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U.S. calls Israeli woman, 55, for duty — in Afghanistan
by Ron Kampeas
JTA
Dec 24, 2008 | 1060 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Orli Avior, known in the U.S. Army by her American name, Sgt. Maj. Gigi Banjak, poses in uniform in an undated family photo. Photo courtesy Avior family </i>
Orli Avior, known in the U.S. Army by her American name, Sgt. Maj. Gigi Banjak, poses in uniform in an undated family photo. Photo courtesy Avior family
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WASHINGTON — Orli Avior is 55 with a grown daughter and sells homemade jewelry to keep herself busy — not the usual Israeli candidate for a sudden stint in the U.S. military reserves.

But her U.S. passport lists her as Gigi Banjak, and when papers came to her Netanya home calling up Command Sgt. Maj. Banjak to a 400-day stint in the Army Reserves, Avior did what has been instilled in her through more than 30 years of service: She made her way to a training camp in Georgia to train for deployment to Iraq.

The call-up came despite multiple attempts by Avior to resign her Reserves commission since making aliyah in 2004, her husband, Ariel, told JTA. The resignation finally reached the right bureaucrat, he said, but seems never to have been processed.

The Army switched her deployment from Iraq to Afganistan. Avior had told her immediate commanding officer that her dual Israeli-American citizenship might become an issue in an Arab country, but it was not clear if that was the reason for the switch.

Avior, works in the Quartermaster Corps, deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 5, according to her husband, formerly known as Ron Banjak.

“She’s a soldier at heart, she’s had people under her go to Iraq and Afghanistan,” he told JTA. “I don’t think her heart is in not doing this duty.”

Ariel Avior has enlisted the help of a number of Israelis in making his wife’s case, most prominently the mayor of Netanya, Miriam Feirberg, who wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy asking to facilitate Orli Avior’s deployment to a position closer to home. Feirberg and other Israeli backers have said that Afghanistan is hardly less dangerous to an Israeli Jew than Iraq.

“We don’t mind her being called to active duty,” her husband said. “We would certainly prefer her to be in Israel,” where some U.S. troops are positioned manning missile detection systems.

“Afghanistan seems like the worse place you could be sent to,” he said.

A U.S. Embassy official said the mission was working on the issue, although diplomats rarely deal with military matters. At the Pentagon, the Army spokesman did not return a request for comment. Another Pentagon official said that Avior’s Israeli citizenship would not be a factor in her deployment; the U.S. military does not recognize dual citizenship.

The Aviors immigrated to Israel from Pennsylvania four years ago; Ariel teaches English and Orli makes jewelry. Most of their income is from rental properties in the United States.

Orli Avior clearly enjoyed her past service — family photos show her posing in fatigues with an automatic rifle and chomping on a cigar. In 2002 she won a quartermaster’s award.

Sherry Funk, a friend in St. Paul, Minn., heard Avior was deployed in Afghanistan and asked her parishioners at a local church to pray for Avior and send her a gift certificate for the season.

In addition to “getting back in touch” and the arts and crafts business, Gigi Banjak’s Linked In profile lists “reference requests” as one of her interests — a sign of her sustained loyalty to the soldiers who once reported to her.

Her attachment to the Army is why she hasn’t taken her complaint further than her immediate superior officer, Ariel Avior said.

“She has a very good record in the military,” Ariel said. “She doesn’t want to get a reputation of being a complainer.”

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