The fight for Jewish veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces

The fight for Jewish veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces

With 2017 approaching, here is a suggested New Year’s resolution for American Jewry: Begin to pay more attention, to express greater appreciation and pride, to offer more benefits to those members of our community who have chosen to defend our national security through service in the U.S. military. 

I did not serve in the military. Uncle Sam wanted me in 1970 after graduating college, and, had it not been for a medical deferment, I would have been drafted to go to Vietnam. Like many of my peers at the time, I opposed our continuing involvement in Southeast Asia for political reasons. 

Also, frankly, I was terrified at the prospect of being killed or maimed, not in a heroic struggle like my father, who flew 50 combat missions as a B-17 pilot in World War II, but in such a widely unpopular conflict. How unpopular was the war? I can recall traveling around Western Europe as a student in the summer of 1969 and encountering fellow countrymen who had sewn Canadian flags on their backpacks to avoid being identified as American. 

This background weighed heavily on me as my family and I visited Vietnam last July. In the sweltering heat, we walked around an area near Saigon where many young Americans had lost their lives. The battlefield has been converted into a park which the Communist government uses to explain how the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong managed to defeat the mighty United States. In a comfortable short-sleeve shirt and slacks, my empathy growing by the minute, I couldn’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for our soldiers wearing their jungle fatigues and laden with weapons and heavy equipment. 

Upon returning to American soil, instead of receiving a uniformly warm welcome, many Vietnam vets were given a cold shoulder and, occasionally, accused of being “baby killers.” 

Bob Jacobs of Manchester served in Vietnam in 1969-70 after graduating from Temple University in 1968. Now vice chair of the Jewish War Veterans’ Vietnam Veterans Committee, Jacobs didn’t experience much negativity when he came home from the war, but he knows of quite a few who did, including a good friend, who, he said, “remains bitter about the reception he received to this day.” 

In fact, the JWV established a special We Care About Vietnam Vets program. According to the organization’s website, when these veterans came home to an indifferent society, many faced an “adjustment problem,” which manifested itself in symptoms ranging from “intense feelings of alienation, to alcoholism and drug dependence, to an inability to nurture interpersonal relationships and to cope with the routine problems encountered in daily life.” 

Lt. Gen. Hal Moore (retired) is credited with coining the insightful saying, “Hate war, but love the American warrior.” As a society, Jews and non-Jews alike, I’m afraid that we all failed to live up to this challenge in the years following the Vietnam War. Thankfully, America seems to have learned its lesson by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though the war is often viewed unfavorably — certainly in hindsight — by and large the vets from that conflict, who also suffer the physical and emotional effects of combat, have been appropriately welcomed home.

How does our Jewish community regard service of our own in the U.S. military? Obviously, there is no one answer to this question, and, having talked to people in various parts of the country, I suspect there may be a geographic dimension. Military service appears to be more highly valued and respected in the American heartland than here in the Northeast. A Jewish friend whose son is in the military told me that when people in her circle hear about his choice, “Ninety-nine percent of them get a perplexed look on their faces and ask, ‘Why?’” 

That reaction is striking when compared to the enormous praise the Jewish community usually affords Americans who elect to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Indeed, another Jewish friend whose son now is in the IDF, told me that “lone soldiers,” as servicemen and servicewomen without immediate family in Israel are called, are “showered with goodies and recognition from our [local U.S.] community.” 

Colonel Carl Singer of Passaic, who recently became JWV’s national commander, corroborated my impression that, unlike the World War II generation, today’s Jewish community generally does not give the same respect to a Jewish soldier that is accorded to lawyers, doctors, and other professionals. “We Jews tend to gravitate to the white-collar jobs,” he said, and military service is not considered a “prestige” profession. 

Another national organization, the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council under the JCC Association of North America, has sought “to safeguard the rights, fulfill the spiritual needs, combat the loneliness and isolation, and honor the service of Jews in the military.” In 2014, it launched a new initiative called Project Welcome Home to help returning veterans. This initiative has been operating out of six pilot JCCs, none as of yet in New Jersey. The council’s new director, Rabbi Irving Elson, echoed Singer’s sentiments about the American-Jewish community’s lack of awareness about Jews serving in the U.S. military, and noted that this perception may have roots in the Jewish liturgy. 

“It’s interesting,” he said, “that many prayer books ask the Lord to bless the ‘leaders and advisers’ of our country, while, when it comes to Israel, we ask for strengthening those who ‘defend our Holy Land.’” 

We have national mechanisms in place to increase our appreciation for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, but to achieve real impact, there must be a strong grassroots component, which starts with us. The first step, I believe, is to visit the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center, a hidden gem located on the grounds of the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. Its stated purpose is to offer a “meaningful and engaging experience that recognizes the sacrifices, courage, and valor of Vietnam veterans…which affected the United States, and especially New Jersey.” You should see it for yourself and support its educational activities.

Other suggestions: Leaders in the organized Jewish community should reach out to the local JWV chapter and/or a JCC to find out how best to show our respect for and tangibly assist active military personnel and veterans returning home; the Jewish media, NJJN included, can do more to raise the profile of Jewish soldiers; and our community can develop meaningful national and local community programming for Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Giving our Jewish soldiers and veterans the respect and honor they deserve won’t happen overnight, as it will require a change of community culture and of our own perceptions. But let us resolve to make it a priority in 2017.  

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