Saturday, December 8, 2018

Back at Jew: Changing My Dog tags Back After Almost 50 Years

My first and current dog tags. Bottom line is JEWISH.

In February 1972, I got my first set of dog tags at Basic Training.  Most people never change their dog tags.  The information on them: 

Service Number,
Blood Type,

This information does not change for most people. In fact, most soldiers could go to their grave with their original set of dog tags around their neck, whether they die on the battlefield at 19 or they die reliving one last memory at 99.

I am on my fourth set of dog tags.

In 1972, in addition to my name, service number and blood type, the two stamped metal tags identified me as Jewish.  At the time, I knew I was Jewish in some sense, not so much in others.

I was born in Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, the son of a Jewish veteran of World War II. He was the fourth of six sons of Hyman and Esther Gussman. They escaped the pogroms in Odessa, Russia, in 1900 and came to America.  My mother was not Jewish. So to some Jews, I’m not Jewish—a Jewish mother makes a Jew.

To most gentiles, I’m definitely a Jew. I was Jewish enough to get called a Kike once in a while as a kid and to get beaten up in the fifth grade by some Catholic boys who told me I killed Jesus.  I didn’t remember killing Jesus, but they insisted with their fists. 

At age 13, I had a Bar Mitzvah, but the six months before the ceremony and the day of the ceremony were the only times I was in the Synagogue in my very secular life.

By the time I was 18 and on the way to basic training, I was vaguely agnostic.  I knew nothing of the Holocaust at the time, my family did not talk about it, so I did not realize I was Jewish enough to be sent to Auschwitz. For that I needed only one Jewish grandparent. I had two. As a matter of fact, I had no idea I could had the “Right of Return” to Israel.  If you are Jewish enough for a Nazi to kill you, you are Jewish enough for Israel to accept you.

The next year I thought about faith for the first time as I recovered from a missile explosion that left me blind and with other injuries.  I believed in God before I got my sight back. I started going to a Baptist Church in Utah near the base where I was stationed.  In 1974, my sight restored, I left the Air Force. 

In 1975, I decided to re-enlist in the Army. I got new dog tags.  All the information was the same except the last line said Christian. 

I kept those dog tags until 1984 when I got out, thinking I was done with the military.

Then in 2007, I re-enlisted. I got new dog tags. This time the last line of my dog tags said Presbyterian.  Not that the difference mattered much.  Dog tags are used to identify your body if you are dead, or to know what kind of blood you need or which chaplain should be called to your bedside if you are unable to talk. At the time of my enlistment I was a member of a Presbyterian Church, so that was the “bottom line” of my dog tags.

In 2013, I re-enlisted again. This time, I was going to deploy to Afghanistan with an Infantry Brigade. The deployment was cancelled. In 2014, after the deployment to Afghanistan was cancelled, I started planning a bicycle trip across Russia.  The trip was supposed to be a ride to memorialize my grandfather’s nine-month trek north from Odessa to Finland to escape the Tsar’s Army.

I wore the Presbyterian dog tags until I got out for the last time in May of 2016.  Later that year, Trump got elected President and put white nationalist Steve Bannon in the White House. Racism and anti-Semitism suddenly had a Presidential Seal, so I switched the trip to visiting Holocaust sites and memorials.

The Star of David worn by German Jews under the Nazis

I started feeling Jewish.  And I was feeling betrayed. The country I defended, that I fought for elected an open racist, proud racist. After an entire life of being a soldier and never protesting, I started protesting every week.

The next summer, in 2017, I rode a bicycle from Belgrade, Serbia, to Lviv, Ukraine, visiting Holocaust sites and memorials.  Then I went to Germany, France and Israel, visiting more Concentration Camps and Holocaust Memorials. 

Nazis and racists with rebel flags 
marching together in Charlottesville, Va.

I came back home in July. In August, Nazis marched in Charlottesville, chanting “Blood and Soil” at night, then murdering and maiming the next day.  In the following week, the U.S. President was unable to condemn Nazis.   

After Charlottesville, I was adrift spiritually.  In December of 2017, I started attending a local Synagogue.  Here is the story of how I got to the Synagogue.

This year, I made more changes in my life. I started doing Yoga; I meditate; I go to weekly prayer and Torah Study at the Synagogue, most recently I started keeping a thankfulness journal along with meditation.

In July, I rode to Boston to attend a picnic. I started listening to a podcast about the founding of Israel. In July, I got a new set of dog tags. They are easy to buy on line. Like my first set of dog tags, the dog tags I wear now say JEWISH (Dog tags are stamped in ALL CAPS).

After the shooting in Pittsburgh, I followed news reports closely until I heard why the gunman attacked the Synagogue.  The shooting was in the morning. By 3pm I knew in the words of the murderer why he did it. He believed the lie Trump was telling about the caravan being an invasion force. Trump’s lie led the angry racist in Pittsburgh to commit murder.

And yet, that same evening and every day after until the election, Trump kept telling the same lie at his Hillbilly Nuremberg rallies.

My dog tags reflect something of who I was and am, but dog tags have no nuance.  The 1972 dog tags were an answer to a question by a supply clerk:  “Religion?” They did not reflect my discomfort with being Jewish and how happy I was to just be another soldier.

My current dog tags are still just stamped metal. They simply hang on a chain. They look the same as in the 1970s, but now they I want to be identified with others like me: Jews who could be attacked at any time for who we are and what we believe.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Podcast on the Cold War Talks Tanks

My M60A1 "Patton" tank in the Colorado desert in 1976. 

Today I was the guest on "Cold War Conversations History Podcast," a podcast produced in the United Kingdom and available on iTunes or through their web page.

The podcast covers life in East Germany, life in divided Berlin, East German soccer, the SR71 spy plane, the threat of nuclear war, and even owning a Cold War submarine.

I found out about the podcast from Bob Mares who administers the "Cold War Veterans, Weapons, and Equipment" group on Facebook.

In this episode we talk about tanks and my best day in the Army, when I fired Distinguished in annual tank gunnery at Fort Carson, Colorado, in 1976.  In a month I will be on again talking about life as a tank commander in Cold War West Germany.

Here's the link to the podcast.

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Very American Path in a Crisis: "You Should See A Rabbi / My Rabbi"

Congregation Shaarai Shomayim where 
Jack Paskoff is the Rabbi

In October of last year I had a day that could only happen in America.  In the morning, I went to a counseling session at the Statewide Adoption Network, the people who helped us adopt our sons.  I had been seeing a counselor to help me deal with problems my older son was having, and to help me deal with the problems I had dealing with my older son. 

At the end of the session, the counselor, who is an Asian-American from India, asked me about the bicycle trip I took across Eastern Europe in June and July. She knew I was seeing Holocaust sites and memorials.  I told her the trip was wonderful, sometimes very emotional, but I expected that. One of the days was in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But after the trip I came home to Nazis marching in the streets in America yelling, “Jews will not replace us.”  I told her how that affected me.  She knew my father was Jewish and I grew up only nominally Jewish.  At the end of the session she said, “You should talk to a Rabbi.”

That same day I had an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon about an injury. He also knew I had gone on the trip to Eastern Europe so after the exam he asked, “How did the trip go?” I told him about the trip and about Charlottesville.  He said, “You should see my Rabbi.” 

He gave me the phone number for Rabbi Jack Paskoff. The Synagogue where he is the Rabbi was on the way home so I stopped, met the Rabbi briefly and made an appointment to talk.

Two weeks later we talked.  I told him about my very happy life that got turned over in November of 2016 and then knocked flat watching torch-carrying Nazis marched in America. 

After about 40 minutes Rabbi Paskoff said, “Ever since you left home after high school, you have chosen your identities: airman, soldier, husband, father, student, writer, racer, your choice. Now your identity has chosen you…….

Welcome to the Jewish experience.”

He then said I was welcome to attend Torah study and services. He hoped that the congregation could help me find peace. 

I started attending Torah study on Saturday mornings and Wednesday morning prayer. After the prayer meeting on Wednesdays, several of the men meet for breakfast. The man who invited me is a retired Army Sergeant’s Major. At the first breakfast, I found six of the eight men, including me, were veterans. Most served during the draft.  In the 45 years since I first enlisted, I have never been part of a veterans group. Now I am.

Rabbi Paskoff said the question of anti-Semitism is never “if?” but “when?”  Until Charlottesville and now Pittsburgh, I could navigate the prejudice. But the events in Charlottesville and, more importantly, the President’s response, said the danger is real. President Obama recently said in a campaign speech, “How can it be hard to condemn Nazis?”  He made it sound like a joke, but the former President knows exactly why the current President can’t condemn white nationalists: racists and Nazis are the base of the Trump Party. 

The gunman in Pittsburgh said on line that the caravan lie was the reason he chose that moment to murder. The day of the shooting and every day until the election, the President said the same lie, loudly and stridently, as did his worshippers in Evangelical pulpits and on Fox News. 

Racism, horrible racism in the form of Slavery and Jim Crow, is as American as murdering Native Americans to take their land.  Virulent anti-Semitism is back with a Presidential Seal of Approval.

After Pittsburgh, I decided to become a member of the Synagogue where Jack Paskoff is the Rabbi.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Meeting Gil Hoffman, Israeli Podcaster

Gil Hoffman, politics reporter at the Jerusalem Post and
Host of "Inside Israel Today."

On Monday night I heard Gil Hoffman speak in Lancaster, Pa., at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, the synagogue where I have been going to Torah Study and Minyan for the last year. I have been listening to Hoffman’s podcast on The Land of Israel Network for a little more than a year. 

Hoffman is a political reporter for the Jerusalem Post and one of eight hosts on The Land of Israel Network. They post a new podcast almost every day (except Shabbat) from one of the hosts. Hoffman’s podcast is titled “Inside Israel Today.” The other podcasts cover the history of Israel, politics, faith, Torah study, and more politics.

How does one become a fan of an Israeli podcast network?  Recommendation from a good friend is the way many people find a podcast they love. That was true in my case, although more than a little ironic. 

My path to following The Land of Israel Podcast began on Friday, August 11, 2017, when I saw Nazis marching on an American campus chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”  The next day, the Nazis and their white nationalist allies murdered a woman and maimed innocent people on the streets of Charlottesville. 

A few days after Charlottesville, after hearing the President refuse to condemn Nazis, I called my best friend Cliff to talk about what happened. Cliff is a monk in a monastery in Germany. We were roommates on the Cold War U.S. Military Base in West Germany in the late 1970s.  I left the Army to go to college. He stayed and became Bruder Timotheus. 

Cliff travels to Israel as part of his ministry. He suggested I listen to Ari Abramowitz and Jeremy Gimpel, two Rabbis who host the “Israel Inspired” podcast on The Land of Israel Network.  I listened. They disagreed about Charlottesville and Trump. I liked the podcast, even if I disagreed with Ari Abramowitz. So I listened to the other podcasts on the network including those by Gil Hoffman, Josh Hasten, Rav Mike Feuer and Eve Harrow. 

I started learning about Israel politics from Gil Hoffman and Josh Hasten.  From Rav Mike Feuer, I learned about the History of Israel. Eve Harrow is a tour guide who talks about the beauty of Israel among other topics.

So thanks to my friend who is a brother in a Lutheran monastery in Germany and has friends in Israel, I am learning a lot about Israel, past and present.  It was a lot of fun to meet Gil Hoffman. I hope to meet other hosts from The Land of Israel Network when they travel to America or when I next travel to Israel.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

World War One Centennial and a Welcome Home

With fellow awardees and organizers

Today my son Nigel and I went to a ceremony honoring veterans of World War I and all veterans.  It was also a Welcome Home for me and four other Vietnam-era veterans who received lapel pins and sincere thanks from other veterans and members of the Harrisburg community.  

Harrisburg Police Honor Guard

The entire ceremony was in three parts and lasted nearly three hours.  We first gathered in the Midtown Arts Center and heard talks and proclamations honoring the service of veterans and firefighters.  I was one of the speakers.  I began by telling the audience that I was invited to speak to save time. I enlisted and re-enlisted for four different wars over a forty-year period, so I could speak about wars I signed up for between 1972 and 2016.   
After an hour at Midtown Arts we walked four blocks to the Susquehanna River.  There was a band and the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle group along with two horse-drawn carriages.

At the river more people spoke about World War I while we crowded around the statue of a soldier from that war.  The Harrisburg Marathon route passed in front of the statue, so we had to be careful crossing the street not to impede the runners.

After a wreath ceremony we walked back to Harrisburg Arts where five of us received pins for service during the Vietnam War. We were also welcomed home.

Along with me there was a Navy Veteran and three members of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Group.  My son and I left immediately after the ceremony hoping to catch the finish of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Brazil.  I should have written down the names of my fellow awardees, but I assumed everything would be on line.  I was wrong.  If I am able to get the names in the future I will update this post.

The emcee for the ceremony was Brigadier General Wilbur Wolf who invited me to speak. I finally met Wilbur's wife Amy at this ceremony. We talked a lot about kids and college.

Bishop Nathan Baxter offered the prayers at the beginning and end of the ceremony.  Some of his incredible career is here.

Suzanne Sheaffer, a Gold Star Mother, was one of the organizers as was Lenwood Sloan. Rick Kearns read poetry and other writings for the ceremony.

Command Chief Master Sergeant Regina Stoltzfus spoke at the monument.

Leader Yasin Sharif gave a prayer of reconciliation at the memorial site.

Friday, November 9, 2018

First Meeting of "Sapiens" Book Discussion

In life, there are few things better than a lively discussion with bright people.  The first of four meetings of the “Sapiens” book group was exactly that. Five of us discussed the first six chapters of Noah Yuval Hariri’s book about the history of our species.  Three more people intend to join the next meeting in December.

For me, this is my second reading of the book and my second discussion centered on this fascinating book. Last year “Sapiens” was the book discussed by the “Evolution Roundtable” at Franklin and Marshall College. It is a group of professors that meets weekly to discuss a book on evolution. This book generated a lot of controversy.

The “Sapiens” discussion group meets at the Rabbit and Dragonfly coffee shop in Lancaster, Pa. I first got the idea of starting the group from a fellow member of the Philadelphia Area Science Writers of America. She wanted to read and discuss “Sapiens” but lives in Bryn Mawr. I knew people in Lancaster and Massachusetts who would want to talk about “Sapiens” so I decided to start a group assuming we would meet in person and have people join on Skype. 

Susan could not join the first meeting, but we did have one Skype participant, Emily Burgett who called in from Massachusetts.  Emily, Sarah Frye Gingrich and I volunteered for the same English as a Second Language program for the last two years.  Also in the Rabbit and Dragonfly were Joe Steed, who I worked with at a dot-com in 2000 and Theodora Graham who was my first professor of humanities when I went to college after the Army in 1980.  

In the discussion, we talked about how different the actual spread of Homo sapiens around the world looks based on current research than we learned in school.  The fact that we co-existed and mated with Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominid species goes against the linear narrative of evolution in older textbooks.  The extinctions that early Homo sapiens caused were also surprising and sad for all of us. 

We talked about the Peugeot myth at that is central to Hariri’s presentation of the cognitive revolution and his funny and true assertion that wheat domesticated humans, not vice versa, from the standpoint of evolution. 

Next month we will go further into the agricultural revolution and how our species changed in the last 10,000 years.  In January we move to religion. That should be really interesting. In the five people in the first meeting we have two cradle Catholics, and Orthodox believer, an Evangelical and a Jew. 

But most of all we had a lively discussion among people of varied backgrounds bringing their own experience and insights to look at the same book.  I can’t wait for next month.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Marine, An Airman, and Two Soldiers Walk into a Meeting

Victory Parade in New York City at the end of World War I

Tonight I went to the third session of a monthly veterans meeting held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The meeting is called:

The Art of Reintegration: Veterans and the Silences of War. The group also includes family members of veterans, teachers, and a student who hopes to work in counseling veterans.  

In the meeting we watch videos, and talk about art and poetry that relates to the theme of the month.  This month was "Homecoming." We talked about homecoming for veterans of World War I since this year is the centennial of the end of that terrible war. We talked about parades in major cities for returning veterans and a country that greeted the soldiers as heroes.  

Then we talked about coming home from the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terror.  

One of the veterans is a Marine who served in the Vietnam War. He talked about his experience of coming home. He got called a babykiller in the airport and in his home town.

Another is an Airman who loaded bombers for missions in Afghanistan near the beginning of the war.  He, like the two of us who are Iraq War veterans, got the "Thank You For Your Service" welcome home.  We talked about how the thank you can seem shallow, but it is better than the hate from the Vietnam era.

The Marine and I also served in the Cold War.

I heard about this group from a friend who works at the historical society.  I like discussing art and poetry with veterans. It reminded me of talking about the "Divine Comedy" and the "Aeneid" in Iraq. 

The group starts again in January. I'm looking forward to talking about more art and poetry with this new veterans group.  This morning I was in my other, more informal veterans group.  After 45 years of not belonging to a veterans group, now I am in two. 

I guess I'm just slow.

Along with the Historical Society, the group is co-sponsored by WarriorWriters.

Back at Jew: Changing My Dog tags Back After Almost 50 Years

My first and current dog tags. Bottom line is JEWISH . In February 1972, I got my first set of dog tags at Basic Training.   Most peop...