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