A Military Affair: Memorial Day Reflections from a Combat Vet-Turned-Jewish Leader
JNS.org – During a recent interview, fittingly slated between Memorial Days for fallen soldiers in Israel and America, Jeff Kuhnreich reflected on the events leading up to the latest chapter in his career.
“It’s a long road that I’ve walked, and it starts before me,” says Kuhnreich, the new vice president of military affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). “My father was a refugee from Berlin, Germany, in 1936. He and his mother and father were the only people [from their family] that got out. He was a teenager. In 1943, he turned 18 and joined the US Army. He fought in Europe and was severely wounded behind the lines.”
A Navy veteran, Kuhnreich explains how his family’s escape from Nazi Germany — and his father’s decision to serve in the US military — instilled within him a deep sense of gratitude for what America “did for [my father] and … for our people.”
Kuhnreich spent the majority of his US military career flying F-4 and F-14 combat planes, with several deployments in the Mediterranean and Arab Gulf theaters.
“I fell in love with flying just before I joined, and they had a great program which set me up for a flying career. … I was selected and became what some people would call a ‘navigator’ … and what our community would call a ‘radar intercept officer.’ I was a two-seat fighter ‘back-seater,’” he says.
But did he also learn how to fly the planes?
“I started to go down that road,” says Kuhnreich, “but got injured and could not physically control the aircraft anymore. So I shifted over to being a navigator, and in this role, I [controlled] the radar and half of the weapons, and in some cases had the capability to drop bombs as well.”
After serving as a radar intercept officer during the Gulf War, Kuhnreich was transferred to Washington, D.C., to represent the Navy’s comptroller, who liaises with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, specializing in aircraft and weapons procurement. He also served as a policy adviser to former Senators Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.), and as AIPAC’s director of defense programs.
In the rest of his interview with JNS.org, Kuhnreich discussed his past and current work, US-Israel ties and the significance of America’s Memorial Day (marked on May 29 this year).
JNS: Can you describe a notable Israel-related initiative you worked on while serving as a Senate adviser?
Jeff Kuhnreich: “[With Senator Kyl] we established the inter-parliamentary working group between the Israeli Knesset and the US Senate. This was a big thing because [the formal working group speaks] on a routine basis with their Israeli counterparts in the Knesset.”
JNS: Why are Israel’s defense capabilities important to the US?
JK: In the current region, Israel is a lone island, but it’s a very strong island. It’s well-defended. They have one of the strongest militaries, and on top of this, Israel has one of the most moral militaries in the world. The length to which the IDF goes to ensure the safety of civilians and reduce collateral damage is extraordinary
Having Israel as a friend and as a stabilizing influence allows the United States to do things it needs to do in other parts of the world, and not have to jam its resources into that region to keep the peace, which we had to do before.
JNS: What does your role entail, and what do you hope to accomplish, as JINSA’s new vice president for military affairs?
JK: The principle thing that JINSA has done in the past, and continues to do is, [organizing] the [American] generals’ and admirals’ trip [to Israel]. Education and partnership — obviously that’s going to be a big portion of what I’m doing.
I’ll be looking into how to expand that — how to take what we’ve been doing, which is a good working model, and expand the breadth and the scope of it…getting our organization involved in military issues that are important to the United States and being seen by Congress or the administration as a resource to go to.
We’re looking to use the generals and admirals as subject matter experts and to [have them] go out as the voices, even more than they are now, for the purpose of defense policy development. I also want to build a good working relationship between JINSA and the Department of Defense, and have them view us as a resource in the development of policy.
JNS: What is the significance of Memorial Day to you, as a combat veteran?
JK: It is a very emotional thing for me. … Many thousands of troops have literally put their lives on the line and given their lives for their country. [But] it is still a relatively small percentage of the US population that has taken up the call of defending the country, and… making that sacrifice.
I think, for those of us in uniform, or who have worn the uniform, that sacrifice is felt much more deeply than the average person. No one feels it more than the person’s family. That’s a given. No one can feel that more than the family, but next in line is those of us who have worn the uniform.