Polish-American Soldiers mix patriotic service with heritage in deployment to their birth country
(Photo: US Army, Staff Sgt. Sharon Matthias)

Many Soldiers often get several opportunities to travel and experience new cultures during their time of service. For a select few, there is the chance to travel overseas back to their native homelands.

This is the case for three Soldiers in the Fort Riley, Kansas-based 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division who have deployed to Poland in support of a U.S. Army Europe effort named Atlantic Resolve.

Sgt. Lukasz Szpakowski, a native of Torun, Poland, left the Eastern European country for the U.S. when he was 17 years old to with cousins in Manassas, Virginia.

While there, a seed was planted. Szpakowski’s cousins served in the U.S. military and inspired him to join the Army in 2005.

Now, Szpakowski, a M1A2 Abrams tank systems maintainer assigned to 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, is on a nine-month tour of duty in Poland. He is one of many U.S. Soldiers that form the bedrock of what makes up the United States’ forward presence in Europe. This presence has formed a solid bond between the U.S., allied, and partnered nations. In turn, these relationships assure European nations of the United States’ ability to deter adversaries and quickly respond to aggression in the region.

During his 12 years of active service to his adopted country, Szpakowski has experienced living in five different U.S. states and two countries, but he emphasized that none of those experiences elicited the same feelings as returning to his birth country.

“I was excited to come, hoping I could visit my parents,” said Szpakowski, a father of two young children.

He said he raises his kids in a way that allows them to understand both the heritage and customs of Poland, and the country he now serves.

“My wife is American, so during Easter and Christmas holidays we try to compromise by alternating between American and Polish traditions for the kids,” said Szpakowski.

In Poland, Dec. 6, is Santa Claus Day, so Szpakowski likes to buy a small gift for his loved ones. Unlike his wife, Szpakowski celebrates the traditionally-religious holiday on Christmas Eve, when he cooks 12 Polish dishes for the 12 Apostles.

Szpakowski’s wife tries to find and cook recipes from Poland that he likes and one dish — golumpki — is not only enjoyed by him, but also enjoyed by two other “Dagger Brigade” Soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class John Szewczak and Spc. Courtney Roth.

“My great-grandmother did most of the traditional Polish cooking, but my favorite was golumpki, which was stuffed cabbage with ground meat and rice served with tomato sauce,” said Szewczak.

Szewczak has served 24 years on active duty in the U.S. Army and was ready to retire, but decided to withhold submitting his paperwork when he learned of the opportunity to serve in the country of his ancestors.

“As a child, I would hear my great-grandmother pray in Polish every night for about an hour; the woman was a saint,” said Szewczak. “She was really the only one left in our family that was traditionally Polish. As her children grew up, it started to fade away.”

Szewczak, a native of Philadelphia, is a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team.

“My father was one of the reasons I didn’t retire after 24 years of service,” said Szewczak. “Because of our Polish lineage, he was very happy and proud that I was going to be deployed to Poland.”

Not all parents like the idea of watching their child deploy to another country. In Roth’s case, her experience was different than Szewczak.

“My mother was apprehensive of me joining the military because she thought I would be sent off to war with a weapon in my hands,” said Roth. “I had to reassure her that my job as a Soldier is quite the opposite. Instead, we work on mitigating the circumstances to deter having to go to war.”

Roth a native of Cleveland, Ohio, enlisted in 2015 and is assigned to the 82nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team as an intelligence analyst.

She was excited about the idea of living in Poland when she learned of her unit’s deployment.

“I’ve always admired Soldiers from our allied nations when they train with us in the U.S., and now, to have the chance to live and train with Polish soldiers in Poland, feels like a unique opportunity only the military can offer,” said Roth.

Although Roth attributes her ability to travel and experience new cultures to the military, she, like Szewczak and Szpakowski, was especially fond of deploying to experience her Polish roots.

“My great-grandparents were Polish, and my grandmother lived with me for 10 years,” said Roth. “She spoke the language and cooked the traditional foods; I can still remember the fond childhood memories of living with her, watching her play the accordion and dancing to Polka.”

Polish cuisine is still very much part of Roth’s life at home.

“My mother still cooks the traditional Polish golumpki, pierogi — a dumpling made with meat or potatoes in the middle — cucumber salad and kolacky, a Polish Christmas cookie, said Roth. “These recipes were handed down by my grandmother.”

Roth believes that being part of the American military is an amazing opportunity to work with our allies.

“I have met Soldiers who are Polish in (the U.S.) military and it’s neat to see people who grew up and were born and lived in Poland, yet still choose to serve in the U.S. military,” said Roth. “I just feel that it breaks boundaries — that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your roots are, the military brings a lot of people together.”

By Staff Sgt. Sharon Matthias