KILLEEN, Texas -- Sitting in a long concrete barracks bay at North Fort Hood, Texas, the Soldiers of the 652nd Regional Support Group, in the midst of a two-week quarantine, have had a lot of time to think. The Army Reserve unit from Helena, Montana, is in the final moments of a nearly year-long deployment to Poland.
Now, their days are filled with activities like long phone conversations with loved ones as they pace the dry dirt path around their fenced-in quarantine barracks area.
They talk, show up in formations to turn in gear, have their temperatures read, wait for the food truck to drop off chow, play video games, watch movies, or work on details cleaning the barracks or serving food to their fellow Soldiers. They do not talk to the Soldiers across the chain link fence from them, because they know this is not permitted. They are isolated from everybody but the group they have been with all year long, counting down the last few days until they can finally see their family and friends.
But only a week ago, they were still in Poland.
“Leaving Poland, like leaving anywhere, can be difficult,” Sgt. Wynston Ryder, an intelligence analyst from Bozeman, Montana, said. “And although it is great to be back on American soil, we can’t wait to leave the heat to return to our homes.”
For several young Soldiers from Montana, like Spc. Emory Faber, a military police officer from Helena, Montana, the tour in Poland was not only their first military deployment, but their first time out of the United States as well.
“Being able to see all the history there was amazing,” Faber, 20, the youngest member of the 652nd RSG, said.
“Some of the buildings on the base I was at in Poznan still had bullet holes from World War II in them. It was pretty cool to be there. We found some old photos of when the Polish were using the same building that we were in. The history was definitely the best part for me.”
The 652nd RSG’s mission was to manage the daily base operations of 11 base camps throughout the country of Poland. Their deployment to Poland was significant because it marked the first time a U.S. Army Reserve unit was tasked with conducting this mission. Five of the base camps are located in the Zagan cluster in western Poland – in Zagan, Trzebien, Swietoszow, Boleslawiec, and Karliki. The other six base camps are located at Skwierzyna and Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, also in western Poland, Poznan, Powidz, Torun and Bemowo Piskie Training Area, a NATO base camp in eastern Poland.
After the 652nd arrived in late September, the Soldiers of the unit separated into mayor cells responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations providing life-sustaining services to Soldiers. These services ranged from allocating room and tent space to tenant units on the baser camps, dealing with everyday maintenance issues, setting up morale welfare and recreation areas for the Soldiers, and overseeing the contractors who provided services such as operating the laundry or dining facilities, as well as those working to improve or expand the infrastructure of the base camps.
“The main job is to make sure the guys on the ground are taken care of,” Staff Sgt. James Campbell, a supply sergeant from Great Falls, Montana, said. “It’s customer service, by far. A mayor, just like in a big city, runs the base, anything from power to utilities, transportation, food, planning projects. You have to care, and we had a good set of people who cared about what they do.”
The 652nd deployed with 84 Soldiers, including a staff of about 30 Soldiers at the headquarters in Powidz, with the other roughly 50 spread throughout the other 10 base camps. Maj. Gustavo Brown, the 652nd RSG’s future operations officer, said the small teams of Soldiers spent the year managing base camps holding a total of between 8,000 and 12,000 U.S. Soldiers across Poland, from units such as 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery Regiment and 1st Infantry Division. The largest number, around 12,000, came in February and March timeframe, Brown said, as Army Europe and its allies was gearing up for Defender 20. Had the exercise not been significantly downsized due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers would have been even higher.
Col. Erica Herzog, serving on her sixth overseas tour, commanded the 652nd RSG throughout the mission. She said setting the standard for base operations by a RSG was the greatest accomplishment of the unit throughout their ten months in Poland.
“The single greatest achievement for the 652 RSG was operationalizing the quality of life mission for Poland; a first in Eastern Europe,” Herzog said.
“The 11 Forward Operating Site (FOS) teams created a standardized approach for providing consistent billeting, shower/latrines, laundry, dining facilities, and recreation support and services to over 15,000 Soldiers in Poland.”
“The 652nd departed theater knowing we set and achieved a high standard of living for American troops. The intense work ethic, dedication, and commitment each and every Soldier brought to this mission improved not only the base infrastructure around Poland, but the professional relationships with our allies that strengthened our resolve to bring the very best of ourselves to accomplish this once-in-a-lifetime mission."
During the Transfer of Authority ceremony July 8 at the Powidz Air Base in Powidz, Poland, Herzog spoke about many of the 652nd’s accomplishments throughout the deployment.
“You tackled and accomplished all three of Lt. Gen. Cavoli’s (commanding general of U.S. Army Europe) top three priorities for Poland,” Herzog told her Soldiers. “Soldiers are eating better, sleeping better, and driving on compacted roadways and motor pools thanks to you!”
She said among the unit’s long list of accomplishments were establishing 17 standardized processes for areas such as billeting, key control and hazardous material removal. The unit also worked with the Polish government to refine the base access process and to improve lighting and security at each base camp. The unit procured over 2,600 wall lockers, 2,700 mattresses and 25,000 bed slats to directly improve Soldier quality of life.
Campbell said the toughest parts of the year, beyond some Soldiers learning how to operate a mayor cell, were the teams dealing with units rapidly clearing out of country when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They also needed to acquire additional cleaning supplies to do deep cleaning sessions to ensure the safety of Soldiers on the base camp during the pandemic.
The Soldiers worked hard to bring the best base support possible to American Soldiers stationed there, but also got to experience Polish culture. One Soldier who really got the opportunity to experience true Polish culture was Sgt. Milton Candelaria, Jr., a human resources noncommissioned officer from Broadview, Montana.
“I built a good relationship from the very beginning with my interpreter Alex,” Candelaria said. “I wanted to learn Polish and he was excited to teach me. He also spoke Spanish, so we would joke around and invent our own funny words combining Polish and Spanish mixed together. We built a very strong bond.”
The bond led to Candelaria being invited over to Alex’s sisters house for dinner on New Year’s, for a full day of amazing Polish food, including bigos. It was a day in which he said he picked up on many Polish customs.
“I noticed how genuine people were when I got here,” Candelaria said. “They wanted us to feel good there. I love Poland, it’s awesome.”
Candelaria even won a Polish language contest hosted by 652nd Command Sgt. Maj. Duane Hedrick, having learned over 200 words. He said when it was time to leave, it was a very emotional time for both he and the people he got to know there.
“There were a lot of tears,” he said. “One of the cooks was really emotional, because we were the first rotation that took the time to talk to them, rather than just treat them as someone doing a job.”
The relationships the Soldiers of the 652nd built with their Polish counterparts was so strong that many Soldiers plan to return with their families for a trip, with several having already purchased tickets, for whenever the day comes that they can finally use them.
“I built lifetime friendships with people in Poland,” Campbell said. “They’re family.”