When I spent my first year of seminary in Jerusalem, one of the things that I came to truly appreciate about Israel and Israelis was the fact that Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) was immediately and purposely preceded by Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance), a day when Israelis pause to honor and recall their fallen heroes who have perished in the country’s many wars. This purposeful and highly choreographed juxtaposition seemed to have purposing of saying that freedom is not free, and that to forget the sacrifices of one’s military is to dishonor one’s nation.
It may be coincidence or it may be fate, but it is never lost on me as a Jewish-American Soldier that Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) immediately precedes Veterans Day (November 11th). Many will recall that Kristallnacht was the Nazi-orchestrated destruction of thousands of Jewish synagogues, stores, and homes in 1938 Germany and Austria. After Kristallnacht, the world knew without a doubt that things were only going to get worse for Jews living under Nazi control. On November 11th, despite the parades, the speeches, and gatherings of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Jewish War Veterans across this great land of ours, I would characterize Veterans Day as more serious and solemn than celebratory in nature. Unlike the turn from Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut, which evokes a sense of somber grief turning into joyous celebration, Kristallnacht and Veterans Day both evoke a sense of mourning and grief.
Kristallnacht is a day of profound grief. It is a day on which we recount the burning of historic synagogues, the destruction of Jewish businesses and homes, and the beating and killing of Jews—all widespread, coordinated, and condoned. Worst of all, it was only a preview of what would happen to the six million Jews in the concentration camps and killing fields across Europe. I don’t think I would be far off if I were to say that there is a sense of utter helplessness when we commemorate Kristallnacht. We grieve on Veterans Day as well. We mourn the young men and women who, in the prime of their lives, died fighting at places like Lexington and Concord, at Gettysburg and Appomattox, at Belleau Wood and the Argonne, at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Normandy, and Bastogne, at Pusan and Inchon, at Ia Drang, Kai Son, Hue, and Saigon, at Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul and Baghdad, and in Helmand Kandahar, Kunar, and Kabul, all in the name of freedom, and for liberty and justice for all. We also lament the fact that many of those who came home did so forever scarred with the wounds of war, not just physical but emotional, mental, psychological, and spiritual as well.
Yet, what separates Veterans Day from Kristallnacht is that there is also an enormous sense of pride—pride that we have men and women who will stand and fight for our republic, for our democracy, and for all that is good and right in the world. In other words, it move us from a sense of hopelessness to a glimmer of light and hope, even if that light is surrounded by the hordes of evil and tyranny.
On August 17th of this very year, my beloved state of Rhode Island buried one of her native sons. First Sergeant (1SG) Peter Andrew McKenna, Jr., 35, of Bristol was an elite Green Beret assigned to the famous 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group based out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Only a month before, while home on leave, he was honored by Senator Jack Reed at his hometown’s July 4th parade (which is the oldest in the country) for his military service. Less than a month later, he would be coming home for good. You might ask, “what happened to him?” Well…
On August 8th, 1SG McKenna was in the middle of his fourth tour in Afghanistan. On that day, Taliban insurgents attacked his base in Kabul by blowing a massive hole in the perimeter wall and then sending fighters and suicide bombers to rush in. McKenna and his team acted instinctively and bravely. They ran towards the insurgents, firing as they went, dispatched four of them, and successfully beat back the attack. Sadly, during the American counterattack, Andrew was killed by small arms fire. When his remains came back stateside to be buried in his hometown, people lined the streets of Bristol for three miles to pay homage to their fallen hero. When I think of the juxtaposition of Kristallnacht and Veterans Day, I think first of First Sergeant McKenna standing his ground in the face of withering fire from a determined, evil enemy, and that of his unit’s official motto, De Oppresser Liber, “To Free the Oppressed.”
It is my prayer this coming November 10th and 11th to Aveinu Malkeinu B’shamayim, to our Father our King in Heaven, that the Kristallnachts of the world one day become only a distant memory because there are good men and women like Andrew McKenna who will always be ready and willing to stand in the breech, to confront evil head-on, and to give their last dying breath to defend the downtrodden and to free the oppressed.