Robert Farkas

30th Anniversary of Operation Desert Storm:
American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War

LTC Robert N. Farkas, USAR Ret. Family Assistance Officer, 369th Trans Bn, NY ARNG

Several weeks after my retirement, Iraq invaded Kuwait and I wanted to know what I could do to help. When a land war seemed imminent, I put myself on a retired volunteer list. My wife had recently spoken to a retired general who said he would even mop floors if he could only get involved. Surely there was something I could do, having been retired by mandatory age limit, a total discrimination in itself. I was physically fit, certainly there had to be a job for me.

LTC’s Bob Farkas and Brad Burnside waiting for arriving troops at McGuire AFB

The ground war came and went quickly; however, it appeared that our units would still be there for some time. I got a call from LTC Bradley Burnside, whom I had served under 10 years before. He told me of the formation of a group of Family Assistance Centers by FORSCOM (U.S. Army Forces Command), and I was asked to participate. I never realized at the time how sometimes frustrating, but always joyfully re­warding, this assignment would be.

Staffed entirely by retired Guard and Reserve officers and assisted by mostly senior NCOs, the Family Assistance Program was established under a Forces Command mobilization and deployment standard long in advance of the Gulf War. The active army had always organized family support groups on posts where the spouses, children and other family members could meet and engage in mutual encouragement and peer counseling. Since the reserve components had hardly been mobilized since Korea, the family support program was never really officially implemented.

In late March 1991, months after most National Guard units from New York were deployed, I was assigned to the New York Area Command at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. My orders further directed me to report to Headquarters Troop Command in the armory on Fourteenth Street.

My mission was to be Family Assistance Coordinator for the 369th Transportation Battalion, a unit whose members are predominantly from the black communities of New York City. The unit it has a proud heritage going back to Korea, World War II and World War I where they earned the designation “Hell Fighters of Harlem.” I was later to spend many personal breaks walking the Corridor of Black History in this fine old armory, looking up at GEN Benjamin O. Davis. Sr.; CPT Bert Williams, a Ziegfeld star who fought with his men in France alongside the Senegalese in a segregated U.S. Army; and other former members of the 369th. One of the photos on the wall depicts a young coastal artillery soldier named Robert Pegues, who is now a retired sergeant major and custodian of the armory. SGM Pegues and I were to spend much time together as he made me feel at home and was something of a mentor to a fellow retiree like me.

Mayor David Dinkins visiting troops Harlem Armory

I walked into that armory with no training in Family Assistance except for my feeling for the soldier and those left behind. With me that gray spring day was my assistant, MSG Al Vanger, a retired MP and food service instructor who was soon to retire from his civilian job as a New York City police officer and one-time renowned detective. We walked into a situation that was not unknown elsewhere where soldiers left wives, husbands, parents, and children without really being prepared for the quick separation.

The 369th had an extensive network of family support volunteers who hardly knew each other previously, had little knowledge of Army methods and were pressed with deep concern for their wives, husbands, and children.

The entire battalion was a credit to the United States Army and the community from which they were activated. Their reputation in the Persian Gulf was one of a bunch of great soldiers who did their job in a superior manner. In addition to the millions of miles they drove, their trucks carried millions of tons of supplies and equipment to the front. The troops of the 369th were very much admired by the other service people they supported.

While these “Hell Fighters” were away there was a lot to be done. The New York National Guard did a good job in preparing, but the hasty mobilization left a lot undone: enrollments for some of the families in the Defense Medical Care System was not accomplished, and a bunch of dependent ID cards never got issued. If the unit payroll was not activated soon enough, checking accounts at home could close for lack of a minimum balance. Then when the military pay appeared the following month, the direct deposit had no place to go. There were problems with children; there was a lot of generous help. Our mission was to coordinate everything available.

LTC Bob Farkas SSG Barbia Lowery

The Family Support Team, in addition to MSG Al Vanger and myself initially consisted of SSG Barbia “Bee” Lowery, who had returned from Saudi Arabia on a personal emergency. Since it was too late to send her back before all of the troops would return, she was assigned to my section. Another valuable asset was a gentleman, whom I immediately warmed to, named SSG John Cook. Cook was not part of the mobilization because of a minor medical situation. So instead of sulking because his buddies were activated without him, the sergeant stayed on as a family support volunteer, bolstering the family members of his deployed comrades. I couldn’t figure out who this guy was. He did everything: drove the van, helped with the cleaning, took phone calls and did the shopping. I soon took care of his status by placing him on the DA civilian payroll as soon as this was authorized. At 55 years old, John is currently a drilling member in good standing in his unit and has well earned his status. I learned that it is not unusual for senior NCOs to be in this age group in the National Guard. Their maturity and dedication overcome any hint of age limitations. Finally, our team was rounded out, really “rounded,” by a rotund staff sergeant named David Brown, a New York City police officer who chose to spend his vacation on active duty to do what he could do to help.

Complementing our full-time staff of family assistance soldiers was a group of volunteers which included three wives who did not know each other previously. One of these ladies was a skilled word processor. There was also a mother-in-law who was a retired English teacher. Between the skills of these two, a well edited and printed newsletter was in effect. A major problem was in keeping these volunteer services after we showed up. After all, these spouses started from the ground up, with no advice or support, and with a preconceived notion that the Army was no friend to them at all.

“Where were you six months ago?” I was asked. My answer was that the program was not in effect six months ago although it should have been, and that I was here now with Army money and clout, and why refuse a million-dollar gift because it was a little late? Of course, egos were hurt, concern for husbands was still at its peak and it was questioned whether we could do the job. These were obstacles to overcome and win the confidence of these family members.

Discussions at Family Support Group meetings often became heated.

“BRING MY HUSBAND HOME!”

“If I can bring your husband home, will you give back all the National Guard paychecks he got all these years?” Silence. I was too harsh, but too strong in feeling that a commitment to the Guard, the Reserve, the Army and the country presumed the sadness of separation that these women were going through. They were irate when asked if the wives would represent the husbands who were not yet back from the Gulf in marching in the big “Operation Welcome Home” New York City parade.

We did in fact bring a few people home a little earlier. One soldier’s fiancé had arranged and paid for a wedding prior to his departure and was dismayed that they might lose the wedding, the deposit and the affair that the invited guests would have to reschedule. A little influence helped in obtaining a somewhat earlier release from active duty.

In another less joyful case, hardship was determined through the intervention of the American Red Cross. A soldier was brought home to deal with a situation of children becoming unmanageable in the house and disruptive in school. The Red Cross offered assistance in many areas and renewed the respect I had for them as a young, enlisted marine in the hospital in Camp Lejeune.

The Red Cross provided a full-time caseworker, Mary Allen, on the premises at the armory, for whatever family assistance might be required. Next, through a very great lady, Lisa Holzkenner, who volunteered, individual cases were referred, as well as group family reunion counseling at the family support meetings. The program of family reunion counseling received great emphasis from the Army and the New York National Guard. Thanks to the Red Cross, most of these sessions were provided.

MSG Al Vanger, Diana Farkas, LTC Bob Farkas, Lisa Holzkenner, American Red Cross

Many aspects of family reunion were covered. Spouses become more independent after a long separation. People learn how to balance checkbooks, where they never wrote a check before. Resumption of marital relations is awkward. Children feel strange. I witnessed babies meeting their daddies for the first time.

At the Family Support Group meetings, the Red Cross was always there with coffee. milk, doughnuts, snacks for the kids. Clyde Riggins and his Red Cross team merely required a phone call prior to “welcome home” ceremony and there was the big “disaster service” van with the refreshments.

And there were all kinds of other help. The USO had established a “food locker,” courtesy of Brooklyn Union Gas Company. We would often pull the Army van up to Brooklyn Union and fill it up with prepacked bags of sugar, peanut butter, tomato sauce and other grocery staples. Once a trailer backed up at Fort Totten where my Army Reserve Family Assistance counterparts were located. “Do you need any detergent?” asked the driver. Now there was a carload of detergent available to share among the Guard and Reserve families. We shared donations with them as well, such as circus tickets which came from a local radio station.

Through the USO, we were also treated to such events as a special performance of the Jackie Mason Show. Mr. Mason, in special gratitude to the Armed Forces, gave a free USO performance. This show was given on his own, on a Monday night, which is off night on Broadway. Any servicemember was invited. Jackie gave another performance for the warriors back from the Persian Gulf the night after the big parade.

In addition, to the Red Cross, USO, Army Emergency Relief and many other community organizations, the New York Guard provided assistance on many occasions. In addition to fulfilling their mission of state armory security and providing crowd and traffic control at our ceremonies, many generous services were given.

BG Edwin Kassoff, who is a New York State Supreme Court judge, headed an effort to provide free legal assistance to all returning unit members. I was never aware of the number of New York Guard officers who are prominent attorneys and elected officials. They were always there, each in their own specialization, with fine legal support in landlord­ tenant problems, marital situations, reemployment but also concerns and other circumstances confronting the returning soldier. Good legal counsel even helped me keep a soldier’s car from being repossessed, through a misunderstanding of active duty call-up on the part of a finance company.

I attended several homecoming ceremonies, not only at the Fifth Avenue Armory headquarters of the 369th, but also at the Marcy Avenue Armory of the New York National Guard in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Here, where the neighborhood is both Hispanic and Hasidic Jewish, the turnout was memorable. There was actually a festival in the streets at one of the homecomings, with guest speakers and refreshments provided by the community. At another, the Grand Rabbi turned out on a reviewing stand to bless the arriving soldiers, while all the children from the local religious school waved flags in greeting.

MG Nathaniel James, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Whatever the returning unit, the local generosity was overwhelming. It took a call or two to a listing in the Yellow Pages for a balloon dealer and the drill floor would be decorated. Neighbors would come into the armory to help prepare. Neighborhood school children would paint posters. Local merchant Dawn Daguilar of Blue Mountain donated a table sagging with West Indian treats. And of course, COL Emory Seymore of the New York Guard would provide a real New York hot dog wagon. The Fifth Avenue Armory, having a strong veterans’ association, contributed mightily to all events under the direction of retired Warrant Officer Gladstone Dale.

A unique memory was the honor of being in uniform in New York City on 10 June 1991. On this, the day of “Operation Welcome Home,” the city belonged to the service member. They would not let us pay our fare on the subway. Children were coming over and asking for our autographs. As I indicated to the troops at a homecoming ceremony, “We in the green uniforms are very proud of our comrades in desert tan.” And we truly were that day.

The whole assignment was a distinction and an experience to treasure. When I retired a year earlier, I never dreamed that I would again be addressing a unit formation at 0700. Here I was young again for the second time. If there is a third time, I have some recommendations or, as a retired C&GS instructor, let’s look at some “lessons learned.”

Commanders, keep your goddam unit alert rosters up to date. You may not need them when you’re in the desert, or the jungles of Central America, or Bosnia, or Somalia. But the people who will look out for your people need them. So, let’s have a nice list of home addresses to send newsletters to and phone numbers to call to ask if any ne needs help. Phone numbers are nice to have to invite all your loved ones to family support group meetings and really great when we want to tell them when your gang is coming home. Why don’t you have more functions where your own families can get together and get to know each other before they need to in an emergency?

FORSCOM, God bless you for implementing and authorizing and mobilizing a family assistance pro­gram. But the next time, please, do it on time so they won’t be asking where we were six months ago. And if there’s funding available, let us have it, so we don’t have to conduct our assignment from a pay phone in the lobby.

When National Guard members are federalized, they are no longer state assets. It is constitutional that they be returned to their home state in the same condition as they left. If they are injured on active duty, they must be retained on active duty, for medical attention. Yet several soldiers were sent home with injuries which were not adequately taken care of.

Whether or not this was part of Family Assistance, we helped get them back on active duty. This caused a pile of paper and telephone time for both the Guard and Active Army. So, medical personnel, at out processing, please make sure you’re sending back only those who are healthy enough to come back. Take good care of the rest. They deserve it.

State Adjutants General, why not let us meet in advance the people we’ll be working with. So we won’t walk in as total strangers. Sure we’re bound to meet old friends when we get there, but wouldn’t it be nice to know most of the folks beforehand? I’m sure that knowing the kind of stuff all of us retirees are made of, we’d be glad to attend a drill now and then with a Guard or Reserve unit to explain our future mission. This way, we can gain their support and confidence before they need us.

LTC Bob Farkas welcomes LTC Francis Kairson back from Saudi Arabia

An after-action regret is that I did not meet LTC Kairson until his return to CONUS. Mrs. Kairson was a delight and a frequent counsel. But we should have been in constant communication throughout the Gulf crisis. This would have facilitated our support mission and would have provided much closer coordination. When some soldiers returned, they hugged me for taking care of their families and we all fought back macho tears. If there is a next time, I hope they hug me when they leave, so we can all do a more effective job.

Text originally published in Personal Perspectives on the Gulf War by the Association of the U.S. Army.

American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War