Annually, hundreds of thousands of Polish pilgrims – including members of the armed forces – trudge along rolling roads and muddy pathways of their countryside, paying tribute to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
This year, they asked Soldiers from their closest neighbors and allied countries to join them in their march.
The Polish army invited 50 U.S. Southern European Task Force (SETAF) Soldiers from Vicenza, Italy, and 10 members of the Illinois Army National Guard, along with troops from four other NATO countries, to participate in the annual 10-day, 300-kilometer pilgrimage from Warsaw to Czestochowa.
SETAF’s participation was another example of U.S. Army, Europe’s (USAREUR) continued focus on coalition building. In fact, the invitation resulted from SETAF’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and the Polish 6th Airborne Brigade jumping together for exercise Immediate Response ’04. The end result provided another opportunity to enhance regional cooperation.
“Our involvement puts the best face of the American military forward in a multinational setting,” said Gen. David McKiernan, USAREUR commander. “It’s a very powerful and positive event.”
Standing in a sea of NATO uniforms, on the march’s final day, McKiernan called the Polish people “proven allies of the United States and our great friends.”
“They serve alongside of us in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and other places,” he said. “They are very proud to be our allies.”
For the pilgrimage, marchers trekked roughly 20 miles a day, starting Aug. 5, until they reached Czestochowa Aug. 14, making new friendships along the way and reinforcing old ones.
“In a physical sense, we completed 300 kilometers of daily marching,” said Maj. Erik Berdy, deputy operations officer for the 173rd. “In a historical sense, we’ve rekindled some of the connections between the United States and the Polish people – specifically the military.”
Throughout the march, Polish Soldiers handled most of the daily logistics for roughly 800 Soldiers. When troops reached the end of a day’s journey, the Poles had camp and hot food waiting for them.
As the pilgrimage drew to a close, blistered and weary troops collectively marched the final two kilometers down Czestochowa’s main thoroughfare to the cheers of thousands of spectators lining the city’s streets.
People hung out of windows. Mothers held their babies high. Old men stood and saluted as Soldiers marched by, waving greetings and shaking hands with the crowd as the people parted to let them pass.
The Soldiers were surprised at how the town came out to give what they could. “The tears in their eyes, the hugs, the handshakes and the high-fives … those things endeared the Polish people to us,” Berdy said.
“It was amazing to see all of these people turn out to support us,” added Sgt. Nathaniel Long of the 173rd. “The whole way through, the hospitality of the people has been unwavering.”
As participants climbed one final hill to Jasna Gora, the fortress-monastery that houses the Black Madonna, loudspeakers hanging from the balconies of the medieval structure boomed out greetings.
Special thanks were given to McKiernan, Lt. Gen. Edward Pietrzyk, commander in chief of Polish Land Forces, and to commanders from other participating armies who marched the final leg of the pilgrimage to reach the Black Madonna, a painting whose age is unknown.
For more than six centuries, after being brought to Czestochowa in 1382, it has sat undisturbed in the monastery. After seeing the portrait in its special altar, SETAF’s Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Joseph Fleury called the Madonna “spectacular.”
“She really was a sight to see,” he said. “It’s great the Soldiers experienced this.”
As Fleury and the others began departing the monastery, McKiernan said, “This is an important day for the Polish people and the Polish military. The Polish people are very proud of their military, so when the U.S. military participates in this pilgrimage, they are equally proud. We had a great time marching together.”