Friday, October 28, 2016

Feeling More Jewish as the World Moves to the Right



  
In mid-August, while I was returning from a family vacation in Santa Fe and enjoying life, the world got darker.  A candidate for President of the United States appointed the leading promoter of White Supremacists to head his campaign.  Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart News, as CEO of his campaign.  If Trump wins, the Ku Klux Klan will have an office in the White House. 

When conservatives get power, they try to limit gay rights, minority voting rights, and abortion rights.  But Bannon in the West Wing will mean women’s rights and even civil rights are in peril.  Every genocide begins with the group in power taking human rights away from minorities.  Next the party in power takes away minority citizenship, next those in the minority become refugees or die. It is a large and terrible sign that Trump began his campaign by saying illegal immigrants are not people like us.  Trump’s use of “They” and “Them” is straight out of every dictator’s playbook. And Trump loves Vladimir Putin. 

Speaking of Russian dictators, my paternal grandparents escaped the Holocaust by escaping from what is now Odessa, Ukraine, (They called it Russia.) when killing tens of thousands of Jews was Russian government policy.  Millions of Jews who escaped death in Ukraine and went to America survived.  Those who stayed in Ukraine were very likely to have died in the Holocaust.  My family never talked about the Holocaust and it was not much discussed in my school that I can remember. Since only my father was Jewish, I am not actually a Jew, even though I had a Bar Mitzvah. But I am culturally Jewish, and to a Nazi, I have more than enough Jewish blood to be condemned.

Five years after my Bar Mitzvah, I was in the Air Force.  I had “Jewish” on my dogtags. If I was part of a small minority in Stoneham, Jews were simply non-existent in the military.  I was the first Jew my basic training bunkmate had ever seen “up close.” Leonard “’Bama” Norwood was fond of saying he was “from Sawyerville, Alabama, population 53.”  Not a lot of Jews in Alabama.
 
Recovering from a missile explosion the following year, I began to believe in God, then become a Christian.  So when I re-enlisted in the Army in 1975, I had Christianon my dogtags.  Because I was an American soldier, I was free to identify myself by my religious preference.  There was no genetic test, no blood test, no religious requirement to my military service.  So I could identify as a Jewish missile technician in the Air Force, then as a Christian tank commander in the Army.  A decade later I was out of the Army and in college full time. In my classes I first read the poetry of Dante Aligheri and Chretien de Troyes and fell in love with the Medieval World in Western Europe.  

I did not think much about being Jewish until 1994.  That was the year of the genocide in Rwanda.  Kids hacked to death in Churches or left mutilated in agony by their former neighbors was so wrenching I could not look away.

At the same time as the Rwandan Genocide, I helped a family of survivors of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to settle in America.  Vladislav and his daughter Branka escaped first, then Branka's mother Borka followed them two years later. The story is here.

At this time my view of mass murder started to shift from millions of people murdered to millions of murders.  Vladislav, Branka and Borka Semeunovic were refugees.  They escaped slaughter because America took them in, just as America had taken in my grandparents 94 years earlier. The Holocaust had seemed remote before, but now refugees and mass murder victims had faces and families.

Every Jew killed by the Nazis had a life and a family. Every Rwandan hacked to death by a neighbor had a life before that neighbor took a machete and cut her to pieces.  Every Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim in the former Yugoslavia could have been killed in the chaos of the 1990s.  More than 200,000 were killed.  

Then in 2001 nearly 3,000 Americans were the victims of murder.  It was a mass murder but each individual died in their own agony within just a couple of hours.

And now a candidate for President of the United States has named a Neo-Nazi as head of his campaign.  I have Jewish daughters and African-American sons.  Before Bannon, I thought random gun violence was the greatest danger they faced.  With Bannon in the West Wing, the U.S. Government itself could become a threat. 

Most of my life has been devoted overcoming obstacles and full of very American optimism that I could do anything I worked hard at. I am not a fatalist by belief or temperament.  But a Trump victory will reduce everyone to their tribes.  Jews have long been victims of the whims of dominant cultures, as have all people of color.  German Jews who were combat veterans of World War One became victims of Holocaust.

We Jews, by the many ways Jewishness can be defined, and all people of color will find America a very different place if Trump wins. And even if Trump loses, his campaign has made real evil mainstream. Refugees look like danger and evil to Trump.  To me refugees look like my grandparents, like the Semeunovic family, like people who need help.  America is already great.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Injections in Both Arms--So Army!


This week I went to my family doctor to get two injections.  One was a tetanus booster so the woman giving me the shot asked me to stand up and let my arm hang loose.  Usually at civilian doctors, I get shots or blood drawn sitting down.  Standing with my arm loose is just what they told me to do in basic training in 1972 when they used the air injectors like the one in the picture above.

As the line moved slowly between the medics with the injector guns, the drill sergeant told us to be sure and stand still because if we flinched the air gun would rip our arm open.  I never saw that happen, but we all believed it.  The real story of terror was the Square Needle in The Left Nut on the 10th Training Day.  That was scary.  I wrote about that shortly after re-enlisting.

Forty-four years later, the needles are thinner, the technicians are older and I had no ill effects in either arm, just the memory of waiting for the air gun.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Surprising Follow Up with a MEDEVAC Pilot

I do not have a photo of MEDEVAC Pilot Suzy Danielson
But this poster covers her attitude towards life

Yesterday I posted a story on the DUSTOFF Facebook page I wrote about a MEDEVAC pilot I served with in Iraq.  The story is here.  She was a pilot in the Gulf War in 1991, left the Army in 1993 and forgot she was still a reserve officer.  In 2009, the Army reminded her with a FEDEX package telling her to report for duty.  She was 44 when she returned to active service and deployed to Iraq.  

After I posted the story, I sent Suzy an email, not knowing if she was still using that address.  At midnight, I got an email back from Suzy.  She is in Afghanistan!  Apparently she liked returning to the Blackhawk helicopter cockpit.  I asked her to follow up with me when she returns.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Cold War Draft Army: Best Army I Served In


Since my first enlistment in 1972, I served in three different armies.  I first enlisted during the draft near the end of the Vietnam War and the height of the Cold War. When I re-enlisted in 1975, I was in the new Volunteer Army, VOLAR was the acronym at the time.  After eleven years of active duty and reserve service ending in 1984, I re-enlisted in 2007 in the Post 9-11 Army National Guard.

When I climbed into my bunk in basic training in 1972, the other 39 soldiers sharing my room were men between 18 and 20 years old.  None of us were married.  We were from nearly 30 states, from both coasts, mostly from the American South and West, but "Jersey"and I were actually from the Northeast--very rare in the active military.

No one planned to make a career of the military.  We were all going to "do our time" and get out.  Half of us were planning to use the Vietnam War GI Bill to pay for college, although the reality then and now is fewer than one in ten actually would use their education benefits.  At our active duty stations, we all referred to anyone who re-enlisted as a LIFER: Lazy Inefficient Fuckup Expecting Retirement.  More than 80% of draft-era soldiers served one enlistment and left the military.  We shined our shoes, ironed our starched uniforms, told extravagant lies, and had a common enemy in the sergeants in charge of us.

Five years later in 1977, I was a tank commander in Germany.  The draft effectively ended in 1973, and formally ended in 1975, ushering in the era of the Volunteer Army.  In 1973, new soldiers joining a unit were 19-year-old single males on short enlistments, usually 2 or 3 years.

From 1975 on, when a new soldier joined our tank unit, that soldier was between 19 and 21 years old.  He was married, had one child and his wife was pregnant again.  That was the reason many of these guys had enlisted.  Most had enlisted for four years because the longer enlistment in Combat Arms had a $2,500 bonus.  So my new crewman was married, poor and a father.

The great increase in the number of married soldiers between the early and late 70s meant a lot of soldiers were living off base in poverty in Germany because Base Housing went by rank.  And if their young wives were not in country for their two-year tour, there would eventually be a night when the soldier received a Dear John letter.  Later he would be blind drunk on 80-cent per bottle Mad Dog, MD 20-20.  (Actually the MD stood for Mogen David.  MD 20-20 was the cheapest drunk possible and it always made me smile that the mostly southern boys swilling the stuff were getting drunk on Jewish wine.)

By this time I was a sergeant, I had re-enlisted so I was a LIFER.  They still called us LIFERS, but with more married soldiers, more of them were re-enlisting.  By the late 70s, LIFER had little of the sting it had during the Vietnam War.  The Army was a job.  The Vietnam War was over and until the Gulf War, the military was a pretty safe job.

Then I re-enlisted into yet another Army in 2007.  No one made fun of LIFERs.  I could not find anyone under 40 who had ever heard the acronym.  In 2007 I enlisted in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, Pennsylvania Army National Guard.  The unit had more than 100 pilots and several hundred mechanics and flight crew.  More than half of the 2,000 soldiers in the brigade were at least considering a career in the Army, if they were not already committed to Army life.

The current Army, including active, reserve and National Guard, is a professional army.  The Army of World War II really represented a huge cross-section of America. Every family either had a soldier in their family or a soldier next door.  After World War II, for the first time in U.S. history, the wartime Army was not demobilized.  Most of the soldiers went home, but the draft continued and a sizable force remained ready for war as well as occupying the countries of former enemies.

By the time the draft ended almost 30 years later, the Army represented the south and west much more than the northeast.  But it was still not a professional Army. When I re-enlisted in 2007, I was the only soldier that many of my co-workers actually knew.  The museum where I worked had a staff of 55 and had been in business for more than a quarter century.  I was the third veteran who had ever worked there.  When I deployed they had to write a policy for National Guard service.  They never had a serving guardsman before.  My co-workers, to use the southern expression, had more degrees than a thermometer: more than two degrees per person on average including the maintenance staff.  People from cities in the northeast mostly don't even think about military service.

The result is an Army that does not represent America.  It is an Army that is easier to send to war because the people who make the decisions never served and the soldiers who go to war will not come from every city, town, village and neighborhood.

A draft Army is much tougher for politicians to send to war, and the soldiers want to go home when the war is over.  That, to me, is a better Army for the soldiers and for the nation.



SPQR and America

Senatus Populusque Romanus The Senate and People of Rome Some of the soldiers I served with in Iraq talked about getting an SPQR tat...