BG Donald Schenk (USA, Ret)

Post: 1LT Raymond Zussman Post 135

Current Residence: Bloomfield Hills, MI

Military Service: US Army 1969-2004; Operation Desert Storm

Member Since Year: 2011

1. What’s your military story?

It’s a 35-year story beginning with my enlistment in the Army Reserves when I contracted as an Advanced Course ROTC Cadet in college in 1969. I was commissioned in Armor in 1971, and had a string of assignments in and around tanks for the next 33 years. My career was about equally divided between assignments considered “operational” (with and around troops in tank units from platoon through division or other training roles), and the business or acquisition side of the Army as a program manager for some of the Army and Marine Corps’ most significant modernization programs. I served in Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, Maryland, the Pentagon, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Michigan.

During Operation Desert Shield I was Executive Officer of 2d Brigade, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized)) and deployed from Ft. Riley, Kansas to Saudi Arabia over New Years in 1991. When the air campaign started on 17 January 1991, and Operation Desert Storm commenced, all of our equipment was still en route from Kansas and was in ships southeast of the Straits of Hormuz. Immediately after its arrival we deployed into the desert along the Saudi-Iraq border to begin rehearsals for our upcoming operations should Saddam not yield to the demands of the United Nations. Early in the morning of 24 February 1991 we conducted a deliberate combat breach into the Iraqi defenses as the VII (US) Corps main effort brigade. We continued the attack for the next four days and ultimately were called upon to secure the airfield of Safwan, Iraq at which GEN Schwarzkopf dictated terms to the Iraqi army for its surrender.

2. Do you have a favorite Jewish military holiday story?

At Pesach in 1991 (5752), after direct combat operations in Iraq had ceased, I was able to surprise my wife and our extended family by calling into the Seder at her parents’ home in New Jersey. This was before the proliferation of mobile phones and was done from a telephone center courtesy of one of the larger US-based phone companies. The call lasted only about 5 minutes because there was a line of Soldiers calling home (the first night coincided with Easter), and it has never been forgotten. As it happens, at that point I was only about 60 or so miles from Ur, birthplace of our patriarch Abraham. All things considered, it was quite a memorable call looking out at the stars in the early morning desert while recalling the story of Passover.

3. What made you decide to join JWV?

I retired from the US Army in 2004 and transitioned into a business career. Along the way, my family grew older and we transitioned into the less hectic lifestyle of a civilian family. In 2011 I was asked to speak at the Veterans Day Shabbat at my synagogue in Michigan. A member of JWV who was helping organize the event, which included not only a color guard but also a procession of Veterans into the sanctuary, approached and asked if I was a JWV member (at the moment I was not). I decided to sign up on the spot. It just made sense to me to select one VSO with which to associate, and JWV was the right choice. It was also a choice I wish I’d made earlier in my life. I’ve made many friends along the way, and I’m still associated with the man that asked me to join—Marty Levine—not only thru JWV, but also in the Veteran-focused not-for-profit I lead today.

4. What causes would you like JWV to work on?

I think JWV really needs to focus on youth and vitality if we’re to keep this organization operating as a going concern. We need to recruit and retain members from the post-Vietnam era (Cold War, ODS/OEF/OIF/OND) remembering that our numbers from those eras are likely to be found in the professional ranks (e.g, doctors, lawyers, mental health fields) more so than traditional rank-and-file. We need to educate both clergy and lay leaders about our organization because they are in touch with their membership base and can advocate for us. Those leaders, too, are getting younger and probably neither know nor appreciate on a personal level the service of Jewish Veterans. We need also to be present on high school and college campuses telling our story at day schools and Hillels in our community, planting the seeds of awareness of the organization and service to the Nation early and often. Our Jewish Chaplains must advocate as well to the Jews on active duty so they join JWV and we keep their membership after leaving the military. More work sharing best practices thru a web-based platform could assist in spreading good ideas, as well as lessons learned in the “not so good” department.  We’re going to be around for a long time—here for good so to speak—and there is a role for everyone.

5. Who would you say is your most influential mentor in JWV?

I have several mentors in JWV. One would have to be our Department of Michigan Senior Vice Commander, Art Fishman (Post 510). Art is a World War II sailor who spent his time on destroyers. He’s extremely—and justifiably—proud of his service on ‘Tin Cans.’  Don’t ever let his era of service or age fool you—he is a dynamo of activity and the most knowledgeable man I know in JWV. He really sets the pace and standard for what right looks like in Michigan. The other is Ed Hirsch (Post 474). Interesting story—a Special Forces Dentist with some remarkable service in Southeast Asia, all of Southeast Asia it seems. He’ll tell you much of it, but not all of it. Ed was recently elected as Commander of the Department of Michigan. He and Art will both be at Tampa in August. Look them up.

6. What advice would you have for new members in JWV?

My advice to new members is get actively involved. Volunteer to lead in your Post and your community. Listen to the older members because their stories are important to our history, and remember they want to hear from you as well since your experience in 2018 is just as important as theirs of 1948 or 1968 or 1998. There is more that unites the various age groups than separates them. While all of our experiences might be different, none are less meaningful for the country.

7. Last question, Hamentaschen or Latkes?

Hamentaschen…less cholesterol, more options.  Plus, Purim is just a more adult party anyway.