Polish army Lt. Gen. Ed Pietrzyk spoke at the senior leader lunch at the Land Combat Expo in Heidelberg, Germany, on Thursday.

Polish army Lt. Gen. Ed Pietrzyk spoke at the senior leader lunch at the Land Combat Expo in Heidelberg, Germany, on Thursday. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Before the Iraq war began, Poland’s president asked his top army general’s advice: Should Poland join in the coalition of the willing?

Lt. Gen. Ed Pietrzyk recalled his answer Thursday at a senior leader lunch at the U.S. Army Europe Land Combat Expo: “I said, ‘Sir, this is a challenge, but also opportunity for us.’”

Poland joined the coalition and now has 1,700 soldiers in Iraq, according to a report by the British Broadcasting System. It has lost 17 soldiers in Iraq, according to the Wikipedia Web site.

But Pietrzyk’s assessment, he said, proved correct. Fighting in Iraq has helped transform Poland’s army, he said, into a more capable force, with better equipment and hardier soldiers.

“My soldiers, after Iraq, they’re different people,” he said.

Shortly before the Iraq war, there was no such thing as standard equipment for the Polish army, he said. Now they have night-vision goggles.

“Twenty years ago, I didn’t understand the British approach — why they fight at nighttime,” he said. “Now I know.”

The Polish troops served in the south of Iraq along with other Eastern Europeans and a very small contingent of soldiers from South America.

And if it hadn’t been for one legacy from the Cold War, Pietrzyk said, his mission in the shooting war might have been a failure.

“Knowing the Russian language,” he said, “without our common past, without our friends from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Mongolia — we would be unable.”

His coalition also worked, he said, because of commanders able to make their own decisions rather than phoning headquarters when the rules of engagement among so many nations are unclear.

Pietrzyk said the most important lesson he learned in Iraq came when a camp in Karbala was being mortared. It soon became clear the shooters were in a mosque near children playing soccer, so firing back was morally impossible.

“It’s about applicable means,” he said. “Even if we be the winner, most of you will agree, we will be in shame.”

The Polish general said he believed the war on terrorism could be won.

“For the time being, I’m really optimistic,” he said.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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