Illinois Guardsman Returns to Polish Home
September 18, 2007
WEDRZYN TRAINING AREA, Poland - Soldiers from the Illinois Army National Guard recently traveled to Poland to participate in the U.S. Army Europe-driven exercise, Immediate Response 07, and to prepare for a deployment downrange.
Immediate Response 07, along with a Polish exercise tagged Bagram II, allowed the guardsmen to train alongside their Polish counterparts, whom they will be deploying with to Afghanistan later this year.
For most of the Soldiers, traveling to the European country was a chance to experience a new culture. For one young specialist, it was a homecoming as he returned to Poland wearing the U.S. Army uniform.
Spc. John Molenda, a communications specialist with the 1st Battalion 178th Infantry, spent many of his early years in Warsaw. Because of his fluency in Polish, he served as a unit interpreter doing training here.
When Chicago-native Molenda was only six, his father was deported back to his native Poland. Consequently, the younger Molenda traveled frequently between the two countries.
"About every other year, I would spend summers with my dad in Warsaw," he said. "I turned 16 there, where I lived for about two and a half years."
Though Molenda attended an English-speaking school, he learned to speak Polish fluently before returning to Chicago to live with his grandmother, mother and younger brother.
According to Molenda, his life took a drastic turn when his beloved grandmother - who basically raised him - and his brother both died of cancer.
"There was some trouble in my life, and I needed to get a way from the things that were happening," he said. "I had to distance myself from my old friends and that life."
It was at this low point that Molenda looked to the military for a new start. He found a second chance at Lincoln Challenge Academy, a program for at-risk youth run by the Illinois Army National Guard.
While attending the five-month program, Molenda became a squad leader and eventually left the school with a GED before joining the Guard.
Following his deployment to Afghanistan, the 20-year-old plans on attending college under an ROTC program, with the ultimate goal of becoming a full-time signal corps officer.
(Spc. Jerry Wilson is assigned to the 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command Public Affairs Office)