GI JEWS: Jewish War Veterans of Illinois work to keep the past alive while worrying about the organization’s future

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The monthly meeting of the Jewish War Veterans, Dept. of Illinois chapter, at a Wilmette funeral home provoked debate among 14 attendees ranging from the long-term effects of Agent Orange to why younger veterans prefer wearing baseball caps instead of traditional pointed military-style caps at similar confabs.

The discourse was interesting and thought-provoking. But the basic premise for the existence of the 121-year-old Jewish War Veterans was exemplified after the meeting adjourned. The motivation is centered on the individual, his memories and sense of loss, and how his mere presence in society is received.

When Bruce Mayor, commander of Post 54 of JWV in DuPage County, came home from Marine helicopter machine-gunner service in Vietnam 47 years ago, he was treated with ambivalence and likely a bit of scorn from a war-weary public. But when he journeyed in April with wife Linda to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Mayor’s grief-filled memories of his fellow Leathernecks’ names carved into the wall were partially assuaged in an inspirational session he spent receiving hugs, tributes and thanks from a steady stream of visitors.

“I have six names on the Wall,” Mayor said, barely getting those words out as he choked up in the funeral home’s lobby. He wore a brown T-shirt with the message: “1959-1975. In Memory of 58,479 brothers and sisters who never returned from Vietnam.” Mayor’s narrative was brutally raw even after nearly half a century, good Marines thrown into an unnecessary charnel house by bad policy against the better instincts of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“One of them is Lt. Benson (an admired co-pilot),” he said. “There are six names who are dear to me. I brought an American flag and made up a sign from our squadron that we would not forget them. My wife is in a wheelchair. I put her at the back of the walk so others could walk by. The names were all on one panel. They all died within a month of each other, including a whole crew that was lost (on one mission).”

Mayor was a sergeant working his 50-calibre gun on rescue missions, in which Marines plucked from the bush clung to mesh ladders pulled up into the large choppers. He saluted officers and said “sir” as part of military discipline. But in combat, distinctions between officers and enlisted men melted away – and for good reason. The teamwork needed to survive was only as good as its weakest link.

“Lt. Benson was a friend,” Mayor said. “In flying, the rank still exists, but there is a bond for everybody. You get pretty tight. I would volunteer to get on missions with certain pilots because I knew it would increase my odds of coming back. I would try to fly with the ‘CO’ (commanding officer) or ‘XO’ (executive officer) when I could.  There were rules of engagement where we had to request (by radio) permission to return fire. The ‘CO’ said don’t worry about it, we’ll figure out the paperwork when we get back.”

Mayor looked for the names on the wall while holding his flag and sign. The lost crew crashed into the side of the mountain, missing clearing the summit by 10  feet. He found their names. Then he located Benson’s name. He turned around to alert Linda. Mayor fights through incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to remember.

“When I turned around to show her where the names were, a semi-circle of people had formed around me,” he said. Branding him was the brown T-shirt with the GI death count from Vietnam.

“I was the only veteran at the wall at the time. This gentleman comes up to me and asked if he could shake my hand and give me a hug. I ended up standing there for two, two and a half hours. People just kept coming and coming and coming, shaking my hand, hugging. I’m crying and people cried with me. They felt my pain. It was so emotional and overwhelming. They appreciated what I had done.

“I had to stop at some point, but you didn’t want to. It was amazing.”

If only the public’s reaction to Mayor could be bottled into proper, mistake-free treatment by the Veterans Administration, public safety agencies and the mental-health system. The oldest active veterans organization in the U.S., the JWV in Illinois and nationally acts as an advocate armed with a Jewish social conscience to supplement larger veterans organizations. The effects of war never really ends for those engaged in combat. The trail of battle from World War II into the present day continues.

And yet the JWV does its good work despite also having to fight for its relevance. The bulwark of its membership from World War II, when Jews more traditionally joined a religiously like-minded organization, is steadily dying out. The youngest members at the Wilmette meeting were sixtysomething Vietnam vets like Mayor. The most prevalent theme in the meeting was how to attract younger members, ranging from more Vietnam service people to the newest veterans just returned from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Here, JWV activists fight opponents seemingly as determined as the North Vietnamese shooting at Mayor’s chopper: changing demographics and bureaucracy. As an example, past Illinois commander Morrie Rossman tried to reach military rabbis without success so far in an effort for chaplains to pitch membership in JWV as men and women leave the service.

JWV has a proud history. A prejudiced post-war view held that the country’s smallish Jewish population of the era did not do its fair share of fighting in the Civil War. Even the famed Mark Twain wrote Jews were unpatriotic. In response, some 63 former soldiers formed the Hebrew Union Veterans on March 15, 1986 in New York. Confederate Jewish veterans were welcome to join. Twain eventually retracted his statement via another article.

Another Jewish organization comprised of Spanish-American War veterans formed just after 1900. By 1912, that group merged with the Hebrew Union Veterans, which fought for the right of Jews to join the previously-restricted New York National Guard.

In 1929, its ranks boosted by World War I veterans, the organization adopted its present name. Then, on March 15, 1933, JWV was the first organization to advocate a boycott of German imported goods into the U.S. Some 4,000 veterans marched and were favorably received by New York political leaders. Over the rest of the 1930s, as JWV posts expanded from 30 to 277, members were active in helping German Jewish refugees re-settle in the U.S. amid tight government restrictions on refugees’ numbers. German-speaking volunteers were tasked with assisting the refugees.

JWV continued to be socially active after World War II. It was the only veterans organization to participate in the civil rights era’s March on Washington in 1963. JWV was well-represented in two other major DC events: the March for Soviet Jewry in 1987 and the more than 100,000-strong Rally for Israel in 2002.

In statistics provided at the JWV meeting, some 21,386,000 veterans are alive. But 400 die, including 20 suicides, daily. The Veterans Administration has treated 883,631 for PTSD, and others suffer what is termed “survivors’ guilt” – why did I survive, but not the guy next to me.

JWV does its part to deal with issues big and small. The 14 members on hand in Wilmette talked of supporting a Chicago Board of Rabbis’ program to teach classes to Great Lakes training base recruits and transporting a group of wheelchair-bound south suburban Manteno veterans to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Korean War vet Jerry Field told of an effort to find safe houses for homeless or psychologically troubled veterans picked up by police on the street before they can be properly transferred to a hospital.

Peak national membership was achieved in the 1990s. But numbers have declined ever since. Illinois membership stands at 340, according to present state commander Robert Nussbaum. And stronger membership is needed to continue to carry out both big-issue programs and smaller religious-based activities.

Rossman was outspoken about the membership issue as the discussion of JWV’s future intensified.

“JWV has nothing to offer young people,” he said bluntly.

Joining  in was David Hymes, the meeting’s oldest member at 100, who helped form a Lincolnwood post with five other veterans in 1967. At one time the post alone had 350 members.

A typical veteran, then and now, is discharged, and simply wants to get on with his life, starting a family and/or a job. Daytime meetings cannot attract working veterans, while older members who no longer can drive at night cannot attend evening events. And family reasons are offered for not meeting on weekends.

The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, the two largest veterans organizations, are often strongest in smaller or rural communities where their halls serve as social centers.  But the Illinois JWV division has no permanent headquarters, using a meeting room at the funeral home with the assistance of Marshall Kayman, a member and the home’s director of community services.

“We have lost roughly in size 85 percent from that (peak) in 1994-95,” Nussbaum said.

Added Hymes: “We were made up primarily of World War II veterans. The Grim Reaper has taken a toll on us and our membership has dropped drastically.”

Two generations ago, the state of Illinois had 25 JWV posts. The number has declined to eight, all in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties.

But even among Jewish members of “The Greatest Generation,” a tag of World War II vets originated by TV newsman Tom Brokaw, only a minority joined fraternal organizations.

“There were 550,000 Jewish young men and women who served during World War II,” Hymes said. “But not even 10 percent joined any veterans organization that I know of.

“People tell you they’re too busy to join or are not a joiner don’t want to pay dues, period, my personal opinion. The younger people do not join JWV or Catholic War Veterans or Italian War Veterans for another reason. The VFW and American Legion in many instances feature their (permanent) home and so where they meet becomes a social area. Most of these posts are in smaller towns, so that becomes a social hall for their members. There are no Jewish or Catholic veterans organizations with their own (halls). We meet in synagogues or other veterans’ homes.”

Howard Goldstein

JWV’s MO of passive meetings may have to change with the times. Howard Goldstein, a member of Mayor’s Post 54 and a former Army medic who treated North Vietnamese prisoners, cited the activist work of Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. Made up of young veterans of Middle East and Afghanistan service, the newest organizations were active in cleanup in Houston after Hurricane Irma drowned parts of the city.

“They’re growing like mad. Their Jewish members are the ones we’d like to have,” said Goldstein. “The Mission Continues is working on the West Side. They want to do hands-on (work). They don’t want to sit around meetings.

“Our post is only 2 ½ years old. I’ve met with Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. We’re trying to figure out how we can actually work together to meet their needs. Our guys aren’t going to bust down (damaged homes’) walls. There’s got to be some way we can work together.”

As the newest post, No. 54 broke down images that Jews did not live in DuPage County. But Mayor’s and Goldstein’s group is open to activist ideas. Post 54 enlisted ninth graders from Lombard’s Etz Chaim Synagogue Sunday School class to help clean grave markers and plant flags on veterans’ graves at Oak Ridge Jewish Cemetery.

Even if the youngest veterans might look elsewhere to veterans organizations, the JWV could get a boost if they could persuade more Vietnam vets to join as they increasingly retire.

“The problem is getting those first couple of people in,” said Vietnam vet Philip Nagle. “One of the guys got me to join. I got another fellow to join. Now we’re getting new members in. But you got to get the first two in.”

In the end, the challenge seems to center around causes to which veterans can actively flock. So that the actions and memories of Bruce Mayor’s brothers in arms who did not come home won’t drift off into the ether.

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