Colonel Joseph P. Gleichenhaus
Colonel Joseph P. Gleichenhaus

Q&A: U.S. Army colonel on life in a suddenly very hot Korea

Name: Joseph P. Gleichenhaus
Age: 52
Hometown: San Francisco
Position: Colonel, U.S. Army

J.: Your long history of Army service includes Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now, as part of the Combined Forces Command in South Korea, you’re the deputy chief of future operations. What does that entail?

Joseph P. Gleichenhaus: I’ve been in Korea for 4½ years. The days are very long. We do our physical training in the morning. And afterwards we’re in the office receiving briefings guidance or communicating with all the other services or branches that contribute to the operations and activities that deter North Korea, or maintain the armistice. We’re not really at peace here. We’re at a ceasefire, or armistice.

We also train with our Korean training partners — knowing some of the language helps. If you’re in a coalition, the more you understand your partner’s culture, the better your relationships are going to be. Of course, our translators are really good, but you learn a couple of phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “where’s food?” — that kind of thing.

The other challenge of Korea is it’s on the other side of the world. So if we’re going to conduct a video teleconference meeting with somebody in Washington, D.C., it’s either late at night or early in the morning.

Your father is a decorated military officer, as well, and, like you, he moved around the globe for most of his military career. How did your father’s service affect your Jewish upbringing?

Basically the Jewish community in the military is a small community, but it is vibrant and alive. When I was growing up there was always a Jewish community, even if it was as little as 10 people. We went to High Holidays in various places; I remember one year in the Virgin Islands we went to some old synagogue with sand on the floor. We did Passover every year, and we would do all the traditional things like hunt for the afikomen and eat matzah for a week.

Because we traveled a lot we got to see a spectrum of different communities. For me, the more engaging were the Conservative or Reform rabbis. We had a couple of Orthodox rabbis that were very, you know, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that” — it was too hard.

After receiving your B.A. in physical education from the University of San Francisco, you joined the military. Why?

I was a much better soldier than I was a student, and I joined the military because the other opportunities I saw were not quite as exciting. Because my father moved [the family] around, I went to a couple of different colleges. I focused a lot more on being an athlete than I did on being a student. Since I needed additional credits to graduate from USF, I ended up in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. I did very well in ROTC, much better than many of my other classes, where I was just trying to maintain my eligibility to play soccer.

I came out of USF with an active duty commission, which at that time [1990s] was very tough to receive. When I began my service, I felt much more comfortable. I was in and was having success, so confidence begets success, and success gives more confidence. And 27 years later, I’m still here.

Jews are underrepresented in the U.S. military. How does the fact that you’re Jewish affect your daily life? Has the situation changed?

In the military, you see various levels of effort to provide for [Jewish servicemen and women]. I’m not sure that it’s changed much over the years. We’re very aware of diversity today, but the military is still very oriented around Christianity. The level of support [for Jewish servicemen and women] is always dependent on the personality of the leadership. But they try to keep a rabbi in Korea all the time.

I had my bar mitzvah in New York, at West Point in the old Jewish chapel, and I still remember the first line of my Haftarah. My instructor for my bar mitzvah was a cadet at West Point, and I recall he was very good.

I went to a Jesuit college [USF] and I thought one of the best classes was about world religions. The priest who taught the class made it really about “your individual spiritual identity.” He said that the more questions you ask and the more questions you answer, the more in-depth you’ll understand your identity.

That was a point when I started reflecting on where my values come from, and Judaism to me, seemed more tolerant of the community, of the world, than some others. But what it comes down to, the foundation, is what is the difference between right and wrong. And that [understanding, in my case] comes from being raised Jewish, from listening to the rabbi, as well as being in the military. That gave me an opportunity to promote those same values to those I was working for.

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max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.