It's easy to forget what Veteran's Day really means, whom it's really about, and why it's so important. It's easy to forget the men and women who have served. And it's easy to forget that they are not always all honored fairly and equally.
When German torpedoes off the coast of Greenland sunk the USAT Dorchester on Feb. 3, 1943, four chaplains died, one Jewish, one Catholic, and two Protestant. They died because they gave away their life jackets in order to save others.
But on Chaplain's Hill, at Arlington National Cemetery, only three of these heroes are recognized. Monuments have long existed to honor the fallen chaplains of Catholic and Protestant faiths, but the Jewish chaplains never had a memorial -- that is, until now.
A number of groups, including The Jewish Federations of North America, the American Legion, and the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., have made it their mission over the past several years to reunite the Jewish Chaplain from the USAT Dorchester with the other chaplains who sacrificed their lives that day.
As a result of these efforts, which went all the way to Congress, in fact, there is now a special memorial to honor Rabbi Alexander Goode, right alongside 13 other Jewish chaplains, all who have died while serving their country.
My father, Rabbi Kenneth Block, is a chaplain at the Veteran's Hospital in Perry Point, Md. He has been a chaplain there for as long as I can remember. In honor of Veterans Day, I was interested in getting his take on being a chaplain and working with veterans who have spent their lives in service to our country.
Looking back, it's no wonder I became a chaplain. That becoming is an integral part of my history. I remember going with my father to Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, the VA facility in West Roxbury, or maybe it was in Jamaica Plain, Mass., to spend time with hospitalized veterans. We'd give out cigarettes and personal hygiene items or play bingo and listen to stories about World War II.
I realize now that I spent more Jewish holidays in VA hospitals and in veterans' cemeteries than I did in temple. My father was an active member of the JWV. He was proud of his muddy boots. But he also took his responsibility very seriously: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan" [President Lincoln's second inaugural address, March 4, 1865].
Veterans Days were spent marching in parades and placing flags on the graves of our veterans. I remember visiting the same graves every year. Even though all I knew were the names on the headstones, those men became my friends. Naturally, throughout college, the time I spent with my father decreased. But we always observed Veterans Day together.
I entered Hebrew Union College in June 1968. In September of that same year, a representative of the military chaplaincy visited the campus, and I agreed to become a Navy Chaplain upon ordination. When June 1974 finally came around, the military was exiting Vietnam and downsizing the military.
So, in September 1974, I became a VA Chaplain at the Perry Point, Md. facility. My father, First Lieutenant Herbert Block, had "trained" me to be a chaplain for the VA. He gave me his muddy boots and showed me how to wear them by example.
Thirty-seven years have passed, during which I have done what Abraham Lincoln asked of me 146 years ago. The VA has trained and supported me throughout that service.
Being a chaplain, I've built a lifetime of memories, stemming from stories that will never leave me, including one that took place in the PX or canteen found in every VA facility.
I had gone to see the weekly clothing specials. John, a Vietnam veteran I have know for 10-plus years, wheeled up to me in his chair to see what I had found -- in this case, camouflage shirts, or shirts with a military insignia on them.
I picked up one with U.S. Marine insignia and draped it over John. "Once a Marine, always a Marine, right?" I asked. I don't remember if he replied an "oo," an "ah," or a "Simper Fi." Perhaps he just laughed. The label was sticking up, so I reached for it. "Made in Vietnam," the tag said.
I showed John the label. He tapped his paralyzed legs, "Lost in Vietnam." He and I stood in silence. "You and I should have opened a clothing factory in Vietnam in the '60s. A lot of lives would have been spared," I said. "Amen," he replied.
I bought a camouflage shirt that day. He bought the one with Marine insignia. Both were made in Vietnam. I'll never forget the men who bore the battle, who answered the call, who protected us without question.
I am thankful we now have the chance to properly pay tribute to these 14 Jewish chaplains. The memorial has traveled to 20 cities, including Boston, Pensacola, and Harrisburg, where chaplains and the Jewish community were able to have a first glance before it was erected alongside the monuments currently on Chaplain's Hill.
This melding of various religions is reflective of the U.S. military chaplaincy. When you're in the trenches, separations of faith are not important. Having faith does.The dedication reminds us all to reflect on those who bravely served in the armed forces, chaplains and otherwise.
You know, whether you support the war or not, whether you know any servicemembers personally or not, whether you ever give veterans any thought any other time of the year or not, it is vital on this day, as every day, that we support out soldiers and our veterans -- Jewish and Christian, black and white, gay and straight. We must support them all equally and earnestly. And this Veterans Day is the perfect day to start.
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