It was the spring of ’69 when the plane carrying U.S. Army Capt. Hank Webb touched down at Da Nang Air Base, opening the door on the Jewish soldier’s first tour of duty in Vietnam.

Webb encountered a foreign land and a new, uncertain military strategy, all while the anti-war movement gained force back home. Amid the political din and battlefield danger, the young captain found solace in Da Nang’s small Jewish community, befriending a naval officer named Gary Siegel who served as the group’s lay leader.

As for many veterans, the end of the war relegated their friendship to the recesses of memory. Little did the pair realize that the next time they would meet would be 40 years later at a Chabad-Lubavitch center in suburban Maryland.

To hear them tell it, what little of Judaism that was available on the base provided a powerful reminder of home. Hank, in particular, was impressed with Siegel’s knowledge.

“He was a role model for me,” says Webb, some days after addressing Chabad of Upper Montgomery County, a Gaithersburg synagogue and community center directed by Rabbi Sholom and Chana Raichik. “He knew how to daven without a prayer book, which I had never seen.”

“Every six weeks, a rabbi would join us for Friday night services,” recalls Siegel, who turns 67 next month. “Those other weeks, I kind of did what needed to be done. We would do the Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv prayer services, and have some gefilte fish and some Manischewitz wine. We always made an effort to have that.”

For Webb, who now goes by the Hebrew name of Zvi, Vietnam was the beginning of a spiritual awakening. On the one hand, he was a patriotic warrior, enduring hellish firefights and barrages of enemy rockets. On the other, he was the contemplative investigator, spending his free time learning more about his heritage. As detailed in Loyal Soldier, a book penned several years ago about his service to his country, after escaping a bullet, a grenade and a drunken anti-Semite, he was forced to rethink: What am I really fighting for?

Webb, left, and Gary Siegel served together at the Da Nang Air Base.
Webb, left, and Gary Siegel served together at the Da Nang Air Base.

Family Connections

The book’s publishing sent Webb, who has four children serving as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in California, New York and New Jersey, and another who writes for the Jewish Web site, on a speaking tour of religious and non-religious venues. Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, assistant rabbi of the Upper Montgomery County center, invited the veteran to speak in part because he knew how powerful Webb’s story was – Tenenbaum’s sister-in-law is Webb’s daughter-in-law – but also because he wanted to help Siegel, a regular at the Chabad House, reunite with his long lost friend.

“When I read Zvi Webb’s book, I noticed that he mentioned Gary Siegel, and I talked with him about it at a wedding we were both invited to,” says Tenenbaum.

Time has played its part on the pair, adds the rabbi, and at Webb’s speech two weeks ago, “the two couldn’t recognize each other! They gave each other a big hug, and then they just took it all in for a moment. It was really special.”

Siegel agrees, and notes that underneath the hat and the beard, Webb hasn’t changed.

“It was absolutely marvelous,” says Siegel. “He certainly looks different, but he’s still the same guy, and I’m the same guy. It really takes you back.”

Webb adds that Siegel brought a memento from the war with him.

“We started reminiscing,” he explains. “Gary brought a large metal rocket that was a defective round and hadn’t exploded.”

Siegel recovered an unexploded mortar after an enemy rocket attack 40 years ago. He brought it to the Chabad House as a reminder of his and Webb’s time in Vietnam.
Siegel recovered an unexploded mortar after an enemy rocket attack 40 years ago. He brought it to the Chabad House as a reminder of his and Webb’s time in Vietnam.

Siegel keeps the round to remind people of the horrors of war.

“Between December of ’68 and August of ’69, there were six rocket attacks on us,” details Siegel. “I was a duty officer on each of those nights. During one attack, the rockets hit the ammunition pile, so all of that exploded. About 13 to 14 hours later, when it was safe to go outside, I went out and saw this mortar lying there.

“It was Chinese-built, so it was split down the middle and hadn’t exploded properly,” he continues. “I took it with me, and kept it in my office mounted on a wooden backing. I brought it to Zvi’s lecture so that people would see that these things that you see on TV aren’t just on TV. They’re real.”

One attendee of the talk, Louise Albagli, described it as “an awesome event.”

“It gave all of us a whole other perspective of the time,” she explains. “It was a beautiful, special event. It was absolutely wonderful to see [Zvi] and Gary reunite. It was just a transformational experience.”