By Richard Goldenberg
One of JWV Post 105’s deployed members is carrying a unique item for a Jewish veteran serving overseas – a Christian crucifix.
The Kilmer crucifix, belonging to the famous poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer, is a historical artifact now in Africa with the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, of the New York National Guard. The battalion is on a nine-month overseas deployment to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.
New York Army National Guard Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin, the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment Commander carries the Kilmer crucifix.
“The Kilmer cross is one of the legends of the 69th,” Tabankin, a Clifton Park, New York resident said. “It is part of our history and part of our lineage.”
Kilmer rose to prominence as a writer and poet in the early 1900s. Kilmer enlisted in 1917 and served in the 69th during World War I.
On March 7, 1918, the 69th trench line positions in France were hit by German artillery, resulting in the collapse of a bunker. The attack buried 21 men and killed 19.
Kilmer memorialized the event with his now famous “Rouge Bouquet.” To this day the poem is read at every 69th Regiment memorial service.
On July 30, 1918, Kilmer was killed in action near the village of Seringes-et-Nesles, France during the Second Battle of the Marne. “Rouge Bouquet” was read aloud at his graveside service.
According to legend, Maj. William Donovan, then commander of the regiment, removed the crucifix from Kilmer after his death and carried it for the remainder of the war.
It is revered as one of the army unit’s most important relics.
Though the Kilmer crucifix is usually tucked safely inside a display case, the crucifix accompanies the unit on deployments overseas and is worn by the commander during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and other key ceremonies.
While deployed to the Horn of Africa, Tabankin said he makes sure wherever a 69th Soldier was stationed, the Kilmer crucifix went there as well.
“It is important for us to maintain our traditions to the greatest extent possible, even while deployed,” Tabankin said. “Whenever I travel to any of the outstations, it comes with me. I’ll wear it again when we have our St. Patrick’s Day parade here in Djibouti.”
While Tabankin and his battalion were absent for their traditional leading spot in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, his unit mirrored the celebration overseas at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, where the unit is currently headquartered.
Tabankin, an in-service member of the Jewish War Veterans Albany Post 105, realizes that while the demographics of the unit have changed over the years, its commitment to tradition hasn’t wavered.
“The 69th Infantry was formed by Irish immigrants who were predominantly Roman Catholic,” Tabankin said. “That was probably the dominant religion in the regiment for decades.”
“Today, we are obviously much more diverse and reflect the population of New York City,” he said.
Volume 77. Number 2. 2023