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Interview with Ben Romer, July 27, 2004 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Ben Romer, July 27, 2004
July 27, 2004
Rabbi with 20 years millitary experience. He served as rabbi in Panama and Saudi Arabia. He recalls events and experiences in foreign and domestic stations.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Romer, Ben Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  7/27/2004 Series:  Military Length  56 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and a consultant with the library. The tape today is part of the military chaplains special collection division and today’s date is the twenty-seventh of July in the year 2004. We’re in Wilmington, North Carolina and our interviewee is Rabbi Ben A. Romer, relatively new in the community, by the way. So, we may wander a little bit back and forth on the focus of “how does a nice Rabbi like you end up in the military”. So here we go…

Zarbock: Good morning Rabbi, how are you?

Romer: Good morning, fine.

Zarbock: Characteristically, I start off by asking, how, were, when, did you get into the military? But, in addition to that, how, where, when, did you end up selecting your profession as your profession? Can you…

Romer: Actually when I was thirteen, right around my bar mitzvah time, I asked the rabbi if I could become a rabbi. He told me to go away, but by the time I got to college, it was still there so that by the time I became a junior at the University of Michigan I started thinking about the rabbinate…for two reasons. One, is I can get a good Jewish education, the other one is I could help others to be excited and learn about Judaism which is very important to me. So that was my journey ultimately to rabbinic school. Chaplaincy was a little bit different. After five years in the rabbinate, after ordination, I was in Florida for three years and then I was in Indiana, West Lafayette, Indiana…we went to a conference on Hospice. The hospice chaplain who was teaching the course pulls out some card and says, “we’re looking for a rabbi for the Indiana National Guard”. We’ve never had one in the Army National Guard there and I was in a small congregation, you know, it would provide some extra income and I’m an old Boy Scout, so either it was I like uniforms or I like serving the country. It’s the serving, that’s the part I think is more important. So I said, “yea, I’ll be joined”. And I got into the National Guard, which is all I thought I would do. Well, when I left there, went to another congregation after three years, and then…

Zarbock: The year is now what?

Romer: That was 1987…1984, excuse, me, it was 1984 when I came into the National Guard. It’s twenty years this week that I have been in the active duty or in the National Guard. And, in 1988 the opportunity arose to go on active duty. And so, I talked with my family and my wife, and said, well, let’s try one tour. We’ll go on active duty for one tour.

Zarbock: And your rank was?

Romer: At that time I was a captain. And, so we tried it, and they brought me in, and I went to Fort Stewart, Georgia for my first tour. Especially wanted to be with a divisional unit, that is, with troops rather than in a place where they might be training new soldiers. So I had to fight for that. They tend to put rabbis in staff positions or at school positions so they can have the Jewish chaplain, so they’ve got a rabbi on post. And I said I want to be where the troops are. Of course, where the troops are and where the troops go. So that got to be a challenge. And within my first three years on active duty, I was at the National Training Center twice and Operation Just Cause in Panama, as the only Jewish chaplain, and then I was the first Jewish chaplain into Saudi Arabia in the fall of 1990 for Desert Shield/Desert Storm. So, my friend who got me into the chaplaincy said, “hey I haven’t deployed in thirteen years”, and in my first three years I’m out of country for more than half my…so I said, “Thanks a lot”! So it was an interesting first three years.

Zarbock: Let me take you back to Panama. What were your duties there?

Romer: Well, when Operation Just Cause came up…of course, now when people ask me, why’d you go to Panama…we go, “well, just cause”. So they did not have a Jewish chaplain in the 18th Airborne Corps at that time up at Fort Bragg…24th Infantry which was, at that time, the division at Fort Stewart…now it’s the 3rd Infantry. It’s part of the 18th Airborne Corps, so my division chaplain calls up to the corps chaplain and says, “hey I got a rabbi here, why don’t you let him come up and he’ll do Hanukah services for your families that are still there”, because the troops have deployed.

Zarbock: At a population of…

Romer: At Fort Bragg? There’s probably a hundred, because it’s so big. Fort Stewart, there are about fifty Jews assigned, then you multiply that by the number of families that they’re connected with. And, the corps chaplain says, “no, no, no, no, no, Romer’s going to Panama. He’s not being here, get him on the plane now. Now, it’s Tuesday morning, he wanted me there Tuesday afternoon. That didn’t happen. I was able to get through Hanukah services for Fort Stewart and then the next day I drove out…actually I arrived in Panama on Christmas day, bringing the Christmas cookies to all the troops…the rabbi brought the Christmas cookies. That’s the chaplaincy! And, I arrived with no support, so it was kind of interesting coming into a combat zone, first time for me, and they’re still shooting at people, and I don’t have a chaplain assistant to vehicle and there’s no one to meet me. But it all worked out. 18th Airborne Corps took care of me pretty well. But it was an interesting experience and my job there was first and foremost was to take care of the Jewish soldiers and arrange for service…I had to find them, I had to identify them, and then I had to locate them. Panama is fairly small, relatively speaking as a theater, so we were able to get them in. But, I was also a chaplain and I was kind of assigned at the main chapel. Lots of counseling, lots of taking care of people, and so that’s what I did.

Zarbock: The phrase counseling comes up frequently in other interviews. Illustrate what you mean by counseling. What was situations like?

Romer: Well, there, of course, we had soldiers who were away from their families. They just wanted somebody to talk to. Some of them had seen their buddies shot and injured. Some of them just first time in combat, just needed someone to talk to. Some of the families in Panama were still there…talk to them. A lot of counseling is being what I call a listening ear. You’re there to take care of people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but what I found out…ninety percent of my chaplaincy was counseling, well over ninety percent of my counseling was with non-Jews. You’re just there. You’re a person of God, and you take care of people. They don’t care whether I’m wearing the tablets of the cross, you’re there to help them. I guess the most dramatic example is when people came back from Desert Storm, there was an African-American couple, both captains who ended up deployed at the same time. They said they wanted me to christen their child. Small problem! I can’t christen any child, it’s the wrong ceremony! So I found them the Protestant chaplain but, I said, “I can’t do this”. “But you’re our chaplain!” That’s when you know that it works…because it doesn’t matter what color, what religion, you’re just there for them. To get back to Panama, I think the most moving part of Panama was when we actually had a Hanukah dinner. It’s the holiday in the fall which is religious…in the winter…which coincides with Christmas, but has nothing to do with it. And we actually had Panamanians who had fled for their lives or from being jailed during the reign of Noriega who came back and we were able to have the first free Hanukah celebration for these Panamanians along with those of us who helped in the situation down there…and that was very moving, it really was.

Zarbock: Again, what year was that?

Romer: 1989, December of ’89.

Zarbock: And were was the ceremony held?

Romer: We held that in Panama City at the main chapel at…I’m drawing a blank on it now…that’s what happens as things… the fog of years goes. It was the main chapel at the main post, which of course now has been turned over to the Panamanian government, but we had to get them on post and it was just really a wonderful experience. Following that I was able to go to services at the reform temple in Panama. And in uniform, which was very interesting because they had…uniforms in the community were not real friendly all the time. But what I discovered was at the same time there was a Hebrew Spanish bible in Noriega’s office and that had been presented to him by the Jewish community because his kids went to the Jewish day school in Panama City.

Zarbock: Noriega’s kids?

Romer: Yea, because it was the best school. And…so…I still have that bible. It’s an interesting experience down there. And that was fine. A month, and I came back.

Zarbock: Did you ever meet Noriega?

Romer: No, no. That was…he was hiding out, and then…we were close enough to listen to the noise when they were trying to…with the psychological operations with the loud music…but never met him. Never met any of those guys. The only people I encountered were the Jewish Panamanians.

Zarbock: When you say you left Panama, was that your request or…?

Romer: No, that was…we were done…it was the…the deployment was over. So they said “You gotta get on this plane, it’s the last one back to Fort Bragg”. So we rushed across to the airfield and I got out of town and then came back to Fort Stewart, and that was January of 1990.

Zarbock: Okay.

Romer: Fine…went off to the National Training Center in July of 1990.

Zarbock: And where is the National Training Center?

Romer: That’s in…National Training Center is in the upper Mohave Desert in California just above the Naval weapon center at China Lake which I was a student rabbi at…never thinking I’d come back to actually be there. It’s the main mechanized infantry and armored training center for the United States Army and it goes all the way back to Patton’s time. He trained there. And so I was there for the month of July of 1990…got back at the end of July and then four days later on the news, what do we see? Iraq had invaded Kuwait…and just kind of waited for the clock to tick as they start doing interviews at the front of Fort Stewart…sure enough…I’m on leave in Michigan, the phone rings, “Get back off of leave”. Back to Fort Stewart, left my family there, and starting packing up to go to Saudi Arabia. And on August 27th, our anniversary, we packed up and flew to scenic Saudi. And that became another interesting nine months…eight months.

Zarbock: Did you as a rabbi experience any hostility? Or, what hostility as a rabbi did you experience?

Romer: Actually, nothing in Panama, of course, which is a culturally Catholic country and sensitive to religion. The biggest problem I had was actually…before I got there, not from the military side, but the State Department side which did, at times, question whether or not they should send Jews. And, I understand that question, but from the military standpoint, my commanding general was Barry McCaffrey, who then became the…the term I think…drug czar for during President Clinton’s time. But, Gordon Sullivan who is…General Gordon Sullivan who was the Vice Chief of Staff at the time, visited and he says “Anything wrong with you?”. “No.” “Get on the plane.” That was it. And so I never experienced anything.

Zarbock: Let me probe here, at any time did anybody do any tabulation of need before you were assigned to Panama or Saudi Arabia, or any place else? Did anybody say, “look there are fifty-two, there are a hundred and three, there are seven hundred…”?

Romer: I think the Corp, the 18th Airborne Corps has a pretty good idea of each…all chaplains are supposed to have done a count, and the point is it…there always aren’t enough…you should be providing a rabbi or a priest, or an orthodox priest, or someone for the Latter Day Saints, or someone for the Christian Science…you should be providing. Because the overall Roman Catholic and Protestant side, you’ve always got at least someone there to take care of you. It’s the onsies twosies that get missed. And so, the approach has been, you gotta provide services for those who are there.

Zarbock: Give respect of the denomination or…

Romer: Well, if you’ve got…well Protestants can go to other Protestant services. Jews can’t go to a Protestant or Catholic service and it is inherently unreasonable and I think a violation of, from my prospective, of what the chaplaincy…what the military tends to do in providing for spiritual needs to simply say “Do it on your own”. I mean, there are never enough rabbis. I was the only one in Panama and some guys never got to see me. And I was the only one in Saudi Arabia for the first, well from the end of August until mid December. I was the only Jewish chaplain on the ground.

Zarbock: What did you do? What task activity?

Romer: Well, I had two full time jobs. My first full time job and the reason I went, wasn’t because I was a rabbi…Panama, I went because I was a rabbi…Saudi Arabia, I went because I was the 724 Support Battalion chaplain. And they deployed the entire division and I was one of the division’s chaplains and I had nine hundred men and women to take care of. That was my full time job. And that grew to fifteen hundred while we were in the desert. And that was my first full time job. My second full time job was the 18th Airborne Corps Jewish chaplain. So I was going all around to all the different units. I picked up by helicopter and went all around. Or, for the High Holy Days, I was in several locations…they brought everybody in to me…until late December, when finally the other…the Navy finally brought in a couple from the Marines and the Army brought in a couple more.

Zarbock: A couple more what?

Romer: Rabbis. So we finally had five, I think, rabbis on the ground by the time the war was over and a couple on the ships.

Zarbock: Did you get together?

* ROMER: We got together at Passover time…and…we were on the love boat as they called it…there was the rest and relaxation ship in Bahrain, and so we held the Seder without about three to four hundred Jews from across theater on that boat. It was fun! And the rabbis got together…it was the first time we were really…because it was a big theater…we were spread out all over the place…never saw each other during the…until after the war. And I was the only one that went all the way to almost Basra. Not because I was Jewish but because my unit went, 24th Infantry was what they called that “tip of the spear”. And we went up and that’s where I was. And so we lived Purim, Purim which is a holiday of defeating the bad guys…reading from the Book of Esther, that was the day that we defeated…that the Republican Guard was finally defeated on Highway Eight and the war mostly came to an end. And so it was kind of living the bible.

Zarbock: How close were you to the actual boom boom bang bang?

Romer: We were just behind the front lines. Less than a few hours. We came up on burning vehicles and combat dead. Right behind them. I wasn’t in the midst of firing. A chaplain who does not carry a weapon doesn’t need to be in the midst of a fire fight. I’m not of any help. I’m actually a lag…I’m a drag on them. So, we…and then mine was a support unit which follows on anyway. So we were right behind it. My unit collected the Iraqi war dead.

Zarbock: And did what?

Romer: Buried them in a ceremony. Of course the rabbi is the one doing the emergency administrations…some kind of…I mean I was the rabbi, I was the chaplain at the moment, so we did special prayers. All of us carry a little booklet that has a series of prayers for Jews, Muslims, Christians, and so if you’re the only chaplain there, you take care of them. And so I was the one there for Iraqi war dead. We did it with honor as you should. But that wasn’t because I was a rabbi, it was because I was the unit’s chaplain. Jewishly I did services three times…on Friday…on Friday night I was in one location, Saturday morning I was in the second location, and by Saturday afternoon I was in the third location. And once a month they picked me up and I went round robin between the Marines and the other Army units and the Coast Guard and the Navy that was on the ground and the Air Force. So, it was busy. That was my second full time job, was covering all the Jewish. One of the most fascinating parts, was, of course, any Jewish soldier…I got all…any Jewish soldier mail. Which was pretty good, I got cookies, and cake, and real toilet paper. And my unit learned very quickly I was getting all this so there’s knock on the tent flap, “you got any toilet paper”?

Zarbock: Explain that.

Romer: Army toilet paper leaves something to be desired. It’s kind of one ply-ish and people were sending care packages over from the states and I was getting them because I as the only address they knew to send it to. I had far to much for the Jew…maybe there were two thousand Jews in the whole theater by the end of the war. More than anybody would have thought. So, I had all the goodies. After I passed it out to everybody I could Jewishly, you just passed it out to everybody. You just took care of people. I had the toilet paper though…that was a very important commodity. I think my dad would talk about that in World War II, likewise, toilet paper was very important. Basic needs are critical.

Zarbock: And speaking of basic needs…how about sleeping? What did arrangements did you have? It’s now night-night time, what happened to Rabbi Romer?

Romer: I’ve got a standard Army cot, standard Army sleeping bag which you don’t need in the desert until the winter time when it gets quite cool. You’re just sleeping in a tent with kind of a tarp on the floor so you keep the scorpions and whatever else is crawling around out of your tent. That’s about it. We had electric power into the tents so I could read or write at night. Some light discipline of course, once combat started. Once the air war started, but…

Zarbock: Who put up the tent?

Romer: The chaplain assistant and I did.

Zarbock: You now have a chaplain’s assistant.

Romer: When I deployed to Saudi Arabia with the whole unit I had a chaplain’s assistant. I had a female chaplain assistant, so…you know, sleeping arrangements…if you have a male chaplain assistant, you stay together, not with a female so we had to…and my unit was about thirty percent female…so you end up with sleeping arrangements that have women and men in different…which you have to do for long deployments. And that worked. She was a great chaplain assistant. She had been a supply sergeant before she switched to being a chaplain assistant, so I always had everything.

Zarbock: What denomination was she?

Romer: She was a…it was a…some kind of a Protestant black church. I had a black female chaplain assistant and we were a great team…just a wonderful team. Because she took care of both sides…I mean, I knew what was going on everywhere and gave her complete power in knowing and searching out what was going on. But for supplies…as long as I never asked her where it came from, I had it. I could say, “Hey I need this”, I had it. It was wonderful. But she was incredible. She could also hit anything that moved in the light or dark. She was an expert marksman. So when we traveled, I traveled on a regular basis, we had over one hundred kilometers distance to travel where my units were and were just driving out there in the desert and across the highways. I drove, she literally rode shotgun. We never were fired at, even when we went in to Iraq, but that’s how it worked. It was a unit ministry team at it’s best.

Zarbock: Okay, so we covered sleeping…ah…recreation.

Romer: Recreation. Well, being in a supply unit…and we were huge…we basically were a city. I mean, there were places to jog, we set up some soccer fields, basketball, I mean, we had a little bit…we had makeshift stuff that you could do. In some places they could set up…the bigger places, if you got back, had gyms. Now Bosnia was a lot easier, when I went there later, because they had gyms. I mean, you have regular places to work out. But Saudi Arabia was a little harder, you had to do it on your own.

Zarbock: Movies, anything?

Romer: Movies? We had some. But then as we got closer to the war, that shut down and we moved back and moved out…the movies were…we got a hold of a TV and VCR, and we got some movies in, some cassette tapes in. And, of course, the problem is that the TV is 110 and the…most of the generators are 220. You have to be able to switch it over, and so, my executive officer says, “I’ll take care of it”. So he says “its ready now”…so we plug it in and the VCR is smoking. They had not switched it from 220 to 110…so we melted the VCR. It was funny. We got a new one, but that’s how we did it. We just had…in a big tent that was supply on one side, we put a tarp…we put a wall across, you know, and we showed movies. And people rotated in and out twenty-four hours for movies. You did what you could.

Zarbock: Food.

Romer: Boy I like the Marines. Whenever I was with the Marines, I had real food. The Army was on…meals-ready-to-eat for months, or what they called T rations, tray rations that is prepared and you just heat them up and then you serve them. But I was still eating T rations, that is, not quite fresh…not fresh food…but when I went to the Marines…eggs to order!

Zarbock: Hummmm

* ROMER: That’s a sore point at times, the Army still has to learn that you feed your people…you take care of your people…better…I think they’re better today. And those meals-ready-to-eat, the problem with those are, if you…each of them has well over two thousand calories. Don’t eat three a day, you’ll gain weight. It’s really…one meal a day could be consumed in that…and the new kosher ones, which weren’t available in the desert…

Zarbock: Were not available?

Romer: No, they weren’t available yet.

Zarbock: Why?

Romer: They were in process. It was a hard time getting them through. When they finally got through NADIC labs, now they’re available. Those are great. I mean, they’re better than the regular ones to be honest, they cost a little more.

Zarbock: What would a menu be on a kosher…?

Romer: Well, you’ve got a range. You’ve got vegetarian, you’ve got beef and chicken. And then there’s supplement packs, so, I mean, it’s pretty good, it’s still not real food, but they’re pretty good. Actually most of the meals-ready-to-eat now are far improved from what they were fifteen years ago. So, if you have to eat them, they’re a lot better than they used to be.

Zarbock: Two thousand calories per meal, though.

Romer: At least. A minimum. That’s if you eat everything. The idea is that you’re out there burning calories and maybe the only meal you have…buttoned up inside a tank or something…there you go.

Zarbock: And you ate them hot, cold, or what?

Romer: It’s obvious you could throw them outside and they would get hot. I mean one hundred twenty degrees in the shade! You put them in the sun, you’re going to heat your meal. You could eat it either way and they come with little heaters so you could heat them up. The new ones have great little heating units.

Zarbock: That thermal insult, a hundred and twenty degrees, isn’t that…what sort of morale factor does that produce?

Romer: Well, you know it’s dry heat so it’s not as much of a problem as the wet heat here. You just have to teach people to drink water, and after a while, between twelve and four, you wouldn’t necessarily do a lot. You could only do certain things in the day. We had people dropping left and right from dehydration initially. The desert is completely different from here. You know you’re sweating in Wilmington, you’re soaked. I just did annual training with the guard at Fort Gordon in Augusta Georgia. Same way, you know you’re sweating. But if you’re in the National Training Center in the upper Mohave in California, that’s good training because it wicks away. You don’t know how much water you’ve lost. And so people would literally not drink enough water…we were force feeding water as it were. Water was more important that food. In fact, during the High Holy Days, on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, it was still well into the hundreds, and I told the people you must drink water, because it’s a fasting. You don’t have to eat food, but you had to drink water. I wasn’t going to have people passing out on me from the lack of water. I said “You’ve gotta drink water”. So, people were literally, I mean, that was one of the most important part of being a First Sergeant or Second Sergeant, get your people to drink water.

Zarbock: What about alcoholic beverages? Were they available?

Romer: Only if you were Jewish and it was the Sabbath. We had a little bit of wine for the blessing over the wine for the Kiddish. No…I mean, cause we were in Saudi Arabia, which in public has no liquor available. But if you go to any deployment now in the United States Military, strong restrictions on alcohol or no alcohol at all. My deployments to Bosnia…the same way, there’s no alcohol, I mean the best you would find is O’Doul’s which is a nonalcoholic…well it’s a hops and barley brew, but it’s not alcoholic. And so, Saudi was easy because you’re not going to have it available in public. So, and there wasn’t any. And of course, one of the biggest problems is, when you deploy, you’ve got more a problem with the Guard and you saw this with Reserve units that came in…the seventy-two hour affect.

Zarbock: What is the seventy-two hour affect?

Romer: Well, you go into the shakes…your alcoholics. It takes seventy-two hours for the alcohol to get out of your system and the dependency on it…it most cases. So about three days after, if they hadn’t been…that’s when you know. And then they get through it and you move on.

Zarbock: Drugs.

Romer: I’m sure they were there, but I didn’t seen any. I wasn’t aware…and I had a medical unit. We didn’t have hardly anybody coming in on drugs.

Zarbock: Where they available from the civilian population…if you saw civilian population?

Romer: We didn’t have much contact with civilian population in Saudi Arabia. I had more…most units stayed within. Because I was on the road Jewishly and I had units all over, we could stop off in towns and buy something to eat…the best food we got was from the Indian Pakistani restaurants along the way. So we would stop and buy and talk to them, but most never got out…very little contact with the Saudi population.

Zarbock: What currency did you use?

Romer: Dollars worked very well. It’s an international currency and they knew we were there, so they would take the dollars. I mean they were there because…we were there and they knew we were there to help them. So, anyway, me being Jewish in Saudi Arabia…well they didn’t know I was Jewish, I was just an American Soldier. And I was with a woman, and we had our sleeves…all this stuff they taught you, you get out there with the people, and they just were people. Who cared? And they knew what we were there for. And they helped us and we helped them. It was really quite pleasant. My truck broke down. It was a Chevrolet, GMC, they couldn’t get the part, so we went out to the GMC dealer in the town near us, and they fixed it. Of course I’ve got one shiny four wheel drive…so here I have a front wheel drive because we had to lock our four wheel drive into place. One shiny one, and one military dark colored one. And that’s how we drove the rest of the time, but they fixed it because it was a GMC vehicle.

Zarbock: The international nature of goods and services, huh?

Romer: Right.

Zarbock: Well, that’s interesting. When you would travel, did you purposely travel in a sense incognito so that the fact that you were a Jewish rabbi was not emphasized…or was it just…?

Romer: Well, when we first came in we were asked to take our insignia off because they weren’t sure how the Saudis would react to it. So I just had rank on rather than the tablets. And the Christian chaplains didn’t have their crosses on. But after a while, General McCaffrey being General McCaffrey said “Put them back on”. And so I drove around theater and into Iraq with my tablets on. It was never an issue. I don’t think…if I would look at a Saudi uniform, or a French uniform, or a British uniform, I was able to start figuring out rank, but it really couldn’t figure out what all the insignia meant. I was American, that’s all they saw.

Zarbock: Yea. Well, we’ve covered the basics. Food, beverage, recreation, sleeping arrangements. How about communication? Getting the news back home, getting the news from home.

Romer: Initially it wasn’t real easy, there were very few phones, and it was mostly through letters. So it was that two week turn-around. You send it home, letter comes back, you’re writing, there’s letters crossing in the mail. When we finally got phones, I was able to get to a phone because I was at the Air Force Hospital because I had to go back to visit for the division. We were the closest unit to the hospital. And then, I was talking to my wife…and you’re talking about communication…there was a huge problem at Fort Stewart and they had to a have a community meeting because one of the husbands had called home…and this is what happens when you don’t hear things real clearly on the phone…and he said…this is what he said, “We’re staying in warehouses”, what she heard was “We’re staying in whore houses”. Yea, so big communicating back a Fort Stewart. My wife said it was real! Yea, okay, we really were staying in warehouses, but anyway, it made for a good story back at in desert when we found that story out. It was a good laugh. Communication became easier as the theater became, as I like to say, more mature and AT&T brought in phones and we were able to call home within some…on some regularity. Today, it’s much easier than it was then, because they can deploy the phones much faster. But back then, they were learning.

Zarbock: Again, for the sake of history. Did you have to pay for the telephone calls?

Romer: No the phones were free. X amount of time, phones were free.

Zarbock: You mean X amount of time for the individual telephone call?

Romer: Yea, they’d only give you about five minutes or ten minutes if you were on a call that long. I mean, nowadays, depending where you are…when I first went to Bosnia and the German units were…the units that were stationed in Germany were serving…we had cell phone communication back to Germany. And so if you had cell phone communication, I could call back to the states and talk to my wife from Bosnia. But cell phones weren’t real big then. Traveling in Saudi Arabia, there are only a few global positioning units. Now everybody has one. But back then you only had a couple per unit, so, and let me tell you, those sand dunes all look the same…it was real easy to get lost in Saudi Arabia, unless you identified certain landmarks. The difference in what we can do today for our soldiers and what we could do then is just dramatic and wonderful.

Zarbock: Bosnia followed your experience in Saudi Arabia?

Romer: Yes.

Zarbock: Or preceeded?

Romer: Followed it. I was in Saudi Arabia, came back. After being in Saudi Arabia I went to the United States Military Academy…excuse me, I went to Germany for four years and then came back to the United States Military Academy, and then went over to Germany again. And my last tour, from 1998 to 2000, once a month I went to Bosnia.

Zarbock: Where were you in Germany?

Romer: I was stationed the first time from 1991 to 1995 in Heidelberg Germany, southwest corner of the country. Just a beautiful little city, university town. Where The Student Prince takes place, the American Opera or Operetta. In fact, the Germans perform it once a year at the Heidelberg Castle. So if you want to see it done for real, you go to Heidelberg.

Zarbock: What was the situation there in Germany, and you a rabbi? Any events take place that you remember?

Romer: Well, we had some Holocaust remembrance events. One of the most important ones for me was just after I arrived in ’91, in the summer following ’91, we had the first group that went to Buchenwald, which had been recently opened and we took a retired Army chaplain, Jewish, who had helped liberate Buchenwald and never been back since 1945.

Zarbock: Okay, for the purpose of history, what are you talking about?

Romer: Buchenwald was a…originally a forced labor camp, but also a death camp by the Nazis in Germany just outside of Weimar which was in former East Germany, now part of…after Germany reunited, after the wall fell, and so this was the first chance for Americans to really to go Buchenwald. It had a gas chamber. And medical labs. Scariest thing I’d ever been to. I’m not a believer on ghosts or spirits, but I’ll tell you the hair stood up on the back of my neck. And if I felt any sense of the souls of the people who had suffered it was when I was in the medical lab in Buchenwald. But we took the rabbi who had been there, and as we’re driving, he’s talking about the way that the camp looked and what was there and he hasn’t been there since 1945, so it’s forty-six years since he’s been there…forty-seven years…it’s exactly as he said. Talk about imprinting the power of the moment on your mind. And we were there and we did the first memorial service that had been done at the camp.

Zarbock: Who were the attendees?

Romer: We had American military. Jewish American military and some just American military. We had some chaplains and some of their people who came and some German Jews who came. And so it was a very moving service and then we went back the next year as well. I’ll have to admit, the first time I saw the German boxcars which looked very much like they did in World War II, it was kind of a scary feel. But the Germans today, for instance, while we were there, there were problems in former East Germany and one of the Jewish temples had been burned, but the whole town turned out to support it. And ten thousand Germans protested against the Neonazis. And that never gets reported back here. But it’s…much has changed in Germany. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in that sense. One of the most moving experiences was, in a little town called Urspringen, outside of Wurzburg, which is in upper Bavaria…

Zarbock: How do you spell the town?

Romer: U-r-s-p-r-i-n-g-e-n. Urspringen…little town. I mean, it’s one of those towns that the sign says “welcome to” on the front and the back of the sign says “thank you for visiting”, it’s that small. It’s a little farm town, gorgeous place, rolling hills, had been a Jewish community there. They didn’t destroy the synagogue in World War II, they had destroyed the inside of it, but they had kept the building. The town, with no Jews left, had restored the synagogue. A labor of love by the city. And they invited us to come and rededicate the synagogue. And so there we were with German military, the German town and it’s town council, local and regional officials, like the Governor came, and a large group of American military, two Jewish chaplains, and then civilians and military from America, all came and we did a dedicatory service. It was really extremely moving. And then later on we did a bar mitzvah there, and a High Holy Day service. So it was very, very interesting.

Zarbock: But there were no Jews.

Romer: No Jews in the town, there’s still no Jews left in the town.

Zarbock: So you had to import somebody for the bar mitzvah.

Romer: Bring ‘em in. Yea, it was…well it was the son of a German who was in the German military. Very few German Jews serve in the German military, but this one did…this guy did.

Zarbock: As opposed to World War I when there were many Jews.

Romer: Jews served in the Axis as well as the Allied Powers…exactly. Came away with the…with German medals. That’s what was so jolting when the Nazis came to power was these were Germans who had served with honor in World War I. Sure.

Zarbock: Any anti-Semitic experiences in Germany at the time that you were there…you said…

Romer: There was some in former East Germany and that was as much a problem that the country…the vast disparity in pay and jobs between East and West. And so the Jews were a convenient target, as were the Turks, as were Bosnian refugees, as were anybody who was other than German. They reacted not much differently than we do. We think about who works and you want to restrict illegal immigrants from taking the jobs, and you react…people react, not dissimilarly here, compared to what they did there. And as the jobs become better, you don’t see it.

* INTERVIEWER: What was the East when the wall came down? Did you notice any…what did you notice about the attitude of East Germans who had been sequestered behind the wall…vis a vis the Americans?

Romer: I think they were happy to have us there. I mean, first of all…

Zarbock: And bring money.

Romer: Yea, and better jobs, and better American goods, a lot more traffic than you had, I think…before I left Germany in ’95 I rode the U-Bahn, that’s the underground which goes above and below ground. It’s their transit system in Berlin and it was completed…they had reconnected between former…East Berlin and West Berlin…they had con…it was working. I said “I gotta ride it”. So I rode it once and did the full circle, just cause I could! And East Germans…the wall truly opened the world to them. But the problem was, they were like distant cousins…you had forty years…it was like a foreign nation…a third world country trying to merge into a first world country. And that was a big challenge. I left in ’95 and came back in ’98 again, it was like the former West Germans were going “we shoulda left the wall up”. The difference was so dramatic in lifestyle, and socioeconomic level, and education, and expectations. It’ll all work out.

Zarbock: What had happened? Had the East Germans became more oriented towards the Slavic culture?

Romer: I just think a lack of money, a lack of jobs, a lack of all the goods. I mean, they were a third world country. I mean everybody was equally poor.

Zarbock: No discrimination.

* ROMER: No discrimination, you’re all poor. And a heavy hand of a government forces you to do certain things you can’t not…and so it was like a time warp. And so that was the difficulty. They adjusted quickly, as money poured in. Billions and billions of marks into the former I used to see…had to fixed the infrastructure and everything else. Of course the reenterfication of Berlin was very important for Germany because what was East Berlin was actually the center of town.

Zarbock: So you left Germany and went…

Romer: Went to the United States Military Academy as a Jewish cadet chaplain.

Zarbock: How many other chaplains were there?

Romer: There was a Protestant cadet chaplain and a Catholic cadet chaplain…military. And then there were two post chaplains, that is, they weren’t assigned to the academy, there were assigned to West Point. And then there were two civilian chaplains.

Zarbock: What was the difference in role between the military chaplains and the civilian chaplains at West Point?

Romer: A role on the academy side was pretty much the same. The reason there was a senior chaplain…the senior chaplain was civilian was because a hundred years before the Superintendent of the Academy had a contest with the senior military chaplain and senior military chaplain was still junior in rank to a general and so he said “I don’t need one.” And so he went with the civilian. Now there’s a military chaplain that’s a senior one again.

Zarbock: So it’s a function that’s tradition in history?

Romer: In West Point it’s very important…I mean history and tradition is very important. Our role was…I was not just the Jewish cadet chaplain…we had a beautiful, I mean, wonderful chapel, an incredible structure, seven and a half million dollar building…but I was also chaplain to one thousand cadets. I was a regimental chaplain. So again, we operate as generic chaplains. We take care of those students just as if they were soldiers. So you’re there for them. You’re a role model, you’re military, you’re an officer, and you’re there for all their problems as college kids.

Zarbock: And your rank is now…?

Romer: I got promoted to major. I’m still a major. But that’s just the nature of where things are. And so, you know, while I was there I promoted to major.

Zarbock: What was the nature of the problems that were presented to you?

Romer: Actually the situation with cadets is not much different than if I were on campus anywhere. Although they are a self select group, they are kids going through that process of moving away from home…of course the added point is that you’ve got a very structured environment, a very demanding academic program. I mean, West Point can compete with any Ivy League school. You’ll hear grumbles from the old guard from West Point…”Yea, well when I was a young…”, it’s always that way. But they never had the academic challenges that these cadets have.

Zarbock: Excuse me, let me borrow your pen for just a minute. Okay…

Romer: There are probably about a hundred Jewish cadets at any time that are there, of whom about twenty identify that they are Jewish.

Zarbock: A hundred out of …?

Romer: Four thousand. It’s about…yea, there’s a Jewish cadet chaplain. That’s how sensitive the military is to providing for the needs.

Zarbock: Where you living on base?

Romer: I lived on Post.

Zarbock: On Post.

Romer: In a…well, let’s say, housing on post is close. It’s four bedrooms, but there’s not a lot of space in those four bedrooms. But it was walking distance to the chapel, so if there were an Orthodox chaplain, he could…I wasn’t Orthodox, but if you were Orthodox, he would walk without a problem. That was one of the important things…and the Academy was very sensitive to meeting those needs.

Zarbock: What about the sort of fringe…I know this is marginal to being a rabbi, but what about such numerically fringe groups like Christian Science or you can probably think of a few others?

Romer: Well, there’s any number…there’s Latter Day Saints, Mormons, there’s Christian Science, there’s Buddhists. I was also the chaplain in charge of the Buddhists. Yea, I helped them, I made the arrangements at the Academy to bring in the Zen Buddhist priest from Korea, I helped work with the Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox until someone else took it over. Muslim, I brought in the Muslim chaplain to West Point when he was a chaplain candidate, so they could do services for them, and they could learn. One of the…for me, a major role of the chaplain in the generic sense was taking care of those small groups…is making sure they have someone take care of them.

Zarbock: By providing…

Romer: Either performing or providing. I can’t perform but I can provide, either find the literature, find the chaplain, find the lay leader, somebody who can take care of them. That’s where I think bread and butter in the chaplaincy is truly earned, that’s where you earn your dollar.

Zarbock: Was that one of your high points of your military career?

Romer: Yes! Yes. I think several levels of…that I think…West Point, but actually creating a role in a deployment, figuring out how to deploy in taking care of both everybody and Jewish soldiers at the same time. And then making sure all your onsies-twosies are taken care of. Those are the times. Bosnia, in many ways, I mean, when I was in Germany the second time from 1998 to 2000 I was there alone. My wife had a full time position at West Point and so she stayed. And our daughter was going into her senior year at high school. I said “leave her in school”. I’ve counseled too many people who took their kids out of school and moved them again, so… I was there and I was the only active duty Army chaplain in all of Europe during those two years. I mean there was an Air Force chaplain and there was a Navy chaplain stationed down in Sicily, but Bosnia was going on. It wasn’t a combat phase in Bosnia, it was more of a…it was already into the what’s going on now, it was a little rougher then, but even then it had improved compared to the guys who were there initially. And so what happened was, I had to arrange…once a month I was in Stuttgart Germany in the south, once a month I was in Wurzburg, once a month I was in Howland, once a quarter I had to go to Italy. It was a rough nasty job, but somebody had to go over the mountains of Switzerland and get into Italy near Venice and do services. But the unit I was assigned to also had soldiers in all those units, so it was a signal unit, so I had to take care of those people as well. So I was all over. I mean I wasn’t home but one weekend a month. And then the command decided that I should go for the High Holy Days to Bosnia and do services there. Cause they had no Jewish chaplain assigned. There was no reason to have one there all the time. So I went and did the High Holy Days and then they decided, well, maybe you should go occasionally. And occasionally became once a month. So, once a month, I’d fly either out of Heidelberg or out or Ramstein Air Base and went to Bosnia for a weekend or longer.

Zarbock: What was that experience like?

Romer: Well, when it was at three A.M. to get up it wasn’t a lot of fun. You’d go to…most of the time I would get to Ramstein, you’d wait for the time, sit in the back of a C-130, drone your way over for two and a half hours to Tusla, get off the plane, shake the having been up all…you know…all the flight out, and then make the arrangements to find everybody to come to services. You did services Friday night, you did some things on Saturday…

Zarbock: That’s a quick phrase, but that’s a lot of work. The quick phrase was, you know, find people. How did you go about that?

Romer: There were several of us. When it was still United States Army and Europe Commands responsibility, it was a lot easier because I was in Europe and I could check with all the chaplains there before I went. When it switched to state side units, to central command, and then we had National Guard Units and Reserve Units coming in, it got to be much more of a challenge. And I had to make arrangements with the senior chaplain on the ground in Bosnia, so I would be e-mailing, or phoning, or when I got there, I said, “here’s what I need”. And they had to help find the Jewish soldiers. Or I would phone back or e-mail back to the states if I knew units were leaving from Fort Hood or Fort Bragg…or…who you got Jewish that’s coming over?” Literally, you just had to pound the pavement and then if you…you found units, and you found Jews, you said “do you have anybody else?” and you did it that way, word of mouth. And I did services in Tusla and sometimes at some of the other units and then made contact with the local Jewish community on occasion.

Zarbock: In that experience, I’m going to carve out the time from…first time you were in Germany through the time that you were in Bosnia. During that time…

Romer: Well I was in Germany from ’91 to ’95 and I didn’t go over there at that time. I was at West Point from ’95 to ’98 and then March of ’98 I went back to Germany and by April/May I was already going to Bosnia.

Zarbock: Okay, now I’m going to shift, shift it around. Anytime in Germany, anytime that you were stationed there, were there any funerals or were there any weddings?

Romer: Had no weddings, because in Germany, you can’t…military chaplains can’t operate like they can here as ministers. If you get married in Germany, you’ve got to get married by the Germans. So you could do…I guess you could do a religious ceremony, but we had none. But in Germany, it doesn’t matter if you’re two Americans, you gotta go down to the City Hall and get married.

Zarbock: So it’s a civil ceremony.

Romer: Yep, I mean, you could come back and get a religious ceremony if you want, but we had no Jewish ones. Had an interesting funeral. There was a rabbi who died in the states who had been in Germany until thirty-eight, who was buried in Germany. He had been the last rabbi in Landau Germany which is about a forty-five minute drive from Heidelberg. Actually we have a connection here…we have a chandelier from Landau Germany in the temple here. But he had been coming back to Landau doing Jewish-Christian relations for the last twenty years before he died and so the funeral was in Landau. And he wife called me because she wanted a reformed rabbi, not a military rabbi, a reformed rabbi. So, I’m there and they’re doing it in German, in English, in Hebrew and Yiddish. And the whole town council shows up and the town shows up for this. It was really fascinating to look a the cemetery because you have his grave which was 1996, something like that…1994. But, you look in the grave…in the cemetery in the Jewish section, it stops in 1938-39 and then you had a new one. It was fascinating. But there were no American funerals for military that were there during that time. Just that one. And then I participated in a couple of German…German Jews in the town of Heidelberg died and just went to be part of the process.

Zarbock: What about at West Point? Any funerals or any weddings?

Romer: No…we had a couple of funerals which are military style in the…at the cemetery at West Point. So it’s a combined military funeral/Jewish funeral in uniform. And then we had several weddings as well. And to be married in the Jewish chapel you have to be a graduate of West Point. So, you would get them in where they did come back. The best one though, was a cadet who had just graduated and they’re getting married and the chapel…the pulpit is built on a series of steps, so there’s no real flat ground and they had sixteen bridesmaids and bridesgrooms in this…and they had these big hoop skirts and we’re trying to squeeze them in the stairs and aaahhh. And then, of course, everybody’s in uniform and dressed to the nines and then they wanted to the crossed swords which you can’t do inside because don’t let the weapons inside, you do it outside but aaahhh. But it was great, the wedding was fun.

Zarbock: Where was the reception? I’ve gotta ask.

Romer: Reception was at the…I think it was at the Thayer, The Hotel Thayer, which was the fancy hotel at West Point.

Zarbock: And equally…

Romer: Oh, it was out there. It was wonderful! And then about, when I was in Bosnia, I saw the soldier. I knew he had been assigned, and he found me. He was now a lieutenant, he was almost a captain, and he was assigned over there. So we got a chance to talk after that, you know, he’s one world to another.

Zarbock: How about funerals and weddings in Bosnia?

Romer: None. None. Actually none. We just had holiday services and Hanukkah and things like that.

Zarbock: Okay. You know, one of the things I like to probe a little bit is proudest moment. Looking back on your military career, if you were to identify one or, well, I’ll compromise and say, maybe two, events of which you’re the most proud.

Romer: I think…

Zarbock: Contributions.

Romer: A couple of contributions, one is, being able to provide Jewish coverage in deployments and figure out how to take care of Jewish soldiers both in Saudi Arabia, and in Bosnia. Figuring out how to do that and providing model that can work for everybody. And still be a chaplain for everybody, be able to do both roles. And on a side issue, I know I had an important role down the line, there were lots of us that were involved and I know at the final point, in getting kosher meals. A small piece of the puzzle, I know I had a role in, towards the end, making sure we had the kosher…full kosher meals…the meals-ready-to-eat, and camouflage yamulkas, the head coverings…in camouflage that the military now provides. The unit still has to buy it, but rather than have to have somebody’s mom do it, it’s now in the system, cause I…you know, I spent five years working on…”you’ve got the material, why don’t you just make ‘em”. “Yea, we could do that”. And they do. So even though I had gone off active duty, about two years afterwards, there it was, in the system, you could order it like anything else you wanted to order through the military system. And that…those are things I think are important, providing Jewish coverage, Jewish services for those who deploy, those who are in combat and the general. And being able to prove that you could be a Jewish chaplain and a chaplain for everybody. That you just don’t get cornered anymore than a priest should be cornered into being just a Catholic priest…that we can take care of everybody.

Zarbock: Another question I’ve asked all other chaplains: as follows. At any time in your military career, were you ever ordered, or was it hinted, or was it suggested, irrespective of how elliptical the suggestion may be that you do something that which emotionally you felt a little squeamish about, or didn’t want to do?

Romer: No, I can’t say. There were times that the Commander and I might say, “we gotta talk about something,” but there was never any time where I would perceive an illegal order or something that was unethical or immoral. I have to say the leadership that I worked with throughout the years has been top notch. They need a little teaching sometimes, in a religious orientation and sensitivity, but no I haven’t. I’m reasonably sure in talking with colleagues that some of them have had situations that have been beyond uncomfortable, but I did not experience them.

Zarbock: Funny, the only situation in all of the chaplains whom I’ve interviewed, there was only one and it had to do with the wife of the Commanding General, it happened to be Air Force base, who got into a fray with the chaplain and said “I’m going to see to this” and the general called the chaplain later and said, “Chaplain, she was off-base, and out of bounds, and this situation is resolved any way you want it to be resolved”. And that’s the only time I’ve ever heard…

Romer: I think while I’ll have disagreements with command at times, it’s professional, it’s the issue, it’s not…seldom have I seen the personalities get in the way. I’ve seen spouses get in the way, yes, not directly related with me, but not the soldier, the officer, or the enlisted. Once you…and I think for any of us as chaplains, once you prove you…you care about them, they care about you.

Zarbock: How many years in the service?

Romer: Twenty years.

Zarbock: What have you observed…the changes in the officer corps and the changes in the enlisted?

Romer: Well, you gotta be a lot smarter…a lot more technically smart today, than you did twenty years ago. There is so much technology that any soldier has to know. Officers are far more technically proficient than they…all of us…your normal grunt has to be. You can’t just be a guy walk in off the streets or a young girl…young woman walk in off the streets. You gotta have some smarts to really function well in the military today. I mean, I’m a National Guard chaplain now and the biggest change I’ve seen is, when I came in twenty years ago, I was quite often the outsider. I was the new kid on the block and most of the National Guard units were very much community units. But the change in the way the Guard is and the kinds that the Guard deploys all over the place now which was not in submission originally, certainly not when I came in…none of these kinds, I mean, forty percent of those in Iraq are National Guard Reserve Units. But, when you see who serves in the National Guard units now, they’re from all over the place, coming two-three hours away, even enlisted, to where they’re assigned. That’s commitment and that’s a big change that I’ve seen in what the Guard is like.

Zarbock: Rabbi would you do it again?

Romer: Yes I would. I have no regrets. In fact, I have enjoyed almost every minute of it. Everything’s not perfect, nor have I been, but it’s been great.

Zarbock: Thank you for your time.

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