This month marks the 25th anniversary of a tragic event: the death of three American diplomats attempting to negotiate peace in Bosnia: Joseph Kruzel Jr., Col. Nelson Drew and Diplomat Robert Frasure.
Kruzel and his family were and are close friends of mine, and I would like to reflect on both Joe’s and his father’s commitment and service to this country.
The senior Kruzel was the son of Polish immigrants to the United States and when World War II broke out as a result of the German invasion of Poland, he desperately wanted to serve his country as a pilot. However, he had bad knees — so bad that would have prevented him from donning his country’s uniform if his condition was discovered.
As a civilian, when he had his reflexes tested by a doctor who struck his knee with a rubber mallet, nothing happened. When it came time for a military doctor to test his reflexes, Kruzel watched closely as the doctor struck his kneecap and kicked as high as a Rockette. His gambit worked and he went on to fly 500 combat hours, shoot down five enemy planes thereby becoming an ace. After the war, Joseph Kruzel Sr. stayed in the Air Force and became a Major General.
His son Joseph Kruzel Jr. , following in his father’s contrail, attended the Air Force Academy, graduating in 1967, served in Vietnam as an intelligence officer, and earned a doctorate in government at Harvard when he left the Air Force. He was a professor at Duke and Ohio State University before entering the Department of Defense in 1993 as a deputy assistant secretary.
In his position at the Pentagon, Kruzel tirelessly worked with the United States’ NATO allies and sought to extend the influence and membership of NATO through a program he developed called the “Partnership for Peace.” He worked closely with allies to bring peace to Bosnia, where genocide had raised its ugly head in Europe for the first time since World War II. In attempting to negotiate a peace in this devastating war, Kruzel and his two colleagues were killed when their armored personnel carrier went off a mountainside road going into Sarajevo. What are the lessons to be drawn from the lives of General and Joseph Kruzel?
As airmen, both Kruzels personified the core values of the Air Force: integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all that they did. They also personified a deep commitment to this country. As John Kruzel — the grandson and son of the two senior Kruzels — has written, “This is the heart of patriotism: having the courage to assert your country’s values, particularly when it feels as though they’ve fallen out of use.”
The senior and junior Joseph Kruzels supported efforts a generation apart to stand up to dictators, stop genocide, and to provide relief to those suffering from the ravages of tyranny. They also valued alliance with countries that shared American values and sought to extend those values to other countries.
The lives and values of the Kruzels stand in sharp contrast to those of many present leaders, including the current occupant of the White House who has criticized NATO and threatened to withdraw from the most successful alliance in world history. The president has lambasted the leaders of the United States’ closest allies, and coddled up to dictators around the world, including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.
During a ceremony posthumously granting the highest U.S. military honor to Sgt. First Class Jared Monti for his heroic actions to try to save one of his wounded comrades in a battle in Afghanistan in 2006, President Barack Obama noted that Sgt. Monti and his fellow members of the military “remind us that the price of freedom is great. And by their deeds they challenge every American to ask this question: What can we do to be better citizens? What can we do to be worthy of such service and sacrifice?” The same question may be asked considering the exemplary lives of General and Joseph Kruzel.
Dan Caldwell is a Navy veteran, served on the Clinton-Gore transition Team with Joseph Kruzel, and is distinguished professor of political science at Pepperdine University.