My father died Nov. 8 of 2013. He was buried with full military honors at Ft. Logan, because he served his country for four years during Vietnam. My father was in the Air Force and spent most of those four years stationed in Bangkok. He was a rarity — a computer technician who actually saw action. He was attached to Operation Igloo White. His job was parachuting into the DMZ and repairing malfunctioning surveillance equipment, then hiking several miles to a safe extraction point. If he’d been caught, he’d have been disavowed.
He told me that story from his wheelchair after the mission had been declassified officially several years ago. By that time, he was on dialysis. He was a frail, old man, who had just retired, and spent most of his day on the internet. The PTSD was creeping in more and more as the damage from Agent Orange continued to eat him away.
“That’s not how the world sees us,” was my response.
My father’s service was a source of tremendous pride for him, second only to raising two children. His devotion to country and the American Ideal was deep — especially considering he was only a second-generation citizen who grew up poor in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with multiple generations of the family living in it. But when every brand started drafting for Vietnam, Pop enlisted in the Air Force, “for the food,” he later joked.
He was a Kennedy democrat and a Reagan republican. He believed in the social causes of the 1960s, and had tremendous respect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He believed in limited government and the rights of the individual. He was a little-L libertarian, in that he supported equality for all, gay marriage, and the right to keep and bear arms.
“What do you mean?” Pop asked me. He was a history buff of the highest order. He often thought about adding a couple courses to his load as a business management and statistics professor at what was still Metropolitan State College of Denver at the time.
“You know our history, Pop,” I responded. “Exodus. The diaspora. The Inquisition. The Crusades. The Holocaust. We’ve been exterminated in or exiled from pretty much every corner of the globe at one point or another. If history taught me anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter how we identify ourselves. The rest of the world sees us as Jews first.”
“Well,” he responded emphatically, “It won’t ever happen here.”
I’m glad Pop left us when he did. Because what’s happening today would break his heart so deeply. Watching his beloved country sink into a fear-filled crevice. A country where open, committed white nationalists and neo-Nazis not only run for office, but actually see more and more substantial results at the polls. A country where our leadership sews the seeds of divisiveness tearing apart the populace at its admittedly fragile seams to begin with. A world where state-sanctioned xenophobia allows us to terrorize asylum-seekers, ban muslims, and separate infants from their parents and drop them into holes where they disappear forever.
“I hope you’re right, Pop. But as far as the world’s concerned, I know the truth:
I’m an American Jew.”