FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Catholic military chaplains make a habit of trying to inspire the men and women with whom they serve, but when Father Lukasz J. Willenberg broke an Army foot-march speed record, his troops were just plain impressed.
"A lot of the members of the unit here view our chaplain as some super stud or something," said Sgt. Dennis Houde, the chaplain assistant assigned to Father Willenberg, a captain and second battalion chaplain of the 3rd Brigade in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division's 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment located at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.
"It makes everyone feel extremely proud," said 1st Sgt. Robert Frame, with the Headquarters Company in the 82nd Airborne Division. "Not just because he's the chaplain, but somebody who can go that far and be that fast and do that well and win these honors and awards. That's fantastic.
"Anyone who can be associated with someone like that as a member of their unit, it definitely fills them with pride," Frame told Catholic News Service during a March interview at Fort Bragg.
Father Lukasz J. Willenberg celebrates Mass March 7 at one of the Catholic chapels at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. Photo: CNS/Chaz Muth
The 34-year-old Father Willenberg set the new record Feb. 19 for the fastest 12-mile foot march by any soldier to graduate from the U.S. Army's elite DeGlopper Air Assault School, clocking in at 1 hour, 42 minutes.
He beat the long-standing record of 1 hour, 49 minutes.
"It wasn't just by mere seconds or minutes, this guy broke it by ... seven minutes," Houde said. "That's a pretty big deal."
News of the record-breaking event quickly rippled throughout Father Willenberg's unit, then throughout the Army post and then throughout Army bases all over the world, Frame said.
This kind of honor does more than bring pride to the men and women in the unit, it allows them to connect with the chaplain on a deeper level, he said.
Physical training -- called PT in the military -- is a substantial component of military life and when an important figure in the unit earns such a physically demanding honor, that person garners a great deal of esteem and trust among the troops, Houde said.
"I think that helps soldiers to want to seek the chaplain out a little more," Frame said.
"It's easier for them talk to him, that is if they can keep up with him," he said with a sly smile and a dry chuckle.
Though Father Willenberg said soldiers do seek his counsel frequently by coming to his office, he also said many approach him during morning formation and PT, which he does with the enlisted men and women in his unit most days beginning at 6:30 a.m.
"I think it's very important for me to be there, to be part of morning formation, but also to be part of their struggle," he told CNS, with an accent that reveals his Polish origins. "Sometimes it's cold, sometimes it's raining, sometimes you simply just don't feel like being there at 6:30 a.m.
"By simply being there, you can prove to them that I care. That I'm here for you no matter what."
Soldiers refer to the DeGlopper Air Assault School as the "10 hardest days in the Army," with 100 military personnel accepted into this particular class, but only 65, including Father Willenberg, who graduated.
The chaplain was required to wear a helmet, a full-battle uniform and carry a 35-pound rucksack during his record-setting march.
"An instructor of the course told me that morning during the march, 'Chaplain, if you keep going that fast, you may even break the record of this school,'" Father Willenberg said. "I asked him what was the record and he gave me the time. I checked my watch and thought, 'Maybe I can do it,' and I took it as a goal to at least come close to the record, not even hoping that I could beat it."
His performance in the DeGlopper foot march is the latest of his athletic achievements.
Ordained in 2008 for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, Father Willenberg joined the Army in 2014.
During a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division in 2014, the lifelong athlete organized a marathon at Bagram Air Base in commemoration of the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.
Father Willenberg was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan.
Though he enjoys the competition involved in athletic challenges and the awards that go with it, the chaplain said the accolades are more rewarding if the soldiers are inspired and it gains him a greater level of trust among them.
"Part of my job is to nurture the living," Father Willenberg said. "If I can be the source of that inspiration, I'm all for it."
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