Local soldier returns from Afghanistan

Local soldier returns from Afghanistan

Berkoff ‘always wanted to serve’

Captain Ross Berkoff always knew he wanted to serve his country.

"When I was little, I was fanatic about American history," said the Fair Lawn resident, who returned to the United States in June after a 16-month extended deployment in Afghanistan as a squadron intelligence officer with the 10th Mountain Division.

Ross Berkoff recently returned from a 16-month deployment in Afghanistan. Below, he is greeted by his mother, Paula Berkoff.

"I used to drag my family to national historical parks," said Berkoff, who explained that his love of history — he particularly enjoyed Civil War re-enactments — turned early to a study of military history.

Berkoff, who also served in Afghanistan during his first tour of duty, ‘003 to ‘004, is finishing his army service at Fort Drum in New York. The ‘7-year-old soldier, who will have completed five years of military service in August, was awarded Bronze Stars during both deployments.

"It’s almost surreal to be home," he said, adding that "it’s now time to move on." He plans to move to Washington, D.C., to begin his civilian career.

"Ross was always a patriot," said his mother, Paula Berkoff. "He always wanted to serve. He was an Eagle Scout, the president of his class during his four years at Fair Lawn High School, and he volunteered in the community," she added, pointing out that he had worked in the gardens behind Fair Lawn’s historic Garretson Forge and Farm.

After high school, Berkoff became a cadet, participating in an ROTC program at Tulane University in New Orleans and graduating as a second lieutenant. Following his first stint in Afghanistan, where he served as a scout platoon leader, he received intelligence training and returned to Afghanistan as squadron intelligence officer.

According to Berkoff, people in his home community — and at the school in Wayne where his mother teaches kindergarten — were exceedingly generous while he was abroad.

"The Fair Lawn Jewish Center collected [provisions] and sent 18 boxes," said Paula Berkoff, noting that the supplies members provided were distributed not only to the personnel at her son’s base but also to surrounding areas "to show them that Americans are good people."

"Some of the people had never seen Westerners before," she added, noting that her son felt he was there "to make a difference," helping to build schools, hospitals, and sanitation facilities.

The Lafayette School in Wayne also provided "amazing support," she said, sending supplies and welcoming the soldier home with a large red, white, and blue cake.

"It’s so difficult for the families who are home," she said, noting that throughout his deployment, she felt both fear and pride. "We almost fell apart when his deployment was extended for another four months," she added, noting that one of the areas he visited had once housed Osama bin Laden. Also, she said, in Afghanistan her son lost both his best friend and the lieutenant colonel who had served as his mentor.

"We take so many luxuries here for granted," said Berkoff, reporting that during his first tour in Afghanistan — with difficult terrain and with summer temperatures that can climb to 1’5 degrees — both food and fans were in short supply. His mother explained that electric generators didn’t always work, particularly when the Taliban stole the gasoline needed to power them.

"When I finally got to stay at one base, I thought how nice it would be to have a college-style mini-refrigerator," said Berkoff. Eager to oblige, his mother sent one, and he was able once again to enjoy perishable foods.

The soldier, who brought his own siddur and kippah to Afghanistan, said that prayerbooks could be obtained from visiting chaplains. And, he noted, kosher food could be obtained on request.

"There’s a stereotype," he said. "People hear ‘Jewish’ and they hear ‘military’ — a minority within a minority. They ask me to tell them about anti-Semitism in the army, but I haven’t seen any," he said, noting that fellow soldiers "may be curious but I haven’t seen any discrimination."

"This country is great because it’s a conglomeration [of people] of all different backgrounds," he said, noting that he served along with Muslim, Buddhist, and Wiccan soldiers. "We’re fighting to keep it that way."

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