Washington - On March 7, members of the Jewish War Veterans gathered for an exhibit commemorating one of the group’s greatest moments, a 1933 march protesting the Nazi rise to power in Germany. But while the former servicemen came together to honor their past, the present state of their movement was visibly on display.
Dozens of the elderly men and women in attendance proudly wore service caps commemorating their tours of duty. Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam were duly represented, but those who had done tours in Iraq or Afghanistan were not to be found.
It was not for a lack of Jewish soldiers who served; by one estimate, there are some 30,000 Jewish men and women currently in the military, though the figure could not be independently verified. The decidedly older crowd, rather, was indicative of the ongoing struggle that the JWV — for nearly a century the representative body of Jewish servicemen — faces in both making its voice heard in the Jewish community and maintaining its relevance for young Jewish veterans, many of whom know little about the group and its long history.
To be sure, the JWV remains a presence in Washington. On March 6, members descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for improved health care and welfare for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But while such efforts find the JWV in common cause with the broader veteran community, when it comes to specifically Jewish concerns, the group has often found itself fighting an uphill battle, particularly given the paucity of information about the numbers and whereabouts of Jewish troops.
The JWV currently has a membership of roughly 7,500, The group is struggling to get more Jewish veterans to join its ranks, but reaching out to Jewish troops has proved to be a formidable task because the military does not list service members by religion. There is also no official information about the number of Jewish casualties, though members of JWV estimate that 20 Jewish servicemen have been killed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The logistical difficulties have led the group to seek creative ways of membership recruitment. Last year, in an attempt to reach out to Jewish service members, Hanukkah cards were sent out to the soldiers believed to be Jewish who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several dozen answered back and are now in touch with Jewish veterans from the JWV.
Among those working at conducting outreach for the JWV is Nelson Mellitz of Cherry Hill, N.J. After 32 years of service in the Air Force, he retired as a colonel, but in late 2005 he went to Iraq on a State Department mission advising the Iraqi Defense Ministry. Mellitz quickly became the lay leader of Jewish soldiers in Baghdad’s Green Zone, helping with services and organizing a Hanukkah party for the troops.
“It was my most rewarding experience in Iraq,” Mellitz said.
The retired Air Force colonel says that with relatively little effort, local Jewish communities can play a significant role in supporting Jewish service members.
“We need to have the synagogues and communities inform us when a soldier is deployed,” Mellitz said, adding that the lack of a full database of Jewish service members makes reaching out to those deployed, and to their families, much more difficult.
Some veterans have made their own way to the JWV. Brian Kresge, a sergeant of the Pennsylvania National Guard, began shopping for a veterans organization in 1999 after serving out his active duty as a paratrooper.
“I was looking for something better than the [American] Legion, and it was good to find a Jewish organization,” Kresge said. The guardsman was particularly enticed by the free membership offered by the group to new members.
Kresge was one of the JWV members to participate in the group’s lobbying effort March 6, going to the office of his House representative, Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania. Tellingly, in talks with the congressman’s staff, he focused primarily on the broader problems facing war veterans: the treatment of injured troops back in the United States and the plight of homeless veterans, among other topics. Issues relating specifically to Jewish servicemen, however, did not top his concerns.
Kresge will be deployed to Iraq in November. His unit was told to prepare for “full spectrum combat” missions.
“It is inevitable,” he said of his upcoming deployment. “We are all pretty fatalistic about it. Not quite enthusiastic, but not quite disappointed.”