As Rabbi Levi Emmer went around the table, asking members of the state’s Jewish War Veterans department to reflect on their most memorable Chanukah, Paul Fine got emotional. A war almost stole from him decades of lighting menorahs. Perhaps a miracle saved him.
One by one, during the JWV Chanukah party at the Zablocki VA Medical Center on Dec. 8, the vets shared stories of joyous times. When it was Fine’s turn to speak, he chose 1952, his first Chanukah after returning as a 23-year-old severely injured during the Korean War. As he was lying on a hill almost 6,500 miles from Milwaukee, the only lights that might have been shining bright would have come from an enemy’s grenade blast during the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.
About 600 pieces of shrapnel ripped into his body. Shrapnel in his eyes left him blind for several days. He wondered if he would live – more than 3,700 American and French and an estimated 25,000 North Korean and Chinese died during the month-long battle.
There was a report that Fine had been killed. But Fine learned of the snafu and got word to his parents that he was alive before the Army telegram telling of his “death” reached home.
Since that first post-war Chanukah, Fine has found comfort and support with the Jewish War Veterans, a group for which he has served four two-year terms as state commander and is now the immediate past commander.
Kim Queen, in his first term as state commander, says JWV events and meetings are not a time to tell war stories. “If we do talk about it, we talk more about the funny things that happened and the good things we did.”
But what about the injuries, the sickness, the near-death experiences? “Sometimes we talk about that one-on-one or two-on-two,” Fine said.
The Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., organized in 1896 by Jewish veterans of the Civil War, is reportedly the oldest active veterans group in America. Queen said its original mission was to fight anti-Semitism, and to have Jewish gravesites put in military cemeteries. The national headquarters now is in Washington, D.C.
The Wisconsin department, made up of three posts, had close to 1,000 members at one point. That number has been reduced dramatically, but Queen said membership now is steady and younger Jewish veterans are joining. Eligibility is based on an honorable military career, not necessarily during war. Yearly dues are $50, and that along with fundraisers and donations help the group help others.
State members range in age from 30 to 94, with the 65-year-old Queen estimating the average age to be 75. The group has monthly meetings and holiday get-togethers, and participates in community programs and observances that celebrate America and its veterans. The group, working at times with Home Depot, has taught menorah building, has helped set up sukkahs for veterans and has helped winterize homes of veterans.
Perhaps the most important community service takes place the weekend before Memorial Day when members and volunteers place new flags and markers on gravesites of veterans at all Jewish cemeteries in the Milwaukee area. The JWV compiles a list of deceased Jewish veterans and where they are buried from notifications supplied by funeral homes. “We recruit youth groups such as Boy Scouts to do this with us, to show them the importance of the service and give them a recognition of what the veterans are about,” Queen said.
The work in the cemeteries “is very meaningful to veterans,” Rabbi Emmer said.
Rabbi Emmer called Ron Laux, senior vice commander of the state group, “The Worrying Warrior” as Laux made last-minute preparations for the Dec. 8 Chanukah party that attracted seven men and one woman. There were siddurim (labeled “Prayer Book for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States) to be put out; a game to be played with dreidels and gelt; gifts and cards to be distributed; and – it was a Jewish event after all – latkes and other food to be enjoyed. As Laux busied himself, Rabbi Emmer, the Jewish chaplain serving the VA, said, “Chanukah is a good time of the year to be Jewish.”
Rabbi Emmer said the group is involved in “very meaningful participation. They enjoy getting together in common circumstance. The comradery is very important to veterans.”
Fine said a main goal of the group is simply “serving all veterans and their families.”
At the JWV Chanukah party were: Fine, Navy from 1947-1951 and Army from 1951-1952; Queen, Army, 1968-2012; Laux, Air Force, 1965-69; Peter Gilbert, Israeli Army, 1971-1974; Fred Chester, Army, 1973-1974; Marcia Blonder, Army Air Corp, 1985-96; Harold Glick, Army Air Corp, 1942-1954; and John Vredenbreght, Army, 1973-1974.
Queen comes from a military family dating back to the Civil War. His two sons have served – one is active.
Queen served in Vietnam, Central America and during Desert Storm. While he fought in Vietnam, his parents got a telegram from the Army, informing them their son was missing in action and presumed killed.
His status remained that way for three weeks until, Queen said with a laugh, the Army learned “I was not missing, just misplaced.”
By recalling that for generations, his kin have done more than their fair share to help the military protect America; by reliving experiences in his nearly five decades in the Army; by knowing his marriage collapsed because his wife thought he loved the Army more than her; and by taking into consideration the suffering of many of his military friends, would Queen discourage a grandchild from entering the military?
“No,” he said. “I would encourage it.”
About the Jewish War Veterans of Wisconsin
· Eligibility: An honorable career in the United States or Israeli military
· Dues: $50 a year
· Contact: Kim Queen, state commander, 414-313-0297 or firstname.lastname@example.org
· For more info: JWV.org