People often think of Orthodox Jews as wearing a certain uniform, but the uniform Captain Dana Hall dons is pretty unorthodox, as a storm-chasing, disaster-aiding first responder. Trained as a pharmacist and with a graduate degree in Homeland Security, she uses medical expertise and crisis management to help communities in crisis and has done so for the past 20 years. “I’m with the US Public Health Service. There are seven branches of service that are active duty. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard are militarized. The NOAA and Public Health Service are not. Those guys are the police officers, while Public Health is the fire department. We do meaningful work hand in hand with the DOD (Department of Defense).” Hall and her colleagues are all pharmacists, PhDs, medical providers and work in public health. Almost all of their work is for US citizens in US territories.
Hall has been named Pharmacist of the Year, USPHS Military Family of the Year, and Pharmacy Responder of the Year. “I’ve been doing emergency response in an active-duty role. I did the UN General Assembly and Hurricane Dorian. Next year, there are a lot of national security events such as the National Conventions, the Inauguration and the State of the Union. They request us to position in case we are needed.” Having also responded to Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill, her role requires intense flexibility. “We might be engaged with the Tokyo Olympics. Every year is different. Some things are scheduled, but otherwise, we never know what’s going to be.” From the Ebola Crisis, to Joplin’s Tornado, Superstorm Sandy and the Flint Water Crisis, Hall and her colleagues have been there.
The Commissioned Corps is an elite team of more than 6000 full-time, well-trained, highly qualified public health professionals. 1000 of these officers are pharmacists. “We went into Haiti [after the earthquake] while there still wasn’t air control. Our first plane in almost crashed. I went in on the third rotation.” While some of the crises they help with are spontaneous, hurricanes are known events with 5 days notice. “We ride out storms from hotels. We go to nice places at bad times. Like the Hawaiian volcano last year. That was a nice hotel on the water and the volcano didn’t put us in harms’ way.”
Even though her background is in pharmacy, she ends up doing a lot of other things. Sometimes her role gives her a chance to connect with the special mitzvah of levayas hameis (escorting the dead). “[With the] Joplin tornado, the state requested us for fatality management. We assisted the locals in identifying bodies.” FEMA gives the USPHS courses in any additonal training they require. “I help unite decedents with their families, [so they] can start the process of grief.” In a natural disaster, this timing of accounting for the missing is crucial. “In that whole horrific situation, it allows families to be reunited or move forward in their grief process.” She is also a member of the chevra kaddisha in her hometown. “At home, I do it for the [Jewish] community. When deployed, I do it for my country. It’s the highest form of service I can do.”
Born in Pennsylvania, Hall was once stationed in Bethel, Alaska, 400 miles west of Anchorage. “We were the center of the Jewish community. We would go [to Anchorage] for high holidays and other Jewish needs.” Her husband led services, and with his family in the food business in Lakewood, NJ, they brought back coolers with them whenever they visited. She changed billets so her children could be in a larger Jewish community and now lives in Kansas City. When deployed, she sometimes has to work through Shabbos. “If I’m in that early space of saving lives, I work straight through. At some point afterwards, I take Shabbos off. My team knows that [and is supportive].” Hall doesn’t mind always bringing her own food with her. “I’m always the one who is bringing food instead of [anything else].” This might look different depending on where she is stationed. “I was abroad for Yom Kippur and I spent 26 hours with Chabad. I’m always ingratiating myself to any synagogue I can find.” It also has made for a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. “I spent Purim in Flint, Michigan. There will usually be 4-5 other Jews who are deployed with me and they wouldn’t have ended up doing anything and they came with me to hear megillah.”
Her colleagues in the USPHS are supportive of her observance, although she is an anomaly. There are very few women, and there are very few Jews, almost none of which are observant. “One once said, ‘You’re always being Jewish.’ I told them, ‘I am always Jewish, I’m not just Jewish on Saturday.'” She coordinates with her observant Christian friends to cover Sunday so they cover Saturday for her when their work is not about saving lives. “During Superstorm Sandy, I had kosher restaurant options. My colleagues were so excited to finally come eat with me. We always want to share a meal together and we finally got the chance.” One of Hall’s best memories of observance was in Haiti. “We did Shabbat under the flagpole at the US Embassy. A guy from Brookline, Massachusetts brought a whole mini Shabbos. I brought kosher MREs (meals-ready-to-eat). The Army had a girl who was Jewish and there was a survivor who was Jewish. The Army provided everything we needed.”
Hall’s family is incredibly encouraging. “When the kids were younger, they used to be very nervous because they would see the worst of it on TV, so I would Face Time them so they wouldn’t be scared.” Her husband and she worked hard to raise their own kids, realizing that they could only prioritize one career. “We always chose my career. He always stayed close to the family. He homeschooled them for a while. Now he has a job closer to home. We are a family first and foremost, to try to always be together and eat together.” Now, she speaks at Jewish schools about her experience all the time. “I tell them that we all can serve however it is that we can serve. That’s what it means to be Jewish: serving Hashem and repairing the world in whatever career we choose to go into.”