physician.

Helmer traces his Jewish military heritage to his paternal grandfather, who fought with the British Army before becoming a company commander in Israel’s nascent army during the 1948 War of Independence. At the time, he served under a young leader named Moshe Dayan.

“I decided, based on my family history, that I had an obligation to serve,” Helmer said. “My family came to America and not only survived, but thrived.”

At the U.S. Military Academy, Helmer stood out among the cadets. He studied military history and Arabic and was president of the academy’s Hillel. With West Point’s chaplain and rabbi, Maj. Carlos Huerta, Helmer organized the first Jewish Warrior Weekend at the academy, which explored Jewish connections to the military.

“Jews don’t understand that military service is derived from the idea of tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, Helmer said.

The cadet also helped coordinate a West Point Shabbat Across America, a project of the National Jewish Outreach Program that introduces Shabbat customs to tens of thousands of Jews every year.

At the Jewish Warrior Weekend, some of Helmer’s peers asked him why a Jew would join the U.S. armed forces rather than the Israeli army.

“This is my country,” Helmer said. “My freedom to be a Jew without being persecuted is contingent in many ways upon the sacrifices of American soldiers, many of whom have been Jewish.”

Like Rutter, Helmer said he, too, encountered ignorance about Jews.

One officer at the academy removed the mezuzah Helmer had affixed to his dormitory-room door because it violated regulations. Helmer was permitted to put it back up once he explained the religious reasons behind it.

Since the summer, Helmer has been training with the 1-68 Armored Battalion of the 3rd Brigade combat team, 4th Infantry Division, which appears headed to Iraq.

The prospect of shipping out to the Middle East has not dimmed Helmer’s plans to study international relations in peace and development studies at Oxford upon his return.

“I’ve always hoped to have the honor and privilege of serving with American soldiers at any given time,” he said. “If you can be there, you should be there.”

Recommended from JTA