The great humanitarian Elie Wiesel once said, “If we have learned one thing from our past, it is that to live through dramatic events is not enough. One has to share them and transform them into acts
This weekend observance of the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day is significant for all Americans, including the thousands of Jewish veterans (and their families) who have served — and are serving — in the U.S. armed forces.
Originally, it was called Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I and to honor those who fought in what was then called the Great War. The name was changed by Congress in 1954 to honor all veterans of America’s armed forces, past and present.
Most members of the Jewish community are unaware of the many sacrifices made in war by their co-religionists. Since the Civil War, for example, more than two dozen Jewish men have been awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration for valor, many posthumously.
From Haym Solomon, the financier of the American Revolution and a colleague of George Washington’s, to Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, the 25th chief of naval operations and the only CNO to have risen from the enlisted ranks, Jews proudly have served our nation.
While many volunteered in the country’s earlier wars, more than 500,000 Jews served in World War II, including Army Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, who was the highest-ranking officer killed in action in Europe.
Rabbi Alexander Goode was one of the four Army chaplains immortalized in the Chapel of the Four Chaplains for sacrificing his life during the sinking of the troop transport Dorchester when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Newfoundland coast in February 1943. Goode and the other three chaplains of different faiths helped to evacuate the ship. When life jackets ran out, they gave their own to save four other men.
Other rabbis served courageously as chaplains during 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century conflicts.
After World War II, more than 150,000 Jews served during the Korean War. And it’s estimated that 30,000 Jewish men and women were in uniform and served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
I was one of the 30,000.
Six decades ago, as a young Air Force officer, I received orders to go to Vietnam in December 1965. In addition to my intelligence duties, I also served as a Jewish lay leader at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon and at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand.
I will never forget the haunted men and women, the veterans of my generation, whose valor was squandered.
More recently, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a November 2017 article in Moment magazine, “American Jews have raised their hands to enlist [in the military] at the same rate as other Americans. Thousands have fought in the 16-year-long war that began with the 9/11 attacks.”
The article continued, “Currently, there are 15,000 American Jews serving on active duty and an additional 5,000 serving in the Guard and the Reserves.”
Remembering veterans past and present also means recalling their unintended consequences. As of the end of 2017, 56 Jewish Americans had died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to
compiled by the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.
For those of us sent to war, most come to feel forgotten by the nation that sent us. That’s true regardless of the war’s name — Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. As one veteran has written about Vietnam, it “succeeded only in leaving a legacy of bitterness and unacknowledged sacrifice.”
What have we learned from the sacrifice of thousands of Americans? What will be the legacy of those of us who were sent to fight in foreign lands? What should we recall on Veterans Day?
Maybe, as long as we do not betray the ideals of those who have served, as long as we recognize their service with dignity and integrity, their spirit will live on.
The lives of those who have served our nation challenge us, not only to remember them, but to give meaning to their lives. For as a poet has suggested, their lives will mean what we make of them.
Ira Cooperman is a veteran of the wars in Southeast Asia, having served as an Air Force intelligence officer in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in 1965-66.