Veterans reflect on wars past and present
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Veterans reflect on wars past and present

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Jewish War Veterans of Paramus march in the town’s Memorial Day parade earlier this year. Photo”ˆcourtesy of Al Nahum

While President Obama debates whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, area veterans, just ahead of the national day in their honor, are pausing to reflect on their service

A spiritual outfit

“You can’t do what you do in the military without some degree of spirituality, and the military as an institution is highly respectful of your spiritual needs,” said Richard Musicant, a Marine from Pompton Lakes who joined up in 1988 during peacetime and ended up in Kuwait during the Gulf War.

He recalled that when he was stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1990, High Holiday services were held in a guarded warehouse, in defiance of the Saudi government.

The military services “don’t force anybody to worship but they go to great lengths to accommodate your spiritual needs,” he told The Jewish Standard. “They respect everybody’s spirituality or their faith.”

Musicant didn’t experience any anti-Semitism from his fellow Marines, but acknowledged that it was difficult to be a Jew serving in Saudi Arabia. Dogtags list a soldier’s religious affiliation, but Musicant recalled that a superior officer recommended that Jewish soldiers remove Judaism from their tags in case of capture by enemy Arab forces.

“They didn’t force anything; it was just something to consider,” he said.

For some in his unit, Musicant was the first Jew they had ever met. Their questions didn’t strike him as anti-Semitic, he said, just as genuine curiosity.

Paula Berkoff of Fair Lawn comes from a military family. Her son, Capt. Ross Berkoff, served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and now works for a security company in Washington. Her father, David Goldberg, served three years in the Air Force during World War II.

Ross Berkoff could not be reached for a comment, but his mother recalled his telling her about an incident when chaplains said that everybody had to attend the next Sunday morning service. The younger Berkoff raised his hand and said he was Jewish. While he still had to attend the service, a priest brought him a Jewish prayer book and a star of David. During Chanukah in Afghanistan, fellow soldiers tried to find Berkoff a menorah. One officer even said that his mother had told him that Jews were chosen so he had to take care of Berkoff.

“For my own child,” Paula Berkoff said, serving in the military has been “an amazingly wonderful experience. He loved every minute of it.”

Specialist John Schneider of the National Guard spent nine months in Iraq, returning home to South Jersey this past May. While overseas, he received care packages from the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/B’nai Israel.

“I had gotten care packages from family, which I kind of expected,” said Schneider, who is from Medford Lakes. “You know that other people are thinking about you [but] we got to see it. A lot of people benefited from an organization – it’s not necessarily a group we were expecting to receive care packages from – and it was wonderful.”

As a thank-you to the Jewish Center, Schneider, who is not Jewish, spoke to its Hebrew school students this past Sunday for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Mitzvah Day, and helped them prepare a new round of care packages to ship overseas.

“They made my life much more comfortable last year, so I wanted to return the favor,” he said. “It’s a big impact on our lives and [our] families’ lives. It’s nice to have the community rally around and not only take care of one person.”

The Afghanistan conundrum

Musicant did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He thought the United States was already doing a good job of containing its dictator, Saddam Hussein. He doesn’t have a solid feel for whether the Iraq war has been handled properly. Afghanistan on the other hand, he said, is “the right idea.”

“We need to go all in. Let’s get it done and get home,” he said. “There has to be a benchmark. At some point the Afghani people need to become self sufficient.”

Dr. Lawrence Nessman of Wayne – who served from 1954 to 1956 as an enlisted soldier and again in 1977 as a doctor in the Army Reserves for almost 20 years – does not think Obama should send more troops to Afghanistan. He is now a colonel in the Reserves.

“The Russians got slaughtered,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union’s military campaign in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the United States was arming Arab fighters. “They got the crap kicked out of them because we were supplying the Pakistanis with shoulder-to-air missiles. [They] still have the weapons.”

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Specialist John Schneider speaks to Hebrew school students at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. Bnai Israel during Mitzvah Day on Sunday. Photo courtesty UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey

Paula Berkoff relayed her son’s feelings on the possibility of future deployments.

“The president is his boss,” she said, “and whatever he and his very able group of advisers decide is what we should be doing.”

“They want to complete what they started but there’s just no plan,” Berkoff continued. “I don’t have an answer and I don’t think anybody does.”

Milton Trost, a World War II veteran from Oradell and the husband of The Jewish Standard’s bookkeeper, Alice Trost, said that today’s soldiers face obstacles his generation never did.

“I can’t believe the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan now are feeling too great about their situation,” Trost said, pointing to the free flow of information and often negative opinions on the wars.

“The information they must get through the news and Internet – they must be wondering what’s it all about?” he said. “Why after serving one tour are they being sent back for second and third tours? It’s crazy.”

Those fighting in World War II had the benefit of conviction in what they were doing, he added.

“We were fighting a war – we thought we knew the reason for it,” he said. “It was for a good cause, for our own safety in the world.”

Few would argue, though, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq carry the same weight with the American public as World War II did.

“This is such a different kind of war than the conventional wars before,” Ross Berkoff’s grandfather said. “It’s very hard to make any kind of decision. I just hope [Obama is] doing the right thing.”

Joining up                        

The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are among more than 100 veterans organizations in the United States, representing a broad spectrum of religions, races, and creeds. The oldest, however, is the Jewish War Veterans of America, created in 1896 to counter the anti-Semitic canard that Jews don’t serve their country.

“One thing we have learned from the experience of all of our soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is sometimes veterans simply need other veterans to validate their experience and help them understand what they’ve been through,” said Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Weiner served as a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves from 1984 to 1991.

“People don’t think of the military as having large numbers of Jews but the truth is the number of Jews in the military pretty much mirrors the percentage of Jews in the country,” he said. “In times of war Jews have served disproportionate to our numbers and have been decorated disproportionately as well.”

Weiner is a member of Jewish War Veterans Post 669 in Paramus. That post’s commander, Al Nahum, said the wars America has fought in recent decades were very different than in the past, which partly accounts for fewer veterans joining fraternal organizations.

The United States wasn’t directly threatened by Vietnam, Nahum said, but stepped into an unpopular war. While the draft was enforced, draftees could get out of the obligation by attending institutes of higher education. Though the draft is still on the books, President Nixon initiated a fully volunteer army. That further changed the demographics of the military, Nahum said. Numbers are on the decline for JWV, as with many veterans organizations, he said, because the groups tend to attract mostly older members.

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Col. “Iron Mike” Smith presents the Purple Heart to Richard Musicant, with his father Alan Musicant watching, at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego in March 1991. Musicant was wounded while serving in Kuwait during the Gulf War. Photo courtesy Richard Musicant

“When [veterans] are young, they’re very busy getting an education or providing for their families, so not many are getting involved,” he said. “When they get older and have more time they get involved.”

Nessman is the second of a four-generation military family. His father, Sam Nessman, served in World War II; his son, journalist Ravi Nessman, spent three weeks volunteering in the Israeli army; and his grandson, 20-year-old Matan, serves in the Israeli Air Force.

“He’s Israeli, it’s his obligation, just like my father and me,” Nessman said.

Nessman credits the military, specifically the GI Bill, for giving him the opportunity to pursue a career in medicine.

“I never would have become a doctor if I didn’t serve,” he said. “When you’re a poor Jew from Brooklyn you don’t think about becoming a doctor. But the GI Bill changed the face of this country for everybody – Jews and Christians.”

In 1982, Nessman started the Jewish War Veterans Post 695 at the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne. Because he was past chair of local chapters of Israel Bonds and Jewish National Fund, he said, area leaders felt he was the best candidate to start the post.

“JWV has an important role to play in our Jewish community and in national life as well,” Weiner said. “On the other hand, many of our Jewish war veteran organizations are made up of men who are by and large older, because [the members’ age] reflects a time when there was a draft and a time when it was normative to express pride in one’s military service through ethnic groups.”

In January, Ross Berkoff flew down to Florida to join his grandfather’s JWV chapter, Post 501 in West Palm Beach.

“It made me feel pretty good with all the opportunities thrown at him that he chose to join the one I belonged to,” David Goldberg said. “There are no words to explain how that made me feel.”

Berkoff is the youngest member of the post and the only veteran of the present wars.

“He wanted to honor my dad,” Paula Berkoff said. “It’s important to him to belong.”

Whether they served in World War II, Korea, or Afghanistan, many soldiers feel proud of the duty they performed and they have formed lasting bonds with one another.

“You feel those are your brothers out there, and you have to support them no matter what,” Musicant said.

For Gene Preschel of Hackensack, who served during the Korean War, religion and patriotism have shaped his identity.

“I’m not sure whether I’m a proud American Jew or a proud Jewish American, but I’m proud,” he said.

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