While taking in the joyful, celebratory sights and sounds of this year’s Veterans Day parade down Virginia Street, I spotted a gentleman hanging out on the corner of Center and Ryland streets, across from the Downtown Reno Library. He looked like he might just have a story to tell—and he did. Jake Varon, 69, who served as an Army combat engineer in Korea, was orphaned as a child and spent part of his military career caring for orphaned Korean children. Today, Varon is a member of the Jewish War Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has been volunteering for veterans’ organizations for almost 20 years. As I approached him, his first words to me were in Korean.
How did you learn Korean?
I had to learn the language so I could explain my feelings to these little [orphaned] children. Little by little, as [my company] would take over a village … I would take the children [of the village].
Is this something you were ordered to do?
I did this on my own. My company did not know until four to five months later.
What happened when they found out?
They called me to the company commander, and I thought they were going to give me a hard time, but they didn’t. The commander said, “I’m gonna get you some money to help with the children. The company’s gonna give money every month to help with food and clothes.”
Did you care for the children yourself? Or did you have help?
After we took over a certain village, we had [Korean foster mothers called] mamasan … take care of the children. I was at war. I couldn’t stay there all the time. I thought my company commander would get mad at me, but instead he praised me, because he knew I was an orphan.
When did you join the army?
I didn’t join. I was drafted on Dec. 10, 1952. I’ll be 70 years old this month.
How did you feel when you were drafted?
Well, I didn’t want to go to war. See, in those years, we were very patriotic. Right or wrong, we were very patriotic. That’s why we went to war.
How long were you in the army?
I was discharged on Oct. 7, 1955.
What did you do when you got out?
I’d rather not say … I’m a humanitarian. I’ve been through hell. Let’s put it this way: When I came out, I went through hell. When you’re an orphan [and have no one to turn to], you either turn out a criminal or humble and meek. I turned out humble and meek. [In the 1960s], I was a hippie. Know what a hippie is?
Yep, for the most part.
I became a kind of guru. Know what a guru is?
Yeah, I have a general idea.
A guru is a teacher. I wasn’t a drug addict. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was a person who cared for others.
Because of what you’d been through?
Yeah. Because of what I’d been through.