Fifty years ago, I reported to the U.S. Army induction center in Los Angeles. My father, who was a World War II veteran, later described the experience of driving me to the center as the worst day of his life.
Why was a Jewish graduate student from the University of Southern California enlisting in the army?
It was simple. My undergraduate student deferment had expired and I had managed to squeeze in a year of graduate school before the draft board decided to call me.
In 1969, the “draft lottery” program had not yet been finalized, but I figured that — by enlisting — I could control my destiny better than if I had allowed myself to be drafted. This also meant serving three years instead of two.
I was sent to Fort Ord in Monterey, California, for eight weeks of basic training. When the Catholic chaplain (affectionately known as “Father Red Socks”) addressed my training company and expressed the need for chaplain’s assistants, I thought I had found the exact opportunity that I had sought.
I didn’t yet know that the chaplain’s assistants were active in Vietnam and were charged with carrying weapons and protecting the assigned chaplain.
Chaplain’s assistants were required to attend “administrative” school — learning to use the typewriter to complete forms. Since I was already a fast typist, I graduated from administrative school with a double promotion to PFC and headed for chaplain’s assistant training in Brooklyn, New York.
Both newly minted chaplains and their assistants were trained at Fort Hamilton, located smack under the Verrazano Bridge. The army at the time classified trainees into only three religions — if you weren’t Catholic or Jewish, you were, therefore, Protestant (even if you were Muslim, Hindu and followed another eastern religion). While I was at Fort Hamilton, there were a grand total of two Jewish assistants in training.
The bombing of Cambodia in May 1970 coincided with my graduation from chaplain’s assistant training. Orders were posted for the graduates and, as I ran my finger down the list of names and assignments, I saw that my classmates were headed to Southeast Asia while I was to be sent to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers (SHAPE), Belgium. SHAPE is the military arm of NATO and is located about an hour south of Brussels. I was now on the other side of the world from Vietnam.
SHAPE had never had a Jewish chaplain’s assistant. In fact, SHAPE and NATO didn’t even have a Jewish chaplain. But assistants were trained to serve all religious affiliations and I found myself setting up the chapels for mass or playing organ or guitar for Protestant weddings or teaching a small Sunday school class or forming a fledgling Jewish children’s choir.
My responsibilities included coordinating Jewish activities, holidays, and information for the greater NATO Jewish community. Not only did this include soldiers and their families from other NATO countries (such as England, Canada, and the Netherlands) but it also involved members of the surrounding Belgian community, most of whom had been removed by the Germans 25 years earlier. There were a few Holocaust survivors and a group of North African Sephardim who worked in nearby businesses. Outside of the SHAPE chapel, there was no synagogue left in southern Belgium.
For High Holidays, b’nai mitzvot, and brit milot, we called upon Colonel (Chaplain Rabbi) Joseph Messing, the European deputy chief of chaplains who was stationed at Sixth Army headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany. Messing would fly into Belgium and provide religious leadership for these and other ceremonies. (He later retired to Sierra Vista, Arizona).
With some supplies from the Jewish Welfare Board, we did as well as we could, staging two successful Passover sederim in the officers’ club. At Sukkot, one of the local Holocaust survivor families allowed the army to build a sukkah on their pastureland, and we were able to celebrate the autumn holiday in a true rural style.
One day, I learned that I would be up for promotion from my current rank of E-4 (equivalent to corporal). The promotion board was to meet in a few weeks, but they realized that they had never reviewed the performance of duties of a Jewish chaplain’s assistant before.
Therefore, a representative of the promotion board called the junior Protestant chaplain and asked him what, in turn, the board should ask me. The chaplain said he didn’t know, but he hung up the phone and directed me to write up a series of questions and answers for the board. When I appeared for my promotion interview, the board asked me my questions. I gave them my answers. I was promoted to E-5 (equivalent to sergeant).
As the Jewish chaplain’s assistant, I traveled to Antwerp and Brussels for kosher supplies; I drove to Berchtesgaden in the German Alps to attend weeklong religious retreats, and I accompanied 200 sixth-graders on their school ski trip to Switzerland as the “official representative of the SHAPE chapel.”
After two years of service at SHAPE, I headed home to my graduate studies. I was awarded the Joint Services Commendation Medal by the Supreme Allied Commander, which sounds more impressive than it actually was, but it was based on my work and cooperation with the greater religious communities from all the NATO countries.
During the Vietnam War, Jewish soldiers were a rarity despite the draft. Many found opportunities in the National Guard or Reserves. Others were able to maintain their deferments until the draft lottery began. In any event, as a Jew in a new position, I’m sure I received additional scrutiny, but I did my best to represent my country and my religion.
I can’t say that I have any nostalgia for military service, basic training, or army bureaucracy (where I once received 40 cases of kosher wine instead of the four I had ordered). But my experience was so singular that only one assistant ever followed me into that position at SHAPE before the position was eliminated when the army force size was reduced.
However, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in Europe for two years and to contribute to the well-being of the Jewish community in and around SHAPE and Belgium. For this, I give a hardy merci and todah rabah.
Bob Kovitz is a local writer, educator, musician, actor, and public policy administrator.