Military Sealift Command Public Affairs
February 13, 2017
Military Sealift Command Mariner Shares Long Journey to Immigrate, Serve US
By Grady T. Fontana, MSC Far East
CHUK SAMET, Thailand (NNS) -- Like the interior hotspot of the Pacific plate, feeding, forming, and changing the vast and diverse geology and ecology of the Hawaiian Islands, immigration is reshaping the United States' fiber and future-her economy, workforce, family structures, demography, culture, cuisines, and languages.
Although immigration has been a topic of legal contention between Congress and American society for generations, immigrants to the U.S. have significantly contributed to this country.
As former Senator Edward M. Kennedy said, "Immigration is in our blood. It's part of our founding story. In the early 1600's, courageous men and women sailed in search of freedom and a better life. Arriving in Jamestown and Plymouth, they founded a great nation. For centuries ever since, countless other brave men and women have made the difficult decision to leave their homes and seek better lives in this Promised Land."
While the process of immigration takes on various forms and procedures for different individuals, 2nd Mate Gregory Cygal has embarked on a long journey to citizenship.
He is currently assigned to Military Sealift Command's (MSC) prepositioning ship USNS 1st LT Baldomero Lopez (T-AK 3010), and at age 50, he's a remarkable example of how immigrants have contributed to this nation.
Born and raised in Poland, Cygal came to the United States at 19. At 20 he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After one tour as a rifleman, he went to college and joined the Army Reserve.
After college, he became a merchant marine and also received a commission in the Navy Reserve.
Prior to immigrating to the U.S., Cygal was a Polish national and in 1985, when he was 18, he was attending the Technical School of River Shipping in Wroclaw, Poland.
This is in Western Poland near the German border during the Cold War, so leaving Poland was not going to be easy.
"I was in a Polish nautical school and part of my curriculum was to go to the merchant ships every year for two months," said Cygal. "I flew to Greece to meet my ship, which was a Polish merchant ship. When I was in Greece, I defected and requested political asylum."
At 18, the decision to defect required was a risky one, given the fact he spoke no English and had little life experience. However, he had the camaraderie of another accompanying student and friend.
"It was like an adventure but I don't think I could go through it again because I would be a nervous wreck," said Cygal. "[Defecting] was a spur-of-the-moment decision. At that time, Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact, which meant it was a communist country and aligned with the Soviet Union. A lot of people were rebelling against the government because the population was always pro-West. We wanted to get out of there and have nothing to do with communism."
Today, Cygal is a contracted mariner with MSC and a navigator on the USNS 1st LT Baldomero Lopez on which he has spent the past 16 years.
In addition, he is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. In the reserve component, Cygal is a strategic sealift officer (SSO) with MSC Far East. When conducting annual training, he is supporting various exercises such as exercise Cobra Gold 2017 (CG17), currently underway in Thailand.
"I've been affiliated with MSC Far East for about nine years now," said Cygal. "I've been doing a lot of exercises with them. I've done Cobra Gold three times; I've done exercises in Korea four times; I was in the Philippines last year supporting as an SSO."
The road to political asylum wasn't straightforward.
Due to the sheer volume of refugees the Greek police initially ceased to accept any more requests for political asylum because they were overwhelmed. "I asked, 'so what are we supposed to do?' They said don't know, don't care. Do whatever," said Cygal.
Cygal and his friend took a job at a local orchard picking oranges. There, they met a person who was able to connect them to the right people who could help. The brother of one of the owners of the orchard was the local chief of police and he was able to steer along the application process.
After declaring political asylum, they were subsequently arrested and held at an immigration detention center for a few days, then sent to a refugee camp in Greece for almost a year while awaiting disposition.
"It wasn't as bad as people think," said Cygal. "You're free to come and go, you get three meals a day, you receive some English classes, and access to medical care."
After the year, Cygal interviewed with the U.S. Embassy in Greece; he was granted political asylum and approved to immigrate to the U.S. where he settled in Dallas and worked at a local restaurant for about a year until he enlisted into the Marine Corps.
He became a warrant officer in the Army Reserve after his service with the Marines and began attending California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif.
In 1996, Cygal graduated as a merchant marine and started working in commercial shipping.
"My first job, for about two months, was on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico," said Cygal. "I applied at MSC first, but at the time there was a hiring freeze...so as soon as MSC opened up, I worked with them for about three years on various ships with MSC Pacific."
Cygal worked for a couple commercial companies after MSC, but finally, landed a job with an MSC contractor company where he's worked on the USNS 1st LT Baldomero Lopez ever since.
The Lopez is assigned to Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron Two under the operational control of MSC Far East and operates out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. "USNS Lopez is one of the five legacy ships. We basically carry equipment for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade," said Cygal.
Through the years, he has been involved in various contingencies supporting the Department of Defense, from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002, humanitarian assistance after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean, to various exercises around the world.
When Cygal isn't on the Lopez, he resides in Surin, Thailand with his wife and two daughters.
Fluent in Thai, Cygal has been a tremendous asset to MSC while supporting CG17. His dutiy as an SSO is to coordinate sealift operations as a maritime expert. He assists the expeditionary port units coordinate with the naval assets and local husbanding agents that are participating in the exercise.
Combined with active duty and reserve time, Cygal has more than 25 years of military service with 20 years as a merchant marine assigned to MSC. In 1991, he became a U.S. citizen.
In retrospect, he is glad to have made the decision that led him to this point. "I'm happy where I am in life," said Cygal.