Memorial Day: “Freedom is Not a Gift from Heaven”

by Chaplain (Colonel) Bonnie Koppell

The scene: Kandahar Airfield Chapel. The occasion, a memorial ceremony for Private Jason Hasenauer. The voice of the First Sergeant from the rear of the sanctuary- “Sergeant X”. The hearty reply- “Here, First Sergeant.” The First Sergeant calls out for “Captain X”. Again, a robust, “Here, First Sergeant.” “Private Hasanauer”… silence. A bit louder: “Private Jason Hasanauer.” Silence. A third time: “Private Jason Daniel Hasanauer.” A gut-wrenching echo.

They call it “The Last Roll Call,” and if you are not moved to tears, then you have lost your soul. The plaintive sound of Taps, and soldiers openly weep. The line moves slowly to render a final salute to the display which includes his boots, his helmet, his dog tags, and his weapon. The weapon stands up in the boots, the dog tags suspended from the rifle, and the helmet resting on the top. Another Soldier killed in service to our great nation. This is the price of freedom. This is the sacrifice we honor on Memorial Day.

I have had the incredible privilege to serve as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve for 34 years. The chaplain corps has three  fundamental roles – to nurture the living, to care for the wounded, and to honor the dead. I have stood at the grave of bereaved families more times than I can count, as the flag was folded and presented to the survivors, “with gratitude from a grateful nation.”

We who have been raised in freedom must never, ever take that freedom for granted. As American Jews, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the land of the free and the home of the brave, the place where, outside of our own homeland, we have enjoyed the greatest freedom of religious expression in Jewish history. We join with our fellow citizens on Memorial Day in paying tribute to those who have fallen in defense of these United States, mindful of the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote that, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven, we must fight for it every day.”

Our democratic way of life carries with it an awesome sense of responsibility. On Memorial Day we pray that our country may continue to be a beacon around the world to all those who yearn for “freedom and justice for all.” We pray that the souls of those who made the ultimate sacrifice find rest and repose, that their loved ones take comfort in the good name they leave behind, and that our own readiness to defend never diminishes our commitment to the cause of peace. We pray that government of the people, by the people and for the people never cease from this earth.

Jewish tradition envisions a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Until that blessed time arrives, we pause on Memorial Day to give thanks for the devotion to duty, the loyalty, the courage, the sacrifice of those who have served. We do not mourn, we stand in awe of those who have given their lives for our great country.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is a rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix and a Chaplain (Colonel) in the United States Army Reserve. She  currently serves as Command Chaplain of the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rabbi Koppell holds the distinct honor of having been the first female Rabbi in the U.S. Military.

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3 Responses to “Memorial Day: “Freedom is Not a Gift from Heaven””

  1. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Very moving piece. I recently acquired a JWB Armed Services Prayer Book from 1941. It seems worn and used–I wonder if it belonged to a deployed soldier. I intend to say a grateful Kaddish out of it this Memorial Day, including the extra “Reform” paragraph that actually prays for the souls of the departed. It’s actually fascinating, by the way–it’s a 19th century translation of the Sephardic “hashkava” prayer into Aramaic to fit the rest of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

  2. avatar
    Rabbi Martin Weiner Reply June 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Rabbi Koppell’s words are incredibly moving. They remind all of us of the bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
    Sadly these important values have become lost on our annual Memorial Day. I’m grateful to Rabbi Koppell for sharing this inspiring message with us.


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