News: Former Israeli soldier finds footing in US Army National Guard
Story by Capt. Kyle Key
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Last summer, near the Sea of Galilee in the northern Israeli settlement of Mitzpe Adi, Daniel J. Houten finished up routine repairs on an Israeli Army M113 armored personnel carrier. As he shut the hood, he also closed the door on another chapter in his life.
Born to a successful Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y., Houten was afforded many advantages. His father, Dr. John K. Houten, director of spinal services for Montefiore Medical Center and one of the top-rated neurosurgeons in New York, sent him to the finest boarding schools in the metropolitan area. By the time he reached high school, however, Houten’s sense of purpose had been tested. He lost his motivation, focus and ambition.
Eventually he withdrew from school altogether and set off by himself for the "Gold Coast" of California.
There Houten wandered aimlessly, and while he often thought about his future, he did not find any answers. In search of direction and purpose, he wanted to join the U.S. Army - but without a GED and 15 hours of college credit, he was ineligible. His next move came by accident.
He recalls: “Someone mentioned to me, ‘Hey, what about Israel? They have this program where you can join the military simply because you’re Jewish.’”
Young Houten investigated and found out that he didn’t need to be a citizen or have a diploma to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Although his religious faith had diminished somewhat, he still identified himself as a Jew and felt strong connections to Israel, the homeland of his people, culture and religion. He decided this should be his next step in life.
Houten flew into the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv in September 2009. His IDF paperwork and in-processing took nearly two and a half months. While waiting on clearance, Houten served at Kibbutz Ein Harod (Ichud), a collective farm near Nahariya in northern Israel.
“I loved my time there,” said Houten, who prior to serving at Ein Harod, had rarely seen a farm much less worked on one. “It was centered around an old crusader basilica that had been rebuilt by the Ottomans after it was destroyed by the Mamelukes. It was later used as a stronghold during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence for the people of [the] kibbutz and took some heavy attacks. It’s a beautiful place full of history.”
Houten left Kibbutz Ein Harod and was sworn into the IDF Dec. 21, 2009, at age 18. Before long he found himself face down sucking up sand as he and his fellow recruits were initiated into one of the best armies in the world.
“We did a lot of pushups,” Houten said. “It was tough and our drill instructors were intimidating.”
Houten’s class was composed of Jewish men and women from all over the globe. He and his fellow recruits completed Course Ivrit, a combination of a Hebrew language course and basic training.
“We couldn’t speak English,” said Houten. “The commanders wouldn’t speak anything but Hebrew to us. It was a good transition though, because there I was serving in the Israeli military and I was immersed in Hebrew.”
It didn’t take Houten long to become fluent in Hebrew, and proficient in reading and writing. After basic training, he went to school to learn an occupational skill as an Machanai Nagmash, an armored personnel carrier M113 mechanic, in the Nachal Infantry Brigade’s 933rd Battalion. He quickly made friends and moved into a group apartment in Haifa, a city in northern Israel.
During his first few days on the job, Houten found a mentor who took him under his wing for the next year and a half.
“My commander, an outstanding Israel Army non-commissioned officer named Yoni, taught me a lot, and not just about M113s,” said Houten. “I don’t know if he realized it, but a lot of my self confidence I gained from him as a role model.”
As he matured professionally, the young man who had lost faith in his faith also experienced a religious awakening.
“Being in Israel brought me back a little closer to Judaism,” said Houten. “I had gone to California because I was having arguments with my parents. I had really pushed myself about as far away from Judaism as I could.”
In Israel Houten prayed often with his fellow soldiers and also at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
“Being in Israel and the homeland of my religion, ethnicity of my people and going to all sorts of holy and incredible places was amazing to see,” said Houten. “Since then, I would definitely say I’m a much more spiritual Jew.”
When his enlistment period was up, Houten was asked to make Aliya, the process in which Jews from other nations become Israeli citizens based on the Israeli Law of Return.
“I wanted to sign on more time to my obligation,” said Houten. “But I decided not to get dual citizenship until I was absolutely sure that I am ready. As much as I feel a great affinity for Israel, I was born in Brooklyn. I’m an American boy, but I do miss Israel.”
According to the IDF, more than 650 American Jews serve in the Israeli military and possess dual citizenship. Houten said hundreds if not thousands of American Jews serve the IDF each year without making Aliya.
Houten returned to the United States last summer and moved in with one of his friends from Israel.
“I was living with one of my friends in Georgia,” Houten said. “We started in the Israeli army at the same time, roomed together in Haifa and we were honorably discharged at the same time. It was great but at the same time my life was going nowhere.”
Once again Houten was moved to do something with his life and answered that urge by calling the local Army National Guard recruiting office. Houten joined the Georgia Army National Guard’s 121st Infantry Regiment but before he could begin basic combat training, he needed his GED.
His next step took him to the heart of the South, to the National Guard’s GED Plus Program in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I know there are people out there who look down on a GED as something less, but I think that’s ridiculous. If anything, a GED is harder to get,” Houten says passionately. “Because that means instead of going to school like everyone else, you have to get yourself motivated and go out and do it. Here, you have eight days of classes to prepare yourself.”
Pvt. Houten also continued his spiritual journey during his time at GED Plus. He read the Torah daily, observed the Jewish Sabbath and broke the traditional Sabbath challah bread with his fellow student warriors.
Houten credits his instructors and military leaders for his success at Camp Robinson.
“It was the teachers and the cadre that made the biggest difference for me,” he said. “The teachers are smart and they realize that we’re here because we want to be here and it’s not because we’re in high school and we have to be. So they actually keep the information flowing fast enough that we don’t get bored. My teachers, Mr. Bryan Stell and Mr. Brent Dycus, taught us stuff in eight days that takes a couple of years in high school. I think that’s what really helped me, along with the cadre who were there to motivate us.”
On graduation day, Houten’s family, like those of most soldiers, was not able to be there in person to watch their future soldier walk across the stage to get their diplomas. However, thanks to new technology that allows video streaming over the Internet, the GED Plus Program became the first initial entry training program in the entire Department of Defense to live video stream a graduation ceremony for families and loved ones. Houten’s family logged onto the GED Plus Facebook page and watched Pvt. Daniel Houten open yet another door in life as he received his diploma. He also received special recognition for graduating in the top ten percent of his class academically, a feat he never imagined. Although he did well on the initial placement exams for math, critical thinking, and writing, he didn’t expect his scores to jump by an average of 100 points across the board on testing day to land him at the top.
Although Pvt. Houten took a different path in life than he or his parents expected, they are happy with his current direction.
“Every parent wants their child to be successful and find fulfillment,” said Dr. Houten. “Daniel had a more difficult time during his high school years compared to other students and struggled to find his direction. I’m so pleased he has found that direction and is fulfilling his dreams. It’s a very laudatory thing to serve this great country.”
Houten is enjoying his family’s contentment.
“My mom is really proud, but I think my dad always wanted me to go into medicine,” Houten said. “At the same time I think he understands that I’m doing something that means a lot to me. I think he likes that serving our nation is something that I am passionate about.”
Houten arrived at Fort Benning, Ga., Jan. 30, 2012 and reported for basic and advanced individual training to become an Infantryman (11B). After graduation, his next goal is to complete Army Ranger School. Houten is the son of Ms. Ilana Houten of Ann Arbor, Mich., and John K. Houten, Md., of New York. He has two brothers, a sister and a baby half-brother.