Religious Affairs NCO guides U.S. Army Soldiers on tours through Polish history and culture

By Staff Sgt. Jameson HarrisApril 1, 2024

1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jameson Harris) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jameson Harris) VIEW ORIGINAL
3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jameson Harris) VIEW ORIGINAL
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jameson Harris) VIEW ORIGINAL
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jameson Harris) VIEW ORIGINAL

In the corridors of a history museum in Poznan, Poland, lie numerous artifacts narrating vivid stories of Poland's rich history and culture. Native Polish residents routinely navigate these halls, encountering tangible remnants of their heritage intertwined with tales of war, revolution, and valor. A less frequent sight, however, is that of U.S. Army Soldiers stationed at Camp Kosciuszko in Poznan immersing themselves in the history of their allied nation. On March 15, 2024, Staff Sgt. John Mateja took on the responsibility of guiding these special visitors on a tour that helped expand their understanding of the country where they now serve.

Mateja serves as a religious affairs specialist in the Pennsylvania National Guard. When the opportunity came up to serve in Poznan, he immediately jumped at the chance. He currently serves as the religious affairs NCO of the U.S. Army Garrison Poland. His mission is to support the spiritual health and readiness of every Soldier within U.S. Army Garrison Poland and increase the wellness and morale throughout their formations.

“I gravitated to Poland immediately because my family immigrated from Poland over a century ago, so I’m deeply invested in the history there,” said Mateja. “My wife even has a family currently in Poland, so it felt good being able to be close to them.”

When Mateja first got to Poznan, he began assisting Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Thoele, who had taken the initiative to start a series of tours around Poznan to show Soldiers the local community. Because of his Polish background and love for history, Mateja quickly became an asset in supporting Theole for these tours. When it came time for Theole to leave Poland, Mateja naturally took charge and led the next tours. In his civilian line of work, he is a tour guide within the Education and Engagement Division at the Army Heritage and Education Center.

“Poland is often regarded as the ‘country too angry to die,’” said Mateja. “As U.S. Army Soldiers, we have a lot to learn from the places we go to in the military, especially Europe.”

Mateja concentrates on Poznan to stay close to Camp Kościuszko and minimize Soldiers' expenses. He has led tours at Fort VII, the Uprising Museum of the Wielkopolska Uprising of 1918-19, and the Museum of Armored Weapons. There, Soldiers got the chance to see the armored vehicles used during World War I, World War II, and the Polish-Soviet War.

At Fort VII, Mateja walked attendees through the first Nazi concentration camp established in occupied Poland. Every step Mateja took in the historical site was at one time preceded by hundreds of Polish residents who needed every ounce of spiritual resilience to endure.

“This was the first concentration camp I ever got a chance to tour myself,” said Mateja. “It was an honor to have the opportunity to provide Soldiers here the same impactful experience.”

U.S. Army Capt. Randy Burdeaux, a chaplain assigned to the 773rd Military Police Battalion, found Fort VII a valuable experience for him and the rest of the battalion's Soldiers. What was immediately noteworthy was Mateja’s knowledge and expertise of history. He confidently led the whole battalion through the camp.

“He provided a great moment of cultural immersion for our Soldiers to better understand why we were in the country supporting aid to our European Allies,” said Burdeaux.

One narrative that resonated with Mateja is the camaraderie forged among the prisoners amid adversity. During holidays, they would softly harmonize Christmas carols together, striving to maintain the festive atmosphere. The walls of the fort's cells bear countless etchings of names belonging to those who were incarcerated. For numerous families, these inscriptions served as the sole confirmation of their relatives' presence within those walls.

“I think it’s important for Soldiers to see firsthand what the U.S. Army has stood against in history so they can be proud they serve in the same uniform,” said Mateja. “The staff of Fort VII were extremely appreciative that we were bringing American Soldiers to this place.”

“I throw all my energy into each tour,” Mateja continued. “From start to finish, I work to make sure every Soldier who comes along is interested and invested in every single bit of history around them. When I come back to base, I am always completely exhausted, but there’s no better use of my energy than doing this.”

For V Corps and U.S. Army Garrison Poland, every Soldier within its formations that Mateja guides on these tours has a heightened understanding and appreciation for their partner nation’s history. Through this, Mateja supports the U.S. Army’s mission to build strong partnerships with the Polish.

“It has been a long-time dream for me to come to Poland and share the appreciation for history with others,” said Mateja. “It has been such a privilege to be able to tie that back with V Corps and Garrison’s mission here.”