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
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-
Or by entering the name Hausman in the search box in the upper right corner of my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Fears, misconceptions of PTSD fuel divide (stripes.com)
- For Veterans, Mental Health Care Often Fragmented (livescience.com)
- StoryCorps Collecting Veterans’ Stories Through Tomorrow In Huntsville (whnt.com)
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.
©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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
- 2012 Looking Up for Veterans With PTSD and TBI When Facing Charges in the Criminal Courts (prweb.com)
- Army Surgeon Shares PTSD Struggles to Help Others (defense.gov)
- DoD and VA to Fund $100 Million PTSD and TBI Study (thecommunicatorwv.wordpress.com)
- Battling PTSD and TBI (nation.time.com)
- The Military’s PTSD Problem (thedailybeast.com)
- Treating PTSD and TBI…Ethically (fightingptsd.org)
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.
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.
- Medal of Honor recipient: ’68 award changed my life (utsandiego.com)
- Marines Have Received The Medal Of Honor For Incredible Acts Of Valor [INFOGRAPHIC] (businessinsider.com)
- Questions surround Army captain’s ‘lost’ nomination for Medal of Honor (kansascity.com)
- Yes, Bob Kerrey Wants to Go Back to Washington (nytimes.com)
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
- Suicidal veterans may not be getting help they need (pri.org)
- Disabled vets increasingly cheated by fund managers (sfgate.com)
- Inspector General Report: VA Understates Delays In Handling Veterans’ Mental Health Claims (theveteransdisabilitylawfirm.com)
- Bill proposed to change PTSD military programs (thenewstribune.com)
Walter Reed: From Out of the Past – Former Hidden Child Survives Holocaust to Fight Nazis as an American GI in World War II
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: 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
- Art Trumps Hate: ‘Brundinar’ Children’s Opera Survives as Defiant Testament from the Holocaust (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- David Kaufmann: A Holocaust Rescuer from Afar (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
In 2009 I wrote this story about an Opera Omaha production of the children’s opera Brundibar, whose back story and very existence is remarkable given the fact the original piece was written and performed amid the throes of the Holocuast. The engaging work is all the more remarkable for being a serious social-political critique of Nazi and Hitler in the guise of a metaphorical children’s story. The aching humanism of the fable is palpable.
Art Trumps Hate: ‘Brundinar’ Children’s Opera Survives as Defiant Testament from the Holocaust
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha area youths performing the children’s opera Brundibar this week find themselves linked to some potent history and to a spirit of defiance transcending even the most horrific circumstances.
Czech composer Hans Krasa scored the operatic fable in 1938. With a libretto by Adolph Hoffmeister, it was first staged at a Prague Jewish orphanage. Germany’s 1939 invasion brought anti-Jewish decrees. By late ‘41 the Nazis’ forced Jews into ghettos, dispossessing them of their homes, belongings, livelihoods and freedom.
Amid the chaos, Krasa’s score went missing. He and other artists ended up in Terezin, a fortified garrison town. Homes and barracks meant for 4,000 housed 60,000 men, women, children. The unsanitary conditions, scarcity of food and harsh treatment made a perilous, hopeless life for inhabitants targeted for death camps.
One respite was the music, theater and dance prisoners were allowed to perform. Art flourished in this dead zone. When Krasa’s found score was smuggled in, Brundibar became a show piece for the Nazis, who cruelly used Terezin’s creative culture as “proof” its inmates were well-treated. Infamously, the Nazis paraded Brundibar for an International Red Cross team and a propaganda film.
But for Jews Brundibar took on symbolic meaning in direct opposition to such distortions. The fable’s Pepicek and Aninku try buying milk for their sick mother. They’re foiled by Brundibar, a loud, evil, buffoon-like bully patterned after Hitler. The allegorical community unites to defeat the hateful tyrant. Just as the themes of oppression and resistance took on added import then, the opera’s tragic context and fate give it deeper meaning today. Krasa, the musicians and much of the cast went to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Brundibar’s past and present are joined in the current Opera Omaha and Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE) co-production at the Rose Theater. Bass-baritone David Ward portrays Brundibar. Area students comprise the rest of the cast. Tying things together is guest Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 Terezin productions. She’s speaking before each performance this week.
More than 9,000 Omaha school kids are expected to see the opera by week’s end. The lone public performance is this Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Ela, now one of only two Terezin cast members still alive, said by phone, “After the last performance my friends were taken to their deaths to the gas chambers. It feels sometimes to me a very long time ago, but sometimes I feel like it happened yesterday. I always thought this little opera went with them but if it’s performed here it will never be forgotten. I think Brundibar has became a memorial for those children and with every performance people are reminded that something like that happened, that they are not here, and I feel a duty to speak for them.”
“You need to know about what was actually happening and why this show was put on before you can actually put it on. That’s very important,” said Elizabeth Lieberman,. 17, who plays Cat. As helpful as that education was, Liebermann said, “I don’t think we can possibly imagine like it really was.” Scott Goldberg, who plays Pepicek, said, “We can think, we can try, but it’s so much different.”To inform the student cast of Brundibar’s heavy back story, IHE director Beth Seldin Dotan gave them a power point presentation.
Seldin Dotan, whose Institute is celebrating its 10th year, said, “These kids get it. They understand that even under the most dire situation there were people who presented a show like this within the ghetto. When they sing the victory song on stage the hope is they feel they can make a difference as an individual and as a group, and hopefully they present that to the audience. One of the most important things we do at the Institute is educate people about what happened and how we can make a difference to change that.”
Some Brundibar principals have personal stakes in the story. Sarah Kutler, 12, is the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivor Bea Karp of Omaha. Stage director Helen Binder lost many elders in the Shoah. Binder said, “The one thing I felt I couldn’t do as a director is direct the history. I can’t direct the piece with the history looming over it. If the audience knows the history it makes it that much more poignant but I can’t direct it as somber, sad, they’re-all-going-to-their-deaths. I have to direct it the way Krasa wrote it and intended it, so I’ve tried infusing it with things that make kids laugh and really go for the joy in it.”
“It’s very much a children’s piece. I think the music is very original and very appropriate. It’s sophisticated, but it’s just right for a young cast and for its audience,” said conductor Hal France, “and I think that in a way is what makes it powerful, because it is quite bright.”
For Seldin Dotan, this collaboration is “very meaningful” because it realizes a long-held dream of putting on Brundibar. It’s also a coming out for the Institute. “I feel after 10 years we’ve grown up. The response of 69 schools bringing their students and 70 volunteers and tons of sponsors is just magic. What we’ve found is that people wanted to get to close to this.” An Institute-devised guide was provided schools in preparation for students seeing the opera.
- A story of hope amid the horrors of Holocaust (pbpulse.com)
- A mission to revive lost notes from the Holocaust (boston.com)
- The schoolgirl who survived the Holocaust by fooling the Nazis (guardian.co.uk)
- From the Archives: Opera Comes Alive Behind the Scenes at Opera Omaha Staging of Donizetti’s ‘Maria Padilla’ Starring Rene Fleming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter
I have done my fair share of stories about journalists by now, and my favorites are generally those profiling venerable figures like the subject of this story, Howard Silber, who epitomized the intrepid spirit of the profession. Howard, though long retired, still has the heart and the head of a newsman. It’s an instinct that never fully leaves one. His rich career intersected with major events and figures of teh 20th century, as did his life before becoming a reporter. I think you’ll respond as I did to his story in the following profile I wrote about Howard for the New Horizons.
Retired Omaha World-Herald Military Affairs Reporter-Editor Howard Silber: War Veteran, Reporter, Raconteur, Bon Vi Vant, Globe Trotter
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally published in the New Horizons
It’s hard not viewing retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs editor Howard Silber’s life in romantic terms. Like a dashing fictional adventurer he’s spent the better part of his 90 years gallivanting about the world to feed his wanderlust.
A Band of Brothers World War II U.S. Army veteran, Silber was wounded in combat preceding the Battle of the Bulge. Soon after his convalescence he embarked on a distinguished journalism career.
As a reporter, the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame inductee covered most everything. He ventured to the South Pole. He went to Vietnam multiple times to report on the war. He interviewed four sitting U.S. Presidents, even more Secretary of States and countless military brass.
He counted as sources Pentagon wonks and Beltway politicos.
A decade later Silber caught the first wave of Go Big Red fever when he co-wrote a pair of Husker football books.
As Veteran of Foreign Wars publicity chairman he went to China with an American contingent of retired servicemen.
Even when he stopped chasing stories following his 1988 retirement, he kept right on going, taking cruises with his wife Sissy to ports of call around the globe. More than 60 by now they reckon. They’ve even gone on safaris in Kenya and South Africa. Their Fontenelle Hills home is adorned with artifacts from their travels.
In truth, Silber’s been on the move since he was a young man, when this New York City native left the fast-paced, rough and tumble North for the slower rhythms and time-worn traditions of the South. His itch to get out and see new places may have been inherited from his Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents.
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Silber learned many survival lessons. HIs earliest years were spent in a well-to-do Jewish enclave. But when the Depression hit and his fur manufacturer father lost his business, the small family — it was just Howard, his younger sister and parents — were forced to move to “a less attractive neighborhood” and one where Jews were scarce.
As the new kid on the block Silber soon found himself tested.
“Fighting became a way of life. It was a case of fighting or running and I decided to fight,” he said. “I had to fight my way to school a few times and had to protect my sister, but after three or four of those fracases why they left me alone.”
Sports became another proving ground for Silber. He excelled in football at Stuyvesant High School, a noted public school whose team captured the city championship during his playing days. An equally good student, he set his sights high when he attempted to enroll at hallowed Columbia University.
“I wanted to go to Columbia as a student, not as an athlete,” he said. “They turned me down. I had all the grades but in those days most of the Ivy League and other prestigious schools had a quota on so many Jews they would admit per year.”
Columbia head football coach Lou Cannon offered Silber a partial football scholarship. The proud young student-athlete “turned it down.” The way Silber saw it, “If they wouldn’t take me as a student I didn’t want to go there as an athlete.’”
He said when the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa recruited several teammates he opted to join them. The school’s gridiron program under then head coach Frank Thomas was already a national power. Silber enrolled there in 1939.
At Alabama his path intersected that of two unknowns who became iconic figures — one famously, the other infamously.
“Paul “Bear” Bryant was my freshman football coach. I thought he was a great guy. He did a lot for me,” Silber said of the gravely voiced future coaching legend.
Paul “Bear” Bryant
The Bear left UA after Silber’s freshman year for Vanderbilt. It was several coaching stops later before Bryant returned to his alma mater to lead the Crimson Tide as head coach, overseeing a dynasty that faced off with Nebraska in three New Year’s bowl games. Bryant’s Alabama teams won six national titles and he earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Silber makes no bones about his own insignificant place in ‘Bama football annals.
“I was almost a full-time bench warmer,” he said. “The talent level was higher than mine.” He played pulling guard at 170 pounds sopping wet.
His mother wanted him to be a doctor and like a good son he began pre-med studies. He wasn’t far along on that track when the medical school dean redirected Silber elsewhere owing to color blindness. Medicine’s loss was journalism’s gain.
Why did he fix on being a newspaperman?
“I always had an interest in it. My environment had been New York and jobs were hard to get in those days and it just never occurred to me I would try for one. I was more interested in radio as a career. Actually, my degree is partly radio arts. I interned at WAPI in Birmingham and after three weeks I quit and went to work as a summer intern for the old Birmingham Post, a Scripps Howard paper, because it paid four bucks a week more. That’s how I got into print journalism.”
Silber became well acquainted with someone who became the face of the Jim Crow South — George Wallace. When he first met him though Wallace was just another enterprising Alabama native son looking to make his mark.
“George Wallace and I shared an apartment over a garage one summer school session,” recalled Silber. “I had known him a little bit before then. We became pretty good friends. There was no sign of bigotry at that time, and in fact I’m convinced to this day that his bigotry was put on for political purposes.
“He (Wallace) ran at one point for the (Alabama state) judiciary and his opponent was Jim Folsom, who later became governor, and he lost, and he made the comment, ‘I’m never going to be out-niggered again.’”
Years before Wallace uttered that comment Silber witnessed another side of him.
“We had our laundry done by black women in town. Their sons would come around the campus, even the athletic dorms, to pick up laundry. Tony, a big lineman from West Virginia, was always hazing them and finally George, who was on the boxing team, wouldn’t take it anymore and he went up to Tony ready to fight him, saying, ‘We don’t treat our people down here that way.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to get into a fight with him. He was a tough little baby.”
In 1968 the one-time roommates’ paths crossed again. By then Silber was a veteran Herald reporter and Wallace a lightening rod Alabama governor and divisive American Independent Party presidential candidate on a campaign speaking tour stop in Omaha. Wallace’s abrasive style and segregationist stands made him a polarizing figure.
“Wallace’s advance man Bill Jones was a mutual friend and because of Bill I was invited into Wallace’s plane as it was sitting on the ground and George answered some local questions. He seemed familiar with local politics and the local situation and he was interested in agriculture. We talked for a good 15 or 20 minutes.”
That evening at the Omaha Civic Auditorium Wallace’s inflammatory speech excited supporters and agitated opponents. A melee inside the arena spilled out onto the streets and in the ensuing confrontations between police and citizens a young woman, Vivian Strong, was shot and killed by an officer, setting off a civil disturbance that caused serious property damage and looting in Northeast Omaha.
In some ways Northeast Omaha has never recovered from those and other disturbances that burned out or drove away business. It’s just the kind of story Silber liked to sink his teeth into. Before ever working as a professional journalist Silber found himself, likes millions of others, caught up in momentous events that forever altered the course of things.
He was an undergraduate when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The call to arms meant a call to duty for Silber and so many of the Greatest Generation. Boys and men interrupted their lives, leaving behind home-family-career for uncertain fates in a worldwide conflict with no guarantee of Allied victory.
“The day after Pearl Harbor hundreds of students went to the recruiting offices in Tuscaloosa, the university town. The lines were terrible and finally several days later I got in. I wanted to become a Navy pilot but I was rejected because I was partly color blind. So I just entered the Army.”
He was 21. He went off to war in 1942, his studies delayed button forgotten.
“The university had a program where if you finished the spring semester and had so many hours you could enter the armed services and finish your degree by correspondence,” said Silber, who did just that.
His military odyssey began at Fortress Monroe, Va. with the Sea Coast Artillery. “We had big guns to intercept (enemy) ships,” he explained. “Because I had some college I was put in the master gunner section where with slide rules we calculated the azimuth and range of the cannon to zero in on the enemy ships that might approach. The Sea Coast Artillery was deemed obsolete by the emergence of the U.S. Air Force as a reliable deterrent force.
“I was transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, an anti-aircraft training center (and a part of the country’s coastal defense network). “I loved it down in El Paso. It was a good post.”
From there, he said, “I went into a glider unit and once in action we were supposed to glide in behind enemy lines to set up for anti-aircraft. Well, the glider unit was broken up. So I had some choices and I just transferred to the infantry. I went to Camp Howze (Texas), a temporary Army post, and became a member of company A, 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd division. We did some pretty heavy training there,” said Silber.
“We went by train to Camp Shanks, New York — a port of embarkation. One morning with very little notice we were put aboard trains and transferred to a ferry stop in New Jersey and ferried across New York harbor to the Brooklyn Army Base,” he recounted. “There we boarded a ship that, believe it or not, was called the Santa Maria. We sailed to Southern France. It took about two weeks in a convoy strung out for quite a distance.”
Silber, whose descriptions of his wartime experiences retain the precision and color of his journalistic training, continued:
“We landed in Southern France (post-D-Day, 1944). We were equipped to go into combat but we were diverted to the Port of Marseilles. The French stevedores, who were supposed to be unloading ships of ammunition and such, went on strike. So we spent about two weeks unloading ammunition from ships to go up to the front.
“We were encamped on a plateau above Marseille. It was a happy situation. We’d be able to go in the city and enjoy ourselves.”
The idyll of Marseille was welcome but, as Silber said, “it ended soon enough. Part of the division went by truck and my regiment went by freight train with straw on the floor to a town called Epinal in Eastern France. From there we went into combat. The first day of combat eight members of my platoon were killed. A baptism by fire.”
That initial action, he said, “was in, oddly enough, a churchyard in which most of the graves were occupied by World War I German soldiers. I didn’t learn that until later.” Many years after the war Silber and his old comrades paid for a monument to be erected to the eight GIs lost there. He and Sissy have visited the site of that deadly encounter to pay their respects.
“It’s become kind of a shrine to guys from my old outfit,” he said.
The next phases of his combat duty exposed him to even more harrowing action.
Although wars historically shut down in winter or prove the undoing of armies ill-equipped to deal with the conditions, the record winter of ’44 in Europe ultimately did little to slow down either side. In the case of the advancing American and Allied forces, the treacherous mix of snow and cold only added to the miseries. When Silber and his fellow soldiers were ordered to cross a mountain range, the dangers of altitude, deadly passes and avalanches were added to the challenge.
“We fought our way through the Vosges Mountains in Alsace,” he said, adding cryptically, “We had a couple of situations…
“We were the first sizable military unit to cross the Vosges in winter. We had snow for which we were not equipped really. It turned out to be the worst in the history of that part of Europe. We didn’t have any white camouflage gear or anything like that that the Germans had. We met some pretty heavy combat in the mountains for a time. It was an SS outfit, but we managed to fight our way through.”
If any soldier is honest he admits he fears engaging in hand-to-hand combat because he doesn’t know how he’ll perform in that life or death struggle. In the Vosges campaign Silber confronted the ultimate test in battle when he came face to face with a German.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” is how Silber begins relating the incident. “We went out on patrol at night trying to contact the enemy and pick up a couple prisoners for intelligence purposes. By that time I had become a second lieutenant, courtesy a battlefield commission. I didn’t really want to become too attractive a target for the Germans, so I pretended I was still an enlisted man in dress and in emblem, and I carried around an M-1 rifle instead of a carbine.
“What often happened was the Germans might send out a patrol at the same time just by coincidence and we would kind of startle each other at the same moment and ignore each other purposely. That happened a lot and we thought it was going to happen this time, but they opened fire on us.”
In the close quarters chaos of the fire fight, he said, “I jumped into a roadside ditch with my M-1 and it was knocked out of my hand by the guy I killed. Had to. I had a trench knife in my boot and I attacked him with that and fortunately I beat him, or he would have beaten me.” Only one man was coming out alive and Silber lived to tell the tale. He does so without boast or pleasure but a it-was-him-or-me soberness.
A desperate Germany was sending almost anyone it could find to the front, including boys. The SS troop Silber dispatched was an adult, therefore, he said, “I didn’t have that to worry about on my conscience.”
“After that most of the units we encountered were made up either of young conscripts, and I mean below the age of 18, or middle aged men, as almost a last gasp. I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old. I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”
This last gasp “was a hopeful sign” Germany was through, but he added, “We didn’t feel very comfortable fighting against 14 year olds. I mean, if we had to do it, we did it because they were trying to kill us. We lived with it, that’s all.”
Finally breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain was a great relief. For the first time since the start of the campaign, he said, “we got to sleep in an intact house. We proceeded around Strausberg. We were in the U.S. 7th Army and integrated into our army corps was the French 1st Army and they were made up mostly of North Africans. Most of them were Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, I guess. They had come across the Mediterranean with de Gaulle. We saw them from time to time. They had a reputation of being good fighters.
“We headed north paralleling the Rhine River and we were approaching the Maginot Line (the elaborate French fortification system Germany outflanked during its blitz into France). On December 14, 1944 we had orders to break through it. The Germans had artillery, some troops and some tanks zeroed in and ready to go.”
All hell then broke loose.
“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” recalled Silber. “We were on the side of a ravine through which a road had been cut and on that road was a tank destroyer outfit — using World War I leftover anti-tank guns. They were a platoon of African-Americans. The bravery those guys exhibited was unbelievable. When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.”
His second close brush with death then occurred.
“The artillery action slowed down and we began to advance into the Maginot Line,” he said. “The Germans had some tanks positioned between fixed fortresses. We encountered off in the distance a tank — 400 or 500 yards away. It was very slowly approaching us. The tank destroyer outfit had been so decimated they were pretty much out of action, so we had bazookas. Our bazooka team in my platoon was knocked out. By that time I was the platoon leader. I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. It was quite a distance still.
“The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction…I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but its impact half buried me in my foxhole. Our platoon medic dug me out of the collapsed foxhole and got me out of the way. I was unconscious. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up. I woke up December 16 and that was the day the Battle of the Bulge erupted about a hundred kilometers north of us.”
Silber spent the remainder of the war healing.
“The next day the field hospital was emptied out of patients and it moved north to take care of casualties from the Bulge,” he said. “I was shipped along with other patients by ambulance to the U.S. 23rd General Hospital at Vittel, France, a spa town. It had been a resort. It had a racetrack and a casino. We wound up in the grand hotel.
“Even though my arms were in casts by then I enjoyed being there, believe me.”
Ending up sidelined from the action, banged up but without any life threatening injury, reminded him of something he and his buddies often joked about to help pass the time.
“Especially when I was an enlisted man we used to sit and talk in our foxholes, usually at night when things were quiet, smoking a cigarette under a tarpaulin or something, about the ‘million dollar wound.’ We’d speculate on what it would take to get us back to the States without getting really hurt.
“Well, maybe I should be ashamed of this, but that was one of the things I thought of in the hospital — that I had kind of one of those (wounds). Except I was hurt a little more than I would have chosen.”
Back home, he continued mending at Rhodes General Hospital in Utica, New York. A restless Silber completed his college studies by correspondence and volunteered in the public relations office. He penned the script for a weekly radio show written, produced and acted by patients, mostly on war experiences, that the hospital sponsored. Silber shared in a George Foster Peabody Award for public service a show segment won. “It wasn’t my brilliant writing or anything,” he said, “but I was part of the process.”
He was still hospitalized when VJ Day sparked celebrations over the war’s end.
One of his PR tasks was delivering copy to the local Utica Daily Press, where he secured a job upon his discharge. “I took my swearing out ceremony as we called it at 10 o’clock in the morning and by two o’clock I was down there working for a salary, not much of a salary — $38 a week. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Utica. I actually was stationed in a bureau in Rome, New York 15 miles away.”
From there he returned to his old stomping grounds in the Big Apple, where he worked for the New York Sun. A plum early assignment put him in the company of Harry Truman, “the VIP who really impressed me most,” said Silber. “I rode his (1948) campaign train. I was pretty raw material then, a real cub reporter, but I got the assignment and I ran with it. I even got to kibbutz his (Truman’s) poker game.”
Silber recalls Truman as “very kind, although he’d pick on guys for fun,” adding, “He was just a pretty decent man but he had shall we say a frothy tongue.”
When the Sun folded in 1950 Silber got on with “a blue ribbon” PR firm, but as he once put it, “I just had the romance of daily journalism in my blood.” Thus he began searching for a newspaper job. His choice came down to a Kansas City paper and the Omaha World-Herald, and $5 more a week brought him here in 1955.
He started out on the rewrite desk.
The Herald had a team of reporters out covering the Charles Starkweather story but Silber was familiar with the mounting murders and resulting manhunt around the upper Midwest from rewriting field reports. Then, as things often happen in a newsroom, Silber found himself enlisted to cover a major development.
“When the Starkweather case broke, our chief photographer Larry Robinson, who was versed in aviation and friendly to some of the operators out at the air base, chartered a good airplane on standby. So when we got the word in the newsroom about Starkweather being captured in Douglas, Wyo., city editor Lou Gerdes pointed to me and said, ‘Go!,’ and I went with Robby and John Savage.”
“We got there ahead of anybody else outside the immediate area and because of that we were able to have a lot of informality that wouldn’t exist today. We got friendly with the sheriff, Earl Heflin, and his wife, the jail matron. We got some good stories.”
Minus a wire to transmit photos, Robinson flew back with the negatives, while Silber and Savage stayed behind to cultivate more stories.
That night, a keyed up Silber, unable to sleep, walked from the hotel to the courthouse where the captured fugitives were held.
“The sheriff was answering telephone calls from all over the world with his wife’s help, and he was dead tired, so I said, ‘Why don’t you get some sleep while I sit in for you?’ He took advantage of that, and I took advantage of it, too.”
The story was a sensation everywhere it headlined.
“There weren’t that many serial murders in those days for one thing,” said Silber, “and it seemed to have all the elements — a teen with his girlfriend going around shooting people, not at random but for one reason or another, and it just caught on. Besides that, we were feeding a lot of stuff to the Associated Press and United Press. I was a stringer for Reuters and they were getting plenty of it. I was also stringing for the New York Daily News and at that time it was the largest circulation newspaper in the country.
“It just captured the imagination of readers.”
Caril Ann Fugate
So Silber wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to further play the story when one presented itself. Having relieved the sheriff, Silber then convinced Heflin’s wife to let him interview Caril Ann Fugate when Mrs. Heflin went to check on her. He ended up doing interviews with Fugate and Starkweather, separately, while Savage snapped photos — getting exclusive stories and pictures in the process.
Regarding Fugate, Silber said, “I had mixed feelings about her at the time, and then over a period of several weeks when more and more reports were coming in about her I became convinced she was not innocent. She was goading him to shoot people.” He said Starkweather struck him as “the upper end of juvenile delinquency, because he was 17 when he was captured. He was inarticulate. He couldn’t give a straight answer.”
Silber’s most far-flung assignment took him to the South Pole in 1962 as part of the press pool on a military junket with dignitaries Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, radio-newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas and Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. “We staged out of Christchurch, New Zealand,” he said. “It’s a long ride down there in a prop plane.” En route, everyone geared up with layers of thermal clothing.
U.S. South Pole station
“We landed at (Amundsen-Scott) Pole Station — the actual landing strip they carved out of the ice about a mile or so from the pole. When we got there the temperature was 60 something below zero. They made heated track vehicles available, but Gen. Doolittle, Lowell Thomas and Fr. Hesburgh said no, They walked. So as a result we in the press pool had to walk, too (much to their curse-laden dismay).
“The actual stay on the ice as we called it was 2 1/2 weeks. We took day trips to scientific-research stations and historical places where early explorers had froze or starved to death.”
Flying to the pole station in a C-130 a tired Silber clambered atop crates lashed in the aisle and when he awoke a fellow member of the Fifth Estate said, “You know where you’ve been sleeping?” A clueless Silber shrugged, no. “On cases of dynamite,” his colleague gleefully informed him.
Among the most unforgettable characters Silber knew was bombastic Gen. Curtis LeMay, the first commander of the Strategic Air Command. “He was tough but he was a patriot through and through,” he said. “I admired him but it was tough to get along with him.” An enduring LeMay anecdote Silber attests is true found the general lighting a cigar near a refueling plane. When an aide mentioned the danger of the plane blowing up, LeMay blustered, “It wouldn’t dare to.”
Gen. Curtis LeMay
Silber and Sissy attended many a lavish black-tie officers’ party at Offutt.
There wasn’t much posh about reporting in Vietnam, where Silber covered the war as early as 1964. On a later visit there he ran into Omaha television reporter John Hlavacek, a former print foreign correspondent for whom Silber has high regard.
In 1970 Silber and other press accompanied Ross Perot on a chartered trip the billionaire organized ostensibly to deliver supplies to U.S airmen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The hopskotch trip, which Henry Kissinger was behind, failed to deliver any supplies but did raise awareness of the POWs’ plight.
Upon reflection, Silber said his military reporting, which earned him numerous awards, “was satisfying — very much so. It was a high point.”
Back home, Silber claims credit for thinking of the Husker football books he and colleagues Jim Denney and Hollis Limprecht collaborated on, the second of which was a biography of Bob Devaney. Silber thought highly of Devaney.
“I loved the man. He was just a hell-raiser. A down-to-earth guy. A man’s-man.”
Over the years Silber wrote pieces for Readers Digest, Esquire and other national publications. He was a Reuters stringer for 20 years.
“I could never be satisfied with just working 8 hours a day. I had to be doing other things, too. I had a little office set up at home and I would do what I could.”
He means to resume his memoirs — for his grandkids — now that he’s cancer free for the first time in years. Long ago divorced from his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Silber and Sissy have been partners 36 years now. Her warm, bigger-than-life personality complements his own hail-fellow-well-met charm.
Each retired comfortably from divergent careers. While he never became rich as a reporter he did well as a World-Herald stock holder. When Sissy’s father left behind his Katelman’s hardware supply store she and her mother took it over and ran it till 1981, when the Kanesville Highway went in.
Howard and Sissy met as a result of, what else?, a story Silber was working on. They’ve been inseparable since marrying in 1975.
Summing up his eventful life and career, Silber said, “There’s not too many things I’d change.”