A Catholic priest from the Diocese of Providence now holds the record for the fastest 12-mile foot march by any soldier ever to graduate from the U.S. Army’s elite DeGlopper Air Assault School in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Father Luke Willenberg, CH (CPT), USA, Second Battalion Chaplain of the 3rd Brigade, 82 Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, broke the existing longstanding record by a full seven minutes, finishing the Feb. 19 pre-dawn trek in one hour and forty-two minutes.
“I think God blessed me with good health and ability to run,” Father Willenberg, 34, said in an email interview from Fort Bragg. “I hope I can inspire and motivate some of my paratroopers by my achievements.”
For Father Willenberg, the foot march served as the final endurance test in a grueling, 10-day training course offered by the Army’s prestigious Air Assault School. Of the more than 100 soldiers in the current class, only 65 graduated the “Go” or “No Go” system. As part of the course, soldiers were subjected to everything from time-competitive rappelling — including a 90-foot “Hollywood Rappel” out of a hovering UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter — to employing the skills needed to order a 9-line MEDEVAC or call in air support.
The trek — the capstone of the training known as “the 10 hardest days in the Army” — began in the cold at 3 a.m., and saw participants navigate two, six-mile loops, with steep hills at turnaround points.
Besides setting a physical record for his endurance, Father Willenberg also hopes to inspire others spiritually by his achievement.
“It has been my conviction that as chaplains we are called and challenged to start out as the best the Army has to offer in measures of spiritual resiliency, physical fitness, mental toughness, technical proficiency and moral character, and in this way make the faith attractive to those we serve,” Father Willenberg said.
“Somehow I feel I have to make the Gospel attractive to my paratroopers so that they want Christ more and more. It is Christ who gives us hope and makes us better people. It is Christ who calls us daily to be the best we can be, and find ways to help others be the best they can be.”
Father Willenberg came to the U.S. from his native Poland — where he began studying for the priesthood in Plock — in 2005 to complete a master’s degree at SS. Cyril & Methodious Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich. He was ordained June 28, 2008 at the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul in Providence, and was serving as assistant pastor at St. Luke Parish in Barrington when he left to begin active duty in the Army in November 2014.
He was first assigned to HHBN, the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and went on to serve a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan with his unit. It was there that his athletic prowess as a runner propelled him to organize and compete in the first sanctioned Boston Marathon Afghanistan in 2014 at Bagram Airbase.
During his tour of duty, Father Willenberg was also awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
In May 2015, he graduated from Airborne School and received a prestigious assignment to 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th 3BCT.
“It is a unit with great history,” he said.
“Going through Air Assault School was a great experience. I met a lot of people, learned a lot about proper planning, paying attention to details, and sucking it up when things get rough. It was a wonderful opportunity to minister to those going through the course with me.”
But he feels that in the end, the joy in one’s life does not come from setting records or achieving personal goals, rather, it is about praising God and striving to be the best we can be at everything we are doing, which includes inspiring those around us to draw nearer to Christ.
“It is about placing our lives at the service of God and others,” he said. “In my life, having respect for God and God’s ways means trying to offer my humble and imperfect, but hopefully Godly example to my paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division.”
“Daily I pray and try to follow Christ’s example by finding ways to love and serve. From the very first day I swore in as a first lieutenant, I’ve considered this opportunity to be a privilege and an honor.”