Gene Simmons, bassist and co-lead singer for the rock band KISS, made news when he visited the Pentagon on Thursday as part of an initiative to connect the American public to the United States military.
But it was his emotional remarks about what America meant to him and his late mother that were remarkable.
“I’m a proud son of a concentration camp survivor of Nazi Germany. My mother was 14 when she was in the camps. I’m measuring my words because I’m about to break up again –,” he said, striking the podium.
“My mother just passed at 93. But if Americans could see and hear my mother talk about America, they would understand,” he said.
He shared what it was like when he first came to America as a child from Israel, not speaking a lot of English. He said his mother worked six days a week, and in the evenings, they would watch the news together.
By midnight, the three or four TV stations at that time would go off the air. But before then, they would watch a jet fly through the sky and melt into an image of the American flag. The national anthem would play, he said.
“And every time my mother saw the flag, she’d start crying,” he said. “As an eight-year-old boy, I didn’t understand why, but from my mother’s point of view, we were finally safe,” he said, choking up.
“I may have been born in the country that people throughout history have referred to as the Promised Land, but take my word for it — America is the Promised Land, for everybody. And don’t be ashamed, don’t hesitate.
“We need to teach young people to be comfortable with saying God bless America,” he said. “End of my story.”
His remarks were captured on video by McClatchy’s Tara Copp:
Simmons’ visit to the Pentagon transpired months ago. A Pentagon civilian employee met Simmons backstage at a show and invited him to visit the Pentagon if he was in the area. Simmons took him up on that offer.
Simmons’ visit highlighted the Pentagon’s #KnowYourMil initiative, which aims to educate Americans on exactly what members of the U.S. military do, and what jobs they fulfill, including everything from veterinarians to lawyers.
“What a privilege it was to meet an American icon who has such love for country, family, and our military,” said Anne K. Joiner, acting principal deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs.
“We appreciate Gene and his wife, Shannon, for taking the time to visit with us and express such gratitude for the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.”
The #KnowYourMil initiative was launched in February 2018, amid growing concern that the U.S. military was becoming increasingly disconnected from the public it serves, which affects future recruitment and the sustainment of an all-volunteer military force.
According to a fact sheet, fewer than half of 1% of Americans serve in the military, and fewer than 15% of young adults have a parent who has served. In addition, less than 30% of 17 to 24-year-olds are eligible for military service.
More and more, military service has become a family affair, with 80% of those in uniform today having had a family member serve in the U.S. military.
Joiner said the #KnowYourMil initiative is about “connecting Americans to their military.”
“We want to create conversations that bring civilian and military communities together,” she said.