Presidents are usually so far removed from us that most never appreciate how they can impact our daily lives. Here is how Ronald Reagan touched two lives on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain: ours.
I grew up as an Air Force brat. In 1962 my father was stationed Newfoundland, Canada where I was born. By age 11, I had visited or lived in 19 states and traveled to six foreign countries. From 1971 to 1973, my family lived in Taiwan while my father flew combat missions in and out of Vietnam. I had the early experience of knowing our next door neighbor, Capt Mariel Maison who was shot down and killed during the 1972 NVA offensive. In 1975, two years after my father retired, I was sadden by the fall of Saigon. In the following years I was, perhaps, a little more aware than
the average teenager of the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
I first became aware of who Ronald Reagan was during the 1976 Presidential election when he ran against President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. At that point, I only knew that my parents liked him, he had been Governor of California during a time when we lived there, and I liked the way he came across in a wise and friendly way. I was a freshman when our high school had it’s “straw vote” on election day of that year. I don’t remember what the outcome of the school’s vote was for the other candidates, but there was one write-in vote for Mr Reagan – it was mine.
Because I had grown up a military brat, it always seemed natural to me that I would go into service myself. I enlisted in the National Guard during my senior year of high school.I was deeply troubled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian occupation of our embassy in Tehran. I believed I would one day end up fighting the Russian Army somewhere in the world but was disturbed by the idea that it was happening before I was completely ready and trained. As 1980 began and graduation approached, I was happy to see Mr Reagan running again and that I would finally be able to cast a real vote for him. I had been on Active Duty as a Private for a little over three months when Mr Reagan was elected to become my new Commander-in-Chief. It was a little over two months later that the American Hostages were released from Tehran on the day Mr. Reagan became President Reagan.
When I entered college with a goal of becoming a career Army Officer, I still believed the United States would end up fighting the Soviet Union. I wanted to be as prepared as possible, so I choose to major in Russian Studies. While
on a trip to Germany during my college studies in June 1982, I got to see President Reagan during a speech at Templhof Airport in West Berlin. The speech was a preview of his more famous “tear down this wall” speech which he would give later in his Presidency. On the trip into Berlin, I saw the mine fields, multiple fences, spiked grates, dogs, machinegun towers and the “no man’s land” free fire zones of the Berlin Wall. Only a truly evil empire could build such an obstacle to prevent people from escaping to freedom. During his speech, Mr Reagan outlined the differences between the two systems on the opposite sides of that wall. His description of the Soviet system was the same description he was to use throughout his tenure as President. He got it so right.
After graduating from college, I reentered the Army and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1986 and was sent to 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry in Germany in 1987. Our mission was to protect the German Ports of Bremen and Bremerhaven in conjunction with our West German, British, and Dutch allies against the Group of Soviet Forces Germany and other forces of the Warsaw Pact. Thanks to President Reagan, we were able to do so with some of newest and finest equipment on any projected battlefield. Our new M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were the biggest and baddest players on the field. Our soldiers were armed with the newest version of the M16 (the M16A2) which was more rugged and had a longer range then its Vietnam-era predecessor. Our heads and torsos were protected with new kevlar helmets and flack vests. Also, there was a new development in the strategic arena that had the promise of reducing the vulnerability of the home towns we left behind to ballistic nuclear weapons: it was
commonly called Star Wars.
Bill taking his Commissioning Oath from his father, MAJ (Ret) Bill Russell / Graduation from Ranger School with his friend Joe Mullally (who later led a platoon in the 3rd Ranger Battalion with a combat jump into Panama)/ Bill as an Infantry Platoon Leader in the turret of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Northern Germany.
But a funny thing happened during my time in Germany. Without the exchange of artillery rounds and chemical weapons, without the mass exodus of refugees from their homes along the NATO –Warsaw Pact border, without the mass casualties and destroyed cities caused by the exchange of nuclear weapons, Mr Gorbachov tore down his wall and started calling his troops home. All this was thanks to a man of great vision and purpose, who refused to negotiate anything other than total freedom for the people of Eastern Europe. As I write this, it is impossible to describe the sense of historical excitement I felt as I knocked pieces of the Berlin Wall from Check Point Charlie, or when I returned to Berlin a few months later and stood at the Brandenburg Gate when Germany reunited as the clock struck midnight on October 3,1990.
Although the Cold War had ended, another threat to our way of life emerged in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Thanks to President Reagan’s foresight in pursuing a military buildup, not just to build new weapons, but to break the false economy of the Soviet system, the United States and its allies had the flexibility to move massive force to the Persian Gulf to protect the free world’s oil supply. In the eight years of his Presidency, President Reagan reduced one enemy that threatened to destroy the United States almost without firing a shot, and set his successor up to defeat a new threat with minimal casualties.
Although the Iraqis made many mistakes during the Gulf War and allowed an allied build up and failed to take advantage of many opportunities, one must step back and think of what the outcome would have been if President Reagan had not forced the Soviets into bankruptcy. If an economically and militarily viable Soviet Union had backed Saddam
Hussein and sought to undermine the US and its allies as 50% of the free world’s oil supply was seized, how could the United States and its NATO allies have shifted approximately 200,000 troops and their equipment from Europe? If the Soviet Union had used its influence with its Allies in the Middle East to oppose the Arab Coalition that President Bush had to build to oppose Saddam, would it have even been possible to build up forces without fighting our way into the Gulf? Had the Soviet Union still been a viable power when Saddam seized Kuwait, it is entirely possible that World War III would have resulted. What would the casualty counts have been then?
It was thanks to Mr Reagan and the continuation of his policies under President Bush that I resigned from Active Duty after I returned to Europe following Desert Storm. I jumped feet first into the wave of business ventures in Russia. I wish I could say that my business venture in Russia was a success. But like so many others, it was not. While
I went broke on my first business endeavor, I am most thankful for having had the opportunity to go from preparing for a major war with a country to doing business and helping it to start building the economic foundation essential to supporting a free and democratic society. While Russia has regressed back towards totalitarian rule in the years since
the early 1990s, the opportunity for them to progress from communism to freedom was brought about by Ronald Reagan.
I spent a couple of years in the private sector studying business in the “school of hard knocks”. Although I eventually learned how to be successful in business, I jumped at the chance to return to my first calling. In 1996 I was mobilized to serve in the Balkans in support of the Implementation Force (IFOR). I was stationed at the former Soviet Airbase at Taszar, Hungary and participated in biweekly escort missions into Croatia and Bosnia. I later served a second short tour at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1998. During that tour I had the opportunity to visit the Russian base Uglevic. It is important to note that the Russians still have a very close relationship with the Serbs. While I understand the close cultural and religious ties between the Russians and Serbs, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the
Soviet Union still existed as a dominant military and economic power in the region. Would the Russians have openly and actively supported the Serbs in a military suppression of the breakaway republics? Would Slovenia be a free and democratic nation conducting free and open trade with its Italian and Austrian neighbors? Would the massacres of the Bosnian Muslims have ever made the news?
Bill in Slovinski Brod, Bosnia in 1996.
It was thanks to the Balkan deployments, I was able to serve an additional 18 months of active duty Heidelberg, Germany in 1997 and 1998. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this service was the chance to meet some one very special.
I was born in Glogow, Poland in 1974. My father was a locksmith in a factory. My mother worked as an administrator for the local community stores.
My mother’s parents were born and raised near Rowne in Eastern Poland, which is now a part of the Ukraine. My grandfather was a university educated teacher and had undergone the mandatory Reserve Officer training after he graduated. He was already settled into his teaching career with a three year old son and a second one on the way when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The German invasion was followed by a Soviet invasion sixteen days later which occupied Eastern Poland.
Kasia’s grandfather, Piotr Janczuk, as a cadet or junior officer; a picture which would have earned him an executioner’s bullet if discovered by the Soviets; it is theonly surviving evidence of her grandfather’s military service. All other traces of his service were destroyed early in the war.
The Russians systematically arrested all soldiers, policemen, civil servants, business owners, and university graduates – anyone who might be threat to Soviet rule, and sent them to the Gulags in Siberia. My grandfather was among them. In spite of the near starvation and hardship he was to endure for the next four years, you could say he was lucky. His two brothers-in-law who were a cadet and officer in the Army were executed along with 23,000 other Polish officers, cadets, and policemen by Stalin’s NKVD (later the KGB ) at Katyn, near Smolensk. (Polish President
Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash on April 10, 2010 while attempting to visit this site for the 70th Anniversary of the massacre).
Left Picture: Kasia’s grandmother, Bronizlawa (far left) in happier times with family and friends. Her two brothers Leon and Kazimierz (in coats & ties) were murdered at Katyn in 1940. Her sister, Maria (far right) lost her son Thadeusz Szarek (the young boy in the white socks) when he was killed by an unexploded munition after the war in 1946. Center Picture: Leon Czaja on his wedding day shortly before the German/Soviet invasions. Right Picture: Leon as a cadet.
My grandfather’s education, which led to his arrest, helped him survive in the Gulag. Like many Poles in eastern Poland, he was fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, but he had beautiful hand writing. The prison commander, an uneducated peasant, kept him alive to write the many reports required by the NKVD bureaucracy.
My grandmother endured the Russian, then German, then Russian occupations of the war and the hardships that went with it, alone with two small children. Not long after my grandfather’s arrest, there was an ethnic Ukrainian pogrom (probably encouraged by Soviet propaganda) in my grandmother’s village against Poles. In the heat of this ethnic violence, my grandmother, heavily pregnant with her second child, believed that she was going to be killed. She
desperately begged a group of Poles in a horse drawn wagon departing the village to take her three year old son with them. They put my Uncle Jurek in the back of the wagon with them as they fled. Not far from town, everyone in the wagon, except for Uncle Jurek was killed. The horses had instinctively run away from the shooting and eventually
returned to their barn, bringing Uncle Jurek and several corpses back home with them. The trauma caused my uncle to not speak for a long time afterwards.
The 1944 Soviet “liberation” of Poland from the Nazi’s also brought a reapportionment of Polish territory. My grandparent’s hometown was declared to be part of the Ukraine and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Not knowing if her husband was even alive and with two small children, my grandmother was ordered out of her home and onto a train to what she
believed was Krakow. The train ended its journey at the village of Grodziec Maly, three kilometers from Glogow, where my grandmother started a new life with my two oldest uncles.
My grandfather was released from the Gulag because of an unusual family tie. His sister was married to a jeweler whose sister was married to a Jewish jeweler, whose brother was also in the Gulag. The Jewish jeweler bribed an NKVD general to order their release.
When my grandfather was released, he did not know what was happening. He was called to the Commander’s office and issued a change of clothes, a coat and boots. He was ordered into a car and driven out of the camp. He
thought he was being taken out to be executed. Instead, he was driven for three days to a village, and given a stranger’s address where he was to stay until he was given travel arrangements. When he arrived at the front door, the middle-aged widow who answered was shocked and scared by his appearance. He was un-bathed and looked like a walking skeleton with long hair and beard. She instinctively handed him a paper and pencil at the door and told him to write something. When she saw his handwriting, she knew that he was not a traveling vagabond or criminal on the run, and allowed him in from the cold. When he entered her home he noticed a Roman Catholic Crucifix, rather than the expected Orthodox Crucifix, on the wall. He realized that she was not Russian, and asked if she was Polish; she was!
My grandfather stayed at the lady’s home until travel arrangements were made for him and the jeweler’s brother. When they arrived near the Polish border, they had to hide under the floor boards of the train car to make it into Poland.
Upon reaching the Polish area of the Ukraine, my Grandfather walked. When he arrived in western Poland, he traveled from village to village looking for a school teacher with two children. He finally found my grandmother in Grodziec Maly. When she saw him, she did not know who he was. He weighed only 47 kilograms (104 lbs).
(Picture missing) Starting over; After returning from the Gulag, Kasia’s Grandfather, Piotr Janczuk (far right) with a group of students at the battle damaged school house vic Glogow, Poland in 1945. He lost his left leg to gangrene shortly after.
The reunion did not bring an end to the hardships my grandparents suffered. A bone infection in my Grandfather’s left foot, which he picked up in the Gulag, festered and turned into gangrene. His left leg had to be amputated just above the knee. They had three more children (including my mother), but lost the first child (my aunt) to the flu. Their experiences under communism and the survival skills they learned along the way, also drove them to keep many secrets. We did not learn that my grandfather had been an officer in the Polish Army until after he died in 1981. He never spoke of his time in the Gulag until after Stalin’s death. In fact, it was not until 2010, that I learned much of the story from my Uncle Jurek.
Life goes on: Left Picture: the Janczuk family of Glogow in 1958. Bronizlawa is seated on the left. Piotr’s sister is on the right (her husband’s brother-in-law bribed an NKVD General to order Piotr’s release from the Gulag). Kasia’s mother is in front and Uncle Jurek is directly behind her. Right Picture: Piotr & Bronizlawa Janczuk @ 1980.
I was only seven when my father became involved in the Solidarity movement. He joined the union in 1980 and participated in the general strikes. Not long after that, he lost his job and was not allowed to work. In 1981 Solidarity was outlawed, but my father continued his involvement. In December 1981 a “state of war” was declared against Solidarity. The police came to our home and arrested my father and seized the family collection of books. My father went to prison for one year. Our home was searched by the police every two weeks for a year and our family remained under constant surveillance from an apartment across the street until 1988. Fortunately, in all of their visits, the police did not find the most dangerous weapon in the house: an unregistered typewriter.
Missing Pictures: Kasia’s father, Stanislaw Orzech, during his time in prison with other members of Solidarity. A locksmith by trade, he broke all the locks on the cell doors so the political prisoners he was housed with could move freely within their cell block.
After my father’s release from prison, my parents were not allowed to work. My father continued his involvement in the Solidarity movement. He coordinated many meetings with university professors, black-balled actors, and other Solidarity members and leaders. They often met in our home after church for strategy and planning meetings
and to publish Solidarity pamphlets and flyers for distribution. The sharing of banned books was also very common.
Kasia’s father speaking at a Solidarity rally along side future Senator Stanislaw Obertaniec. Right: (Picture missing) a gathering of Solidarity activists in the Orzech’s living room. Kasia’s father is fifth from left and mostly hidden, Kasia’s mother is in the dark dress, third from right.
While my parents were out of work, my family received stipends and care packages from abroad. We received money and food packages from the United States and France. One large food package from the US contained American bacon. The bacon was a special treat as meat was in critically short supply during this time. When it was cooked, it was a totally different experience from anything we had ever eaten. We loved it! I giggled with my brother and cousins as we said “Thanks for the Bacon, Mr. Reagan!” over and over.
After Gorbachov introduced Peristroika reforms in the Soviet Union in 1986, things began to relax. My father participated in planning for Parliamentary elections which were held in the fall of 1990. He was asked by many of his colleagues to run. He chose to wait until the planned second Parliamentary election in 1994. Unfortunately, my father’s dream of seeing a free and democratic Poland, was not to pass. Bone cancer did what the Communist and their prison could not. He passed away on March 1, 1990.
School was difficult for me and my older brother, Adam. Many of our teachers were old school communists and their privileged positions were tied to the Soviet system. They often talked about the “ treasonous criminals” in Solidarity.
Adam was four years older than me and very out going. That made him a threat. While in high school, he was banned from participation in a sailing competition on the Baltic Sea by the secret police because of fear that he might try to defect to the west.
I was a lot more shy at school and was not a very good student. I was very intimidated by the teachers and withdrew from school related activities. I found refuge in the Catholic Youth Group which welcomed my friends and me. (Adam had also participated in this group, but had to keep it a secret from the school administration.) We had many activities at the church and participated in many field trips to the country. In 1989, the Iron Curtain opened and traveling restrictions were relaxed. In 1991 our church group made a very special trip to visit a national hero of Poland who stood firm in the resistance against the Nazis and the Communists. His name is Karol Wojtyla. The rest of the world knows him as Pope John Paul II.
Kasia’(third from right, front row) looking up at John Paul II during her youth group visit to Rome.
After our trip to Rome and our audience with the Pope, I attended the medical college in Wroclaw for pharmaceutical studies. It was a pleasure compared to my elementary and high school days. But living conditions were still difficult. I shared a four room apartment with 11 other girls. We had one shower, one toilet, and a small kitchen. It was almost impossible to find a quiet place to study, but I managed to graduate as a Technician Pharmacist after two years.
I found a job at a small pharmacy a few blocks from my home in Glogow, and worked there for two years. My dream was to work for an international pharmaceutical firm. But to find such a job, I needed to speak either German, French, or English. So, I took a job as an Au Pair for a German family in Heidelberg. I never would have guessed that my work and studies in Germany would take me in a totally different direction.
KASIA & BILL
WE met in O’Reilly’s Irish pub in Heidelberg, Germany in 1998. We never really dated while we were both living in Heidelberg, but we definitely had an interest in each other. In August 1998, I was recalled to Active Duty at the Pentagon in Washington, DC and Kasia remained in Germany with her Au Pair job. I visited Germany with my parents and my sister’s family over Christmas. I happened to visit O’Reilly’s on New Year’s Eve and Kasia was there with her girlfriends.We hit it off and had four dates over the next four days. After I returned to Washington, we kept in touch by email and an occasional phone call but time and distance were making it look like we weren’t meant to be together.
As luck would have it, in April 1999, I was ordered back to Germany for a six month tour with three days notice. Kasia and I saw each other my first night back and were together whenever I had free time. Before the end of June we were engaged. We decided to go ahead and get married before I rotated back to Washington so that Kasia could accompany me. My parents were already planning another trip to Germany to visit me in early September of 1999. It also coincided with the only available date for Kasia’s parish church so that we could have a Catholic Wedding.
We exchanged vows during Mass on September 4, 1999. Our Polish Wedding was mixed with the American Military traditions of Saber bearers. Our wedding washeld within 100 meters of a former Soviet basein the presence of friends, family and soldiers who once stood on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. (I never would have guessed that I would have an officer of the former Warsaw Pact as a guest at my wedding.) The reception was a mild one by Polish standards – it only lasted until 4:00AM.
As Kasia and I continue our lives together with our children, we often say many prayers of thanks. And
when we are cooking breakfast on Sunday mornings before we head off to
Mass, we often chuckle and say “Thanks for the bacon, Mr Reagan.”