The Polish People Love Chuck Hagel

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attends Freedom Night, a celebration of Poland's 223rd Constitution Day and 25th anniversary of transition to freedom and democracy, at the residence of Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, Poland's ambassador to the US on May 21. (Photo by USMC Sgt. Aaron Hostutler))

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel attends Freedom Night, a celebration of Poland’s 223rd Constitution Day and 25th anniversary of transition to freedom and democracy, at the residence of Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s ambassador to the US on May 21. (Photo by USMC Sgt. Aaron Hostutler))

To Polish citizens, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is a rock star.

In late January, Hagel visited Poland, where the red carpet was rolled out all over the country. The Polish newspapers have even dubbed him Hagelski, a nod to his Polish heritage.

During a visit to Kiszkowo — a rural town in western part of the country — dozens of locals and distant relatives showed up a church that is on the site where Hagel’s maternal great grandparents were married in 1882, just for an opportunity to meet the secretary.

Everyone there wanted a chance to shake his hand, snap a picture or speak with the man in charge of the most powerful military in the world. In fact, they didn’t want him to leave, surrounding him after a tour and presentation at the church.

The scene in Kiszkowo replicated itself in Washington on Wednesday evening when Hagel went to a party at the home of Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s ambassador to the US. .

“When you visited Poland this year, we were excited about welcoming you to your family’s ancestral homeland,” Schnepf said at the event celebrating Poland’s 223rd Constitution Day and 25th anniversary of the transition to democracy.

“Something tells me, this location will become a landmark in years to come and I know the town’s resident’s sleep more comfortably and safely since they know you have your roots [there],” he said.

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After making a brief speech, many in attendance lunged toward Hagel for an opportunity to shake his hand or snap a photo.

Having covered many political campaign event in New England during the 2004 presidential primary, the scene at Schnepf’s house was reminiscent of a John Kerry rally I covered at the University of New Hampshire just before the election.

Jon Bon Jovi — who was stumping for Kerry — had just played acoustic versions of “Dead or Alive” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.” As he left the crowded function room in the campus union building, hundreds of screaming students rushed the stage, pushing and shoving their way to the front, hoping for an autograph, picture or simply touch the rock star.

Watching Hagel maneuver his way through the crowd Wednesday, the outstretched arms and glowing mobile phones snapping photos, it’s clear he has reached rock star status, at least among the Polish people.

Marcus Weisgerber
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Marcus Weisgerber

Senior Pentagon Correspondent at Defense News
I write about broad-ranging policy, acquisition and budget issues affecting the US military.
Marcus Weisgerber
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