Interview with Kristina Keenan, Commander of American Veterans in Paris

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Interview with Kristina Keenan, Commander of American Veterans in Paris
American veterans in Paris, long been dominated by the World War II generation, have found a fresh new face to represent them as commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 605. Kristina Keenan, a 35-year-old veteran of the Balkans conflict, was first elected commander of the Benjamin Franklin Memorial Post in 2016, re-elected in April 2017. She also recently was named chaplain for the European Department of the VFW. There are 6,536 VFW posts worldwide, with nearly 1.7 million members (out of an estimated 21 million American veterans). The Paris chapter counts 210 members, the oldest a 95-year-old WWII veteran, the youngest a 27-year-old Iraq veteran. Only six members are women. But Kristina Keenan enjoys doing the unexpected. As a senior in high school, she signed up with the Minnesota National Guard rather than go to college. She was deployed to Bosnia for two tours of working with NATO peacekeeping troops, and loved the international involvement. After returning to civilian life, she moved to Paris (blame the French boyfriend), finished bachelor’s and master’s degrees and went to work in development at The American University of Paris. In 2013, she joined the VFW post, and now, as its commander, she is the voice of American veterans in the City of Light. Ellen Hampton: Why did you want to join the National Guard so young? What drove you to do that? Kristina Keenan: “I wanted to do something different, something that was challenging. All my friends were going to college, and they planned to get married and have kids right after, and for me that whole plan seemed kind of boring. The Army looked interesting. I spoke with a recruiter, and he laid out a plan that was really good for me, they would pay for school, but I could travel a bit, do some training, and the training would give me work experience, so when I was done with college, I’d be ahead of the game compared to other graduates. It wasn’t just summer jobs; it was real, professional training.” “Then my unit deployed to Bosnia, that was my first overseas deployment. I ended up volunteering for a second one right after. was six months, so back-to-back I spent about 13 months in Bosnia, with several months before for training. That was a NATO peacekeeping mission, although it was considered a hostile environment. I’m proud that my legacy in the military is as a peacekeeper.” EH: What are the missions of the VFW? KK: “There are essentially three parts to what we do. First, there’s the patriotism role, which is all the ceremonies, the commemorations, the national holidays, things like that. Then we have support for VA benefits, and medical-related things, where we have a counseling role. We do have a trained service officer for every post in the VFW, those are people who can give a certain level of advice when it comes to VA claims. They know the bureaucracy, and can at least provide resources for people who need to make claims, or are in the claims process. “Then the third part is the community. We meet regularly, once a month, we’ll have official meetings to deal with business, to vote on activities, or things that we want to spend money on. We have lunch, we do Thanksgiving dinner every year, we have a spring banquet every April. We do activities with the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, we come to their awards ceremonies, we have a scholarship program, we do outreach with schools, and other community projects.” EH: How different is it to be in the VFW here in France than to be in a post at home? KK: “We’re in a unique position in France. We can go into the actual cemeteries, which are in the vicinity of battles that happened in France. There are 11 American cemeteries in France, so that’s a lot to cover, and we have additional monuments like the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial. We go to the Picpus Cemetery, where the Marquis de Lafayette is buried, and there’s an American flag which is permanently hung over his tomb. We attend the ceremony which the embassy organizes to change the flag every year. So we’re unique in France that we have all of these things to commemorate, or are in the location where a lot of history has happened, including the Normandy landing beaches. “Here in Paris we interact a lot with the American community, through the embassy, the American Church, the American Cathedral. I’m trying to do more outreach with universities. Awareness is part of my personal mission here, to let people know who we are and what we do. I think in the States everybody already knows the VFW. “We do attend French ceremonies as well, and our office is in an entire office building which is dedicated to French veterans’ organizations. We’ve been graciously given our office by the Mayor of Issy-le-Moulineaux. Those organizations often invite us to their ceremonies, which we try to attend.” EH: What brought you to France? KK: “Umm… A French boyfriend. But when I came, I transferred to the American University of Paris (AUP), so I finished my degree at AUP. I was at the University of Maryland at College Park, and I had gone there because I was looking at D.C., and thinking probably that was where I wanted to work. But then I moved to Paris, for personal reasons,…
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Lead photo credit : Kristina Keenan at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. Photo: Pierre Mary Bachelete

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EllenHampton is a historian, author, lecturer at Sciences Po Reims, and resident of the French-American divide since 1989.

Comments

  • Phyllis Parrish
    2018-07-05 20:58:36
    Phyllis Parrish
    A most interesting article. Never thought about a VFW unit overseas.

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