Thursday, May 21, 2009

Around town: Memorial Day and Dr. Jack Steingart

Four days from now, we will gather in Memorial Park in La Cañada. We will watch the Boy and Girl scouts raise the flag. We will listen to the high school band. We will hear speeches, lots of speeches. We will hear the names of the fallen. For some of us, the service seems too short. Not so for others. Before the service is over, people will begin their exit toward the parade.

At one point, our veterans will ascend the gazebo, state their names and describe their service, a practice begun in the last decade by the original organizer, Don Hingst.

And then, on to the parade.

As long as I can remember, Memorial Day in La Cañada has presented this tension between its various components. On one hand, we have the duty to remember. On the other, the needs of our living veterans to be recognized and to bear witness. And, finally, the backdrop of the so-called “normal” world, the need to return to the world of parades and hot dogs, to proud parents and the laughter of our children.

Similar tensions exist all over our great nation. They say that World War II was not like that, that all shared in the sacrifice. If so, how did our town collectively forget dozens of the fallen, some from the same street?

If not for the research of Denise Hovland, the newest names would be lost forever. (See below for a list.) Those who return from war have always faced the challenge of “fitting in” to the world of politics and parades. It is easier for some generations (eg. World War II) than others (eg. Vietnam).

A great man died last month. The man was a veteran. As a teenager, he served in the Korean “conflict.” He served honorably. Once, he was assigned to retrieve the body parts of his fallen comrades, after a battle. He told me once that this haunted him.

This hero’s name was Dr. Jacob Steingart. We who knew him called him “Dr. Jack.”

When the war was over, Dr. Jack went back to college and earned several degrees, including a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University.

He had a great career in industry as an organizational psychologist. He also taught in local colleges. But when he reached his golden years, the age when most people think about retirement or fishing, he took a new position “where he had the privilege of serving the veterans of the United States Armed Services.”

There are slightly more than 200 vet centers in the United States. The idea is to put resources out into the community, away from the VA hospitals and the VA bureaucracy. For the last 14 years of his life, Dr. Jack was the team leader at the City of Commerce/East Los Angeles Vet Center.

You might wonder: What does the City of Commerce/East Los Angeles Vet Center have to do with La Cañada Flintridge? It is the “local” center for vets and their families who live in La Cañada, San Marino, South Pasadena and Pasadena.

Dr. Jack died a few days shy of his 79th birthday. I had no idea of his age. He acted younger. He worked full-time. He ran around to meetings. He led groups. He did counseling.

He had great respect and empathy for bereaved families, informed no doubt by his understanding of the tension implicit in reconciling those experiences with the give and take of the “normal” world.

He also had a particular interest in the subject of PTSD. He told me that some of the World War II veterans, hard working types, would function well during their working years, but then, with the free time of retirement, the memories would come flooding back.

Dr. Jack treated them. He treated Vietnam vets. In recent years, there came a new generation of young men and women from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dr. Jack said that PTSD can be traced back to the Civil War, that in World War I, it was described as “shell shock” and in World War II, it was called “combat fatigue.”

He kept up on the research, with a focus on treatment.

He was such a cool guy. He liked opera. He was proud of his children. He loved his wife.

He once told me that no one can “prove” that there is an afterlife, but since every single culture known has a myth or story about the afterlife, it must be true. Those words sustained me for many a night.

Thank you, Dr. Jack, and Godspeed.

Thanks to Denise Hovland, here are the new names submitted to the city of La Cañada Flintridge for inclusion on the plaques:

Staff Sgt. Lewis Arthur Salmon, U.S. Army;

2nd Lt. Roscoe E. Woodbury Jr., U.S. Army;

Tech 4th Grade Harold E Lotze, U.S. Army;

2nd Lt. Daniel R. Shuler, U.S. Army;

2nd Lt. Donald J. Kanoff, U.S. Army;

2nd Lt. William Curland, U.S. Army;

Lt. Anne G. Hemphill, WAC, U.S. Army;

Cpl. Harvey Traveller, U.S. Army;

Maj. Robert A. Claussen, U.S. Army;

1st Lt. George F. Hallihan, U.S. Army.

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. E-mail her at Cañada Valley Sun: La Cañada Flintridge, California

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