One long night during the Vietnam War, Air Force Capt. Sheldon Goldberg was killing time, waiting for the fighter planes to return from their missions.
“I was the duty officer, sitting with nothing to do, and I had a ridiculous epiphany,” he says. “I took a grease pencil and I wrote on the board, ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like me doing in a place like this, killing Buddhists for Christianity?’”
It was 1969 and the “M*A*S*H”-like bit of subversion didn’t land him in hot water with the brass.
“Everyone thought it was quite humorous,” says Goldberg, now 78, who served just under 30 years until his retirement in 1985.
That relatively few Jews serve in the military today irks men like Goldberg. The profound experience of war stamped them in a way like no other. Those experiences, from the ridiculous to the hair raising, are threads in a uniform that he and his fellows in Jewish War Veterans Post 962, representing Rockville, wear every day. Increasingly, they say, fewer people respect the uniform.
“Is WJW anti-Jewish veteran or just anti-military?” read the subject line of an email Goldberg sent in June.
That’s how this story began.
It isn’t just this newspaper, it’s the Jewish community at large, Goldberg said when I called him after receiving his email.
JWV is fighting a rear-guard battle against being forgotten.
That’s why they built the memorial. It stands in front of the Bender Jewish Community Center in Rockville — a 12-foot-tall sculpture by Bethesda artist Phillip Ratner, a Wall of Honor facing the sculpture. The memorial is hallowed ground for them — standing “so that the Jewish community will see that there is a place where its heroes, both alive and dead, can be honored for their service and for their sacrifice,” Goldberg wrote in his email.
But what if you built a memorial and nobody came? When Post 962 held a rededication ceremony last November, 100 people showed up. The Jewish response was underwhelming.
“We contacted all the synagogues in four counties and nobody responded,” says Stuart Freeman, the post’s commander.
“The bigger problem is that we did a lot of publicity,” says JWV post member Marshall Sneiderman, 78. “And nothing.”
And so they gathered at the memorial on a hot day in June, five Jewish vets, to vent about the Jewish community’s dereliction of duty when it comes to the military and the contributions Jews like them have made to this country’s defense.
Except that once out of the hot sun, anger subsides to low-grade resentment. What comes out instead is that barring another mass mobilization, another World War II or even Vietnam, there will be few new Jewish veterans because so few Jews enlist. The best these men in their 70s or better can do is search for a way to reach the young few and try to preserve and protect their organization’s past accomplishments.
And tell stories, lots of stories. Like Goldberg’s whiling away a dull night with a grease pencil, each one has been honed to a sheen. He erased the board, but he kept the story.
At 71, Stuart Freeman, the commander of Post 692, is the young guy in the group. He went to Vietnam in 1970 as a corporal in the Marines and served there two years.
As JWV post commander, he says Job No. 1 is “reinventing our image.” And “catering to our own, older members.”
Like every task in America’s aging society, the challenge sounds contradictory.
Nevertheless, he comes carrying notes for a JWV publicity campaign. After a while, another member points out that the things he’s proposing need to go through the board. So Freeman’s ideas are tabled.
But there is no dissent when Freeman points out that young Jewish vets, of whom there are comparatively few, are not joiners. He says the formality of the older JWV members is a turnoff for younger vets.
Then there’s the name — Jewish War Veterans. “People think you have been in war to join,” Goldberg says. But all they have to do is serve in the military.
Goldberg says that in the push to create Jewish doctors and lawyers — not to mention IT professionals and business owners — the idea of military service doesn’t come up.
“They need to be looking at the military as an honorable profession,” he says. Military service, the men agree, offers young people a sense of purpose.
Goldberg was a high school dropout when he enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve in 1953. Three years later he went on active duty with the Air Force. In Vietnam, he flew more than 200 missions. “The military opened doors for me,” he says. “I got to see half the world.”
It also ignited a love of learning. In 2012, at age 72, he received a doctorate in modern European history.
In 1954, Walter Gold was a 17-year-old volunteer in the Army Airborne School who had just been let off the train in steamy Columbia, S.C.
“I was dying of thirst and so I looked around for a drinking fountain.”
He saw one that said “colored only” and another that said “whites only.”
“The stationmaster asked me, ‘What are you looking for, son?’ I said, ‘The fountain that says Jew.”
Now 81, Gold says it’s been a long time since the military touched the everyday lives of Americans.
“When my parents came home from World War II, people were in the streets, banging pots and pans,” he says.
There were half a million Jews in the U.S. military then. Since Vietnam cast a shadow over military service, those numbers have declined. Today Jews form only 1 percent of the military, says JWV member Elliott Robinson, 78, who spent six years in the Maryland National Guard.
When Robinson signed up in 1957, there was no question of why. “Everybody was going into the military in one fashion or another at that time.”
Gold says there is room in fewer people’s lives for that kind of service. “People have two jobs now.”
And the young are hooked on their electronics.
The memorial went up in 2008, but proved inaccessible. The post made plans to move it to its current spot — you can’t go from the parking lot into the JCC without passing it — and Gold raised $30,000 to pay for it. In November, the post rededicated it.
But you don’t get a real sense about what war and service is about unless you talk to the guys. Freeman’s two years in Vietnam influences his views today, on topics as unexpected as the debate over illegal immigration.
“The platoon I was in had four or five guys who were illegals from Mexico,” he says. “We were interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was setting up a Claymore [anti-personnel mine]. I had given the radioman my .45. And then I heard a noise.
“I see a guy with a helmet. I said, ‘Who are you?’ like an idiot. He had an AK [Soviet rifle]. I was frozen.”
One of the undocumented immigrants killed the enemy and saved Freeman’s life.
“I married a Spanish girl, so it must have affected me,” he says.
Freeman’s experience soured him on the war. “I saw it as a different kind of war. In my opinion, the Vietnam War, we were wrong.”
In all this time, “I never joined anything,” he says. But the dwindling number of Jewish vets and the memory of what it was to serve in uniform brought him around.
Five years ago, he joined the Jewish War Veterans.