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Vet Uses Memorial Day to Connect With Past
As a teenager, Larry Holman entered the U.S. Navy with the idea of serving exactly three years and three days -- and never dreamt of making a career of it. By enlisting just before his 18th birthday in 1958, he was assured that his service would end by age 21; however, the Nebraska native excelled, and was quickly promoted to petty officer first-class.
"One of my [high school football] coaches commented years later, 'I'm not surprised you were successful in the Navy because you were always good at taking direction,' " quipped Holman.
Holman, a veteran of the Vietnam war, spent part of this past Memorial Day weekend placing American flags near graves of vets buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown and Shalom Memorial Park in the Northeast.
"It makes you remember that there's been a long history in our country of people answering the call of duty, many of whom sacrificed their lives while in uniform," he said.
In November 1966, he was sent to Vietnam, serving as a hospital coreman.
"I always say that Navy hospital coreman practice medicine without a license," said Holman, who was frequently referred to as bac-si, or "doctor," by the Vietnamese.
Holman said that he frequently treated friendly South Vietnamese, and sometimes found himself helping out at a prison where the South Vietnamese held enemies from the Viet Cong. With 30 people in a single cell, the conditions, he noted, were "atrocious."
"I was as compassionate as I could be," said Holman. "I didn't have any feelings one way or another. These were human beings who needed my help. I did everything I could for them."
After returning home to his wife and two daughters in a small town near Los Angeles, he realized that the energy needed to survive in a war zone had little place in normal life.
"You're in an environment for nine months straight, when you have to be hypervigilant, then you come back to the states, where that vigilance is not appropriate," explained Holman.
He escaped by turning to alcohol, which he believed had a hand in ending his first marriage.
After turning his life around -- and moving to Philadelphia in 1978 -- he married his current wife, Debbie, in 1980, and continued to work for the Navy. Since his new spouse was Jewish and wanted to raise a Jewish family, Holman converted.
"We very much take pride in the fact that we're Jewish, and that our children were raised Jewish -- that is our identity," said Holman, who attends services at Temple Beth Ami in Northeast Philadelphia. The couple has two sons and a daughter.
Though he seemed to get over Vietnam's mental scars, physically, he carries lingering effects. While Holman didn't suffer battle injuries overseas, years later, he developed fatty bulges on his body. He believed they stemmed from exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the United States to destroy Vietnam's terrain. A doctor told Holman that the spots were benign.
At his retirement in 1982, the man who wanted to enlist for exactly three years and three days left after 23 years, nine months and 11 days, with the rank of lieutenant commander.
Since the mid-1990s, Holman has been active in a local branch of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, a group that supports Jewish vets of any war. On Saturday mornings, he and other JWV members help run Shabbat services at the Delaware Valley Veterans Home in Northeast Philadelphia. "It's a very heart-warming experience, because the residents that attend seem genuinely appreciative that they have a place to worship and don't have to leave the facility."