Aleph teamed up with Ch. Capt Dovid Grossman, USAF Auxiliary, to interview veteran Marc Erlichman, who served as a field artillery officer in the US Army from 1983-1991.
WARRIOR: Tell us about your background. What was life like when you were growing up?
CAPT. MARC ERLICHMAN (ME): My parents adopted me in the Cleveland area. We moved to Niles, Illinois when I was three and settled in Skokie, Illinois when I was seven. I had a stable home and a very suburban, normal life. My dad was a World War II vet and POW. He had been shot down over Italy out of a B24 Liberator at the end of the war. I grew up understanding what World War II was and we had a lot of discussions about it.
WARRIOR: Do you have any stories from your father that you’d like to share?
ME: He was very proud of his service. We watched war movies together. When Great Escape came out I asked my dad if he ever tried to escape. He responded, “We escaped all the time,” adding, “I personally escaped about 70 times, and it was because we drew straws.”
Because it was the end of the war and the Germans were losing, when my father was shot down they weren’t initially put in prison camps. The Germans marched them through northern Italy into Germany. The soldiers were weak and starving. The officers drew straws every day as to who would “escape.” They would run into the fields and “hide,” making the Germans chase them. When they caught the soldiers, they would beat them and then pull them back into line. It was a delay tactic. They knew they weren’t going to get anywhere, but it allowed everyone else to rest.
This was the last three months of the war, so he was a captive for just under 90 days. He later did a video interview about his experiences, available through the county of Naples, Florida.
WARRIOR: That is fascinating. So what drew you to the military?
ME: I was very athletic, played football, a little basketball, and swam throughout high school. I attended Northern Michigan University on half a scholarship that turned into an ROTC scholarship. My dad was very supportive—it was actually his idea.
I hadn’t intended to join the military. My dad had some financial trouble in my first year of college. His business was embezzled by his friend and business partner. I had to do something extreme if I wanted to stay in college. I had always enjoyed reading about the Battle of Midway and the Pacific so I was interested in the Navy. But Northern Michigan doesn’t have a Naval ROTC, so I ended up joining the Army ROTC.
The way the officer corps works is you are assigned a duty position out of ROTC. You get to pick the branch of the Army you want to go into. However, the order in which you are commissioned will always follow you in the military, including promotions and duty assignments. West Point is at the top of this list and Northern Michigan is at the bottom. By the time we got to pick they said, “You can pick one noncombat arms, but the other four options have to be combat arms.” The last thing I selected was field artillery and that’s what I ended up with. It wasn’t much of a choice.
WARRIOR: So although you were initially motivated by financial reasons, you were fully committed and made the best of your duty position. Can you tell us about your service?
ME: I started out in Germany and spent my first two years in Mainz attached to the 4-69 Armor. I was their fire support officer, basically the only artillery guy there. I got to go out and play with million-dollar “toys.” Then I worked with 155 Howitzers and later in a radar battery. Within three years I had worked with armor, artillery, and radar. It was a very fast-paced and fun world.
For my next duty assignment I joined the 101st Airborne as it was the closest to Chicago. I had really missed the Chicago Bears and wanted to catch a game or two. Plus who doesn’t want to join the 101st Airborne? Then I did air assault school and different jobs in the 101st: I was the Fire Support Officer for the 1-101st AVN BN when the new Apaches came in. I also went to Panama with the 101st for jungle warfare training with the 2nd and 320th Field Artillery and No Slack Battalion.
WARRIOR: Was there a particular mentor that really made an impact for you beyond your military career, including the way you currently do business?
ME: My favorite officer was Major Benjamin Mixon. He took us to Desert Storm as the head of G3 plans. That guy was the most honest, hardworking, family man—focused on his job, and so professional. For Desert Storm, our job was to write the order of battle for the entire 101st Airborne. Mixon was an infantry officer, so his second-in command, the Executive Officer of the unit, was also infantry. They were always writing course of action number one, which was how they expected the order of battle to go, and their best guess. My job was to coordinate the Field Artillery section of the Division plan. But I was also in charge of writing battle plans for course of action number two and all counter attacks. Colonel Hugh Shelton, who ended up being Clinton’s chief-of-staff for the military, was General Peay’s second-in-command of the 101st Airborne. He always wanted something a little different from course of action number one, something reaction based, with more force in reserve so he could pull from somewhere if he needed. I heard that, so I always added something that would give him more flexibility. It was not much of a change from what Major Mixon expertly prepared, but course of action two won as the primary course of action five out of the seven times we presented. Major Mixon was very gracious about it as he was all about getting the job done, but we joked a lot about my winning.
WARRIOR: Can you give another example of how you improved things for your unit?
ME: I had another commander with the radar company where I was the XO (Executive Officer). Our readiness rating was terrible. The radars were notorious for not working. A normal readiness rating for a unit needs to be 80% or more to be considered functional. We were in the 30s and 40s—the radars were always broken, which meant we could not deploy. My job was maintenance, so the commander asked me to fix the readiness rating.
With radars, you’re working with a Warrant Officer who’s in charge of each radar battery. Warrant officers, although knowledgeable, are notorious for not playing well with others and getting the enlisted ranks to do their work. The Warrant Officers would complain about the aspects they did in their prior career, such as maintenance or logistics, and often attacked the enlisted for doing a poor job. The complaints were valid, but these guys felt they didn’t have the authority to fix it. I gathered the four warrant officers and said, “I’m putting you guys in charge of fixing the areas of your expertise. We are changing everything.” Two agreed right away and the other two came on board later. Within three months we went from non-functional to functional.
In a specific radar unit, if one vehicle went down, the entire unit was down. I said, “If we want to keep our readiness rating, we have to switch vehicles to keep them going.” This caused a big argument, but it kept our readiness rating up. We had a better focus on tracking parts. We learned what to do to stay ready. That was the change we brought to this unit. The unit eventually won an award for best “small unit maintenance” in 1987.
WARRIOR: How did that particular mindset play out into your civilian career?
ME: Sometimes good, sometimes bad. There was a strange dichotomy that when I was in the military I wasn’t military enough. Now that I’m out of the military I’m often perceived as being too military. Another interesting element is that because I was working with G3 plans, we were always planning things that were three months to a year out. It suited me because I think big picture and take a directional approach. When I came into my pharmaceutical career as a manager, I would also talk about goals that were three to six months away. I look at things differently and am not always willing to go with the norm. I am often the devil’s advocate in the group, and some people in the corporate world do not tolerate that at all.
WARRIOR: That’s tough. It sounds like that forward planning you’re so good at is still a big part of your work ethic.
ME: Yes, but sometimes being practical and unemotional can be a problem. The way I think in business can get me into trouble. Everyone thinks you’re negative when you point out, “Yes, if you do A that’s great, but A has all of these issues. You can do B, B has issues but they’re different issues. What do you want to know about A and B?” And they’re like, “We’re just doing A.” They don’t want to know what the issues are.
WARRIOR: I’ve found with veterans that the time they spend in service becomes a framework for the rest of their lives, and those who haven’t served don’t understand.
ME: That’s true. Here’s a prime example when I left service. It was right after Desert Storm and I had just passed two interviews at a certain company. Everything was going great. The next step was to meet the vice president. When I came in he said, “I understand that you’re prior military.” He continued, “I have a problem with that because I can’t understand why you people would do what you did.” Then he pulled up that week’s newspaper, which talked about M-1 tanks burying Iraqis alive in trenches as they were both shooting each other.
I remember wondering if this was a test. I said to him, “Before I answer, are you sure this is the road you want to go down?” He was very clear that he did not understand how somebody with a military background could be a trainer for him. I said, “Well sir, in war when somebody is shooting at you, you kill them in the most expeditious manner possible. I don’t care if it’s running them over or blowing them up.” Then I walked out. As I left the secretary said, “That was quick.” I replied, “Well apparently he hates the military.” And he said, “Yeah, we kind of thought that might happen.”
Now the opposite situation occurred a week or two later when I interviewed at a pharmaceutical company. The front side of my resume was written in simple English, and on the back I had listed all the acronyms and military jargon. The interviewer was looking at the military side, so I said, “Excuse me sir, I noticed that you’re reading the jargon side of my resume. Were you prior service?” And he went, “Shut up 101st.” I was like, “Oh shoot, you’re 82nd Airborne aren’t you?” He hired me the next day. So you get reactions like that as well.
WARRIOR: In your experience, how did the different military services work together?
ME: There’s a lot of coordination that goes on between services, but there’s a lot that never happens. It’s confusing, especially with new technology. I was the Fire Support Officer for the 101 Aviation when we got the new Apaches. As the artillery officer attached to an aviation unit, I was the only artillery guy, and I had one E6 with me. We went down to Fort Hood for a six-month deployment to learn how to use the Apaches and new Hellfire missiles.
One day I asked if they had ever tested the G/VLDD (pronounced GLID, Ground Vehicle Laser Locator Designator) with the Hellfire missile. My question went all the way up the chain with everyone responding, “I don’t know.” So here we had this billion-dollar deployment, and nobody knew whether the forward observer could connect with the laser designator on the Hellfire!
This caused so much concern that we did a test firing. A bunch of dignitaries came out to see it. I was on a huge stage in front of all these four stars and producers of the helicopters and Hellfires. On the hill I had two field artillery units with G/VLDDs, a regular and a backup. We had two Apache helicopters and a chase plane if it went very wrong. Everybody was freaked out about what would happen.
In the end it all worked out perfectly. Then everyone shook hands and went down to the impact area. It was a great result from my one question. This is the type of question that many civilians don’t like, but LTC Garrett was very appreciative.
WARRIOR: What did you enjoy most about working with LTC Garrett?
ME: I remember riding in a Black Hawk helicopter at night, doing some war planning. I was monitoring four different radios at the same time. I had Company in one, Battalion in another, Air Force in the third, and Artillery in the fourth. I adjusted the volumes so I could tell the differences. In my right ear I heard one thing, in my left ear I heard another thing. LTC Garrett looked at me in shock and asked, “How are you doing all this?!” I said, “Well this is what I learned as a FIST chief (Fire Support Team) in 4-69 Armor when we had four radios and you had to listen to all of them, and now I’m just getting airsick at night doing the same thing!” It was really impressive to work with that guy.
Not all of my officer evaluation reports were good, but most were decent. Commanders normally write a paragraph about what somebody does for them, and it’s very flowery language. Lt. Col. Garrett wrote one sentence: “If I go to war, Captain Erlichman comes with me.” He was the commander of 1-101 AVN BN during Desert Storm. I really appreciated him and he was a great commander to work for.
WARRIOR: That’s so interesting. Did your Jewishness ever come into play on deployment?
ME: Yes, I have an interesting story from the G3 planning cell I was part of. I remember a briefing in the 101st Airborne before we went over to Desert Storm, which was a discussion about how many Jewish people were in the military then. We had heard the news that Kuwait had invaded. Bush, Cheney, and Powell were talking to the Saudis about sending troops into Saudi Arabia and staging there, saying you guys are next. We offered to get rid of the incursion, but the Saudis challenged the US a lot. They tried to ban certain members of our military. First they started off with black individuals. The military by then was heavily integrated, and we came back with a quick no. Then the Saudis pushed us about women. In 1991 it was still fairly new to have women in the military. They were mostly in support roles. That took a couple days but the military said no, we’re going to deploy as is.
I believe the Saudis’ ultimate motive was against Jews, a request we heard all the way down. I did the research and found out that only about .03 percent of the deployable force was Jewish. The Army’s response took a while, because you could make up those numbers and it wouldn’t impact readiness. What they ended up doing was a compromise. The chaplains did not wear a cross or ten commandment pin but instead got a general star on their sleeves. We agreed not to hold services and made additional concessions. But we didn’t change our force structure.
WARRIOR: Were you ever singled out for being Jewish?
ME: Yes. I was transferred to the 2nd out of 320th as their Executive Officer S1. The outgoing commander, Lt. Col. Fullenkamp, asked that I arrive three months before he left so he could write me an officer evaluation. He was very aggressive about my start date. But he gave me a top-lock OER, although I really did nothing for the first three months; I was just learning the job.
The reason he did that was because he knew the next commander coming in was prejudiced. He didn’t like Jews, blacks, or Mexicans. Apparently the Division commanders knew this and protected me with one OER before I reported to him. Lt. Col. Fullenkamp was very gracious, and a Colonel Lawson was also a mentor to me. I know he was in on that discussion too.
The three senior officers were myself, a Mexican officer, and a black West Point officer. We should have had battery commands, but we didn’t. As their friend I would tease them: “You guys don’t understand prejudice.” When they protested, I’d go, “I don’t know if you noticed, but when you came in the room I knew you were black and Mexican; did you know I was Jewish?” They said no. So many times I was subjected to racist comments about Jews from people who had no idea I was Jewish. I told my officer friends, “I know prejudice more than you ever will, because I sat there and listened to people in Germany talk about Jews, I listened to people in college who didn’t know I was Jewish and then stopped talking to me in our second year, and so on.”
WARRIOR: It’s true, people don’t see us coming. So if the military was your passion, what ultimately caused you to leave?
ME: Nineteen days before Desert Storm kicked off our first child was born. That’s a tough deal when you’re overseas for seven months and you come back and meet your eight-month old kid. My next duty station was going to be in Korea for two years without my family. That was when I made the choice to leave.
Around 80% of the officers I knew were either divorced or on their second marriage. More often than not, family and the military does not work, and there’s no way to sugarcoat that. I knew that going in, so when I began looking for a spouse I knew I needed someone capable and independent. You can’t make household decisions or pay the bills when you’re gone. You also have to ensure that they are signed on everything.
In fact, after I proposed to my wife I found out I was going to Fort Hood for six months. I told Rachel that we needed to get married right away so she would have access to everything on post as a full spouse. I wasn’t going to leave her in limbo without all the benefits of being a military spouse.
WARRIOR: That was smart planning. Thank you for sharing your story, Captain Erlichman.
ME: My pleasure.
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.