Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Reluctant Soldier

On June 30, 1950, barely five years after the end of WWII, President Truman sent the US Armed Forces back into war, committing them to the defense of South Korea after it had been invaded by communist North Korea. Defending South Korea was popular at the time, with a Gallup poll showing 78% approval at the time the US sent in its forces. Not everyone was sanguine about the conflict, however. One of those people was Eliot Sommer, a native of Brooklyn, New York and a religious Jew, the man who would become my father. He was all of 22 years old when he joined the National Guard in an attempt to avoid the draft. 

Eliot grew up during the uncertainty of the Great Depression and WWII. His grandfather moved from Germany to the US in the late 19th century. The family still had relatives back in the old country until the devastation of the Holocaust wiped out much of Europe’s Jewish population, including most German Jews. After the war, his family paid a great deal of attention to the formation of the modern state of Israel, and the defensive war it fought in 1948 just to survive. 

Fighting and war were not favored by Eliot. He knew it was dangerous in general, lethal in its particulars, and could be hazardous to his health if he got involved in conflict. He saw the effects of the wars overseas and the effects of fighting at home. When he was a child in Brooklyn, he was bullied for the social crime of being Jewish. His father told him, “Ignore the bullies. Eventually they’ll give up and go away.” He tried to do as his father suggested. Unfortunately, his father’s advice was unsound. It only led to escalation by his tormentors. Even so, fighting was something he did his best to avoid. 

He took the first good chance he could find to keep away from fighting. Eliot attended Queens College, working on a degree while serving in the National Guard. He was not pleased when his unit was called up for active service.  He ended up at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, with a new course of study.

“At the Army school I studied radar repair of the SCR 584 gun-laying radar system,” he said. Radar was still a very new technology back then. Great Britain had used it to mitigate the effects of German bombing runs against England and otherwise improve its aerial superiority. During and after the war, the US stepped up its investment in radar technology and equipment. By the time Eliot joined the National Guard, radar was, in many ways, at a similar point in development as the Internet was in the 1980s: the military applications were well understood, people who could work with it were well-paid, and it was still not generally available for public use. Experts could expect good working conditions and good pay.

While spending much of his time learning radar systems and marksmanship, keeping his nose to the grindstone and going where he was assigned, Eliot did his best to stay an observant Jew. While the military didn’t have Shabbat services on Saturdays for Jewish soldiers, it did have services on Friday nights. He made it a point to go to services whenever possible, even when stationed in Germany. 


However, even though the US Army wasn’t an overtly religious Christian organization, religious soldiers were predominantly Christian. Jews in the military were still uncertain about exercising their authority--and their religion--in an army that for the most part wasn’t Jewish.  One of Eliot’s superior officers, a Jewish lieutenant, tried to forbid him from going to Friday night services in an attempt to curry favor with his superiors by showing he could keep his team at work. Eliot went anyways. “I told him, ‘The walls of this kaserne [German for “barracks”] aren't high enough to keep me from going.‘ He said, ‘You'll be court martialed.’ So I replied, ‘Well, then I'll see you at my court martial.’”

He didn’t get a court martial, but he was determined to leave as soon as he could. After demonstrating excellent skills using, maintaining and repairing radar equipment, Eliot was given a special presentation. The military wanted him to be a team leader in charge of a squad of radar repairmen for the Army. They would promote him from sergeant to warrant officer, with the chance to get into the officer corps in time. The Army felt this was a good deal. For an NCO looking to advance, it was a very good deal. 

Eliot didn’t agree. At the end of the presentation he told the presenters exactly what he thought. “I don’t want to be in this army a second longer. I’m just a PFC, a poor fucking civilian.” Two and a half years after he joined the army, Sergeant Sommer received an honorable discharge. According to Paula Sommer, his wife of 47 years, he’d earned an Army of Occupation medal for time spent in Germany as well as a National Defense ribbon. Both were standard awards during his time in the service. He left as a certified marksman, and received a lump sum payment of $417.48, somewhere between six and eight weeks worth of pay.

Eliot used the skills he’d gained in the US Army to serve his country in a different way, working as an engineer for various defense contractors. He took breaks from that work to earn a bachelors degree from Columbia University in the early 1960s, where he met his wife-to-be Paula, and a master’s degree from Worcester State College in the early 1970s. His advice to people entering the military? “Get as much Army School training in your field of interest as you can. It can serve you well while in-service as well as when (and if) you return to civilian life. That's what worked for me.”

It worked very well for him. Eliot married Paula in December of 1963. Their daughter Deborah was born in 1967; I was born two years later, named for Paula's father who had passed away the year before. He worked primarily with defense firms until his retirement in 1988, working on systems that are still classified despite many being outmoded technology. He earned a good living as a civilian, supporting his family with the skills he learned in the military.

When asked about visiting communities of veterans, he wasn’t particularly interested. “I’m not much of a joiner,” he said with a shrug. “I never went to a VFW. I didn’t go to the Jewish War Veterans either.” He doesn’t talk about his military service often, only doing so if somebody asks him about it. While he is a veteran, he makes no special plans for Veterans Day. He spends most of his social time with friends from his local synagogue, people he knows through his extended Jewish community, and friends and relatives spread around the country. Clearly, being a veteran is not of major importance to Eliot. Still, his wife Paula said, “He knew just where to go to find [his] discharge papers.”

In late 1989, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the 1990 US military offensive against Iraq known as Operation Desert Shield. I considered joining the military at the time, but both of my parents discouraged me from joining. I never did join up, and have since become much more skeptical about war. For my father, who hasn’t yet seen a war he’s truly liked, this is a very good thing.

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