POWIDZ AIR BASE, Poland -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spent the last afternoon of his first official visit to Poland by stopping at an air base where U.S. and Polish Airmen work side by side, and later at a historic church where his great grandparents were married in 1882.
At Powidz Air Base in central Poland, Hagel and Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak walked together into a hangar, a row of U.S. and Polish Airmen fanning out on each side of the microphone, with the American and Polish flags in the background.
Rising up behind the flags was a hulking, gray C-130 Hercules with sleek F-16 Fighting Falcon positioned at each end of its 133-foot wingspan.
"I am grateful for the opportunity to be here today to wish you all well and to thank you, all of you, Polish and American Airmen working jointly in ... common cause," Hagel said in English, stopping every few sentences so his words could be translated into Polish.
"What you're doing here is important ... for our two countries, it's important for NATO, it's important for freedom, and it is a significant symbol to the world," he said.
President Barack Obama and President Bronisław Komorowski agreed in 2010 to strengthen the U.S.-Polish security partnership through increased cooperation between both nations' air forces. The first full-time stationing of U.S. troops was established in Poland in 2012 with an aviation detachment at Lask Air Base, about 90 minutes from Powidz.
In addition to strengthening cooperation, the aviation detachment allows Poland to host other allied air force elements and serve as a regional hub for air training and multinational exercises.
Hagel called it significant that the two countries are working together, adding that the collaboration will lead to "expanding opportunities for more jointness, more exercises and more opportunities."
As Hagel and Siemoniak completed their remarks, the secretary wished the Airmen continued success and a productive 2014.
"On a more personal note," he told them, "my mother's family is from this part of Poland and when I leave here in a few minutes I'm going to a little village, Kiszków, where my great grandparents were married. So I feel very familiar here and very comfortable."
The Dabrowka Catholic church, nearly an hour by car from Powidza Air Base, sits on the same site in Kiszków where Hagel's maternal grandmother's parents were married. Their Polish names were Tomasz and Katarzyna Kąkolewski, a senior defense official said.
Tomasz Kąkolewski, born in Wierzonka, lived in Turostów near Kiszków and worked as a farmhand. Katarzyna Budnikowska, also recorded as Budzińska, was born in 1861 in Lednogóra. She lived in Gniewkowo near Kiszków and worked as maid.
In 1882 the couple married in the parish church in Dąbrówka Kościelna, which burned down in the 1920s and was later rebuilt. They left for the United States in 1888 and Katie, one of their daughters, was born in Nebraska in 1894. Katie Konkolewski, Hagel's grandmother, eventually married Joseph Dunn, an American of Irish descent.
During his visit to the church Jan. 31 Hagel signed the guest book.
"Thank you for this very memorable opportunity to visit my family's history," Hagel wrote. "It is very meaningful to my family and me. God bless you."