By Tech. Sgt. Jarad A. Denton, 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 20, 2016
RAF ALCONBURY, United Kingdom --
A short crop of white, unruly hair betrayed his age, while a broad, almost mischievous, smile seemed to bring out the face of a young boy, born and raised in Poland.
He spoke in a melodic tone. His words heavily laden by an accent, undiminished by time spent in, and among, Americans.
"I was born 75 miles from Berlin," said U.S. Air Force Chaplain, Maj. Mitchell Zygadlo. "Many times we went to East Germany. I didn't too much feel any oppression at that time, although we always felt the presence of communist Russia."
Throughout his youth, Zygadlo said the political and military pressure from the Soviet Union was a constant, though not-always-felt, companion during these halcyon years. It wasn't until 1987, when he joined a Roman Catholic missionary seminary in Poznań, Poland, that he began to see the effects of living under a Communist regime.
"We started to know and realize that the fourth department of the secret police followed us," Zygadlo said. "Each of us seminarians had a file. They wrote about us - what we said, what we did. I was not directly persecuted, but I felt the pressure."
Zygadlo said he did not fully understand the limitations to his freedom until he immigrated to the United States.
"For me, when I came to the United States, it was most important to feel the freedom," Zygadlo said, tapping his hand to his heart. "When I became a U.S. citizen I wanted to repay to Americans for everything they had done for us - especially the U.S. military."
That repayment came in the form of service to his adopted country, when Zygadlo commissioned as an Air Force chaplain in 1998. His faith, instilled in him from a young age, spurred him to devote his life to the service of others.
"My parents gave me faith, which I think is the most important spiritual quality you can have to stay strong," he said. "If you are strong spiritually then you can move the mountains and you can do everything."
Zygadlo compared spiritual resiliency to maintaining physical fitness. If an Airman is physically weak, he or she will have difficulty passing the Air Force physical fitness test. However, he said, if an Airman is strong and trains his or her body, they will have no trouble passing the test. Zydaglo said he encourages everyone to train their faith.
"I tell people to practice their faith - whatever they believe," he said. "For myself, the faith and spirituality are most important."
Placing both hands on his heart in a gesture of affection, Zygadlo smiled again.
"This is my spirit," he said, proudly. "If I am smiling, if I am giving something to other people, then this is my share of life and my faith."
His grin seemed to stretch from ear to ear as an embodiment of a life enriched by faith. However, behind that radiant smile was a life also scarred by tragedy.
"The most difficult thing, for me as a priest, has been sharing bad news with others," Zygadlo said, his smile fading. "Death notifications are very hard, especially with my own experience when I was young."
He paused and looked at the floor, his hands falling to his lap as though the strength had been drained from his arms. He was no longer an Air Force chaplain at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom. Mitchell Zygadlo was a young teenager living with his parents in Poland.
"I was only just 13," he began. "It was late one evening when I had this vision, this sense that something had happened."
A short time later news arrived that Zygadlo's brother had been killed in a car accident.
"I remember the pain, the cry of my parents," he said. "We didn't know what to do in this moment of tragedy. Later on you can maybe heal, but the pain stays with you - all the time."
Zygadlo said he carries that pain inside whenever he is part of the team responsible for notifying a family that their son or daughter has died.
"I know the feeling of the people who go through these tragedies," he continued. "It is difficult, sometimes, to help them see through that pain. But, I believe it is my duty to help others."
Once again, a smile returned to Zygadlo's face.
"I check my conscience every day and ask what have I done good today," he said. "Did I help someone? If I didn't do anything then I feel as though I lost my day."
Even though he said a day may be lost due to inaction, Zygadlo said he never feels as though he has lost his way.
"Sometimes, when you feel alone, you cannot find your way through the darkness," he said. "But, you are not alone. You can share your difficulties with your friends, with those around you who you lean on for support."
Support comes in many forms, Zygadlo said. It may be spiritual, physical, mental or social - but it is always present.
"I try to stay balanced as I share my energy with others," he said. "Life is about balance. We all may come together, either in our military family or outside of it, and help one another through any troubles that come our way."