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Retired Warrior, Lifetime Scholar John Nagl Became U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Guru

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

If war is hell, then where does heaven or spirituality come into the picture during armed conflict?  The question is apt when considering the career of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, who squared his strong faith with his extensive combat and military strategy experience while becoming the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency guru.  The Omaha native is a graduate of his hometown’s Creighton Prepatory School , where the Jesuit education he received gave him values and philosiphies that have guided him through war and peace.  Read my cover story profile of Nagl that will be appearing in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  In it, he reflects on his roles as a man for others, a patriot, a military strategist, a combat leader, and a scholar and educator.

 

 

John Nagl

 

 

Retired Warrior, Lifetime Scholar John Nagl Became U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Guru 

by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.the reader.com)

 

Two years since the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq Americans still slog it out in Afghanistan — a full 12 years since its start. The dual wars for which so many paid a heavy price will forever be analyzed by the likes of Omaha native John Nagl, managing editor of the official U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counter insurgency Manual.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel was not only a military wonk under General David Petraeus but a warrior for whom the wars the U.S., waged in the wake of 9/11 were both object lessons and hard realities.

Millions of people have been touched directly or indirectly by the conflicts. Thousands of combatants and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have died, many more have suffered physical damage and emotional trauma. The material costs run into the trillions. The intangible costs are incalculable.

Nagl is well aware that America and the world is sharply divided on the question of whether the wars were just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, moral or immoral. Weighing such questions is nothing new for Nagl, who is steeped in Jesuit values gleaned from his education at Omaha Creighton Prep. He was a Golden Boy who graduated West Point, became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford. He served in both the first Gulf War, where he led a tank platoon, and the Iraqi Freedom campaign, where he led armor regiments.

Like some Templar Knight on a crusade this warrior-scholar has been imbued with a sense of nationalistic duty to defend his country from all enemies and with a faithful devotion to do God’s will as he sees it.

Nagl found no contradiction serving his fellow man and doing combat. He’s comfortable too squaring his humanist ideals and Christian faith with having influenced the Army’s adoption of controversial counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

“The sense of being a man for others, your life being a gift and it being your responsibility to invest that gift wisely for the greater glory of God, for the furthermost of his purposes here on Earth, that’s part of what certainly drove me to West Point and to a career in the military,” says Nagl, who was near the top of his 1988 West Point class.

Long on a rising star track in the military industrial complex – he received the George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College – he seemingly went “rogue” when he advanced the use of COIN strategies in his master’s dissertation. He borrowed his work’s title, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, from a T.S. Lawrence observation about the difficulties of responding to insurgencies.

“I read that and I thought, man, that captures it, I now understand how hard this kind of war is. And then I went to Al Anbar (Iraq) and tried it and it was a whole lot harder than I thought it was.”

 

 

 

 

 

The impetus for his infatuation with COIN was the U.S. military’s dominance of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War and his conviction that future enemies would avoid direct confrontations.

“I became convinced the military might of the United States which had cut through the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world, like a hot knife through butter, was so overwhelming that future enemies wouldn’t confront us conventionally in force on force, tank on tank battles, they’d fight us as irregular warriors, as insurgents and terrorists.”

Nagl was a voice in the wilderness, due in no small part to the fact that “after Vietnam,” he says, “we consciously turned away from counterinsurgency as a nation and as an army, and pretty much literally burned the books and decided we weren’t going to do that anymore.” Yet there was Nagl calling on the ghosts of wars’ past.

“I was very lonely in the mid-1990s doing that. Everybody else was studying the revolution in military affairs and Shock and Awe and the idea that the U.S. military would triumph rapidly using precision weaponry. I was convinced that wasn’t the case.

“It was a discouraging time. Nobody was interested in counterinsurgency until after the attacks of September 11th (2001), when suddenly everybody was interested in counterinsurgency.”

Nagl’s dissertation found a publisher and his advocacy of COIN that before fell on deaf ears got the attention of a well-placed general, David Petraeus, who embraced Nagl’s writings. Petraeus, who’d been a professor of Nagl’s at West Point, eventually became the lead commander prosecuting the war in Iraq, where he changed the rules of engagement, partly through the use of COIN tactics in the field.

“It was the first time I felt I’d found someone in a position of authority who really understood the need. He was the right guy in the right place at the right times,” Nagl says of Petraeus.

 

 

 

 

 

Nagl, who was twice posted to the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, contributed to a new counterinsurgency field manual and tested out his theories in combat.

“I was sent to Iraq to do the research and to conduct counterinsurgency in Al Anbar in 2003 and 2004. We were rediscovering lessons consigned to very dusty bookshelves and I was just the guy who’d blown the dust off of those books. And then having read the books I tried to implement it in a particularly challenging place and quite frankly failed pretty miserably, so that when I came back from Al Anbar I wrote a short piece about how I thought I’d done, calling it, Spilling Soup on Myself. That became the preface to the paperback version of my dissertation.

“One of the criticisms I make of myself in that preface is that there’s sort of a blithe sense in my book that once you understand the principles it’s comparatively easy to apply them and, boom, everything will work out. Yeah not so much, not so much…Conventional combat is hard enough but counterinsurgency is conventional combat cubed. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life.”

During Nagl’s 2003-2004 deployment he became an Army celebrity.

“A journalist named Peter Maas embedded with my unit wrote a very substantial New York Times Magazine piece called ‘Professor Nagl’s War’ that popularized some of my ideas to a pretty big audience.”

He says his profile was also enhanced “being at the center of the storm” as military assistant for then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon “as the Iraq war was going rapidly downhill in 2005 and 2006.”

 

 

 

 

 

As COIN became in vogue as a new approach his reputation as a counterinsurgency guru got him invited on the Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nagl’s a natural for the media to glom onto. He’s handsome, articulate, passionate. He can banter with the best. He cuts a dashing figure in or out of uniform and embodies the whole “be all you can be” slogan with aplomb and panache.

On Charlie Rose he took part in a roundtable discussion about Vietnam, Iraq and counterinsurgency that he says “was intellectually stimulating and engaging and I hope helpful to the American public.”

The Daily Show was a different experience entirely,” he notes. “The field manual had been published by the University of Chicago. I was back at Fort Riley, Kansas and was literally running a machine gun range when I got a phone call from someone purporting to be from the show asking if I could come on later that week. I didn’t believe it really was them. Well, it really was, and I said yes. Then I had to convince the Army to let me go. The Army actually cut orders, it was official business, so I wore my uniform.”

Nagl’s sure what proceeded was “the funniest discussion Jon Stewart has ever had on camera about an army field manual.” This hawk’s appearance on a show synonymous with cool, anti-establishment satire, he says, makes his “credibility go way up” when talking to student audiences. “They don’t care I’ve been shot at in a couple of wars, but trading words with Jon Stewart, that is an honor right there.”

COIN strategy came under sharp criticism within and outside senior military command beginning in 2008, He retired from the Army that same year.

In his immediate post-Army life he served as president of the Center for a New American Security from 2009 to 2012. This summer he assumed the headmaster role at the exclusive all-boys Haverford School in Penn., where his son Jack started the 6th grade.

After his Army retirement there was speculation he’d left because he found his path for advancement blocked due to his close association with counterinsurgency. He denies it.

“My retirement had nothing to do with having been passed over. I hadn’t been. If I had been, I wouldn’t have been positioned to continue rising up the ranks,” he says.

He adds that his retirement also had nothing to do “with counterinsurgency strategy falling out of favor,” adding, “It hadn’t when my retirement was announced in January 2008 or when I retired in October 2008.” In fact, he argues, counterinsurgency “was still ascendant in 2009 when the President twice increased force levels in Afghanistan to conduct COIN.”

No, it turns out Nagl walked away from the service he loves for, well, love. He and his wife Susi Varga, whom he met at Oxford, have a young son together and she wasn’t so keen on being an Army bride.

In an email, he wrote, “The decision was a personal one that was perhaps inevitable when I fell in love with a Hungarian Oxford student of literature and the arts and brought her on repeated tours to Kansas. The Army life had relatively little appeal for her and never really let her find her footing and spread her wings. I’m hoping that our new life together at the Haverford School will provide soil in which she flowers.”

 

 

 

 

 

That doesn’t mean he’s made a complete break with the military world, which after all was all he knew for more than two decades.

“I miss the Army every day. I loved being in the Army, being part of an organization that has global reach, that is composed of talented, dedicated young professionals, that boasts such a proud history, that makes history. I like to think that I’m still helping my army and my nation as a civilian – writing, educating, serving on the Defense Policy Board and the Reserve Forces Policy Board. But I still miss strapping on my tanker boots every morning.”

During his time in the military he did his best to both live the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God” and to train for and wage war. He says the two things never posed a moral conflict for him.

“I never saw any conflict between being a product of a Jesuit education and serving in the U.S. military. The Jesuits taught me the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello; the first, whether a war is fought for a just cause, is the business of politicians. How that war is fought, or jus in bello, is the business of soldiers. The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, was clearly a just and necessary war, fought to free a conquered people and restore international order, and it was fought in a just manner.

“My second war, Iraqi Freedom, I did not then and do not now believe was necessary. However, it was fought according to the laws of war on our side, and we punished violations of those laws that did occur. I also worked to help the Army fight it more wisely and cause less harm to the Iraqi people through the writing of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  The Jesuits must have thought that on balance, I worked Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) as they named me Alumnus of the Year for 2012 and included my rank on the award.”

Though the haze of war is full of tragedies and atrocities, Nagl holds to the classical warrior’s view that duty to country and God are the same. This fervent patriot and devout Christian swears allegiance to both.

“Military service is completely compatible with the values I learned at Prep. Some of the finest men for others I have ever known were those who laid down their lives for their friends that we could all live in peace and freedom. We must build a country that is worthy of their sacrifice.”

As a military academy product and teacher (he taught at West Point and the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College), Nagl knows Army history and thus takes a long view of things when it comes to COIN.

“Counterinsurgency is always going to be messy and slow, but if you’re trying to defeat an insurgency, it’s the least bad option. I’ve always said counterinsurgency is hard, that it’s not guaranteed to work by any means. What I always ask the skeptics is, ‘What do you recommend instead?’

“And the fact is with the American withdrawal from Iraq, the pending continuing drawdown in Afghanistan, the United States has decided not to engage itself in what we call big footprints –, tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops counterinsurgency-camping. But we’re still engaged in supporting insurgencies in places like Syria and supporting countries fighting against insurgencies not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in the Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, the list goes on.

“So it isn’t that insurgency and counterinsurgency have gone away but America’s not convinced you get what you pay for, and that I think is a fair question.”

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, the beat goes on in the places where Nagl and his fellow soldiers saw action.

“Big footprint counterinsurgency continues in Iraq but it’s Iraqi troops rather than American troops who are conducting that campaign. We were able to build up the Iraqi forces and tamp down the fires of sectarian conflict sufficiently to pass that one off to Iraq and say, ‘Good luck guys,. over to you.’

“The campaign in Afghanistan is more complicated. Afghanistan has never been as important a country for U.S. interests as Iraq was

and the real epicenter of this struggle is not Afghanistan at all, but Pakistan, which is the current home of Al Qaeda central, what remains of it, and I believe still today is the most dangerous country in the world for the United States. The biggest global threat we face comes from Pakistan.”

When it comes to military affairs these days Nagl is an interested and well-informed bystander. As closely as he still observes what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, he’s more concerned today with leading a school and preparing its students than with war analysis and strategy. At Haverford he feels he’s found a real home.

“In a lot of ways it’s a secular version of Creighton Prep. It’s a K-12 with about a thousand boys, with a great history. It started in 1884, a hundred years before I graduated from Prep. When I visited the school there were two things engraved in the fabric of the school that really sang to me. One was over the gymnasium and it said a sound mind and a sound body in Latin and those are principles I believe in pretty strongly.”

He says engraved just over the entrance of the upper school building is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quotation, whose credo of service and action is one that Nagl’s lived by.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

“To fight the world’s fight, I believe in that responsibility,” says Nagl. “The Jesuits taught me that, my mom and dad taught me that. So it really seemed like this was a place after my own heart.”

My Omaha Magazine Story on Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Wins Best Feature Story and Best in Show at Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition

June 9, 2013 4 comments

 

 

Yours truly was part of the Omaha Magazine team that won in the Best Feature Story and Best in Show categories at tonight’s Omaha Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards Competition.  The recognition came for my story about Jacob Hausman, a U.S. Army combat veteran who endured some serious trauma in Iraq and has come out the other side of PTSD to live a full, productive life.  Jacob deserves much credit too for bravely sharing his private struggles.  In addition to my writing, the awards recognized the layout, design and cover art for the 10 to 12 page cover spread that ran in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue.

It was a great evening with my colleagues and best of all I got to share it with my dear friend Tina Richardson.

Check out the story on the blog by linking to it at-

http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/?s=hausman

Or by entering the name Hausman in the search box in the upper right corner of my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

 

 

Photo: Our awards from the Omaha Press Club tonight!
The Best in Show Award is the big one in the background.  It’s really heavy.

Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

October 31, 2012 1 comment

 

For those of you wondering if all I ever write about is Alexander Payne, here’s a story that shows what I’m capable of outside the whole filmmaking and arts-culture arena.  It’s a profile of Iraq war veteran Jacob Hausman, a native Nebraskan whose battle with PTSD I chronicle.  Thankfully, Jake’s found peace with the help of counseling, prescription drugs, friends, and a lot of work on himself.  The extensive profile is the cover story in the current Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine, whose editors graciously alloted a 12-page layout, which is almost unheard of these days.  Thanks to Jake for sharing his story.  It’s my privilege to share it with all of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

©by Leo Adam Biga

In the Nov/Dec issue of Omaha Magazine

 

One Man’s Journey into War

Growing up in Beatrice, Neb. Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing the rite of passage known as basic training he finally realized his long-held dream. He made it as an infantryman, too, meaning he’d joined the “hardcore” ranks of the all-guts-and-no-glory grunts who do the dirty work of war on the ground.

By the time his enlistment ended three years later Hausman earned a combat service badge during a year’s deployment in Iraq. He participated in scores of successful missions targeting enemy forces. He saw comrades in arms, some of them close friends, die or incur life-threatening wounds. He survived but there were things he saw and did he couldn’t get out of his mind. Physical and emotional battle scars began negatively impacting his quality of life back home.

Headaches. Ringing in the ears. Dizziness. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Irritability. Depression. Anxiety. Certain sounds bothered him. He felt perpetually on edge and on high alert, as if still patrolling the hostile streets of Mosul or Fallujah. With his fight or flight response system stuck in overdrive, he slept only fitfully.

A relationship he started with a woman ended badly. He lived in his parents’ basement, unemployed, isolating himself except for beer-soaked nights out that saw him drink to oblivion in order to escape or numb the anguish he felt inside. No one but his fellow vets knew the full extent of his misery.

With things careening out of control Hausman sought professional help. Hardly to his own surprise, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone who’s endured trauma is prone to develop it. Sustained exposure to combat makes soldiers particularly vulnerable. Not all combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD but nearly a third are.

What did surprise Hausman was learning he’d suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TIB). In retrospect, it made sense because the Stryker combat vehicle he was in absorbed an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast that knocked him unconscious. Studies confirm ever stronger charges like that one caused many more such injuries as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. Injuries of this type often went undetected or unreported in the past.

So it was Hausman became a casualty among returning veterans. Some estimates put their numbers with PTSD and/or TIB at a quarter of a million. Statistics alone don’t tell the story. In each case an individual experiences disruptive symptoms that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. The suicide rate among this group is high.

The scope of this health care crisis has strained VA resources. In some locales benefit claims are months behind schedule. Nebraska’s VA system has largely kept pace with demand. Hausman’s own claim was expedited quickly. He was found to be 90 percent disabled.

Six years after starting a VA treatment regimen of counseling and medication to address his PTSD issues, along with physical therapy to mitigate his TBI symptoms, his life’s turned around. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bellevue University. He’s gainfully employed today as a veterans service representative at the Lincoln VA. He also does outreach work with vets. He recently married the former Kendra Koch of Beatrice and the couple reside in a home in Papiliion.

They adopted a Lab-Golden Retriever mixed dog, Lucy, from a rescue animal shelter. Kendra’s an animal lover like Jacob, who with his mother Gayla Hausman and his friend Matthew Brase own and operate the foundation Voice for Companion Animals.

Throughout his active duty Army tenure Jake carried inside his kevlar helmet a photo of his favorite adolescent companion, a chihuahua named Pepe. Not long after Jake’s return from Iraq the dog took sick and had to be put down.

Jacob and Kendra are seriously considering starting a family.

Emotional and physical challenges persist for him but he has tools to manage them. No longer stuck in the past, he lives one day at a time to his fullest and looks ahead to realizing some dreams. Contentment seemed impossible when he was in the depths of his malaise. His is only one man’s story, but his recovery illustrates PTSD and TBI need not permanently debilitate someone.

He’s certainly not the same Jake Hausman who joined the Army a decade ago. “I came back a completely different person. I had so much life experience,” he says. Good and bad. If nothing else, it matured him. His views on the military and war have changed. He’s not bitter, but he is wizened beyond his 28 years and he wants people to know just how personal and final the cost of waging war is. He also wants fellow vets to know the VA is their friend.

Soldier Boy

Like a lot of young people, he had a romantic view of soldiering. He saw it as a ticket out of his small town to find thrills and see the world.

“People live in Beatrice for a hundred years. It’s like my grandpa lived here, my mom lived here, and I’m going to live here, and I didn’t want that for myself. I struggled at school, I didn’t succeed, I was in trouble with the law, I didn’t have a bright future. And the Army at least promised adventure, intrigue. I just thought, Gosh, I want to be part of a story that can be told from generations to generations. I wanted to be part of something greater than myself.

“I didn’t feel connected (before). I mean, I was social, I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and I really craved that. I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and that (the infantry) really gave it to me.”

You might assume the catalyst for his enlistment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you’d be wrong. Long before then he’d made up his mind  he would enlist as soon as he could. He wanted it so bad that he was only 17 when the Army took him with his parents’ written consent. He completed high school early.

“Since I was like 5 years-old I wanted to be a part of the infantry. My mom’s father was in the infantry during the Korean War, and that’s why I ultimately joined. So I was always allured by the infantry because they’re the hardest, the best, the whole thing. I was beyond motivated.

“The struggle, the fight, well that’s all true.You actually get to experience those things and it’s not pretty and glorified. What I always tell people is that in combat and war no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate, it’s pure survival instincts, and when you’re in those situations you’re not doing it for the flag you’re doing it for your friend to the left and right of you.”

He couldn’t know the hard realities of war before experiencing it. He only thought about the excitement, the camaraderie, the tradition.

“Well, I got all those things, and I got a little bit more than I bargained for.”

You’re in the Army Now

His service almost got shelved before getting started. Weeks before leaving for basic training he was behind the wheel of his car as friends imbibed from open alcohol containers when Beatrice police pulled them over. Already on probation for underage drinking violations, Hausman “freaked out” and fled the scene. He later turned himself in. Authorities could have used the pending charges to prevent him from going in the Army. A probation officer became his advocate.

“She went above and beyond for me,” he says. “She saw something in me and just really pushed for me and got it dropped. Two weeks later I left (for basic). About three years later when I came back I told her what that meant to me and who I am now because of it. If it wasn’t for her this story would have never happened.”

So off he went for the adventure of his life. Rude awakenings came early and often at Fort Benning, Ga. for this “spoiled only-child” who’d never done his own laundry.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.”

Mental and physical toughness are required of infantrymen and he had no choice but to steel himself for its rigors.

“You adapt fast or you suffer,” he says, “and I was one who adapted fast. The infantry is so hard. There’a lot of hazing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Hazing and all, he says, “I thought basic training was the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why it was powerful for me is that it was all about the mission, there was no individualism, we we’re all a team. I really loved that.

“My master’s is in leadership, where the focus is on what can you do for the team, and that’s what the infantry is. No matter if you show up with a shaved head or dreadlocks, you get your head shaved. No matter if you’re clean shaved or you have a beard, you get your face shaved. It’s just part of it. They strip you down to your very bare minimum and it’s all about coming together as a team, being a man, learning how to get along with others and learning different cultures.

“You’re talking about someone who as a kid had one black person in his class and now I had blacks, Hispanics, Jamaicans in my barracks. I’d never dealt with that. I learned so much from other people, it was fantastic. They treated me like everyone else, I treated them like everyone else.”

Infantry training is largely about endurance.

“The whole infantry thing is walking and running while carrying a 50 to 75 pound rucksack,” he says. “Can you walk a long ways with all that weight?”

Before making it into the infantry, one must pass a final crucible. Hausman recalls it this way: “They have this legendary walk that’s like 25 miles of water, hills and so forth. It’s like your final capstone test at the very end. You know you’re an infantryman if you pass this thing. It’s hell on earth. I had to duck tape my thighs so they wouldn’t rub together. You walk through a river and your feet are wet. One entire foot was rubbed raw. I mean, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.

“It’s just a whole mental thing – can you get through the pain? It was so great getting that done. I was so proud.”

He then joined his unit in Fort Lewis, Wash. to await deployment. He says everything there was even more intense than at Fort Benning – the training, the hazing, the brotherhood, the partying. He felt he’d truly found his calling.

“I became very good at being an infantryman. You really felt a part of the team, you bonded. I mean, you just had a lot of brothers.”

He says the drills he and his mates did in the field, including playing realistic war games, made them into a cohesive fighting force.

“We were a killing machine.”

 

 

Cover Photo

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Desert War

A downside to barracks life, he says, is all the alcohol consumption. “Drinking is the culture, I’m talking excessively. In the military you’re drinking hard liquor and you’re just drinking till you curl up. That’s the path that started going bad for me there.” But a substance abuse problem was the least of his worries once in Iraq in 2003.

His company was assigned to the new Stryker Brigade, which took its name from the 8-wheel Stryker combat vehicle. “Something in-between a Humvee and a tank,” Hausman describes it. “After Somalia our brass decided we needed a vehicle which could put infantry in the city, let us do our thing, and get us out fast.”

It carried a crew of six.

“We built cages (of slat armor) on the outside to stop RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).” The cages proved quite effective. However, Strykers had a problem with rollovers, a defect Hausman would soon experience to his horror.

“We had a lot of good intelligence from special forces initially. Every day we would kick someone’s door down and take out a terrorist. We’d either arrest him, kill him, do whatever. We killed a lot of bad guys.

“Once the intelligence stopped we kind of ran out of operations to do.”

Then his squad’s duty consisted of doing presence patrols  “It basically was to show the Iraqis we were around, but in all reality it was walk around until we got shot at so we could kill people.”

Draw fire, identify target, engage.

Hausman was a specialist as the squad designated marksman. “I had an extra weapon – a snipe rifle. I’d go out with the snipers and we’d do recon on special missions,” he explains. “We’d take fire here and there but we’d maybe only get in a firefight every three weeks.”

He was part of a Quick Reaction Force unit that responded within minutes to crises in the field. That sometimes meant coming back from a long operation only to have to go right back out without any sleep.

“Once, we got into an 18-hour firefight when we were called to secure two HET vehicles hit by RPGs and abandoned by their transportation team. It was a residential district in Mosul. We got there and RPGs start blasting and IEDs started popping. It was just an ambush. The enemy had us surrounded 360 degrees . We were pinned down taking gunfire. This was life or death. At a certain point you’re not thinking, it’s pure survival animal instinct.

“I turned the corner at a T-intersection and there were muzzle flashes from windows. There were four of us versus about six muzzle flashes. It was just who could kill who fastest. A guy came across the roof and I fired my 203 grenade launcher, BOOM, dead. A squad member got shot and paralyzed. Another got wounded by an RPG, his intestines spilling out. He was EVACd out.”

He says in situations like these you confront the question: “Are you really committed to killing another human being? And I have killed another person.” Despite today’s automatic weapons, he says, “you’re still seeing a human being face-to-face, you’re still pulling a trigger on someone, you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.”

In the aftermath of such intense action, he says, “you’re hiked up, you can’t sleep.” Indeed, he “couldn’t let down” for his entire nine months in Iraq. “You just can’t let your guard down.” Even on leave back home he was so conditioned by threats that “driving back from the airport,” he recalls, “I was looking for IEDs on the road, scanning the roofs for snipers.” When he could finally release the pent-up stress he slept three straight days.

A Tragic Accident

As bad as firefights got he says “the worst thing I’ve experienced in my life occurred about a month after I got to Iraq.” It didn’t involve a single gunshot or explosion either. It was his turn operating the Stryker. His team, followed by another in a second Stryker, were on a muddy backroad near Sumatra heading to do recon. A ravine on their side of the road led to a canal. Suddenly, the road gave way and both Strykers overturned into the canal. The ensuing struggle haunts him still.

“We’re upside down, water starts running in, it’s miserable cold. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s over.'”

He recalls hearing his father’s voice telling him not to panic.

“I don’t know how I got the hatch open, I just muscled it and the water rushed in. I took a deep breath and went down in it. My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, Is this how I’m going to die?

I escaped from the bottom somehow and got on the side.”

Only to find himself trapped again. He began swallowing water.

“I looked up and I could kind of see the moon. I started clawing, clawing, clawing and gasping for air. I made it. I gathered my thoughts, climbed on the vehicle, and saw one of my buddies had gotten flung out .We went to the back,” where they found their mates trapped below, desperate for escape. “We were all fighting to get the hatch open. It was just terrible. We get the hatch open and everyone’s there.”

A roll-call accounted for all hands. Except in the rush to get out a team member got “trampled over” and drowned.

“We got his body out and did CPR but it was five minutes too late.”

Hausman was “really good friends” with the victim, Joseph Blickenstaff.

The driver and squad leader in the second vehicle also died. Hausman was friends with the driver, J. Riverea Wesley. Staff sergeant Steven H. Bridges was the squad leader lost that day.

Assessing what happened, Hausman says, “It was chaos, it was tragedy. That really shattered me for a while. I won’t let it ruin my life, I’ll go swimming and stuff, but it was just traumatic. It is hard to deal with – getting over it. There’s some parts of it I will never get over.”

The Aftermath Comes Home

War being war, there’s no time or support for processing tragedy and trauma. “It was shove everything inside, shut up, move forward,” says Jake. Those unresolved feelings came tumbling out like an “avalanche” when he got back home in 2004.

“I was just a train wreck. I was miserable, destroyed. My emotions ran wild. I couldn’t sleep. I was just so anxious. I couldn’t take deep breaths, I would sniff, just like a dog panting. Like a 24-hour panic attack. You’re uncomfortable being you every second of the day. You’re not in control and that’s what you’re afraid of. Just freaking out about stuff. I was so afraid at night I would get up nine or 10 times and check the lock on my door. The nightmares are incredible.”

Excessive drinking became his coping mechanism. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink to keep his demons at bay.

“You’re in a vicious cycle and you can’t get out of it,” he says.

“At one point I contemplated suicide because I was like, What is the point of living when I am this bad, this miserable? Is it ever going to get better than this?”

His family saw him unraveling.

“Mom and dad were worried, deathly worried, but they didn’t know how to handle it.  They didn’t know if it was a stage or my turning 21. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

“Usually in this population patients turn to drinking or to other substance abuse and the number one reason they tell me they do it is because they can’t sleep or to fight off nightmares,” says Omaha VA social worker Heather Bojanski. “They don’t want to come in for help, they don’t want medication, and drugs and alcohol are easy to get a hold of. They’d rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face there is a problem.”

Jim Rose, a meant health physician’s assistant with the Lincoln VA, says recovery has to start with someone recognizing they have a problem and wanting to deal with it. “If they’re still reluctant to accept that as a problem then it makes it very difficult. Help’s out there but it is difficult with this group who by nature tend to be more self-reliant and have the world by the shoulders, and then to have something like this happen kind of turns things upside down.”

There’s no set timetable for when PTSD might present in someone.

“They’re all on a continuum,” says Bojanski. “Two veterans can come back who have seen and been through the same exact thing and one will seem perfectly fine and the other may immediately start struggling. That all depends on a few things – what was going on in their life when they came back, how much family support they have. It’s all going to depend on them and their family and what’s going on and how honest they are with themselves.

“If they come back and they have great family support and their family’s in tune and really watching them, then they’ll do well. But if nobody’s really paying attention and they’re just doing their own thing and they start isolating and drinking, then those are big issues to look at and people really need to encourage them to come in.”

Hausman says, “There’s a threshold of stress. It’s going to come out eventually if you don’t take care of it. For me it came out real early. I was a boy, I was not equipped for getting used up in the war machine.”

Rose says PTSD tends to be suppressed among active duty military because they’re in a protective environment around people with similar experiences. But once separated from the military it becomes a different matter.

“They feel isolated and the symptoms will probably intensify,” he says. “It’s usually a couple years after discharge people reach a point where they just can’t cope with it anymore and something’s going to happen – they’re going to get in trouble or they’re going to ask for help, and that’s when we see them.”

That’s how it was for Hausman, who concealed the extent of his problems from family and friends and tried coping alone.

“I didn’t want to burden them with that, My friends, they thought it was just old Jake because I’m a partier, I’m gregarious, so they enjoyed it. But they didn’t see the dark side of it. They didn’t understand the mega depression and anxiety. When I was drunk I could shield it.

“But there’s usually one of two people in your life that know you. Robert Engel is probably my best friend to this today. He was in my unit. He lives in Kansas City (Mo.).He recognizes when I’m down, I recognize when he’s down. We kind of pick each other up. He’s seen me at my lowest point but he accepts me for who I am and I accept him for who he is and we sincerely care about each other.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Help

“When I decided I wasn’t going to kill himself I resolved to figure this out,” says Jake. “I started reading spirituality, I started studying psychology.”

Most importantly, he sought help from the Veterans Administration. He and a fellow vet in Lincoln, Mike Krause, talked straight about what he needed to do. Like any vet seeking services Hausman underwent screenings. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

The intake process works the same for all vets.

Bojanski says, “We sit down with each of them individually and decide what level of care they need.” In the case of Hausman, she says, “He came to the VA and we started to treat him and then when he started to take medication he stopped drinking and it was like an eye opening experience to him that, Oh my God, I’ve been suffering all this time. He started to go to groups, he talked to other people and realized, Wow, I’m not the only one suffering. Other people he knew from his unit were going.”

Rose says the medications commonly prescribed for PTSD are “a mixed bag” in terms of effectiveness. He emphasizes “there is no medication that cures these symptoms, but we have got things that can help people lead better lives, including anti-depressants  and anti-psychotics.” To supplement the meds he says “we try to steer people to cognitive therapy counseling.”

A holistic mind-body-spirit approach has worked for Hausman.

“That’s why exercise is important, counseling is important, and you have to supplement it with medication,” he says. “It’s not just a one trick pony, you can’t just throw some meds at someone and expect them to get better, you have to do all those things.”

Rose salutes Hausman and anyone who embraces recovery. “It’s a fairly lengthy process and it involves commitment. It’s not a passive act. Jake’s a testament to people that if you really want to get through it you can.”

Lincoln VA substance abuse counselor Mary Ann Thompson admires him for getting sober and “remaining clean and sober and productive.”

Bojanski sees a new Jake, saying, “He has a much better outlook on life. He’s very proactive.”

More than most, Kendra Hausman appreciates how far her husband’s come: “I’ve seen a lot less anxiety. Overall, he’s more calm, more level-headed, he’s able to handle situations better. He doesn’t get as angry or as worked up about small things like he used to. He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now but I’m so proud of him for moving forward. He’s very determined. Once he puts his mind to doing something he’ll get it done no matter what. He’ll figure out what he needs to do, just like he did with his school and career.”

Jake himself says, “I’ve come a long ways. Life us so much better.” What he’s realized, he says, is “there are just some things you cannot willpower, you just have to get help from people. I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me. And that’s what I’ve learned -– you have to ask for help, you have to be willing to get help. The VA is there to help people. They’ve helped me so many times.”

Bojanski says the VA’s more responsive to veterans’ needs today.

“The VA realized we did a lousy job welcoming Vietnam veterans back home, so when this war started we wanted to be proactive and make sure we welcomed our veterans home. We didn’t want them to have a stigma with mental health, we wanted to make sure everything was in place. So we created these clinics (OEF or Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom or OIE) where we work very hard with veterans. It’s very confidential, so not everybody in their unit is going to find out. We have an ER open 24 hours a day.

“It’s not like it used to be when you just had to soldier on or if you reached out for help it wasn’t confidential.”

She says there isn’t as much stigma now about seeking mental health care.

“It’s getting better, we’re still not where we need to be, but I will say the armed forces, the Department of Defense and our population in general are changing their views about that. We also do a lot of outreach, a lot of speaking to communities to make sure people are aware it’s OK to get help.”

Hausman does outreach himself as a way of giving back. He says when he addresses audiences of freshly returned vets he commands their attention.

“They believe in me because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m working for the VA. I’m 90 percent service connected, I’ve got a combat infantry badge. Seeing them is like seeing my reflection. I’m motivated to get them right before they take the wrong path. Someone got me over the hump and I want to get them to that point, too. I want to help veterans get the services they need. It’s just so rewarding.”

 

 

 

Jacob,, Kendra and their dog

 

 

The War that Never Ends, Moving on with Life

His PTSD still flare-ups now and then.

“Recently I had a little struggle for a while but I didn’t fall back into the past because I’ve got good people in my life today.” He says he has combat veteran friends who still struggle because “they don’t have the support system.”

He accepts the fact he’ll always be dealing with the effects of war.

“There are some things I would change but it’s made me who I am even with all the disabilities and struggles and everything I face. I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace. There’s some breaking points where you feel sorry for yourself and you have little pity parties but then again I look around me and see what I have – a great support system, a wonderful wife. It’s made me stronger.”

Finding Kendra, who works as a speech pathologist with the Omaha Public Schools, has been a gift.

“She is the light of my life, she changed my life. Her enthusiasm for life is just  breathtaking. She’s smart, beautiful, loving. She’s the greatest teacher in my life. She doesn’t need to understand everything I go through but sometimes I need her to help me get through it.

“I was going through a low point and she said something to me that no one else could say to me without offending me: ‘You got through war, now you can get through this, so suck it up.’ From her that meant a lot. She knows me at that fundamental level to tell me what I need to hear sometimes.

“We’re really good together.”

Flareups or not, Jake’s moving on with life and not looking back.

If you have a concern about a veteran or want more information, call 402-995-4149. The VA’s local crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. For the latest findings on PTSD, visit http://www.ptsd.va.gov/aboutface.

Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

August 11, 2012 Leave a comment

I generally don’t hold with designating individuals as heroes in any field of endeavor, much less honoring the efforts of combat participants, but I have no trouble understanding people’s need to acknowledge, recognize, and commemorate the deeds of the valiant.  This is a short story about some Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients whose lives and valor were the subject of an exhibition a few years ago at El Museo Latino in Omaha.  The institution was a good home for the exhibit because two of the state’s Medal of Honor winners were young Latino men: Edward “Babe” Gomez and Keith Miguel.  A legend is also among their ranks in the person of William F. Cody, better known to some as Buffalo Bill.  A once prominent politician now looking to reenter the political arena, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, is also among the state’s Medal of Honor men.

 

 

 

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A new historical exhibition at El Museo Latino pays tribute to Nebraska’s Medal of Honor recipients. Among the honorees are Edward “Babe” Gomez and Miguel Keith and former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration. It is bestowed by Congress to armed forces members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity,” risking life “above and beyond the call of duty” in action.

Nebraska’s accredited with 18 Medal of Honor recipients in conflicts as far back as the Civil War and on through two world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, received the Medal for his work as a civilian scout with the 3rd Cavalry during Indian campaigns along the Platte River in the early years of Nebraska’s statehood.

Otto Diller Schmidt of Blair received the Medal during peacetime when, while serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, he displayed “extraordinary heroism” following a 1905 boiler explosion.

Gomez, an Omaha native, attended South High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves at 17. He was called to active duty with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. During a fateful 1951 battle he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as an Easy Company ammunition bearer. When a hostile grenade landed amidst his squad, he sacrificed himself by absorbing the explosion.

Keith, a San Antonio, Texas native, moved to Omaha, where he attended North High. He fought as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. During a 1971 attack he was hit multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit’s command post until mortally wounded.

Kerrey, a Lincoln native, led a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam. During a 1969 mission to capture intelligence assets his team came under fire. Despite massive wounds he directed a successful counterattack. He lost part of a leg as a result of the engagement.

Eight recipients born in Nebraska have their Medal accredited to other states where they resided or enlisted. Among their ranks is the most recent recipient with Nebraska ties, Randall Shughart, a Lincoln native who entered the service in Newell, Pa., where he and his family moved. Shughart fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia as part of a Special Ops Army team inserted to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. While under siege he applied fire that allowed the crew’s rescue. He sustained fatal wounds.

El Museo Latino director Magdalena Garcia says the exhibit highlights how America honor its military heroes and how Nebraskans contribute to defending freedom. The images and text, including Medal of Honor citations, help provide a timeline and context for the various wars and conflicts America’s fought, she says.

Outside of Bob Kerrey, perhaps the best known native Nebraska recipient is Gomez. One of 13 children, Gomez is recalled as “happy-go-lucky,” an “extrovert” and “a go-getter” by younger brother Modesto Gomez. He says Babe, a scrappy 5-foot-1 former Golden Gloves boxer served a year at the former Kearney reform school before turning his life around. He wore their father down insisting he be allowed to join the Marines.

 

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill

Edward “Babe” Gomez

 

Miguel Keith

Bob Kerrey

 

 

A letter from Babe before his final, fateful mission seemed to signal his own foreboding. Eva Sandoval says, “He wrote, ‘Remind the kids of me once in awhile,’” referring to young siblings who had indistinct memories of him before he left for Korea.

Eva and her mother Matiana were at home when a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram announcing his death.

“My mother said I went into hysterics,” says Eva. “It was really a shock to me. He was just a year older than I. He was so young when he died. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I’d say, Oh, he’s coming back — it was a big mistake. I didn’t want to accept he’s gone for good.”

Babe’s selfless actions reflected his upbringing, says Modesto. “He was prepared to do what he had to do because that’s just the way we were raised. ‘Get in there and get it’ my dad used to say. You just do the right thing.”

The Medal was presented to Babe’s family at an Our Lady of Guadalupe ceremony.

Gomez’s legacy lives on in a mural at the Nebraska State Capitol and in Nebraska Medal of Honor displays at the American GI Forum, Omaha-Douglas Civic Center and Durham Museum. A local school and avenue bear his name.

“All of these things they’ve done in his name have been a tremendous honor,” says Modesto.

Gomez is buried at St. Mary Cemetery in South Omaha.

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center

July 8, 2012 1 comment

Very rarely do I write anything that even edges up on hard news.  This story from 2000 is one of those exceptions.  It had to do with complaints filed against the Omaha VA Medical Center and the watchdog role local veteran activists assumed in agitating for change and monitoring government responses and remedies.  The Department of Veterans Affairs has a spotty even inglorious and sometimes infamous track record in attending to the medical needs of servicemen, past and present, and horror stories abound of poor conditions and treament experiences in veterans’ facilities.  Of course, much good is done as well.  But given that problems persisted before the last solid decade or more of returning combat vets requiring care the problems have, from I gather, only mutiplied in the crush of patients overwhelming the system.

 

 

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center                

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 
A Call for Action
Last September saw the release of a long-awaited federal report stemming from an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General into complaints about the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) program at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The investigation followed requests by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to examine complaints made to them, many in impassioned letters and phone calls, by veterans.

After the October 1999 investigation, nearly a year passed before the inspector general issued a 50-page report substantiating such concerns as insufficient staff, poorly coordinated services, long scheduling delays, inadequately administered drugs and a weak patient advocacy program. Other beefs, including allegations about negligent care, were not supported. Kerrey characterized the findings as showing “there are serious problems…inside an organization that is for the most part dedicated to high quality care.” The report made 16 recommendations for addressing the problems. Concurrent with the PTSD review the entire medical center was the subject of a routine comprehensive inspector general assessment, the timing of which may have been pushed up given the heat coming down from Washington, and its report surfaced more concerns and remedies amid overall good health care practices. In what was described as a coincidence, the center’s director and chief medical officer retired in June.

A hospital spokeswoman said the center has already implemented several changes and is on pace to complete others by target dates. Veterans who called for the initial study are pleased with some changes but assert old problems still persist. Todd Stubbendieck, legislative assistant in Kerrey’s Washington, D.C. office, said,
“Our understanding is everything is being implemented there. We’ve heard no additional patient complaints.”

Raising Hell
The reports, written in the cold, clinical language of bureaucratic Washington, mute the rage some veterans express at the insensitive and unresponsive manner in which they insist they’ve been treated. David Spry, vice president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, has become a mouthpiece and advocate for their discontent. His own experiences as a post traumatic stress disorder patient (in Lincoln), as a veterans legal custodial aide and as a past Veterans Advisory Committee member at the Omaha VA facility put him in a unique position to assess center practices and to glean feedback from the veterans community. Much of the discord has centered on a few key staff members and administrators and their perceived arrogance toward veterans. “They treated us with disrespect and that’s what a lot of the complaints are about,” Spry said. “It’s like, They’re the system, and we’re only veterans. What do we know? They thought we had no brain, no mouth, no nothing once we left their building, but we were comparing our notes about this place with other veterans groups.”

Spry turned veterans’ dissatisfaction into a cause that eventually got lawmakers and government oversight bodies to take action. For Spry, a Vietnam combat veteran, the process of getting officials to finally take seriously the red flags he and others originally raised more than three years ago has been an odyssey akin to battle. The role of whistle blower has taken its toll, too. “It hasn’t been easy. In 1997 we started to complain vigorously to VA management about this. We got nowhere. Our complaints never even got into the minutes of the meetings of the Veterans Advisory Committee. The things we were concerned about were problems we didn’t seem to be able to get corrected internally, so we went to a congressman,” he said, referring to former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.). Veterans aired grievances to Christensen and VA officials but, Spry said, little headway was made. “Then, when Christensen became a lame duck, we were kind of at a loss.”

 

 

 

 

Making the Case
That’s when, in 1998, Spry and fellow Vietnam Veterans of America service officers brought complaints, which grew in the wake of a national hospital accreditation survey, to the inspector general office, the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Kerrey. Spry said a year elapsed before Kerrey’s office took serious interest. Then, at the request of top Kerrey aides, Spry and his comrades were asked to gather veterans’ gripes and, once Kerrey saw the more than 100 letters of complaint, he asked the inspector general office to get involved. At the time, Kerrey said, “…this Vietnam Veterans post has made a persuasive case that something’s going on here that’s not good.” According to Spry, “This organization of ours really became quite passionate about this. We really pushed very hard. We had a lot of people looking into this and we finally got somebody to listen to us. It helped tip the scales when Sen. Kerrey came on board.”

Long before the inspector general weighed-in, the VA Medical Center followed-up its own internal program review by inviting the director of the VA system’s National Center for PTSD, Fred Gusman, to conduct an on-site assessment of the Omaha PTSD program in July 1999. Hospital spokeswoman Mary Velehradsky said, “We recognized we did have some systems problems as well as some patient care issues, and our inviting Mr. Gusman was a way to have another set of eyes look at that and to fix the problems and to make it a stronger program.”

Gusman’s findings of a “systemic problem” was confirmed by the inspector general, which included Gusman’s data in its report. He has made a follow-up visit to the hospital and, with inspector general staff, is overseeing program modifications.

 

 

A Thorn-in-the-Side
By the time the inspector general took a hard look at the Omaha facility, Spry said he was persona non grata with hospital officials. “I became a little too much of an irritant and they banned me from the facility except for medical treatment for my own service-connected disabilities. But that wasn’t good enough. They took away my freedom of speech, too. I am to have no contact with anyone or anyone with me. They’re doing anything they can to shut me up.” Veteran Tom Brady, who worked with Spry to document complaints about the center, said Spry has been singled-out: “Certainly, there are consequences to exposing practices that are subject to sanctions. He’s been one of the driving forces behind a lot of things and now they treat him like he’s a dangerous person.” Velehradsky confirmed the restrictions but added, “There are reasons people can be banned from a facility and I can guarantee you there was nothing connected to the IG (inspector general) incident.” She did not specify the reasons in this case.

As unofficial watchdogs, Spry and Brady chart the center’s progress in making changes. “We’re trying to monitor what’s going on, but we’re limited in going up there. From what we can tell, they have implemented a number of things that we’re really happy about. We’ve seen improvements in scheduling, in medications and in one-on-one therapy. We’ve seen a considerable difference in staff morale. The hospital is a lot happier.” But he and Brady remain critical of some program staff they feel lack expertise in working with PTSD patients. A psychologist whom the majority of complaints was filed against remains while a popular social worker has left. The two veterans also continue to be disenchanted with what they feel is the distant voice veterans have there. “We’re still not a cooperating partner — not because we don’t want to be,” Spry said.

According to Velehradsky the center has long had in place mechanisms for veterans to speak out with management and has recently increased these feedback avenues. She said the PTSD program has been strengthened with new procedures and the addition of specialized staff. She added recent patient surveys indicate high approval ratings and that veterans not wishing to be treated in the Omaha program have the option of being seen in a Lincoln clinic.

Standing Guard
It is perhaps inevitable disenfranchised veterans and entrenched VA Medical Center managers see things differently. Where Spry feels “it’s kind of a shame we had to go to this extent to push the bureaucracy around to get them to look at things,” Velehradsky said: “When you have an outside set of eyes look at your program and make recommendations it does make you stronger. We welcome it. It’s been very helpful and we continue to make improvements.”

While Kerrey has termed the VA episode a victory for veterans, the ever vigilant Spry remains wary and vows to carry on the fight if need be. His never-say-die attitude was formed as a Marine in Vietnam while under siege from overwhelming forces at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive in 1968. “I kind of made a commitment to myself and to the 1,500 of us who died at Khe Sanh that I don’t ever want to lose another battle again. And that’s why I’ve fought this (VA) thing. Have I been tenacious about this? I certainly have. All I want to do is make things better.”

Rescuer Curriculum Gives Students New Perspective on the Holocaust

June 29, 2012 1 comment

When it comes to history we can never get complacent or assume there’s nothing more we need to know about a subject.  When that subject is the Holocaust and the setting is a high school the importance of educating students about this chapter of human history should compel teachers to do all they can to make what happened real and relevant to their own lives. By whatever means possible students should be thrust into what-if scenarios that encourage them to think critically about what they would have done if they found themselves in the very circumstances that gave rise to the horror.  Because, as history has shown, genocide happened before and after the Holocaust.  It could happen again.  Trying to understand what it means to be stripped of all human rights and marked for death is one step to ensuring atrocities don’t recur.  Exercises that put yourself in the position of the persecuted or the onlooker take it from the abstract to the concrete. If you had been in Nazi Europe to witness the unfolding terror that threatened co-workers, neighbors, friends or strangers, what would you have done?  That’s what teachers and students at Omaha Westside High School considered as part of a Holocaust curriculum new at the time I reported on it in 2002.  This blog contains many more Holocaust-related stories I’ve written over the years, including profiles of survivors and rescuers.

 

 

Rescuer Curriculum Gives Students New Perspective on the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

This past spring, about 45 Westside High School seniors in two Advanced Placement European History classes participated in a new Holocaust studies unit. The program got its first trial run anywhere at the District 66 school.

The curriculum program was developed by the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. Using the materials, Westside instructors Bill Hayes and Gina Gangel first had students immerse themselves in the events that gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the persecution of Jews.

Then, in a new twist to the school’s traditional approach to the Holocaust, the instructors followed the lead of the foundation’s adjunct curriculum and broke their classes into small groups to research documented rescue efforts from the Shoah. This was in preparation for each group devising and discussing a hypothetical rescue plan of their own. Students based their plans on accounts in books and on the Internet.

The idea behind placing students in the context of witnesses was to offer a deeper understanding of the peril faced by Jews. As Jews and other minorities desperately sought safe harbor there were moral choices involved for onlookers, risks incurred by those who interceded as rescuers and obstacles to doing good in a culture of hate or indifference.

A visitor to Hayes’ classroom in April found his students demonstrating a keen interest in the Holocaust materials and a facile grasp of the situation and its moral implications. The students were smart, attentive and engaged as they grappled with some of the more troubling questions raised by events far removed from their own experience. In the end, students confronted both the nobler and baser aspects of humankind and came away with conclusions to some questions and a sense that answers may never be found to some others.

An early session featured small group discussions in which students explored the ramifications of being a rescuer and the nuts-and-bolts of actual rescue operations, and a later session found students presenting their plans for the assembled class. Through it all, Hayes acted as monitor, catalyst, advisor, provocateur — providing context at various points and challenging some assumptions at other junctures.

The students’ plans ranged widely in scope, methodology and feasibility: one, closely modeled after successful operations in Hungary, featured the use of safe passes and safe houses and back room negotiations with government-military officials in an effort to keep refugees unharmed; another proposed a multi-national military strike force to lead raids on trains and camps to free Jews; a third plan imagined a group of sympathizers warning Jews of the Nazis’ intentions and providing the means for their escape; a fourth scheme depended on a vast international monetary network to undermine German interests and to fund Jewish resistance and escape efforts. As far-fetched as some plans were, they revealed students had done their homework and understood some of the difficulties posed by any rescue effort and some of the measures actually employed in rescuing Jews.

Hayes reminded the class of the harsh realities at work during the Holocaust, including the fact that governments washed their collective hands of the Jews’ predicament and took no extraordinary means to aid them. He also drew a parallel to the moral imperatives at work then to the dilemmas posed by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He asked: “Is it realistic to think we can do something to help people who are suffering? Are we being realistic, historically? Could we adapt rescue efforts of the past to modern times? Will it work? Is there a risk? Is it worth the risk?” To which a boy responded, “There’s always an inherent risk in any plan.” Then, an earnest girl spoke up and said, “I think we should never limit our possibilities to try to save people. There’s always room for compromise.”

Westside senior Carrie Jenkins, a well-spoken, fresh-faced young woman with eyes full of curiosity, felt the process of projecting one’s self into the treacherous waters tread by Holocaust rescuers and their charges, helped shed light on some of the problems and hazards faced by these heroes.

“It makes you realize the absolute risks that were involved. When you’re trying to devise a plan you realize it’s not easy to find money, to find other resources and to figure out how you’re going to get refugees out, where they’re going to go and who’s going to help them. It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “It’s given me a new insight into how difficult it must have been for those few who did accept the challenge.”

Chris Gerdes, a studious-looking young man, said, “It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart for any of these rescuers to attempt what they did. They realized the risks and they realized what was on the line — even their lives — when they tried to help Jews. The rescuers usually had a strong religious background or a strong belief in humanity and, so, in the end they thought it was all worth it.”

Given the threats rescuers faced, Jenkins said, “I think it’s amazing there were so many people willing to risk their lives and their families’ lives.”

 

 

Westside High School

 

 

But, as students discovered in their research, relatively few individuals, and even fewer governments and organizations, actually did anything to try and halt the Final Solution, much less aid individual Jews and other persecuted individuals.

“When you take it as a percentage of the population, not many helped,” said sober Ian Peterson. “It just makes you wonder. There were probably people who were afraid of resisting and others who didn’t think there was anything to resist and others who didn’t really care. If you were selfish in the least bit you wouldn’t do anything because if you started to act as a Jewish sympathizer you’d get brandished in society and the Gestapo would come to your house. It was just incredible pressure. It would be like in this country if you went around burning the flag. It’d be really hard.”

The price of being a nonconformist and outcast is something that resonates strongly with teenagers, whose lives revolve around fitting-in. Simply put, said Pat Gaule, being a subject of the Nazi regime meant “you had peer pressure.” Jenkins added that anyone daring to express pro-Jewish or anti-Nazi sentiments meant “you got basically black-marked” or worse. The tall, thoughtful Gaule said the small numbers of rescuers and resistance fighters can be explained, if not excused, by human nature.

“I think there’s initially a natural want to deny that anything bad is going on or an assumption that it’s not as bad as some say it is. When I was doing research on the rescuers I found it took them witnessing a Nazi raid on a Jewish ghetto or a roundup of Jews onto trains en route to the concentration camps — or something equally horrific or violent — to make them want to get involved. I think, naturally, there’s that hesitation to not do anything and sometimes it just took something to push them over the edge.”

Doug Sherrets, the bright-eyed editor of the school paper, feels the impulse for self-preservation prevailed.

“Well, you’re going to take care of yourself, first, and I think that shows up most with Switzerland and all the ill-gotten money from Germany it squirreled away in bank accounts,” he said. “They saw this huge powerhouse in Nazi Germany that seemed like it was going to take over a large part of Europe and be there for a very long time. The Swiss said, Fine, we’re going to do whatever it takes for you not to invade us. They looked after themselves and not at where the money being diverted to Swiss bank accounts was coming from, which was right off the backs and teeth and hard work of the Jewish people.”

When a student suggested rank-and-file Europeans may not have known what ultimate dark fate lay behind the oppression and deportation of their Jewish neighbors, a visibly upset Jenkins used an analogy to point out the absurdity of that rationalization.

“Okay, say if every black person in Omaha suddenly disappeared…wouldn’t you think something was going on? I mean, if all of the Jewish or black people in your town are gone, wouldn’t you think the worst? How could you not know?”

Before her antagonist could reply, instructor Bill Hayes poked his head in the group to suggest students review a section of the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners for some added perspective on just how prevalent looking-the-other-way was among the countless millions who witnessed the atrocities unfolding around them and yet did nothing about it.

For Jenkins, who is part German, it was a harsh discovery to find that few Germans interceded on behalf of their victimized countrymen and in fact most implicitly or complicity condoned the horror. “I have a German background and learning about this is just very hard,” she said. In response, a sympathetic classmate told her, “It doesn’t mean your people are bad. This kind of thing happens all over the world.”

A new perspective on the Holocaust, a close identification with rescuers and victims and a jumping-off point for historical-political-moral discussions is just what designers of the curriculum had in mind.

Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans allowing for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.

“I really want students to feel they’re historians…I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”

 

 

 

 

Westside’s Hayes feels Micek’s goals were largely met.

“I thought it was real useful. I think for the final project the kids had to think a lot and read a lot and study a lot in order to get where they did with their rescue plans. Every kid had a chance to look at several different examples of rescuers. Traditionally, in our two-week unit on the Holocaust we’ve looked at what the Nazis did and at the Jews who were killed and that was the extent of it.

“We never looked at it from the rescuers’ standpoint and we never dealt with the idea that the average person could really do something. And I think that’s the real value in this unit. I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.” He said it is likely the rescuer curriculum will remain a part of Westside’s history units.

Micek, a 3rd grade teacher at Springlake Academy in Omaha and a Holocaust Studies graduate student with the Spertus Institute, wrote the curriculum program with the input of Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, author of the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

The program includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites. The foundation eventually wants to make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska and across the nation. The program is designed for three levels — the sixth grade, the eighth grade and high school. The foundation hopes to pilot the 6th and 8th grade curriculum programs next school year. In addition to the current curriculum package, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM, as well as Tschuy’s book, available to schools. Hidden Heroes has contracted Redstone Communications in Omaha to develop the materials.

The materials field tested at Westside are the first in a proposed series of school-age programs from the Foundation, whose mission is building awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate, courageous band of deliverers whose actions saved thousands from genocide.

The mostly Christian rescuers came from every station in life. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities. While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is a story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly, the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. The Foundation’s mission is telling these heroic stories for the lessons they impart.

“Educating young people is our number one concern,” said Foundation board member Ellen Wright. “Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at rescuers” whose good works can serve as models for how ordinary people can stand up to injustice and intolerance.

“If we can get even a few children interested enough that they will feel committed to ensuring the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, then we have taught a new generation,” said fellow board member Deenie Meyerson. Hidden Heroes’ next curriculum projects are to focus on: the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France during WWII signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of recipients; and the extensive humanitarian network in Belgium that successfully hid more than 4,000 children.

According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the rescue curriculum is an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.

“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”

Carman said the lesson plans prepared by Micek, who collaborated with Westside educators in refining the materials for the district, are “done very well” and are “really complete.” District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”

While students agree they can never fully apprehend what it means to be a rescuer, they say being assigned the task of imagining themselves in their shoes and working-out solutions to life or death dilemmas afforded them a new perspective on what these roles meant. Where, in the past, students said they examined the Holocaust from a dry, abstract distance, this new exercise put them right in the mix of things and, so, made it more intimate and direct and lent it more flesh-and-blood immediacy.

“It’s always been from a textbook perspective,” said Carrie Jenkins, “where you’re reading historians’ views and everybody has different statistics and reasons and explanations. With this class, we started there by gathering data, but then we moved past that into trying to create something out of that. It’s definitely a different perspective.”

Gaule said, “In a textbook, it’s going to say this percentage of people died and this percentage of people were saved, but in this way we get to quantify the morality. Like, it may seem that a few thousand people saved here and there was not very much, but in reality, as we found out, it took a tremendous amount of work and determination and moral values to stand-up for Jews who were being subjected to tyranny.”

For Ian Peterson, the curriculum “sort of completes the perspective I’ve gained. Now, we’ve seen it from a lot of different angles and it sort of comes together as a more complete whole. It makes a little more sense.” Doug Sherrets said, “It’s always good to observe history from a bunch of different angles. Personally, I really hadn’t heard a lot about the rescuers prior to taking this unit. Outside of Schindler’s List, I really didn’t know much at all.

“It’s been said that you should always learn from the past and from the Holocaust we should learn not to make those mistakes again. It should make governments think more about getting involved. I now understand if more governments would have got involved there would have been a greater chance of stopping the damage from being so great.”

In the end, students concluded that putting one’s self on the line for another expresses the best in humanity.

“I think that represents like the highest point of human willingness to give everything you have,” said Peterson. “I mean, that’s like the ultimate good you could do in your life.” That sentiment prompted Carrie Jenkins to posit, “Compared to that, what value does anything else have?” Peterson added, “I know. It makes charity seem pointless when there are people that did so much and risked so much.”

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

 

About nine years ago I was given the opportunity to meet and profile Walter Reed, whose story of escaping the Final Solution as a Hidden Child in his native Belgium and then going on to fight the Nazis as an American GI a few years later would make a good book or movie.  Here is a sampling of his remarkable story now, more or less as it appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find many more of my Holocaust survival and rescue stories on this blog.

 

Walter Reed

 

 

 

Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II   

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Imagine this: The time is May 1945. The place, Germany. The crushing Allied offensive has broken the Nazi war machine. You’re 21, a naturalized American GI from Bavaria. You’re a Jew fighting “the goddamned Krauts” that drove you from your own homeland. Five years before, amid anti-Jewish fervor erupting into ethnic cleansing, you were sent away by your parents to a boys’ refugee home in Brussels, Belgium. Eventually, you were harbored with 100 other Jewish boys and girls in a series of safe houses. You are among 90 from the group to survive the Holocaust.

Relatives who emigrated to America finagle you a visa and, in 1941, you go live with them in New York. You abandon your heritage and change your name. Within two years you’re drafted into the U.S. Army. At first, you’re a grunt in the field, but then your fluency in German gets you reassigned to military intelligence, attached to Patton’s 95th Division, interrogating German POWs. If this were a movie, you’d be the avenging Jewish angel meeting out justice, but you don’t. “The whole mental attitude was not, Hey, I’m a Jew, I’m going to get you Nazi bastard,” said Walter Reed, whose story this is. “I had no idea of revenging my parents. We were really more concerned about our survival and getting the information we needed.”

By war’s end, you’re in a 7th Army unit rooting out hardcore Nazis from German institutions. You don’t know it yet, but your parents and two younger brothers have not made it out alive. You borrow a jeep to go to your village. Your family and all the other Jews are gone. You demand answers from the cowed Gentiles, some you know to be Nazi sympathizers. You intend no harm, but you want them scared.

“I wasn’t the little Jewish boy anymore,” said Reed. “Now, they saw this American staff sergeant with a steel helmet on and with a carbine over his shoulder. At that point, we were the conquerors and those bastards better knuckle under or else. I asked, What happened to my family and to the other Jewish people? They told me they were sent to the east into a labor camp. That’s about all I could find out.”

It is only later you learn they were rounded-up, hauled away in wagons, and sent to Izbica, a holding camp for the Sobidor and Belzec death camps, one or the other of which your family was killed in, along with scores of friends and neighbors.

Walter Reed, now 79, is among a group of survivors known as the Children of La Hille, a French chateau that gave sanctuary to he and his fellow wartime refugees. A resident of Wilmette, Il., Reed and his story have an Omaha tie. After the war, he graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and it was as a fund raising-public relations professional he first came to Omaha in the mid-1950s when he led successful capital drives at Creighton University for a new student center and library. “Part of me is in those buildings,” he said.

More recently, he began corresponding with Omahan Ben Nachman, who brings Shoah stories to light as a board member with the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. A friend of Nachman’s — Swiss scholar and author Theo Tschuy — led him to accounts of La Hille and those contacts led him to Reed. In Reed, Nachman found a man who, after years of burying his past, now embraces his survivor heritage. With Reed’s help, Tschuy, the author of Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz and His Rescue of 62,000 Jews, is researching what will be the first full English language hardcover telling of the children’s odyssey.

On an April 30 through May 2 Hidden Heroes-sponsored visit to Nebraska, Reed shared the story of he and his comrades, about half of whom are still alive, in presentations at Dana College in Blair, Neb. and at Omaha’s Beth El Synagogue and Field Club, where Reed, a Rotary Club member, addressed fellow Rotarians. A dapper man, Reed regales listeners in the dulcet tones of a newsman, which is how he approaches the subject.

“I’m a journalist by training. All I want is the facts,” he said, adding he’s accumulated deportation and arrest records of his family, along with anecdotal accounts of his family’s exile. “I’m simply overwhelmed by the wealth of information that exists and that’s still coming out. In the last 10 years I’ve found out an awful lot of what happened. I don’t have any great details, but I have vignettes. So, my feeling when I find out new things is, Hey, that’s terrific, and not, Oh, I can’t handle it. None of that. Long, long ago I got over all the trauma many survivors feel to their death. I vowed this stuff would never disadvantage me.”

As he’s pieced things together, a compelling story has emerged of how a network of adults did right amid wrong. It’s a story Nachman and Reed are eager for a wider public to know. “It shows how a dedicated group of people, most of whom were not Jewish, coordinated their actions to prevent the Nazis from getting at these Jewish children,” said Nachman, who paved the way for the upcoming publication of a book by a La Hille survivor. “They chose to do so without promise of any reward but out of sheer humanitarian concern. It’s a story tinged in tragedy because the children did lose their families, but one filled with hope because most of the children survived to lead productive lives.”

 

Purim at orphanage for Jewish children in Brussels

 

 

 

It was 1939 when Reed made the fateful journey that forever separated him from his parents and brothers. Born Werner Rindsberg in the rural Bavarian village of Mainstockheim, Reed was the oldest son of a second-generation winemaker-wine merchant father and hausfrau mother. His was among a few dozen Jewish families in the village, long a haven for Jews who paid local land barons a special tax in return for protection from the anti-Semitic populace. Reed said Jews enjoyed unbothered lives there until 1931-1932, when Nazism began taking hold.

“I was aware of the growing menace and danger when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I recall constant conversations between my parents and their Jewish peers about Hitler. The Nazis marched up and down our main street with their swastika flags and their torches at night, singing their songs. This was a very close-knit community of about 1,000 inhabitants and you knew which kid had joined the Hitler Youth and whose dad was a son-of-a-bitch Nazi. Pretty soon, the kids began to chase us in the street and throw stones at us and call us dirty names. Then, the first (anti-Jewish) decrees came out about 1934 and increasingly got stricter.”

Pogroms of intimidation began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Reed remembers his next door neighbor, a prominent Jewish entrepreneur, taken away to Dachau by authorities “to scare the hell out of him. It saved his life, too,” he said, “because that hastened his decision to get the hell out of Germany. This stuff was going on in other towns and villages where I had relatives. In those places, including where my mother’s brothers and sisters lived, the local Nazis were more rabid and…they hassled the Jews so much they left, and it saved their lives.”

Things intensified in November 1938 when, in retaliation for the assassination of a German diplomat by an expatriate Polish Jew outraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Nazis unleashed a terror campaign now known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). Roving gangs of brown-shirted thugs attacked and detained Jewish males, vandalizing, looting, burning property in their wake. Reed, then 14, and his father were dragged from their home and thrown into a truck with other captives. As the truck rumbled off, Reed recalls “thinking they were going to take us down to the river and shoot us or beat the hell out of us.” The boys among the prisoners were confined in the jail of a nearby town while the men were taken to Dachau. Reed was freed after three nights and his father after several weeks.

In that way time has of bridging differences, Reed’s recent search for answers led him to a group of school kids in Gunzenhausen, a Bavarian town whose Jewish inhabitants met the same fate as those in his birthplace. The kids, whose grandparents presumably sanctioned the genocide as perpetrators or condoned it as silent witnesses, have studied the war and its atrocities. Reed began corresponding with them and then last year he and his wife Jean visited them. He spoke to the class, and to two others in another Bavarian town, and found the students a receptive audience.

“Frankly,” he said, “I find these encounters very worthwhile and uplifting. I was told by the teachers and principals it was quite a moving experience for the students to come face-to-face with history. My visit is now on the web site created by one class. On it, the students say they were especially moved by my stated conviction that the most important lesson of these events is to hold oneself responsible for preventing a repetition anywhere in the world and that each of us must bear that responsibility.”

When his father returned from Dachau, Reed recalls, “He looked awful. Emaciated. He wasn’t the same man. When we asked him what it was like he just said he’s not going to talk about it.” It was in this climate Reed’s parents decided to send him away. He does not recollect discussions about leaving but added, “I recently found a letter my father wrote to somebody saying, ‘I finally persuaded Werner to leave,’ so I must have been reluctant to go.”

A question that’s dogged Reed is why his parents didn’t get out or why they didn’t send his brothers off. It’s only lately he’s discovered, via family letters he inherited, his folks tried.

“Those letters tell a story,” he said. “They tell about their efforts to try and get a visa to America. My dad traveled to the American consulate in Stuttgart and waited with all the other people trying to get out. They gave my parents a very high number on the waiting list, meaning they were way down on the queue. There are anguished letters from my father to relatives referencing their attempts to get my brothers out, but that was long after it was too late. In no way am I castigating my parents for making the wrong decision, but they could have sent my brothers (then 11 and 13) because in that home in Brussels we had boys as young as 5 and 6 whose parents sent them.”

 

 Chateau de la Hille

 

 

 

Home Speyer, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht, is where Reed’s journey to freedom began in June 1939. Sponsored by the city and afforded assistance by a Jewish women’s aid society, the home was a designated refugee site in the Kinder transport program that set aside safe havens in England, The Netherlands and Belgium for a quota of displaced German-Austrian children. Where the transport had international backing and like rescue efforts had the tacit approval of German-occupied host countries, others were illegal and operated underground. Reed said the only precautions demanded of the La Hille kids were a ban on speaking German, lest their origins betray them as non-French, and a rule they always be accompanied outside camp grounds by adult staff. Despite living relatively in the open, the children and their rescuers faced constant danger of denouncement.

The boys at Home Speyer, like the girls at a mirror institution whose fates would soon be mingled with theirs, arrived at different times and from different spots but all shared a similar plight: they were homeless orphans-to-be awaiting an uncertain future. Reed doesn’t recall traveling there, except for changing trains in Cologne, but does recall life there. “For a young boy from a small Bavarian farm village,” he said, “Brussels was an exciting city with its large buildings, department stores, parks and museums. We made excursions into the beautiful Belgian countryside. And there was no more anti-Semitic persecution.”

This idyll ended in May 1940 when German forces invaded Belgium. Reed said the director of the girls home informed the boys’ home director she’d secured space on a southbound freight train for both contingents of children.

“We packed what we could carry and took the streetcar to the train station,” he notes. “Late that night two of the freight cars were filled by the 100 boys and girls as the train began its journey to France.”

Adult counselors from the homes came with them. The escape was timely, as the German army reached Brussels two days later. En route to their unknown destination, Reed said the roads were choked with refugees fleeing the German advance. Unloaded at a station near Toulouse, the children were trucked to the village of Seyre, where a two-story stone barn belonging to the de Capele family quartered them the next several months. It appears, Reed said, the de Capeles had ties to the Red Cross, as the children’s homes did, which may explain why that barn was chosen to house refugees.

“It lacked everything as a place to live or sleep,” he said. “No beds, no mattresses, no running water, no sanitary facilities, no cooking equipment. Food was scarce, Pretty soon we ran out of clothes and shoes. Everything was rationed. A lot of us had boils, sores and lice.”

With 100 kids under tow in primitive, cramped conditions, the small staff struggled. “They were trying to manage this rambunctious group of kids, who played and fought and caused mischief. The older kids, myself included, were deputized to sort of manage things. We taught classes out in the open. We worked on nearby farms in the hilly, rolling countryside, cutting brush…digging potatoes. For compensation we got food to bring back. It was like summer camp, except it was no picnic,” he said. “We all grew up fast. We learned about survival, self-reliance and cooperation for the common good.”

It was not all bad. First amours bloomed and fast friendships formed. Reed struck up a romance with Ruth Schuetz Usrad, whose younger sister Betty was also in camp. He also found a best friend in Walter Strauss.

The barn’s occupants were pushed to their limits by “the harsh winter of 1940,” Reed said. They got some relief when the group’s Belgian director, Alex Frank, got the Swiss Children’s Aid Society, then aligned with the Swiss Red Cross, to put Maurice and Elinor Dubois in charge of the Seyre camp, which they soon supplied with bedding, furniture and Swiss powdered milk and cheese.

With the Nazi noose tightening in the spring of 1941 the Dubois relocated the children to an even more remote site — the abandoned 15th century Chateau La Hille, near Foix in the Ariege Province — where, Reed said, “they were less likely to be detected.” It was here the children remained until either, like Reed, they got papers to leave or, like others, they dispersed and either hid or fled across the border. Some 20 children came to the states with the aid of a Quaker society.

As chronicled in various published stories, Reed said that in 1942, a year after he left, 40 of the children, including his girlfriend Ruth, were arrested by French militia and imprisoned at nearby Le Vernet. Inmates there were routinely transported to the death camps and this would have been the children’s fate if not for the intervention of Roseli Naef, a Swiss Red Cross worker and the then La Hille director, who bicycled to Le Vernet to plead with the commandant for their release. When her entreaties fell on deaf ears, she alerted Maurice Dubois, who bluffed Vichy authorities by threatening the withdrawal of all Swiss aid to French children if the group was not freed.

The officials gave in and the children spared. Reed said he has copies of records documenting Naef’s termination by the Swiss Red Cross for her role as a rescuer of Jews, the kind of punitive disapproval the Swiss were known to employ with other rescuers, such as diplomat Carl Lutz.

In getting out when he did, Reed realizes he “was one of the lucky ones,” adding, “Others had to use more extraordinary means to escape, like my friend Walter Strauss. He tried escaping across the Swiss border with four others. They were caught. He was sent back and was later arrested and killed in Auschwitz.” Ruth left La Hille and led a hidden life in southern France, joining the French Underground. She reportedly had many narrow escapes before fleeing across the Pyrenees into Spain and then Israel, where she helped found a kibbutz and worked as a nurse.

 

Walter Reed during one of his many public speaking apperances

 

 

 

It was at a 1997 reunion of Seyre-La Hille children in France that Reed saw Ruth and his former companions for the first time in 50-plus years. Keen on not being a “captive” of his past, he’d dropped all links to his childhood, including his Jewish identity and name. Other than his wife, no one in his immediate family or among his friends knew his survivor’s tale, not even his three sons.

For Reed, the reunion came soon after he first revealed his “camouflaged” past for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History project. Then, when his turn came to tell his biography before a Rotary Club audience, he asked himself — “Do I step out of my closet or do I keep hiding from my past?” Opting to “go through with it,” he shared his story and “everything flowed from there.” After attending the ‘97 La Hille reunion, Reed and his wife hosted a gathering for survivors in Chicago and another in France in 2000.

On the whole, the survivors fared well after the war. Two Seyre-La Hille couples married. A pair enjoyed music careers in Europe — one as a teacher and the other as a performer. Nine of the adult camp directors-counselors have been honored for their rescue efforts as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. Reed has visited many of the sites and principals involved in this conspiracy of hearts. The Chateau La Hill is still a haven, only now instead of harboring refugees as a rustic hideout it shelters tourists as a trendy bed-and-breakfast.

For Reed, taking ownership of his past has brought him full circle.

“Even though our lives have taken many different paths all over the globe, nearly all my surviving companions feel a strong bond with each other. Many have strong ties to the places and persons that gave us refuge during those dangerous and turbulent years of our youth. I think a lot of things happened then that shaped me as a whole. It inculcated in me certain attributes I still have — of taking responsibility and running things.”

Above all, he said, the experience taught him “to resist oppression and discrimination,” something he and his wife do as parents of a child with cerebral palsy. “For me, recrimination and anger are not a suitable response. It’s important we strive for reconciliation and understanding. Then we live the legacy.”

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