A strong anti-war sentiment rang out in America during the Vietnam era and was fueled by outspoken American Jewish students known for their liberal political bent.
Less well-known is the fact that some 30,000 young Jewish men and women of the same generation either signed up or were drafted, in the case of men, to fight in Vietnam.
Now, 40 years after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which trumpeted the end of direct U.S. involvement in the war, some of these soldiers reflected on their experiences.
Steve Duvak, 65, of North Philadelphia, dreamed of being a Marine, especially of wearing the impeccable and high-profile uniforms.
“I always liked the Marines. They were gutsy. There’s something special about the Marines,” Duvak declared with pride while attending a Dec. 1 event in the Northeast sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans to honor Vietnam vets.
Duvak’s unit specialized in avionics equipment, such as helicopter sonar, that he helped ship back and forth between California and Southeast Asia between 1967 and 1969.
Though Duvak never saw combat, he said he felt the heat of the American anti-war movement in 1969 when a group of protesters awaited the arrival of his unit at a California airport.
“I just wanted to serve my country. I did what I had to do,” Duvak said when asked about his personal feelings about the war.
Another Vietnam vet, Larry Holman, originally from Lincoln, Neb., who converted to Judaism near the end of his service, joined the U.S. Navy in 1958, just before he turned 18.
He served for 24 years as a medic and Seabee, beginning in 1958, including two separate stints in Vietnam.
While Holman, who is now 73 and lives in Philadelphia, is proud of his service and believes the country “helped the Vietnamese,” he questions the decision of the U.S. government to renege on a promise to provide the South Vietnamese with financial and military aid. This move, he feels, directly led to the fall of Saigon in 1975.
“I felt personally betrayed that they would allow this thing to happen,” Holman said in a phone interview.
Holman served in Vietnam as a member of Mobile Construction Battalion 5, a unit that taught the local Vietnamese the skills necessary to construct their own communities.
Like Duvak, Holman was criticized because of the war. Hitchhikers he gave rides to told him of their disapproval of his connection to the Navy and he even recalled with amusement when “a hippie placed a flower in my uniform.”
However, no amount of criticism then or now has made Holman regret his time in the military, he said.
If there is anything that has left a bitter taste for him, it is the way the Vietnam War ended.
Combat “takes a toll on your body,” Holman said. “The fall of Saigon pushed me over the edge."
After meeting his future wife while on active duty in Philadelphia in 1979, he chose to become a Jew prior to their marriage a year later. He remains active with the Jewish War Veterans, serving as lieutenant commander of Philadelphia Post 706.