An Illinois National Guard journey to Poland

  • Published
  • By Chaplain Michael Doan
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Chaplain Corps

Imagine your nation was attacked and your military was severely outmatched. After a few weeks of resistance and hard losses, your country was taken over. Your government – gone. Your borders – gone. Your land, your home – taken away. When the world map is unrolled, the name of your nation is no longer there…

For most in Poland, there is no need to imagine but to just simply remember. In the past 100 years alone, Poland has been knocked off of the world map on three separate occasions. Each time they successfully struggled to re-establish their government, set up borders and declare their independence. Today, they are fully invested in national sovereignty and are willing to sacrifice everything to defend their country and way of life. Their trust is fully placed in two national treasures for success in maintaining this hard-won independence: Their military and their faith. Every year these two treasures go on full display during the annual Pilgrimage to Czestochowa (pronounced Chest-oh-ho-va). Each August, over 200,000 pilgrims walk through the country to celebrate liberty and give thanks to God at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, “The Black Madonna.”

Together with those who take other means of transportation, the pilgrims form crowds totaling over half a million who converge in Czestochowa to commemorate miraculous victories in battle which have occurred over the centuries and to pray for God’s blessings of independence and freedom to continue through the years to come.

Illinois is military partners with Poland in the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program. As such, the Illinois National Guard has participated in this commemorative pilgrimage with Poland for 15 years. Representatives from several nations surrounding Poland (Germany, Lithuania, Slovakia and Croatia) also join in solidarity to celebrate national sovereignty, worship God and demonstrate their ongoing commitment to freedom.

I was privileged to be part of the Illinois National Guard delegation to Poland a couple of summers ago. Sixteen of us from Illinois joined Poland’s military for this 10-day, 230-mile pilgrimage to Czestochowa. It was at once grueling and wonderful. Jetlagged from the trip and unable to sleep, I was already anticipating the 3 a.m. wake-up call. We gathered for worship at 4 a.m. (Roman Catholicism is the major religion in Poland, and everyone on the pilgrimage attended Catholic Mass daily.). This was followed by a 2-hour bus ride to Warsaw, Poland’s largest city. In Warsaw, as several other groups lined up, we formed our parade of 400 uniformed military members and began the march to Czestochowa.

It was exhilarating to find the people of this big city (1.8 million) honoring and celebrating us as we passed through their streets! Women blew kisses. Those managing stores stepped out to wave and cheer. Construction crews halted their work to happily wave as we passed. At every intersection all traffic stopped for us, including street cars on rail. All along the way the people of Poland clapped, waved, gave us high-fives, and shared homemade drinks, desserts and always delicious dill pickles. We would see many of the elder Poles crying or holding back tears. This Pilgrimage – the military, the collective memory, the miracles – has a deep meaning for Poland.

Several days I’m sure I wouldn't have made it without miracles of my own. Over the 10 days of walking our path took us through villages and towns where we would be provided snacks and lunch offered by locals who happily volunteered and generously shared. Their hospitality and kindness helped us march on. We walked 28 miles the first day, only 17 the second, 27, 27, 26… Through the first five days, everything I could feel was aching. My toes were blistered while my heels were cracked and bloody. My back, my hips, my knees… Even though I had removed several items from it, my backpack seemed to get more and more heavy. Toward the end of a very long day, I was nearly going down when one in our group lifted that backpack off my shoulders and carried it the last two miles. He was like an angel to me that day.

Usually mass was in Polish without a translator. But one morning in one of many beautiful cathedrals I was gifted with a seminary student who spoke excellent English. He interpreted the entire service for me personally. The music that echoed through that sanctuary was overwhelming and moved me to tears. The bishop’s sermon was amazingly inspirational and encouraging. After this it seemed like I floated for the next 20 miles!

More times than I can count there were fellow pilgrims with whom to talk and exchange mutual encouragement for the road ahead. I learned much about Poland and the surrounding countries. I made lifelong friends from every country present, including my own. The 230-mile pilgrimage ended the last day with only a 7-mile walk into Czestochowa, led by police on horseback and the military band. We were met in the city with crowds lining the streets and filling storefront balconies to cheer us on. Throngs of people were gathered on the grounds around the shrine to welcome their military. They sang Poland’s national anthem and escorted us in to view the Black Madonna where everyone prayed to God and some asked the Madonna to pray to God for them.

Having said our goodbyes and loaded on the bus back to Warsaw, glimpses of the villages and towns reviewed and highlighted the entire journey. I’ve truly been through Poland and experienced it in a way few are privileged to know. Looking back, the walks were not as long and difficult as they seemed at the time. The days were far too short, and the journey ended way too soon.

Though swept many times from the world map, Poland always remains strong and vibrant in the hearts of her people, and now in mine as well.