Two Fathers, Two Sons

May 15th, 2022

There is an old man who comes to the synagogue. He always sits in the back row. He must be in his 80’s, but he is surprisingly vigorous for his age. His face is deeply lined, but it is still strong and alert. He looks like a man who has been though a lot, but he isn’t quite finished with life yet.

I stood near him after the Shabbat service. We were sharing a drink during kiddush. He saw that I was wearing a t-shirt with some writing on it about veterans. The old guy was from Ukraine, and he came to the U.S. many years ago as a refugee. He asked me with his heavy Slavic accent,

“You, you are a veteran?”

“Yeah.”

“What service were you in?”

“I was in the Army, the American Army.”

He nodded gravely, and asked, “So, what you do in Army?”

“I was a helicopter pilot, an aviator.”

The old man nodded approvingly, and said, “My son, he too is a veteran. He went to Soviet radio school, like I did.”

I replied, “My son is a vet. He served in Iraq.”

The old man looked at me and started talking. We weren’t really having a conversation anymore. He wanted, or needed, to tell me a story about something important to him. He just wanted me to listen. He asked me to give him a ride home. As I drove, he spoke about his son.

“My son, he was in the radio school. He graduated with honors. They sent him to a military base in Kyiv in 1981. He would write us letters. Then, no more letters. For three months, we hear nothing from him. No letters. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“We write a letter to his commander. The commander, he writes back that my son is on “secret military assignment”. We don’t know where. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“After six months, we hear from our son. He was in Afghanistan with Soviet Army. He was at radar station. The Muslim fighters, they were shooting rockets at his base. These rockets, back then they come from here, from America. You understand?”

‘Yeah, go ahead.”

“The army have trucks there. The Muslims have put in the ground mines. Not just one or two; they put in many mines. My son was in second truck. The first truck hit a mine. Nothing left of it. Not even metal. Nothing! You understand?”

“Yeah, where do I turn?”

He pointed in my direction, “Make a left here.”

Then he continued, “My son, his truck go over a mine. Big explosion. He is thrown from truck. He is hurt bad, remembers nothing. They fix him in hospital. He got two artificial ribs! You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Soviet Army discharges my son. They just send him away. No pension, no money. Nothing. They need him no more. They just used him.”

I could taste the bitterness in the father’s voice. I told him,

“The Army did the same with my son.”

He asked, “American Army? They do that?’

“Yeah.”

The old man shook his head. He asked me,

“What happened with your son? Was he in Afghanistan?”

“No, he was in Iraq.”

The man nodded, “Yes, you said this before. I remember now. He was in Iraq.”

I continued, “He got hurt. He got shot once. He killed a guy. He stabbed him to death.”

The old man asked me,

“How old is your son?”

“He’s thirty-five.”

The man replied, “My son is sixty-two.”

The father thought for a minute. Then he told me,

“I wanted to be an aviation engineer. But the Soviet aviation school did not allow any Jew to come. My father told me that I was wasting my time with tests for that school. They would never let me in. Why? Because I am a Jew!”

There had been anger in the old man’s voice. He continued, now sounding sad,

“My son, he went to the radio school, like I did, like my father did. My father was a colonel in the Soviet Army.”

The old guy said, “My son, he has PTSD. Your son too?”

“Yeah.”

“Your son drink a lot?”

“Yeah.”

The old man said, “My son too.”

Then he looked up and said, “That is my house. There. Stop.”

He asked me, “You got card with your name and phone number?”

“No, but I can write it down.”

“Do that.”

I wrote down my contact information, and he then wrote down his.

The man looked at me and said,

“I think we be friends. Not just in the synagogue. You understand? I think we have similar experience. You understand? I think we be friends.”

He shook my hand. He said again,

“You understand?”

“I understand.”

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