Polish President Andrzej Duda awarded Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard, with the “Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland” during a Polish Armed Forces Day celebration in Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 15.
The medal, commonly called the “Order of Merit,” is bestowed by the Polish President to distinguished foreigners for their contributions to international cooperation or cooperation between Poland and other countries within different fields. The medal has five classes with “Commander’s Cross with Star” being the second-highest class.
“I am humbled to receive the Order of Merit and to have President Duda present it himself. This great honor really belongs to the 13,000 members of the Illinois National Guard and the work our Soldiers, Airmen and civilian employees have devoted to our partnership with Poland. Ours is the gold standard of State Partnership Programs,” Neely said. “Our partnership with Poland has become even more important to the security of both nations after Russia’s unprovoked and unjust invasion of Ukraine and the resulting humanitarian crises on Poland’s border with its neighbor.”
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Illinois National Guard’s State Partnership Program with Poland. The partnership conducts military-to-military engagements and facilitates broader interagency engagements.
Over the past few years, the Illinois National Guard has been heavily engaged with the Polish Territorial Defense Force (TDF). Established in 2017, the TDF is geographically based within Poland’s different regions. In many ways, it resembles the National Guard in the United States. These engagements have increased in frequency and intensity after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poland, which borders both Ukraine and the Russian Kaliningrad region. Poland’s 332-mile border with Ukraine has been vital in supporting the invaded nation. This year the Illinois National Guard and the Polish TDF have conducted medical, Javelin anti-tank weapon, and sniper training together.
The partnership between the Illinois National Guard started shortly after Poland emerged from behind the “iron curtain” of the Russian-led Soviet Union. The partnership helped Poland prepare for membership in NATO, with the European nation becoming a NATO member in March 1999. Poland has become a staunch U.S. ally and Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers fought side-by-side with Polish Soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The partnership has also forged long-standing ties between Illinois and Poland. When Polish Secretary of State Jacek Siewiera visited Illinois earlier this month, it was his second visit to the state in the past two years. The first was in April 2020 when then Polish military Capt. (Dr.) Siewiera led a medical team to Illinois to assist with the state’s COVID-19 response. The Polish Secretary of State’s most recent visit, facilitated and coordinated by the Illinois National Guard’s State Partnership Program, is forging ties between Poland’s 200,000-plus Fire Service and the State of Illinois and City of Chicago.
“These friendships were forged by strong cultural ties and years of working together to address mutual security concerns. They have helped Illinois, Poland, the United States, and really the entire free world,” Neely said. “Our partnership with the Polish has made communities on both sides of the Atlantic safer and more secure across many different spheres.”