How to say “Semper Fi” in Polish

I dread turbulence, but I worry more about unexpected troubles on the trip through immigration or a TSA line. After seven hours on a train, followed by 15 hours in the air, I lack enthusiasm for a jet stream of questions from a uniformed officer of my own country. Asking why I have been in China for seven years is reasonable, questioning why I want to return always seems a little odd. After boot camp and OCS I was pretty certain I would never voluntarily put myself in a situation where I would be screamed at 24/7, but after a few minutes with TSA personnel at LAX last year I realized we are all back in boot camp and not likely to graduate as long as the war on terror continues. But, I digress…

After clearing customs in Chicago–interesting that you do the same thing with immigration that you do in a minefield–I mustered the last of my energy to catch the shuttle for hotel.

In sharp contrast to my greeting at O’Hare was the outstretched hand of Paul Kowalik the man behind the desk at the Baymount Inn near the airport. We had never met before, but after learning that I was a veteran he enthusiastically welcomed me home and thanked me for my service. It was the first time anyone had ever said those words to me. My peers from the Vietnam era must be as shocked as I am, but grateful that the one thing most people in our divided country can agree on is an appreciation of those who have served in the armed forces.

Paul’s actions seemed heartfelt, but I sensed there was something motivating his special enthusiasm and asked him about his feelings. He told me his brother had served in the Marines and had been deployed to Iraq shortly after the allied invasion.

I was no longer jet lagged and listened intently to Paul tell me the story of his family’s emigration to America. Their father, who had been doing business here for a decade, moved Paul’s mother and brother to Chicago. He died only two years after relocating, but, the family was determined to gain citizenship. Paul’s brother Jakub joined the military after the 9-11 attacks hoping to make a difference for his adopted country and to gain a leg up on immigration while earning money to pursue college after enlistment. There are approximately 31,000 “green-card” soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in the U.S. military. They’re permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens. Yet, like Jakub, they chose to defend the country where they live.

On Mothers Day 2003 Jakub and other young Marines ordered to call home. Danuta Kowalik, his mother, was thrilled to hear from her son and grateful he was safe and able to call home. She asked about the $900 protective vest she had sent to him, as did many parents when safer gear was not issued to troops, and asked about his work. It was the last time she would speak to him. He became the first non-citizen soldier killed in Iraq when the unexploded ordnance he had volunteered to help move detonated.

“He was kind and generous and volunteered for everything” said his brother Paul. His family is no different. Danuta belongs to Gold Star Mothers an organization with the the highest dues and most difficult membership requirements: You must have lost a child to war. Danuka devotes time, talent and money to helping families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And Paul reaches out to veterans at every chance. It is not unusual for him to pick up the bill at a diner for a table of new graduates from nearby Great Lakes Naval Station.

In a ceremony held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and attended by Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, Jakub was granted posthumous citizenship. “I think that when someone gives their life for our country, they certainly should be citizens,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended the ceremony. “I think Jakub is in that great tradition of patriots who believed in liberty, freedom and democracy.”

Danuta Kowalik clutched a framed certificate that officially granted her son, Lance Cpl. Jakub Kowalik, something that, in her eyes, he had already earned–American citizenship. “Citizenship for Jakub was a special thing because he dreamed of it,” Danuta Kowalik of Schaumburg said Tuesday, on what would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. “It was like a special gift I got for my son today. I’m sure he’s smiling now.”

And in December of last year, just before his birthday, Paul was granted U.S. citizenship. “This is the greatest country in the world. They welcomed me to America last year. I know how that feels, so I want to honor any soldier who was away fighting for us,” he said.

I saw Paul last week and will see him many more times I am sure. I am awed by their faithfulness to each other, their son’s memory and to veteran soldiers. “We are family now,” he told me as we hugged goodbye. “Welcome Home!”

 

 

Related story on NPR: 25 troops become citizens. Kandahar

Comments

    • KC and Bobi McGee says

      Lon, This is the first time seeing this article. I cried all the way through it.
      As a teenager in Lake Forest, I volunteered at Great Lakes, in the Geriatric Ward of the hospital.
      Those days were my first first lessons in respect, reverance, acceptance of commitment. A
      Paul reaching out to the new recruits, extending a hand, when by rights he could (maybe should) be bitter, speaks volumes for how these 2 fine young men were raised.
      Thank You, for being the voice of those who no longer can speak . It is in YOUR strength and courage that their words live on. I’m very honored, and proud to have found and “met” you, and Gander.
      You are the example of the true American Hero I want my Grandchildren to know about and emulate.
      Thank You, Brother, for still doing your job well. My most heartfelt Welcome Home, to You.

  1. John Atterberry says

    Great story, it is heartening to know that so many immigrants are willing to serve and have sacrificed so much.

  2. says

    A tender story here, Lon, and this is a special family. I work with many Ukrainians and Belorussians, and every conversation ends with some mention of how grateful they are to be Americans. Its easy to lose sight of that; I’m guilty of it all the time.

  3. says

    Lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. There should be some provision in our immigration laws that automatically grants citizenship to these “green-card” soldiers.

  4. Paul Kowalik says

    Hi Lonnie, just want to say thank You so much for this story on behalf of my family and my brother Jake. I am gladd I got to meet You Lon, and share my story with You because we have to keep the memories of the fallen soldiers alive and support our veterans who are still with us. I wish I can switch places with my brother, so he can enjoy the freedoms that he fought for but since I can’t I will live every day for him and every one who has served or made the ultimate sucrifice. Semper Fi in Polish is “Zawsze Wierny – Always Faithfull”. Take care Lonnie, great job.

    • J. J. SANCHEZ says

      Paul,

      I served with your brother during Operation Iraqi Freedom. he was my A-Gunner and Foxhole buddy, we were “battle buddies”, this means one couldn’t go anywhere without the other.

      This is not easy for me and it has taking me 10 years to reach out and finally make this move. I would like to speak to you and share some memories with you and your family.

  5. candice jingjing says

    A touching story. It also reminds of me again what a life in this world. I believe Paul is just one of us. What we can do is to try our best and fight for our lives.

  6. says

    What a tender story of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and gratitude. How I wish our own America-born citizens felt the same appreciation towards our country that Paul feels. Thank you for sharing this story. I am going to share it with my friends now.

  7. Susan Hartzband says

    Lonnie, I loved the story and just want to make a very small observation; Mothers who have lost sons or daughters in war are Gold Star Mothers, not Blue Star. Blue Star Mothers are those who have a son or daughter serving. I had a blue star sign in my yard and my window when my own son was deployed. Thank God I have not qualified to be a Gold Star Mother but my heart goes out to those who are. And, I am so sorry that dealing with TSA is such a pain sometimes. I am hearing impaired and I missed a TSA instruction one time, only to be yelled at full voice and very publically. However, given the recent death of a TSA officer I plan to try to be more patient as I go through the airport lines. But still there is no excuse for rudeness.

    • admin says

      Thanks.
      Not sure how that stayed on there so long without someone catching it.
      They were a Blue Star family that made the somber transition to Gold Star…
      I’m a Gold Star family member as well. I forget that sometimes. It’s not a membership I can resign.

      Blessings.

  8. denise Jones says

    What a heart rendering story, brave member of service, he certainly did his family and country proud – a very stoical family picking up the threads, carrying on and doing great works in honor of their highly courageous departed, precious one and their country. God bless each.

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