DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland – Near the small town of Drawsko Pomorskie, Poland, where the population is just over 11,000, sits three barracks buildings. To the U.S. Soldiers stationed there, it is known as the Konotop barracks. In 2014, the United States sent troops to Poland to train with Polish Land Forces on a rotational basis. Now, various units rotate to conduct missions, including public affairs detachments, armored brigades, and regional support groups.
Since October 2021, the 191st Regional Support Group from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard has been one of these units stationed at various forward operating sites across Poland. It had the task of working with Polish NATO allies to provide life support for U.S. Soldiers as the mayor cell. The task involves coordinating beds, food, and facilities for units stationed in Poland or arriving to conduct training.
On February 24, 2022, following the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the United States government responded by sending additional troops to Poland and surrounding areas. With the influx of U.S. Soldiers and various multinational military exercises, bringing troops from multiple NATO allied countries, the need for additional space became immediately evident.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Omar Cruz, assigned to the 191st RSG, operates as mayor of Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, and with his team of three additional Soldiers, has overseen all operations across the 131 square mile area of DPTA. Before the invasion and subsequent increase in Soldiers sent to Poland, DPTA housed 550-600 Soldiers at any given time. During Defender Europe 22, the total number of Soldiers at DPTA ranged from 4,000 – 4,500 Soldiers.
“The conflict changed the mission completely because all efforts were directed to the training of the incoming troops,” Cruz said. “The mission changed to ensure the defense of Poland or any NATO nation. We weren’t only in training mode, we were moving to a more defensive stance, almost overnight.”
Cruz worked with his Soldiers and Polish Lt. Col. Andrzej Niegmanski, the base commander of Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, to create life support areas that would house, feed, and take care of the life support services for the incoming Soldiers.
“We do everything that we can to provide the best training opportunities for the U.S. Soldiers. This is our job, this is what we do,” said Niegmanski. “We are going to do everything we can to facilitate and make the U.S. training as unimpeded as possible. The primary task that we have been assigned from the general commander of the Polish armed forces is to facilitate Polish and our multinational partners’ training.”
Even though the U.S. has been training in Poland for the last eight years, there has never been such a volume of Soldiers sent at one time to DPTA.
“We didn’t have that big capacity in terms of accommodation here on this installation,” Niegmanski said. “It was a challenge. I remember in April when the U.S. Army brigade was coming in, everything had to be ready. It was mainly thanks to Sgt. Cruz that we were able to have these two LSAs ready. It was great, the Polish had a small contribution to that, but I don’t think it would have happened if it hadn’t been for Sgt. Cruz and his team.”
Cruz and his team of Soldiers from the 191st RSG worked with the Polish and local contractors to install LSAs to accommodate the eventual arrival of additional Soldiers.
“It all had to be done very quickly with little personnel and with the stress of a deadline,” Cruz said. “The LSAs had to be ready for the Soldiers with all of their equipment. We’re talking about an armored brigade combat team coming out here and their equipment, they need tents for troops to sleep in, a dining facility, recreation areas, motor pools, and maintenance bays ready. We literally had a month and a half to have everything ready.”
The barracks at Konotop within DPTA had to be ready to sustain a brigade-sized element moving in.
“The primary task that the Polish have at DPTA has is to facilitate not only U.S. but also our NATO partners and Polish Forces training,” said Niegmanski. “So when I found out about this brigade coming into DPTA, I knew that we would do everything we could to provide the best training opportunities.”
Between Cruz and Niegmanski working with various contractors, the team did everything just in time. Through the entire process, the 191st RSG team grew personally and professionally.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cruz added. “I don’t think I’d get one-quarter of the experience if Ukraine hadn’t been invaded and we were here doing the job of a mayor cell in normal conditions. All of the work we had to do, in addition to the stress of what was going on with Russia and Ukraine, not knowing if we were going to have to enter the conflict at some point, all of that mixed together gave me experience as an NCO, as a person that is unforgettable. I feel very proud to participate in such a historical event like this.”
Interoperability is a huge part of the U.S. and Polish mission; part of that is working together on various training exercises throughout Europe. Another big part of that is working together on the day-to-day needs of Soldiers, and the mayor cell is responsible for advocating the needs of the U.S. Soldiers staying at DPTA. Cruz was the lead representative between the Polish and the U.S. at DPTA, and he gained the respect of the Polish Armed Forces leadership.
“Recently, when I had a meeting with Sgt. Cruz, I found out that he was a National Guard Soldier,” Niegmanski said. “After I found out that, I was extremely impressed because he had done an excellent job—when he told me that he was a National Guard soldier I was like oh my gosh, this is phenomenal everything that he did. The fact that we established these LSAs so quickly was thanks to him and his team. They did an outstanding job.”
Cruz and his team built relationships over nine months with the Polish soldiers and civilians they worked with daily.
“One of the most important things we’ve done while we were here was building the relationship with the host nation,” Cruz said. “The relationship has been excellent in the past, but the increase was substantial to the bond, level of confidence, and professionalism between us and the host nation. I think that, for me, was one of the most important things we could have done here, being able to build those relationships. That was our biggest achievement.”