As we approach the end of Immigrant Heritage Month, the celebration of our nation's diverse, rich history and the global influences that make it so, I reflect on my family's own journey from Poland. As I did so, I recalled the stories passed on to me at an early age, and the incredible sense of gratefulness to this nation for accepting us with open arms. Lady Liberty's embrace upon the immigrant, I began to notice, had frequently instilled very strong patriotic emotions in these new Americans for their new home. In my family's case, like many other immigrants, a short history easily explains why.
The year was 1968. Poland was fully engulfed in the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, and communism was being force-fed fed upon the Polish people through a puppet government. Like elsewhere in the world, the late 1960's was a turbulent time in Poland, with a series of social protests signaling that the Polish intelligentsia's frustration with the current state of affairs was reaching its maximum shelf-life. The Poles did not embrace communism, did not want it, and ultimately did not tolerate it. Although the seeds for the now famous Solidarity Movement that was formed about 10 years later were sown at this time and change was on the horizon, for some, the wait would be too long. My father, Krzystof, at that time an 18-year-old living in Krakow, decided that there was no future for him in Poland.
Under the auspices of a vacation to Yugoslavia, my father and his friends escaped through the forested mountains near the border into Italy. After receiving refugee status, several years later he ultimately found himself on the northwest side of Chicago, in the heart of Polonia (the term for Polish diaspora communities). Two years later, he met a beautiful young classically trained pianist that had just arrived from Warsaw named Blanka.
After my parents met, courted and were married, I came into this world, the firstborn as a United States citizen. Throughout my childhood, numerous family members had come and visited us as we lived in various small apartments in the city's northwest side. All shared stories of how great this nation was, and that emblazoned an unwavering sense of patriotism on my soul.
Thus, when all my high school friends were considering colleges, I felt a strong desire to give back to the country that had given my family everything we had. Rather than moving on to university, I chose instead to enlist in the United States Army. As I arrived to basic training, I quickly noticed a very interesting commonality. While there were a great many recruits that were clearly multi-generational Americans, a considerable amount were just like me. Their parents had come from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Korea, India, Croatia, and Africa. Several others were recently naturalized citizens, still speaking in the accents of their former countries. We stood there, together, joining in a sacred pledge to defend this nation at all costs.
As my military career went on, this theme followed. Every unit I served with had a significant number of first generation Americans. Without even saying it, we all knew why we were there and what service to our nation meant.
In the case of Polish Americans, we have had a long-standing tradition of serving this nation from its earliest years. During the Revolutionary War, heroes such as Casimir Pulaski and General Tadeusz Kosciuszko stand out. Kosciusko, of course, best known for designing the entire defensive structure at the United States Military Academy, West Point, and Pulaski was dubbed the "father of the American Cavalry." When I visited West Point as a young non-commissioned officer to pin Lieutenant bars upon my friend who was graduating from the Academy -- he too, coincidentally, a first generation Polish American -- we admired Kosciuszko's monument with great pride.
Many nations have similarly offered their own to our country's growth and defense. The children of immigrants and immigrants themselves know better than most the hardships that their families had left behind. Indeed, over twenty percent of all Congressional Medal of Honor recipients -- over 700 - were immigrants. And this only represents those that were not born here -- not to mention those that were the children of immigrants. Hungary, Poland, England, Mexico, Italy, Ukraine, Philippines, Sweden, China, Ireland, Germany, Croatia and countless other nations are listed as the birthplace for recipients of our nation's highest recognition for valor. This is no mere coincidence.
Immigrant Heritage Month gives us an opportunity to recognize the stories and contributions from those who came to make this country great in their own way. Let us not forget that one of those ways represents among the highest possible patriotic callings, to serve in our nation's Armed Forces.