None of us here in the Jewish Standard office have experienced the military draft firsthand, and none of us are veterans; given that, obviously none of us have been prisoners of war. We have no particular standing in the debate over Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s attacks on Senator John McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war, under torture.
But we have interviewed a number of U.S. armed force veterans over the years. Some have been prisoners of war. Certainly their voices can contribute to the debate.
Walter Krug already had been in a forced labor camp and a Soviet gulag as he made his way east, away from Nazi Germany. Once in China he ended up in the American air force; he was shot down over Burma and “was a guest of the Japanese,” as he put it, for 2 1/2 years. His experiences parallel Mr. McCain’s.
“I absolutely disagree” with Mr. Trump, Mr. Krug said. “It’s absolutely stupid. If you are captured or not, it is totally immaterial to whether you are a hero. To attack an individual like Mr. McCain is absolutely wrong. He served his country — and he served it well.”
Robert Levine of Teaneck was drafted into the U.S. Army. He landed on the beach in Normandy. Later, he was shot, he was captured by the Germans in France, he was sent on a forced march, he was saved by a French doctor, his leg was amputated, he almost died, and he was held prisoner in a hospital, Stalag 221, and eventually liberated by the Americans. “I am appalled,” he said about Mr. Trump’s comments.
“I just can’t believe Trump would say this, particularly because he never even served, but the fact is that is an area that is sacrosanct.
“What amazes me most is that there are people who are willing to listen to him. I can’t understand that here is a guy” — Mr. McCain — “who spent not one year but five years in hell. Of all guys to point fingers at. It just doesn’t make sense.
“I am trying to find words to say what I mean. It is appalling. It is just appalling.”
Albert Burstein of Tenafly was drafted, and he is straightforward as he talks about the horrors of war, including the wretched trench foot that nearly rotted his leg away completely. “Trump does not have any understanding,” he said. “McCain was shot down; to think that he is not a hero for undergoing that kind of circumstance shows the limitation in Trump’s thinking about what national service means.
“The other thing that is disturbing to me is that of all the people who might say something questioning McCain’s values — here is a guy who avoided service, and when he was asked how that came about he said ‘Oh, it was a bone spur,’ and when he was asked which foot it was he said he didn’t remember.
“It sounds like fraud. The guy who speaks the loudest about how you have to be the strongest, when you come down to it, never had the patriotism to serve in the armed forces.”
Mr. Krug, Mr. Levine, and Mr. Burstein all are World War II veterans. We also spoke to a younger veteran, David Glass of Springfield, the husband of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Lisa Harris Glass. He was in the navy from 1986 to 1994 and was deployed to the Persian Gulf three times, including during the Iran/Iraq and the first Gulf wars.
“It was ridiculous,” Mr. Glass said. “McCain went on a bombing mission, he was shot down, and he was held captive for five years. He was a hero, he was doing his duty, and then he came back. And whether or not you like John McCain, he dedicated his entire life to the country.
“And by the way, I don’t see Donald Trump serving anywhere.
“This is a nonstarter. That’s how I feel — and I don’t doubt that any veteran would say the same thing. It’s nonsense.”