ITHACA, N.Y. — Stories of meeting new people, learning to live in conditions of strict discipline and fearing for one’s life were all shared by local veterans Friday, May 24, at Ithaca High School’s annual Soldier Story Day.
For more than two decades, the high school has invited veterans to share their stories and answer questions about their time in the military with students in their social studies classes. Soldier Story Day was started by Heather Tallman, a former history teacher at IHS, whose mother was in the Women’s Army Corps, a women’s branch of the United States Army. Sara Shenk, a psychology teacher who helped organize this year’s Soldier Story Day, said the day is meant to give students a more personal and human understanding of the different wars they learn about in school.
As we look back on the veterans who served our country this Memorial Day, here are some stories that were shared last Friday, including local veterans who fought in the wars in Korean, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.
Art Berkey (Veteran of the Korean War)
Born in 1931 on a farm in Michigan, Art Berkey learned discipline and responsibility at an early age. Waking up at around 5:30 a.m. every morning with strenuous chores, Berkey said growing up on a farm made him physically fit and better adjusted than some of his fellow troops to endure the harsh conditions of military service.
“When you’re born on a farm, you learn to do a lot of things. My dad’s favorite saying was, ‘…If I have to tell you what to do then you’re already late,’” Berkey said.
He was drafted as a second lieutenant near the end of his sophomore year at Michigan State University. “I was extremely green. I was not prepared at age 22 to be commanding an artillery battle in Korea,” Berkey said.
He was a member of the 24th Division supporting the Eighth United States Army, which was advancing toward China during the war. Berkey recalled that he was blind for 17 days when he had his first head injury and had to be walked to the bathroom and that they had to fight during the night in below-zero degree weather, when he said his army unit lost more troops to frostbite and disease than in combat. Berkey served in Korea for 16 months and said he later suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He said one of the problems soldiers faced was that both sides of the war would send snipers to kill troops at night, and though his unit slept with guns, he said he had recurring dreams of dying in his sleep.
After the war, he moved to Ithaca in 1967 to work as a teacher educator at Cornell University. While in awe of the beauty of the Finger Lakes, he said it was hard at first living so far away from his family. He added that the war strengthened his Christian faith by teaching him how to “help his fellow man,” which he said inspired him to volunteer at local organizations including the Red Cross and as a member of the Ithaca City School District Board of Education.
Dr. Elliot Rubinstein (Veteran of the Vietnam War)
Elliot Rubinstein grew up in Brooklyn and was notified that he was being drafted in the Vietnam War while studying medicine at Chicago Medical School. Just one month after he married his wife in 1970, he spent the next nine months in Vietnam.
“The choice wasn’t if we were going to go but when we were going to go,” he said.
Rubinstein worked as a physician whose mission it was to treat Vietnamese civilians. After two weeks of basic training, Rubinstein said it took him 84 hours to arrive at his base in Saigon, Vietnam, from Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. As a general medical officer, Rubinstein said one of his main missions was to prevent civilians from drinking contaminated water people had defecated and urinated in, among treating other health issues. He said he grew close to some of the local people because there weren’t visiting hours and families could stay and cook their meals at their hospital location. Rubinstein said he was stationed in a relatively safe area partially because it was near a rubber plantation, which he said was of tremendous economic worth to militaries for their tires. He left Vietnam in September 1971. He later moved to Ithaca in 1977 to work as an allergist.
Rubinstein added that war is not glamorous and should be avoided at all costs. “War is not romantic. It’s not glamorous or exciting, and it’s not the hero riding in on his white or black horse coming to lead us to victory. It’s hideous. It’s revolting. It’s bloodthirsty, and sometimes might wind up in death … We should be avoiding war at all costs. War is evil, but sometimes even evil things have to happen,” Rubinstein said.
Jim Rolfe (Veteran of the Afghanistan War)
Jim Rolfe graduated from Ithaca High School in 1980 and had already thought about joining the military before attending college. He later decided to join the Army National Guard at age 27.
“My co-worker who was in the Army National Guard told me I wasn’t getting any younger. It’s either now or never,” Rolfe said.
He said the theory for his mission training before the war in Afghanistan was to get mobilized and go to Europe to fight the Soviets. In 2001 he was sent to a training center in Fort Polk, Louisiana, but was told by his brigade’s commander that they could return home early. However, while their luggage was on the train back home, Rolfe said, the 9/11 attacks took place. After that, troops were sent to capture or kill Osama bin Laden as well as replace the Taliban with a United States-friendly government. Rolfe pointed out that U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan twice as long as the students he was presenting to have been alive. “I’ve just covered a period of conflict that’s lasted for 40 years. You are all around 16 years old, so we’re talking about twice as long as your entire life. Think of what your personal experiences would be like if Ithaca had been subjected to 40 years of conflict,” he said.
With his experience in the Army National Guard, Rolfe had trained for 18 years and viewed his commitment to the Afghanistan War as his final exam. In April 2008 he flew to Kuwait and then Kabul, Afghanistan, where one of his missions was to train Afghan police officers. He said most deaths in his unit were from explosions and that he once avoided a bomb explosion by arriving five minutes late to his military base.
Rolfe said the United States has dedicated itself to a decades-long commitment by sending troops to Afghanistan. “We removed the power structure and we have an obligation to replace it with something. You can’t leave a void or else you end up with the same problem the Soviets had in 1989; the problem being is that in order to really build a modern Afghanistan it’s more than what you can do in 6 or 7 years. We’ve committed ourselves to a path that’s going to be decades.”
Correction (8:55 a.m. May 28) — A previous version of this article stated Dr. Elliot Rubinstein came to Ithaca as a psychiatrist. He came to Ithaca as an allergist.
Featured image: Jim Rolfe. (Photo by J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice)