To paraphrase an old TV commercial, “I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” The first five years of my married life could be titled, “I was not in the Army but was married to an Army Chaplain.”
My husband, Captain Howard Graber, had enlisted in the US Army in 1957. In the spring of 1959, he was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. He served Army, State Department, CIA personnel and their families, as well as some local civilians in the Northern Area Command. This command extended from the land of Hesse to the north of Germany and West Berlin.
The Chapel, which served all religious denominations, functioned not only as a house of worship but also as a social meeting place. It was a favorite locale for the few young female Holocaust survivors to meet a possible partner. However, the congregation had no permanent members. Individuals were coming and leaving as they were being reassigned.
We got married in December 1959, and I became not just the Jewish chaplain’s wife but also an army wife. My duties were to interact with our 500-member congregation, the non-Jewish chaplain’s wives and the Army brass’ wives.
Responsibilities also included home hospitality for single GIs and teaching pre-school Sunday school. I acted as president and chaplain of the Chapel Jewish Sisterhood organization, giving the invocation before the monthly meetings.
I also became a “girl” of the Chief Chaplain wives as well as the Base Commander wives’ clubs. When I attended my first monthly meeting, I was “honored” to pour the tea. I had no idea what it was all about but obliged gracefully.
Being part of the Army Chaplain Corp had some great benefits. Every June, all Jewish personnel were invited to a convention in the Bavarian Alps for a long weekend. This event took place at Hitler’s plush vacation home, Eagles Nest. Of course, all Jewish Chaplains and their wives were included, and we had the privilege of meeting some very important and famous guest rabbis. The one I remember best was Rabbi Herschel Schacter who is renowned for being the Jewish Chaplain to enter liberated Buchenwald concentration camp and hold services there.
Howard was also invited to participate in the dedication of American World War II cemeteries in Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium. Of course, I went along. Many parents of fallen soldiers buried there were in the audience. Howard sat on the dais among dignitaries including Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and King Beaudoin of Belgium.
On the way, we rode through the countryside where one of the fiercest fighting of the war took place – the Battle of the Bulge. It was hard to imagine this beautiful tranquil scenery being the location where so many soldiers lost their lives. The green meadows and the lush forestry under the clear blue sky conveyed an aura of serenity. However, bullet holes still visible in many homes in local villages were the silent reminders of the carnage.
The military cemeteries are impressive with heart-wrenching rows and rows of crosses and Stars of David. In the Luxembourg cemetery, we saw General Patton’s grave. In accordance with his wishes, he is buried there with his men. He is the only four-star general buried at an American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery, and one of the most famous. He died on December 21, 1945, in an Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.
One of the most pleasurable events we attended was being part of the Army’s censorship group. Chaplains of each denomination were invited to preview USO shows to ensure they were appropriate and not objectionable.
Howard’s tour in Germany ended in December 1963. For the next six months he attended an advance chaplain course in Fort Hamilton, NY. He was extremely busy, and I was left alone with a two-year-old and a six-month-old. It was a very difficult time for me being in a foreign country with no relatives or friends and the only Jew among all the chaplains’ wives.
We women also got a compulsory class run by a senior member of the Corps about how to behave in accordance to our status. We were to “never refer to our husband by his first name” and “we were to never disagree with him in public,” etc.
In June we were transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. My duties here were similar to the ones in Germany but there were fewer wives or children and no State Department personnel. The congregation consisted mostly of young recruits and a few civilian couples from nearby small towns who did not have a rabbi.
The stark reality of army life, however, struck at two o’clock one spring morning in 1965. Howard was called on alert and shipped out with his unit, the 82 Airborne Division. This was a harrowing experience since we spouses were not informed where the men were being shipped. Rumors spread that they were going to Vietnam.
Soon, the only males still in the fort were pediatricians, obstetricians and MPs (military police). The latter patrolled the streets day and night because the news had spread in nearby Fayetteville. There were suspicious individuals driving around in the mostly female areas.
It took several days until we were told that the men had been sent to the Dominican Republic. President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed more than 22,000 U.S. troops. This included Howard’s unit. It was an effort to forestall a communist plot to topple the current government.
To this day, our then four-year-old daughter remembers that “we did not decorate the house for Shavuot because we were sad as Daddy was not home.”
Six weeks later, Howard just showed up at our door. He was very disenchanted with how the Army was run and had doubts about making it his career. One of the scary moments he had experienced was being caught in a crossfire because his driver had accidently made a wrong turn and ran into enemy territory. Chaplains were not allowed to carry guns, so he was at the mercy of his assistant, Michael, for protection. As large as Michael was, he could guard only one flank at a time.
A couple of months later we received an unsolicited phone call offering Howard a rabbinical position in a small Iowa town. I saw this as a sign from above, urged him to explore this possibility. That fall, he submitted his resignation from the army.
That was the conclusion of my role as an “Army Chaplain’s wife” and a new phase of my life began.
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