There is an ancient proverb among the peoples of the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia) who share a distinct heritage and linguistic roots. It states (roughly): “Do not tell others what they must do. Show them the reason, and they will go.” This proverb is obviously steeped in a culture fostering an intrinsic sense of responsibility. Traditionally, and even today, the people of this region live in a clan structure. Though different from one another, the clans hold several tenets in common: honoring tradition, respect for one’s elders, accountability to the group, and the primacy of raising youth who will one day carry on their traditions and lead the next generation forward.
David Kerwien Jr. did not grow up under a strict clan structure. He was not raised on the pastoral proverbs of a nomadic desert people, did not spend his youth tending goats, and did not draw his family’s water from a hand-dug well. Kerwien, born and raised in Jefferson (class of 2011), grew up in a typical American household with the advantages and challenges common to our modern time and place.
After high school graduation, Kerwien faced the typical “what next” dilemma. He certainly wanted to work, to participate, to feel productive. He hoped to put his vigorous energy to good purpose, but had trouble finding his way. He was young, ambitious, energized – and a bit lost. He worked in several trades, earned his associate degree, and joined the National Guard, but still longed for a deeper commitment. He wanted something bigger, something more meaningful.
Kerwien served honorably in the National Guard and was ready for discharge from active duty. He was prepared to move back into civilian life, where he planned to pursue a career in law enforcement. In his own words, he wanted “to help correct the stigma faced by law enforcement in our country, which overshadows the amazing work done each day by all the good cops out there.” He was ready to become a “good cop” himself, a police officer in a community like the one that raised him … that is, until he heard that his unit was deploying to the east coast of Africa, a world apart. Without hesitating, Kerwien reenlisted. He says of that decision, “My parents taught me that once I make a commitment, I see it through. I don’t ever have to do it again, but I see it through once I begin.”
It wasn’t only his parents who built this young man’s sense of duty, compassion, responsibility, service, adventure, and gratitude. By his own account, confirmed by his parents and verified by others who know him, Kerwien is a product of this community. He is a poster child for the saying “It takes a village.” Though his influences growing up are too many to list, a few names came quickly to his mind: coaches Milonas, Shortway, Trautman, Guarino, Mullins, and Reid. He mentions his neighbors, teachers, the parents of his friends (DiBernard, Wilhelm, Barrett, Polis), and his own brother, Andy. Kerwien refers to these people as his “tribe.” That tribe grew substantially when he joined the United States Army, where he added new skills, knowledge, and values to the ones he carried from home: faith, leadership, discipline, accountability.
Out to Africa
Kerwien granted this interview from an army outpost near a village in eastern Africa. He says the experience has given him a tremendous sense of awe as he has learned about, and involved himself in, the lives of his neighbors. He does not speak of the obvious and myriad differences between rural African life and his home in Jefferson Township. When Kerwien steps beyond the bounds of his base, he sees the similarities: sharing, kindness, compassion, family, community, service, and home. Kerwien has not found people different and “less than.” To him, they are an extension of his own family, an addition to the tribe.
Although Kerwien is not at liberty to speak about his location or mission parameters, according to the United States Army official website (www.army.mil), American soldiers have been in that region since 2002 as part of a coalition force to prevent conflict, promote regional stability, and protect coalition interests in east Africa and Yemen. The stability resulting from their efforts will promote growth, thereby protecting the local people from radicalization, famine, and violence. Kerwien speaks of his duty as one of service to that community – strangers to him, living far from the delis and lacrosse fields of Jefferson, but kindred just the same.
Kerwien sees his own home reflected in the people around him. They remind him, daily, of how he got where he is. He views them as another example of the fact that we need to stay connected. In our youth, we depend on our community for guidance and support. In our prime, community gives us an opportunity to contribute and build; it is the best place for the best of our abilities and dreams. As we age, we attain positions of leadership as the vessels of wisdom and as the thread binding new to old.
The people of the Horn of Africa have another saying that bears repeating: “A kind hand is worth more than a kind word.” Thanks to the guidance of his tribe – at home, in service, and abroad – Kerwien is living out that axiom daily. It is a credit to his character that he has a kind word to match.
It was vital to Kerwien and his family to mention the thousands of men and women serving their country in the United States armed forces. This story is not about a specific young man, but rather about the results we can always expect when a village, a tribe, comes together and extends its hands. From the least action to the greatest, all contribute to the group that will shape lives and impact others for decades to come. We may at times forget how important participation in our community truly is, but each of our actions reverberates throughout our home and across the globe.
Kerwien will soon return to New Jersey, where he plans to become part of the fabric of his community. At this time of year, we remember all that we have and all for which we are grateful. More than reflection and a kind word, it’s a time to act by extending our hands in kindness to those on the fringe. When asked what he envisions for Jefferson Township moving forward, Kerwien recalls our community in its times of greatest strife when we came together in solidarity, when we looked to the needs of others, when no one was left out in the cold, when no one went without – our town at its best, the one he will rejoin. Whether speaking of the town that raised him, his comrades in uniform, or his newfound tribe on the coast of foreign soil, the lesson is the same: “We can’t be alone; we need to feel supported. At the end of the day, we need each other – we are a tribe.”