By virtue of the Rhodes Scholarship he was awarded in November, Daniel Helmer is scheduled to study at Oxford University this fall. Before he heads to England, however, he is going to Iraq.
Helmer, a 22-year-old from Colts Neck, N.J., was an academic overachiever as an undergraduate. He was also a member of the gymnastics team, president of the campus Hillel, member of the Jewish choir and the author of a thesis on Hezbollah — a well-rounded resume fitting for a Rhodes Scholar.
But Second Lieutenant Helmer of the 4th Infantry Division — whose alma mater is West Point — is also a military man. That’s why before he hits the books, he will serve in Iraq, starting in mid-January at the head of the 1/68 Armor Battalion of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. As he is quick to explain, he will be responsible for four tanks totaling $20 million worth of equipment and, most importantly, the lives and welfare of 16 American soldiers.
“The paradigm of military officers is not only tough and a little rough around the edges but someone who is physically fit and capable of solving the intellectually demanding problems that confront us in our profession every day,” Helmer told the Forward. “I’m trained to fight on tanks, and yet I know a number of platoon leaders in the armor corps who are acting as mayors of towns right now, trying to teach civic discourse where civic discourse isn’t the norm.”
Helmer will report to Iraq armed with a unique sensitivity toward the local culture. At West Point, he majored in Arabic and spent three weeks studying the language in Tunisia. Although he hesitates to claim fluency, he does believe that corresponding with Iraqis in their own language will go a long way toward diffusing the tension that is a product of postwar daily life.
Helmer’s tour of duty in Iraq is scheduled to last until April, but these plans could change, and he may have to delay his studies at Oxford if his tour is extended.
Military service is a family tradition for Helmer. His paternal grandfather, Mike Helmer, took the town of Ramle in Israel’s War of Independence while serving in the Haganah, where he received orders directly from Rehavam Ze’evi, the former general and tourism minister who was assassinated in 2001. His maternal great-grandfather, Samuel Tennenbaum, served in the Polish military but was denied an officer’s rank because he was Jewish. After surviving the Nazi invasion and Soviet occupation of Poland, he fled to the United States, where he has written two books about his experiences, “Zloczow Memoir” and “Lech L’cha.”
Helmer said Tennenbaum “is my hero in many ways. He took a picture of me in uniform when he went to revisit Poland for the first time. My grandmother believes strongly that the reason he did that was to show [the Poles], ‘We have Jewish officers in our army as you wouldn’t have let me be an officer in the Polish army 50 years ago.’”