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When Senior Master Sgt. David Schreffler started riding with Gold Star Mission it was a great way to combine two of his greatest passions, bicycle riding and a desire to honor and remember fallen U.S. service members.
The Illinois Air National Guard NCO never thought it would bring him across the ocean to ride in honor of the fallen service members of our nation’s staunch ally, Poland. But, from Aug. 8-12, Schreffler will join five other volunteer U.S. riders and two volunteer support staff on the first Polish Veterans Bike Rally.
“It is a great way to ensure the fallen are not forgotten,” said Schreffler, the Chief of Quality Assurance with the 217th Engineering and Installation Squadron, 183rd Wing, based in Springfield.
The rally, sponsored by the Polish Association of Families of Fallen Soldiers, will travel 538 kilometers (almost 335 miles) throughout Poland from the city of Siedlce to Rzeszów, with stops in Terespol, Chełm, Zamość, and Stalowa Wola. It is expected to include about 60 cyclists and is modeled on the Gold Star Mission’s annual Gold Star 500 in Illinois. Last year, the Polish had 16 participants in the Gold Star 500 including seven Polish Army Soldiers, six students and three Polish Gold Star Family members.
Both Gold Star Mission and the Association of Families of Fallen Soldiers are private non-profit organizations and the service members who participate in the bike rallies are on leave without any U.S. government contributions. However, the relationships between these organizations emanate from the 30-year State Partnership Program between the Illinois National Guard and the Polish military. Each year there are about 30 training exchanges between the Illinois National Guard and the Polish military. The Illinois Army National Guard also co-deployed with the Polish first to Iraq and then to Afghanistan for 17 years.
“Over the years, during missions where Poles fought side by side with the Soldiers of the Illinois National Guard, many friendships were forged, and the immeasurable losses were shared by allied armies as well,” said Lidia Kordasz-Garniewicz of the Polish Association of Families of Fallen Soldiers. Lidia’s late husband, Lt. Col. Grzegorz Kordasz, was among those Polish Soldiers who served in Afghanistan alongside Soldiers from the Illinois National Guard.
Those relationships have endured beyond military service. The eight-person team going to Poland for the bike rally includes Illinois National Guard retirees Chuck Kitson, Brian Monahan, Tom Jackson and Diane Rogers. Much of Gold Star Mission’s membership is made up of either active or retired Illinois National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. The organization, whose motto is ‘Always Remember, Never Forget,’ started as a way to preserve the memory of the 34 Illinois National Guard service members killed overseas after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, through awarding scholarships in the names of the fallen. It has since expanded its mission to include all Illinois service members killed in service to the United States since 9/11.
The Polish Association of Families of Fallen Soldiers’ motto is “Memory and Future” and honors the memory of the Polish fallen service members and takes care of the families of fallen Soldiers, Kordasz-Garniewicz said.
Andrew Adamczyk, a Gold Star Mission member and an Illinois Army National Guard colonel, invited some of his Polish compatriots to participate in the Gold Star 500 last year. This year, the Polish community reciprocated with an invitation of their own.
“It all started with discussions among family members of fallen soldiers, and community organizers who shared a common goal of organizing an event that would not only commemorate the fallen but also bring together veterans from Poland and our allies in the USA,” Kordasz-Garniewicz said. “The concept evolved into the idea of a bike rally, which would not only be a physical journey but also a symbolic one, representing the enduring spirit of those who served.”
Schreffler has served nearly 34 years in the Air Force, about 29 years in the Air National Guard. He has been a bicycling enthusiast since he was a teenager and most often participates in competitive bicycle races. He trained as a bicyclist with a friend while stationed in Germany on active duty and later was a stand-out on the Ohio University Cycling Club Sports team. In 1996, he represented Ohio University’s Cycling team at “Nationals” - the National Cycling Club Association race where the top three teams from each region of the U.S. compete. Now in his 50s, he never travels without a bicycle.
Schreffler comes from a family with many members who chose military service including his maternal grandfather, Raymond Cantrell, who served in the Navy during World War II, his uncle, Army Command Sgt. Maj. (ret.) James Schreffler, who served in Desert Storm, and his sister, Air Force Col. LaDonna Schreffler, who commands the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.
He’s had the opportunity to work with the Polish through his National Guard service including when a nine-member Polish military Medical Corps team visited Illinois during the state’s response to COVID-19 in 2020. Schreffler was leading one of the Illinois National Guard’s COVID-19 response teams that were deployed across the state.
However, he said participating in the Gold Star 500 last September with the Polish riders was special. “It was eye-opening to see how the Polish Gold Star Families really opened up as the ride continued,” said Schreffler, who runs a start-up remote drone business in his civilian life. “They came out and supported us and I’m excited to be part of the team to support them.”
“I believe that the special relationship between Poland, Gold Star Mission, and the Illinois National Guard is built on shared values, mutual respect, and a deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by Soldiers and their families,” Kordasz-Garniewicz said. “This relationship is characterized by a strong bond of camaraderie and solidarity, transcending national borders and cultural differences.”
In addition to the Association of Families of Fallen Soldiers, the Polish Veterans Bike Rally is supported by the Stage I Sectoral Vocational School in Włoszakowice, Poland; the Polish Military Sports Association GROT; as well as Military Police under Poland’s 18th Mechanized Division, Polish General Command.