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The Lucky Coin: How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment


The Lucky Coin

How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment

 

photos by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June edition of Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-lucky-coin)

 

 

In the aftermath of the 1969 Tet  Offensive, U.S. Marine Pat Peterson found a Vietnamese coin on the ground while serving a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The date on the coin was 1966—the same year he graduated from Holy Name High School in Omaha. That persuaded Peterson to adopt the memento as a personal good luck charm. He carried it with his dog tags.

As the runt of his infantry squad, Peterson was often lowered by his ankles to inspect openings in underground tunnels. If he saw mounds of steaming hot food below, the tunnel was in active use by Viet Cong. Then they would pull him out and toss grenades inside. One time, after the grenades dropped, screaming women and children fled from the other end of the tunnel. That image—and other horrors—seared into his mind.

He battled post-traumatic stress from Vietnam for the rest of his life. But Peterson was a fighter; he endured, even surviving a bout with cancer.

The coin got Peterson safely home in 1970. He punched a hole in it and wore it on his keychain. He threw himself into veterans affairs. Two decades elapsed before he passed the coin to another serviceman going off to fight in the Gulf War.

So began a tradition that saw him give the coin to deploying servicemen—always on the condition they bring it back. They all did.

Homecoming and a Funeral

The last recipient to return with the coin was National Guardsman Cody Rauch, who carried it to Iraq and Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army.

Now, the coin is in the hands of its latest recipient, Air Force officer Dave Shonegal.

Rauch returned the coin to Peterson in 2017. The coin’s owner passed away the following year. Peterson was 70 when he died from a brain hemorrhage in December. Rauch came to pay his respects. At the reception following the funeral at Holy Name Church, he said, “It got back to its rightful owner in time, and that’s what’s important.”

Rauch also recounted his part in the coin story. He was on leave between tours when, by chance, he and his mates ended up at Nifty Bar on the Radial Highway. The neighborhood watering hole was such a regular hangout for Peterson that a brass plate with his name engraved in it is screwed into the bar at his traditional spot.

The two men met as strangers. By the time the gregarious Peterson swapped war stories with Rauch, and everyone had washed down salutary beers and shots, they were buddies. Peterson offered his coin with the usual stipulation, “Bring it back in one piece.”

“Do you mean bring myself back in one piece, or the coin?” Rauch asked Peterson.

“Hopefully both,” Peterson replied.

Rauch accepted.

Supporting Fellow Soldiers

Peterson’s concern for active duty or retired military extended to serving as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander (VFW Post 2503) and as a volunteer services representative at the VA Hospital.

“He was very active in everything veterans,” says Teresa Burks, Peterson’s longtime partner who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for 32 years. “He cared deeply about veterans. He would come to the hospital for a veterans service meeting and stay there for two hours afterward just going around talking to people. ‘Hey, are they treating you right? Anything I can do?’ It was pretty cool.”

Although Teresa and Peterson never married, her son Jed Burks considered him his stepfather. Jed’s children called Peterson “Papa Pat.”

Peterson’s devotion to loved ones was rivaled only by his commitment to fellow vets.

“He would go to the end of the world to especially help another military member,” Jed says. “If he couldn’t help you, he knew enough people to direct you to whatever you needed. It didn’t matter.”

Peterson proudly wore his patriotism—bedecking himself and car with American flag symbols. His father Bernie Peterson was a wounded World War II veteran.

“You knew from way down the road that Pat was coming your way,” recalls Jed, whose oldest daughter may be entering the military in a year.

Peterson’s goodwill went beyond vets.

“He seemed to hone into people who needed help,” Teresa says. “If he knew of someone having trouble paying their utilities, he would give them some money. If somebody asked him for two dollars, he’d give them two dollars even it was his last two dollars. He was very generous.”

When it came to vets, no request was too much.

“He made sure, if anybody had surplus medical equipment, he’d get it to the VA—wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” she says.

Peterson and a fellow Marine veteran, Nick Sloan (who died in 2015), organized an annual Marine Corps birthday party at Nifty that packed the joint. The Nov. 10 bash celebrated the birth of the Marine Corps.

The Coin’s Journey Continues

The coin tradition was another aspect of Peterson’s giving.

“I thought it was a huge rite of passage to send it off with somebody else and then to get it back,” Teresa says. “I thought it was beautiful. He didn’t brag about it or anything. If he heard about somebody going, he would approach them and ask, ‘Can I give this to you as long as you bring it back?’ He felt like it was a good luck charm. But it wasn’t something he kept to himself—he shared it. It was part of his nature to care and share.”

At his standing-room-only funeral Mass, Teresa shared the tale of handing the coin off to those bound for overseas duty and her desire to continue the tradition in his memory. A nephew, Eric Peterson, knew a friend, Dave Shonegal, who was set to leave for Afghanistan in March on his sixth deployment. The nephew connected Shonegal with Teresa.

Dave Shonegal, who currently has coin

Dave Shonegal, the current keeper of the lucky coin

“She asked me if I wanted to keep on the tradition,” Shonegal says, “and I told her, ‘I’m honored to even be asked to do something like this. I’ll gladly accept this, take it on my trip, and bring it back.’

Shonegal is the coin’s seventh recipient in a tradition now spanning multiple generations, different military branches, and various theaters of war.

Teresa entrusted it to Shonegal on Feb. 16 at a going-away party at American Legion Post 374 in Millard.

The legacy he inherited is not lost on him.

“We’re talking 50 years. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this that longstanding, especially getting passed onto strangers,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, but at the same time really cool. A responsibility comes with it. It’s now my responsibility to carry on this tradition. There’s a  little nervousness about that. I don’t want to be the one that loses it after all these years.”

Shonegal says the legacy will continue after his return from deployment.

“It’s something I hope that, even after I give it back, continues for as long as it can—until we’re done deploying or there’s just nobody left to give it to,” he says. “It’s a really neat story and something I really feel needs to be shared as much as possible.”

Teresa agrees.

“I feel honored, absolutely honored,” she says, “and very, very proud. Pat would be proud.”

She says it was important for her to convey to Shonegal what kind of man Peterson was “because he’s carrying a piece of Pat with him.”

“I told him, ‘I want you to know who you’re carrying,’” she says.

The Legacy of a Lucky Coin

Shonegal is sure he and Peterson would have made fast friends.

“He was for the vets, and I can always stand with a guy like that,” Shonegal says. “That’s really where I feel like I’m heading. When I hang up the uniform, my next purpose is to help veterans in many of their situations.”

Jed learned about the coin in the wake of  Peterson’s death, and it only confirmed what he already knew about his stepfather.

“Learning about the coin was awesome,” he says, “but it didn’t change anything for me because that was him. Not one part of the story of the coin surprised me because he always went above and beyond the call of duty to pay it forward to military members.

“For me, it embodied what Pat was about—taking care of people. That good luck coin got him through Vietnam, and that’s why he passed it on—to take care of others. For me, it showed that even when you’re done [serving], you’re not done. You still take care of your brothers and sisters in the military. It’s a family.”

Inspired by Peterson’s example, Jed began practicing mindfulness.

“I’ve changed a lot of things about myself as far as showing more gratitude, telling people I’m proud of them, thanking them for being part of my life—things that Pat did and that I didn’t tell him enough,” Jed says.

He’s also taken a cue from Peterson’s charity.

“There have been multiple times when I thought, I wish I could help, but I can only do this,’” he says. “Well, why not only just do that? Maybe that’s more than enough. To me, it might be small, but to somebody else it might be huge.”

Meanwhile, Teresa is keeping Peterson’s legacy and wishes alive through the coin. After traveling around the world multiple times, surviving dangerous treks, and escaping so many life-and-death firefights, she says there is still plenty of life left in this memento from the Vietnam War.

“It was very important to him to keep it going, so I’m not going to let it go,” Teresa says.

She suspects many of us carry a protective token.   

“Maybe you don’t know what your good luck charm is,” she says. “If you do, hold that piece dear and share it with others.”

An internment for Pat Peterson is pending at Omaha National Cemetery. The date was not confirmed when this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Vietnamese coin

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Smooth sailing: Rear Admiral McAneny’s amazing Navy journey

August 12, 2018 Leave a comment

UPDATE: In 2013 HDR named the subject of this story, then-Rear Admiral Douglas J. McAneny, the company’s Federal Business Group Director based in Washington D.C.

Smooth sailing: Rear Admiral McAneny’s amazing Navy journey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in 2011 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

The military brought Rear Admiral Douglas McAneny here in 1967 at age 12 when his Air Force father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering student, McAneny attracted the Navy’s attention. After joining the nuclear propulsion program in 1978, the service swept him away.

A steady rise through the ranks brought McAneny back in 1998 when assigned to U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt. He left again in 2000 for new posts, including executive assistant and senior Naval aide to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Now, the service is returning him again, as special guest for the September 6-11 Omaha Navy Week celebration. This marks his third time home for the event, which features demonstrations, concerts and community service projects. 

“It’s something we’re asked to do — to go back to the state where we’re from, and it’s something I very much enjoy doing,” he said by phone from his Commandant office at the National War College in Washington, D.C.

“It’s all about putting a face on the contribution our Navy is making in support of the nation’s defense, but it’s also about thanking the great state of Nebraska for its young men and women serving today in our Navy and military.” 

Much of McAneny’s 33 year career has been in submarines.

“I was trained as a submarine force officer. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to command at many different levels in the Navy in support of submarines and the contribution they make to our maritime strategy. I’ve worked alongside the submarine force as well.”

 

File:US Navy 100625-N-3090M-130 Rear Adm. Douglas McAneny, commander of Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, salutes for the Admiral's March and 13-gun salute.jpg

 

He’s done it all in a much-decorated career, even working on the Joint Chiefs staff. But nothing quite matches commanding a vessel at sea.

“One of the great highlights of my career was commanding a ship at sea,” says McAneny, who helmed the attack submarine USS Philadelphia after years honing his craft.

“I enjoyed my time at sea, but it’s a young man’s game. I had my opportunity. It was very fruitful and rewarding, but I don’t begrudge the fact we all have to move on and do other things.” 

He assumed his current post at the National War College, a part of the National Defense University, in January.

“Timing being everything, it was my time to rotate back to Washington, D.C., and this billet was available. It suits my background and experience as both a Naval officer and a member of the Joint world, and so when offered the position as commandant, I was excited and happy to take it.

“We not only educate uniformed military members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, but also our interagency partners — the Departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security. I have a great opportunity to shape the curriculum we offer. I also take an active role in teaching. I’m working with the best and brightest students our military and government have to offer. They really are tomorrow’s leaders.”

A life in the service has brought immense satisfaction.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time in the Navy,” he says. “It’s been much more than I ever could have imagined. I’m so gung-ho I even got my son to join. As a Navy family, my wife and three children have had the challenge of moving over 20 times, but they all took to that like ducks to water.” 

There’s no telling when his ship may sail again, but he’ll go wherever duty calls.

For Navy Week details visit http://www.navyweek.org.

 
 

Life Itself XV: War stories

August 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XV: War stories

In their own words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/in-their-own-wor…-on-world-war-ii/ 

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/the-tail-gunners…on-foot-and-film/

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/21/love-affair-with…-like-few-others

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/30/retired-warrior-…rinsurgency-guru/

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

Iraq War veteran Jacob Hausman battles PTSD and finds peace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/31/iraq-war-veteran…-and-finds-peace

Retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs newsman Howard Silber: War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/retired-omaha-wo…nt-globe-trotter/

Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/11/07/milton-kleinberg…on-of-his-memoir

Joseph Dumba and his Healing Kadi Foundation make medical mission trips to South Sudan

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/01/03/joseph-dumba-and…s-to-south-sudan/

Jacob Hausman, ©photo by Bill Sitzman

Cover Image OM1212

 

Having survived war in Sudan, refugee Akoy Agau discovered hoops in America and the major college recruit is now poised to lead Omaha Central to a third straight state title

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/01/having-survived-…ight-state-title

From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/23/from-wars-to-oly…-husker-football

 

By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans performed far-flung wartime duties

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/22/by-land-by-sea-b…g-wartime-duties/

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, old wars, new wars, endings and new beginnings

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/27/bob-kerrey-weigh…d-new-beginnings

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/17/ben-kuroki-a-dis…st-honorable-man/

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki: New book out about Nebraskan who defied prejudice to become a war hero

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/30/the-two-wars-of-…ecome-a-war-hero

 

Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki

 

 

Bill Ramsey, Marine: A Korean War Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/a-korean-war-story-2/

Brenda Allen’s real life country music drama took her from Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/01/brenda-allens-re…vietnam-to-vegas

Lauro play “A Piece of My Heart” dramatizes role of women in war zones

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/a-piece-of-my-he…women-in-wartime/

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin sees no incongruity in being rodeo cowboy, concert classical guitarist, music educator and Vietnam combat vet

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/17/from-the-archive…etnam-combat-vet

 

Brenda Cover (reduced)

Brenda Allen wearing the green beret and insignia

 

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial

 

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/the-life-and-tim…ionist-sol-bloom

Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/04/104

Holocaust rescue mission undertaken by immigrant Nebraskan comes to light: How David Kaufmann saved hundreds of family members from Nazi Germany

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/david-kaufmann-a…escuer-from-afar

Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/art-trumps-hate-…om-the-holocaust/

 

 

Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave

 

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/25/uno-center-for-a…ucational-system/

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/20/uno-afghanistan-…embattled-nation

 

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/james-martin-dav…halls-of-justice

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/combat-sniper-tu…d-enigmatic-work

Jesuit photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University documents the global human condition – one person, one image at a time

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/23/jesuit-photojour…-human-condition

 

Don Doll

 

A Long Way from Home: Two Kosovo Albanian families escape hell to start over in America

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/a-long-way-from-home

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/war-and-peace

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-l…s-afghan-odyssey/

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/three-old-wise-men-of-journalism

 

 

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/ 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/casablanca-a-fil…-as-time-goes-by/

 

John Hlavacek

John Hlavacek

 

Billy Melton served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the all black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/omahas-sweet-six…master-battalion/

Omaha’s Tuskegee Airmen

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/the-tuskegee-airmen/

 

14379473632092.jpg

 

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-berlin-airlift-story/

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

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/08/from-the-archive…a-medical-center

 

 

Bringing to light hidden heroes of the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/bringing-to-ligh…of-the-holocaust/

Ben Nachman’s mission

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/ben-nachmans-mission

Ben Nachman: At work in the fields of the righteous

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/at-work-in-the-f…of-the-righteous

Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/29/rescuer-curricul…on-the-holocaust

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/01/the-escape-artist

Walter Reed: Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/19/walter-reed-from…-in-world-war-ii

 

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter

 

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/the-hidden-child…kader-tom-jaeger

Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/lolas-story-out-…destined-to-live

Holocast survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/holocast-survivo…r-destinys-child/

A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/08/a-not-so-average…tory-of-survival

Sisters of the Shoah: Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/18/sisters-of-the-s…three-iron-wills/

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/15/bea-karp-holocau…painful-memories

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

September 30, 2013 1 comment

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

 

 

John Nagl

 

 

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl vecame U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru 

by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.the reader.com)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homage to the bootstrappers by the Grande Olde Players

July 9, 2012 2 comments

For a long time and even today the University of Nebraska at Omaha was best known for its large Bootstrapper program for military personnel.  The school is vastly different than it was when the program launched during the Cold War but it’s impact remains.  The following story from a half-dozen years ago or more is about an original play written by the Omaha husband and wife team of Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill that takes a nostalgic look at the program’s beginnings, and those beginnings involved two strong leaders, then-Omaha University president Milo Bail and Strategic Air Command head and hawk of hawks Gen. Curtis LeMay, who some suggest was the inspiration for the character of Gen. Buck Turgidson that George C. Scott plays in Dr. Strangelove.  A Midwest academic and a military reactionary may seem to have made strange bedfellows but then again it’s not hard to imagine that two powerful middle-aged white men should come together in right wing solidarity “for the boys.”

 

 

 

 

photo
©UNO Criss Library

 

 

 

Homage to the bootstrappers by the Grande Olde Players

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The Grande Olde Players Theatre pays homage to Omaha’s deep military ties with the new play Bootstrappers Christmas, now through December 17. Written by the theater’s Mark Manhart and Bonnie Gill, the nostalgic 1954-set piece tells a fictional story amid the trappings of history. The relationship between then-Omaha University and the former Strategic Air Command in Bellevue, Neb. is at the center of this holiday-themed dramadie.

Early in his stint as commander of the newly formed SAC, Gen. Curtis LeMay, architect of U.S. bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific and overseer of the Berlin Airlift, identified the need for a more professional corps of college-educated personnel. After World War II the U.S. Air Force had a glut of officers. Many had some college prior to the service and once “on the line” accrued credits at schools near where they were based, but few ever got their degrees.

LeMay, an American hero whose reactionary, right-wing views later tarnished his reputation, broached Operation Bootstrap with his egg-head friend, the late Milo Bail, then-president of what’s now the University of Nebraska at Omaha. By helping commissioned officers finish their degrees, the program would aid their climb up the ladder as well as better prepare them for post-military life. The idea of men and women “lifting themselves by their bootstraps” gave the program its name.

Bail and fellow UNO officials recognized the school was well-poised to serve military folks by virtue of a large adult education unit and Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) program that allowed nontraditional students to individualized studies in subjects of interest or deficiency. “Omaha University was really the first school in the country to offer” the BGS, said William Utley, former UNO College of Continuing Studies dean. More appealing still, he said, were the “earned life credits” granted officers for experience gained in the field, which cut by a semester their degree track.

 

 

 

Milo Bail
Curtis LeMay

 

 

 

The school’s extensive night courses offered yet more flexibility. Besides the cache of this partnership, school officials craved the extra money derived from the higher non-resident tuition bootstrappers paid. Between Offutt’s close proximity and Omaha’s central location, the military could feed students there not just from Offutt but from bases all over the U.S. and the world.

That’s what happened, too, as an influx of mostly Air Force but also Army soldiers and Marines made UNO the nation’s largest on-campus education provider for bootstrappers. Officers rotated in on active duty or TDY. Utley, director of the UNO program, said at its 1960s peak 1,200 to 1,500 “boots” attended school there at any one time. “There were any number of commencement exercises when over half of the graduating class was bootstrappers,” he said.

Alumni officials estimate 13,000-plus active duty military personnel attended UNO from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s.

Utley said UNO prided itself on being responsive to officers’ needs and interests by “developing” a system to stay in “constant communication” with them, no matter where their assignments took them. He said both active and prospective students received “counseling and advising” services to facilitate their education.

The presence of so many boots changed the dynamic of the school, especially in those early years, when it was a small, financially strapped municipal university, not yet a part of the University of Nebraska system.

“The Bootstrap Program was a major factor for several years in keeping the university afloat with the revenue” it generated, Utley said. “It was a very important element in the survival of the university during that period, when the university was really hard up.”

UNO Alumni Association President Emeritus Jim Leslie said bootstrappers were “a tremendous boon” to UNO’s finances. For a while, he said, UNO enjoyed a near monopoly in serving the bootstrap population. “It was a big deal,” he said. “For a while we claimed we were second only to West Point in the number of general officers that had graduated from our institution.” Some were stars like Johnnie Wilson, a four-star general. Other schools eventually cut in on the action.

Utley said the infusion of so many “highly motivated” students changed the academic culture at UNO. “They were a very serious group. Very good students,” said Leslie, who had boots as classmates there in the early ‘60s. “They were here to gain an education and most of them were older and more mature. Professors loved those guys because they asked the best questions.”

 

 

 

 

photo
 ©UNO Criss Library

 

 

 

“A lot of students viewed them as ‘curve busters’ who made it harder to compete in the classroom or set a higher standard in the classroom. And no faculty member is going to complain about that,” said retired UNO professor Warren Francke, who had his share of boots. “And its true in general they were solid students because they were all business. They were there to do well in the classes.

“I thought they were certainly an asset. There were times when probably the undergraduates had a legitimate complaint that maybe they dominated things so much. But mostly,” Francke said, the boots “added a dimension to what” otherwise “was a commuter campus without a lot of people who had been all over the world…I thought their addition was sort of a valuable thing to have.”

While Bootstrappers Christmas is a slight, sentimental romp filled with a mix of ‘50s-era rock and traditional Christmas music, writer-director Mark Manhart does anchor the story in the real symbiosis between UNO and Offutt. The flamboyant Curtis LeMay and the non-nonsense Milo Bail are characters. The plot revolves around a boot who befriends a Cold War widow coed and other students in remodeling the campus Snack Shack in time for putting on a holiday show. The fun is tinged with the sadness of separation and loss, but hope prevails.

The play’s also about making new starts, something the bootstrap program epitomized. Ex-Air Force pilot Jim Hughes spoke for many boots when he said, “The university was the first milestone in my growth with the Air Force and I attribute any success and all successes I’ve had to that little development. I owe a debt of gratitude to the university…It introduced me to education oriented to my needs.”

The Iowa native and current Magnolia, Ark. resident said his general education degree catapulted him “up the ladder.” In 1973 he retired from active duty as a decorated colonel. He earned the Bronze Star, four distinguished Flying Crosses and five Airmedals. He received two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a POW.

NOTE: Operation Bootstrap supplanted Operation Midnight Oil. In 2002 the Air Force replaced the Bootstrap Program with the Educational Leave of Absence Program (ELA), although many in the service still refer to it by its old name.

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

July 8, 2012 2 comments

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

 

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

September 6, 2011 2 comments

I love proving the enduring truth that everyone has a story, especially when it comes to older individuals. It’s all too easy to dismiss an old man like Sol Bloom if you only choose to look at his wrinkled features and his stooped posture and don’t take the time or interest to learn something about the life he’s lived. Sol’s lived an unusually full blooded life that, among other things, saw him work as a scientist, soldier, and Zionist in the independence of Palestine. He’s a wonderful racanteur and writer who related his story to me in a series of interviews he gave me at his home and through several written reminiscences he shared. My profile of Sol, who was still going strong when I wrote the piece about three years ago, appeared in the Jewish Press.

 

 

 

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

The Omaha resident is equally sure a higher power saved him from almost certain death on at least three occasions; once, when scratched from an armed patrol whose entire ranks were decimated by an Arab ambush in the Judean Valley.Sol Bloom doesn’t believe in accidents. It’s why he’s sure he was destined to make his way to Palestine as a young, idealistic Zionist 62 years ago. Inflamed with passion to help secure a Jewish state, he left America for service in the Haganah militia.

He’s convinced something beyond mere circumstance has guided his five-decade career as a dairy nutritionist, leading him to work with fellow Jews in a field where Jews are a rarity. He’ll tell you his parents’ brave immigrant journey from Romania and a cousin’s pioneer efforts settling Palestine inspired him to beat his own adventurous path — to Israel, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Zambia and the Philippines.

For Bloom, rhyme and reason attend everything.

The scientist in him methodically studies things to identify patterns and processes. The believer in him finds the hand of fate or God behind incidents he can’t ascribe to mere chance. He’s always been curious about the grand design at work. An ever inquisitive hunger drives his lifelong search for order, meaning and variation. He appreciates life’s richness. It’s no coincidence then he’s sought out foreign posts and immersed himself in indigenous cultures.

At age 84 he still savors life’s simple wonders, whether a Brahms symphony, a good book, a bountiful crop, a cow producing milk from rough silage, his family, his daily prayers, his research, his travels, his memories. A good batch of fu-fu.

Far from an unexamined life, Bloom’s charted his times in voluminous journals. Both the good and bad. He writes-talks with pride about his parents making a comfortable life for the family in America. He grew up in West New York and Palisade, N.J., a pair of bedroom communities outside New York City.

His reminiscences refer to a “dominant” and “disciplinarian” father pushing him and his two brothers. Despite little formal education Sam Bloom kept a complete set of Harvard classics and a Webster’s unabridged dictionary at home. On Sundays Papa Bloom held court in bed, where he regaled the boys with the florid prose of advertisements. He instilled a love of learning in Sol, Norman and Jack.

The patriarch also made sure his sons were exposed to, as Sol puts it, “the finer things.” He made them take music lessons — Sol plays the fiddle — and attend Jewish school. He took the family to Central Park for band concerts, Second Avenue for vaudeville shows and Yiddish theater productions, Coney Island for the amusement park rides and the Catskills for Borscht Belt retreats.

It was at Esther Manor near Monticello, N.Y., where the family vacationed summers, that Sol, the city boy, got his first exposure to farming. The hotel owner kept dairy cows out back to supply guests with fresh milk and Bloom made it a habit to help bring the herd in from pasture. He didn’t know it then but fattening calves and boosting milk cows’ production would take up a large part of his adult life.

Sol sees divine intervention in the Bloom boys coming from such humble roots to achieve professional heights. Besides his own exploits as an animal nutritionist, Norman became a biochemist and Jack a rabbi and psychologist.

He candidly describes a history of mental illness in his family. His late older brother Norman descended into schizophrenia, believing he was the second coming of Christ. Bloom said his younger brother Jack sought psychiatric help for a time. Their mother received electric shock treatments. Bloom himself has had problems. Jesse now struggles with his own brainstorms.The stories of old times roll off Bloom’s tongue. The words precise and poetic. The recall uncanny. He expresses disappointment, not regret, about his failed first marriage, ended when his oldest children were already grown. He acknowledges a weakness for the flesh led him to take a mistress in Nigeria and that the romantic in him led to a love affair in Manila with a woman who became his second wife, Erlinda. He and Elinda share a home together in Millard with their son Jesse.

Then there’s Bloom’s once sturdy body, now severely stooped, wracked by various maladies. It doesn’t stop the former competitive swimmer from taking daily laps in the Jewish Community Center pool.

No hint of judgment or bitterness in Bloom. He accepts what life gives, both the sweet and the sour. He awakes each morning eager to meet the day, ready to make some new connection or association or insight. Whether it’s a laboratory with four walls or the larger lab of living, he approaches life as a much anticipated experiment. Discovery always just around the corner.

His brother Norman would get in manic, obsessive moods trying to prove God’s existence in numerical coincidences. He caught the attention of the late astronomer and popular science writer, Carl Sagan, whose book Broca’s Brain devotes an entire section to Norman’s belief that he was a messenger of God.

Sol isn’t his brother but when considering certain matters, such as the proposition Jews are God’s chosen people, he assumes a slightly messianic manner himself.

Speaking as a scientist, he told a guest at his home: “I don’t know if God actually exists.” However, Bloom suggests Jews’ disproportionate impact on everything from world religion to art to politics to moral tenets is a testament to some divine plan.

“So when I go back to the fact that a good part of the western world goes by Isaac’s basis” for righteous living, “and what the Jews presented to humanity, maybe even though I’m a scientist there’s something in there that is not just completely random,” he said. “The eternal thread of Jewish survival over 3,000 years is a strong thread. That thread’s metaphorically wrapped itself around historical periods and around the throats of Egyptian, Persian, Asyrian, Greek and Roman empires and left them all lifeless — as the Jews moved on small but strong to the present day. It’s a very thin fiber, but it’s so.

“If little people like we have been able to maintain these basic moral foundations to the whole world and still exist when all these empires have gone down, then even though I’m a scientist and I have to go by hypotheses, I don’t think it’s just random. I’ll leave it at that.”

Sol Bloom just leave it at that?  Impossible. Invariably, one theory begets another.

“When I lived in the Philippines (1970-’81) Manilla already was a city of 7-8 million. In Israel maybe you had at that time 2 1/2 million. And how many times did you read about that big city of Manilla in the newspaper? Maybe when there’s a typhoon or maybe when they found all those shoes in Imelda’s closet. But how many times was there something to do with that tiny fragment of humanity in Israel?

“Today, you have 6 to 7 billion people on the face of the earth while the whole population of Jews in the world is about 16 million. It works out to be about .018 percent of the total population. And yet there’s always something going on about them. Mexico City alone has 16 million. How often do you hear about Mexico City? But you will hear about the Jews being in this, doing that — out of all proportion to their numbers. That tiny fleck of humanity in six billion.

“Why for such a long time are we always hearing something about them? Isn’t that interesting?”

He’s confident the weight of evidence demonstrates Jews hold a special, even anointed place in the scheme of things. “That’s one of the things that sort of helps me maintain my faith,” he said.

All this musing leads Bloom to his own variation on the law of attraction.

For Sol, it’s more than coincidence he and Silver found each other. “Random, or as we say in my Yiddish, betokhn (faith)? Isn’t that interesting?”“The first (formal) agricultural experience in my life was with a Jew. I started at 21 with my father’s cousin, Ephraim Katz, in Palestine. And now at this point, 60 years later, I’m working with a fellow by the name of Steven Silver, who owns International Nutrition in Omaha. He’s from the same tribe as I am. Now, imagine this, OK? How many Jews are in American agriculture? Not many. How many are in the professional feed milling business? Even fewer. How many Jews do you find in the feed business in the north central area — Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri? One. Do you follow me?”

Like Bloom’s parents, Katz, the pioneer in the family, was a Romanian emigre. Unlike them Katz felt the call to Palestine strongly enough that he became a settler there, raising a family and farming. Katz, an academic by training but a man of the soil by inclination, appealed to Bloom’s sense of wanderlust and earthiness. Tales of Katz’s contributions to the aspiring nation state fed Bloom’s imagination.

“My cousin in Palestine is growing wheat and has oranges and pears and apples. He’s growing oil seed crops for the factories in Haifa,” is what Bloom recalls thinking about this man he admired. “I mean, at that time Ephraim Katz was the leading light of our entire family. He was the one doing it.

“When he was in Bucharest, Romania he was a professor of English. Because he was a Jew he was still considered an alien and he couldn’t have citizenship, so he left and farmed in Israel, in the northern part of Haifa, near the port. He planted crops. He had wheat, sorghum, citrus.”

There were hardships and tragedies, too.

“In 1929 there were bad riots by the Arabs and they burnt his wheat and cut down all his citrus. His first wife, Sabena, died from typhus. He went into depression.”

The neighborhood where Katz’s place was located was named for Sabena. But Katz and his farm and the settlement that grew up around it survived. He remarried and raised a second family there.

Letters from Katz to Bloom’s father “about all of these adventures in Palestine” were much anticipated. When his father read the letters aloud it sparked in the “impressionable” Sol a burning desire to emulate Cousin Katz and thereby break from the prescribed roles many Jews filled then. Sol’s aptitude for science already had him thinking about medicine. Katz’s example gave him a new motivation.

“Since I was already a socialist — I was going to a Jewish socialist school — I thought, I’m going to break this Jewish commitment to being a merchant. I am going into agriculture. I am going to bring right out from the earth. So that was my raison detre.”

The promise of helping forge a new nation enthralled Bloom. “I was struck by the idealism of these people in Palestine struggling building a new frontier.”

However, at the urging of his parents, who feared for his safety in conflict-strewn Palestine, Bloom enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He was still a premed major. America was at war by then and in ‘43 his draft number came up. He wound up in the 99th Infantry Division but when the unit began preparations to join the fight in Europe his poor eyesight and flat feet got him transferred to guard duty at a stateside disciplinary barracks. As it turned out, the 99th’s ranks were decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.

Providential? Sol believes so. “Perhaps something else was meant for me,” he said.

After the war he worked as a counselor at a summer camp, where he met Helen, a nice Jewish girl from the East Bronx. He once again set his sights on Palestine when he learned he could study agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem under the GI Bill of Rights. He went first in 1946 and Helen followed six months later.

Cousin Katz greeted Bloom in Haifa. For Sol, it meant finally meeting the hero whose spirited example led him to make the long voyage. Katz took Sol to the rural compound of houses he’d built and to the fields he’d planted.

“He brought in new ways, new machinery, new breeds from America and he built this pioneer-type house of rough-hewn blocks and iron bars on the windows,” said Bloom, “and that’s where Helen and I were married in 1947.”

The kibbutz Sol and Helen were assigned, Gvat, “was a completely communal settlement. You never saw any money,” he said. “It had begun in 1925 with Jews from Poland and Russia. There were about 400 members and about 300 ‘illegals’ from displaced persons camps (in war-ravaged Europe). Bloom began training at the kibbutz ahead of Helen’s arrival. He worked the corn and wheat fields and the vegetable gardens. He helped harvest the fruit crops. Mucking out the poultry house and cattle pens convinced him cows were preferable to hens.

“The first silage I made was on the kibbutz — a combination of cow pee and citrus rinds-peels. It was a pit silo, layered with silage we packed down with a tractor. If you want it to ferment properly you have to extrude all the oxygen,” he said. “I fed it out (to cattle) and I’m telling you it was nice stuff, but the flies…” Oi vay!

The fertile country impressed Bloom.

“I remember the secretariat showing me the place. They were in a valley with the richest soil in all of Israel,” akin to Iowa’s rich black earth, Bloom said. “When they got there in ‘25 there were some swamps, a few cows. The settlers erected tents. If you ever want to know what Palestine looked like before the Jews started coming back in, get Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and you’ll understand the transformation that came about. It’s completely described there. Dismal, desolate.

 

 

 

 

“By the time I got there they’d built concrete barracks with manicured lawns. It was a mixed farm of dairy, poultry, a vegetable garden, a fruit orchard, a vineyard, forage crops for cattle and sheep, eucalyptus and field crops — sorghum, wheat, corn. They’d done all that in 20 years. It was a lovely place.”

Even then, he said, the region “produced beautiful oranges exported to Europe.”

Bloom reveled in the daily routine of kibbutz life.

“You got up about 5:30. You got your coffee and milk. I would go to work in the vegetable garden. Then about 8 o’clock you’d come into the communal dining hall, with its big bowls of porridge, and there’d be sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, vegetables, thick baked bread. You had a choice of a hard egg or a soft egg.

“After breakfast I’d go back and work. I was called in Hebrew a bakbok — cork. In other words, you’re used wherever you’re needed. I’d come back for lunch — a cold fruit soup made from harvested plums, apples, grapes. It’s hot in the summertime, so we would rest until about 1:30. When the heat would break we’d go back and finish our work. About 4:30 you’d shower and change your clothes. You had a set of khakis to work in and a set of khakis for the evening.

“We stopped working about noon on Friday for the Sabbath, whose observance lasted till Sunday morning. You had two weeks vacation.”

The enterprise of reclaiming an ancestral homeland moved Sol, who witnessed the settlement’s first high school graduation ceremony. He liked being part of a glorious historic tide. He couldn’t help but get caught up in what he called “that sense of purpose of destiny — of recreating something that had been hibernating for 1,800 years.”

“There was something completely mystical about it,” he said. “The land I was working on, the plums I was harvesting, they were planted by Jews, tended by Jews, plucked by Jews. The Jews had been persecuted, separated, driven from place to place for 1,900 years and here they’d gone back to the same place from which they were driven. Here they were graduating their first set of kids back on the lands where ancient Israelis had plowed and enjoyed the fruits of that land. Back in the land of Joshua and the prophets and all the greats of Israel,

“These pilgrims’ kids were training to begin life there again. You have to have a pretty strong memory in order to do that. To have lived a year in that type of community among these people who had settled, built the place, who knew why they were there, what they were doing and where they were going” was everything Bloom had hoped for and more.

He left before Israel’s formation in mid-‘48 but was there when the United Nations declared Palestine would be partitioned to allow a Jewish state amid Arab neighbors. “This was the first time in history a group made the decision that Jews, after being dispersed all over the world in ghettos, would have a place of their own,” he said. Photos he snapped then picture jubilant crowds in Jerusalem. He and Helen joined the celebration. “We danced, we sang, we drank. It was something very uplifting, something quite marvelous.”

Israel’s independence was not won without a fight and Bloom volunteered to do his share there, too. He and other Americans studying abroad joined the Haganah. Unlike most of the green recruits, who lacked any military experience, Bloom was a U.S. Army veteran familiar with weapons. But he’d never seen combat. Outside Jerusalem he went through training with fellow enlisters under the command of Haganah officers. They made simulated night patrols in the hilly terrain.

 

 

 

 

His training complete, he went on recon missions to gauge the location-strength of guerrilla Arab units. Assigned to a unit guarding the perimeter of a Jewish enclave, he wrote, “we kept guard during cold nights and moved weapons secretly by taxi cab.” He and his mates quartered in residents’ homes, staying out of sight of British peacekeepers and hostile Arab forces by day and manning rooftops at night.

He was selected for a strike force of 35 soldiers tasked with engaging the Arab Legion laying siege to the Jewish settlement of Ramat Rachel. At the last minute, he said, an officer scratched him from the operation due to his marital status. A bachelor friend and fellow American, Moshe Pearlstein, replaced him. Moshe and his comrades were cut down in an ambush. There were no survivors. Bloom’s journal commented:

“I will always remember how formidable — yes, how heroic — the ‘35’ appeared in all their battle gear as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best…” Their loss, he wrote, “was a terrible blow to the Haganah…The sweet soul Moshe became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long and eventful life.”

His life was spared another time there when a bus he and Helen were on took sniper fire. Only the vehicle’s side armor plating shielded him from the rounds.

With the couple’s parents pressing for their return they came back to the U.S. While studying at Iowa State University Bloom met Israeli emissaries who were visiting American ag colleges “to talk enthusiastic ideas to young Jewish fellows like me” he said. It was a recruitment tour designed to attract Zionists in serving the newly formed Jewish nation. Bloom was ripe for the picking. “I knew one thing — I wanted to study a profession that I could go back to use in Israel.”

He asked the visitors, “What should l study to help the State? Should I become a veterinarian?” “We need nutritionists,” he was told. That’s all he needed to hear. Besides, he said, “I liked very much working with cattle when I was on the kibbutz.” From ‘50 to ‘55 he earned his bachelor’s degree from Iowa State, his master’s from Penn State and his Ph.D. from ISU. All in dairy applications.

His scientific inquiries in that period proved fruitful. At PSU, he said, “the first feed grade antibiotics were in use. I worked with oromycin — I got beautiful gains. I got the sense of how powerful biological (compounds) are.” Of how 20 grams “of this yellow powder in a ton of feed” could increase milk production. Magic dust. He went back to ISU, he said, “where this line of study was more advanced. I worked with very good people. The work I did gave off papers in three different fields. I was elected to Sigma Xi, a scientific honorary society. I won the Borden Award.”

Longing to apply his expertise in Israel he was frustrated when no position was immediately available. Thus, in ‘56 he followed his nose for adventure to Puerto Rico, where he worked on dairy cattle feeding trials and introduced high molasses rations for swine. When a post finally opened in Israel the next year to conduct a Ford Foundation study at a research station, the Suez Canal crisis erupted. The U.S. government issued stiff warnings to Americans to avoid travel there but a little war wasn’t going to stop Bloom  “I went anyway,” he said. “They (the American consulate) called me in and slapped my wrists.”

These were heady times for Bloom.

“It was exciting. In the Suez campaign all the agronomists had gone into the Sinai Peninsula and had just come back, so the first seminars I heard were all about their findings in that area. When I did my research the agronomists there wanted us to use more pasture. We didn’t have that much. Security was a problem.”

The study compared cows feeding in pastures to those feeding off silage in enclosures. The herds “were then hit by foot and mouth disease,” he said, “which cut off some of the work I did over there.”

He was just happy to be back in a flourishing, independent Israel. He was, in many ways, home again.

“There’s a deep Jewish cultural connection,” he said. Not to mention “the beauty of living as part of the majority. There’s a certain sweetness, a certain pleasure in that that even today with our liberal (tolerant) attitudes you don’t quite have here (in the U.S.).”

He and Erlinda traveled to Israel in 2003. He hadn’t been there since 1962 and he marveled at how a once dreary stretch of road outside Tel Aviv “was green all the way to Jerusalem. That is my road. It’s built by Jews.” The whole country’s transformation from dusty outpost to verdant oasis satisfied him. “Israel’s a beautiful place, and it means so much,” he said. “There’s a personal connection.”

 

His much-traveled life-career has taken intriguing turns outside Israel. For example, in 1964 he was hired by the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He said it marked “the only time in my life I worked in the medical profession. I worked with many oncologists and cardiologists in helping them design their studies. In the building there were about 30 prima donna medical and biological researchers and I learned how to get things done” in terms of landing research grants.

He did well but was frustrated. “My marriage was on the brink of breaking down,” he said, “and I was looking to get back into my field. The only opportunity I had to get back was in Nigeria as a swine nutritionist” with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1967. He introduced adaptive feeding-breeding techniques for the swine industry, advised the government and Peace Corps, lectured, conducted feeding trials and penned extension bulletins for livestock producers. Helen did not accompany him.

Nigeria was in the throes of a civil war, making difficult living conditions even harder. Bloom was largely untouched by the conflict. “The only way USAID people felt this war was in the many checkpoints on the roads, the frequent searches of our vehicles and the presence of troops in training,” he wrote.

A memorable experience was leading a convoy of trucks loaded with 15 tons of seed corn across Nigeria to impoverished Biafran farmers. Despite bad roads, devastated villages, chaotic assundry delays, the delivery was made.

Bloom spent four conflicted years there. The affair he carried on with his housekeeper, Rose, came in the wake of “the powerful loneliness” he felt so many miles from home. “Combined with my own mental anxieties,” he wrote, “it endangered my ability to function, and so it was to the journal I turned to record daily activities to maintain sanity and stability.” To numb the pain there was plenty of Star Beer and dancing under the starlight to the sound of talking drums.

In 1970 the USAID sent him to Zambia to advise/study the local swine industry. He wrote, “Mind you, you find Jews almost anywhere in the world, but I didn’t expect to find any in Zambia.” But he did in the Shapiro family, who adopted him. “I have found Jews in the most exotic places,” he wrote in his African memoirs.He took an extended R & R in Spain, where the bull fights both intrigued and repulsed him. Like most in the crowd he rooted for “the majestic creature.”

 

 

That same year he began his longest overseas idyll, in the Philippines, where he stayed through 1981. He went in the employ of the USAID but eventually became a free agent. He was a nutrition consultant for swine operations and feed mills, he created and marketed his own Rose-N-Bloom brand livestock feeds with another American expatriate and worked for the American Soybean Association and corporate giants Cynamid and Monsanto.

He became close with an American ranch family, the Murrays. Bloom loved riding out on their high grass tropical range. Pastures gave way to jungle. The ranch was accessible only by boat or plane. Getting the steers to market was a big operation.

The Philippines is also where Bloom met and married Erlinda, “my Oriental package.” They started a family together there.

“I came back from the Philippines in ‘81 — to Richmond, Ind. Erlinda had a cousin living-working there. God took me to a place, the Midwest, with corn, soy, cattle, pigs, where I could begin my work again,” he said,

Over the next dozen years his work necessitated more moves. Vigortone Ag Products in Marion, Ohio. Dawes Laboratories in Chicago. At Dawes he developed vitamin-mineral fortifiers for animal industry species. Omaha-based I.M.S. Inc. brought him to Omaha in 1989 as its senior nutritionist.

He stayed here after hooking up with Steve Silver’s Omaha-based International Nutrition in 1990. Meeting up with another Jew in the goy ag field only confirmed Bloom’s belief that far from “purely chance” it was “supposed to happen.” At least he chooses to believe so. The very thought, he said, “is a comfort to me.”

Silver said Bloom brought “a wealth of experience. He worked in helping develop products for use in our overseas markets.” Though mostly retired now, Bloom said,  “I’m still working a little bit. “I’m doing something on the co-product or residue from ethanol production and how to make it more amenable for pigs and poultry and so forth and so on. It’s interesting”

Away from work Bloom enjoys “the little pleasures of the day.” Listening to his beloved Brahms. Praying/socializing at the synagogue. Doing mind exercises.

When reviewing his life, he said, “Sometimes I think, Did I do all these things? It’s hard to imagine.”


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