Army’s new Poland garrison went from Warsaw’s wish list to high US priority
Stars and Stripes March 28, 2023
POZNAN, Poland — The soldiers came here with duffel bags and clipboards, carrying out site surveys for a mission in Europe that was fast transforming from a Cold War relic to a high priority in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine.
Many of the buildings were crumbling husks dating back at least to the Nazi occupation during World War II.
Six years after those U.S. soldiers arrived, this military post in the west-central city of Poznan has emerged as the nerve center for Army leaders overseeing troops from the Baltics to Bulgaria.
The evolution of Camp Kosciuszko, which last week formally became the first U.S. permanent base in Poland, showcases how events in Ukraine over the past nine years have overhauled the United States’ military mission in Europe.
“Everything that happened here in Poznan evolved with the real-world events that came along the way,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Aleckna, a logistics coordinator who has aided the Army buildup in Poznan since 2018. “God knows what’s coming tomorrow.”
While Russia’s 2014 incursion in Crimea and eastern Ukraine saw the Army surge rotational units into Poland in response, the U.S. tiptoed around the idea of putting permanent bases in the former Warsaw Pact state.
But the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, changed all that, and now the Army is talking about what not long ago was little more than a Polish pipe dream: American military families calling Poznan home.
“It makes it a more attractive assignment if you can bring your family and have some stability,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy Thombleson, V Corps’ deputy commander for support.
A timeline hasn’t been pinned down for making that transition, but the first step will be accompanied tours with adult couples followed by tours with children, which are anticipated as support infrastructure improves, he said.
Many of the once-dilapidated buildings have been renovated at the post in Poznan, a city of about 530,000 people with a large college community. Big plans are in the works for further transformation of the site into a modern Army garrison.
V Corps Command Sgt. Maj. Raymond Harris said family tours are something the command wants.
“It’s not our decision, but we communicate that all the time and it’s something we want to continue to ask for,” Harris said.
Poland garrison’s roots
Six years ago, a contingent of 100 troops assigned to Mission Command Element arrived from Baumholder, Germany with the job of overseeing soldier maneuvers on NATO’s eastern flank.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded the Army in Europe at the time, said it was a combination of available facilities and the city’s developed transportation network, including an airport, that factored into the decision to set up shop in Poznan.
“We wanted to have an HQ, even if rotational, that was in Poland, which was already growing into our main hub for eastern flank (operations),” Hodges said.
But as U.S. Army Europe and Africa’s mission continued to expand, it became clear that more command-and-control capabilities were needed.
Enter V Corps, which was reestablished in 2021 to give the Army a new three-star headquarters to manage day-to-day activities from the Baltic Sea in the north down to the Black Sea region.
V Corps was getting situated just as Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine. As thousands of extra U.S. soldiers headed for Europe or repositioned from other parts of the Continent, V Corps was tasked with overseeing it all.
“It was a real-world validation,” Harris said. “You could almost say we were purpose-built for exactly what happened in February (2022). This is what the corps was built for: to give the four-star commander at USAREUR-AF a warfighting headquarters to control U.S. ground forces in the theater.”
In addition to coordinating troop movement, V Corps also is involved in ongoing training with U.S. and allied forces. Soldiers at Camp Kosciuszko are there to improve battlefield information sharing among allies.
The aim is to connect networks in such a way that all allied commanders are working off the same picture when coordinating multinational missions.
“Ultimately, you want to have a shared digital operational picture. That gives you that much more dominance on the battlefield,” said Col. John Hosey, the officer in charge of the V Corps learning lab.
Other new V Corps initiatives include an apprenticeship program in which foreign soldiers will embed with U.S. units to develop expertise on using high-mobility rocket systems, known as HIMARS, which have been put to effective use in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, garrison officials in Poznan oversee about a dozen Army sites in Poland to facilitate the V Corps mission. The sites include an aviation and logistics hub 90 minutes east of Poznan in Powidz, and a cluster of camps near Zagan, a town where an Army brigade operates not far from the southwestern border with Germany.
More than 100 infrastructure projects to support the U.S. military in Poland are in the works, ranging from dining facilities and barracks to training ranges.
The initiatives are part of a defense cooperation agreement with Warsaw in which Poland agreed to support the U.S.’s growing mission with heavy spending on military infrastructure.
Col. Jorge Fonseca, the garrison commander in Poznan, said that as the American footprint expands, part of his focus is ensuring sufficient off-base housing to support troops arriving on permanent change of station orders, he said.
Local leaders “understand that we are coming, that we are growing,” Fonseca said.
V Corps earlier this year started assigning soldiers to the base on unaccompanied one-year tours, marking a milestone for the Army as it puts down deeper roots in Poland. Those soldiers are paid a housing allowance to live off post.
Still, most of the troops in the country are on nine-month rotational assignments for the time being.
“For single soldiers, people who don’t have a family, or don’t have a spouse or kids, I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity to get to live in a foreign country and get to do what we do every day,” said Sgt. Ann Hopkins, an intelligence analyst assigned to Poznan.
But with a 2-year-old son at home, being gone on a nine-month rotation makes things tough, she said.
An assignment in Poznan means having more freedom than the typical deployment offers, but there are limits.
Soldiers are permitted to go off post after work to enjoy the sights and dine out if they choose. While moderate drinking is allowed, getting drunk isn’t, Harris said.
For the Army, it comes down to establishing a balance between allowing soldiers to enjoy themselves while avoiding distraction from a mission that coincides with a real-world security crisis in Europe.
Overall, the conditions in Poznan are better than at some other locations in Poland, where living arrangements are more austere, such as the base in Powidz about 50 miles east.
The barracks at Poznan has each soldier with a roommate in a private room and shared bathrooms on each floor. A major project over the next several years will see the barracks replaced with a facility on par with contemporary U.S. base housing.
“I think any of the folks that have deployed to the desert over the last two decades, when you get to a place like this, it is pretty good,” said Maj. Ben Hall, a 101st Airborne Division liaison officer who is wrapping up a nine-month rotation in Poznan.
A common refrain from soldiers about conditions on post: “It could be worse.”
“Camp K” doesn’t have the amenities of a U.S. base or the big garrisons found in Germany. There is no PX and a mobile shoppette makes only periodic visits.
An upshot, said Hall, is that it gives soldiers more of an incentive to venture off post and explore a vibrant city with all the modern conveniences that accompany it.
“I think being immersed more in the local culture, that’s a real bonus,” Hall said.