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Stories of Honor: Montana soldiers with Fort Harrison unit reflect on year in Poland

From left, Maj. Christopher Topham, the 652nd Regional Support Group current operations officer, briefs Col. Erica Herzog, the 652nd RSG and Area Support Group Poland commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas O’Connor, the 1st Infantry Division (Forward) commander, and Brig. Gen. Brett Sylvia, the 1st Cavalry Division (Forward) commander, May 25 on Powidz Air Base, Powidz, Poland. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Master Sgt. Ryan C. Matson, 652nd Regional Support Group/Released)

Soldiers from the 652nd Regional Support Group, an Army Reserve unit from Fort Harrison, are back from an 11-month deployment in Poland. The unit spent a two-week quarantine in North Fort Hood, Texas, before returning to Montana, according to Master Sgt. Ryan Matson, of the 652nd RSG.

“The 652nd RSG’s mission was to manage the daily base operations of 11 base camps throughout Poland,” MSG Matson, half of the unit’s public affairs team, wrote in an email. “Their deployment to Poland was significant because it marked the first time a U.S. Army Reserve unit was tasked with conducting this mission.”

For several young Montana soldiers, like Spc. Emory Faber, a military police officer from Helena, the tour in Poland was not only their first military deployment, but their first time outside the U.S. 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.”

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Matson explained that the unit is a brigade, and that there are two battalions and a total of 10 downtrace units in four states in the 652nd RSG – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.

“The unit from Helena that deployed to Poland was actually the headquarters of the whole brigade,” he said. “Five of the 11 base camps are located in the Zagan cluster in western Poland – in Zagan, Trzebien, Swietoszow, Boleslawiec, and Karliki.

“The others are located at Skwierzyna and Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, also in western Poland; while Poznan, Powidz, Torun and Bemowo Piskie Training Area, a NATO base camp are in eastern Poland.”

After the 652nd arrived in late September, the unit separated into mayor cells responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations providing life-sustaining services to soldiers.

These ranged from allocating room and tent space to tenant units on the base 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, from Great Falls, 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 and planning projects.”

Campbell said among the toughest parts of the year were the teams dealing with units rapidly clearing out of country when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The 652nd deployed with 84 soldiers, including a staff of about 30 at the headquarters in Powidz, with the rest 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 between 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. soldiers across Poland.

Col. Erica Herzog, on her sixth overseas tour, commanded the 652nd RSG throughout the mission.

“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.”

Herzog spoke about many of the 652nd’s accomplishments, including the establishment of 17 standardized processes for areas such as billeting, key control and hazardous material removal.

“The unit also procured over 2,600 wall lockers, 2,700 mattresses and 25,000 bed slats to directly improve soldier quality of life,” she said.

Sgt. Milton Candelaria, Jr., a human resources noncommissioned officer from Broadview, got the opportunity to experience Poland’s true culture.

“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. I noticed how genuine people were … they wanted us to feel good there.”

Candelaria was invited over to Alex’s sister’s house for dinner on New Years, for a full day of amazing Polish food. He even won a Polish language contest hosted by 652nd Command Sgt. Maj. Duane Hedrick, having learned over 200 words.

“There were a lot of tears, when it was time to leave,” recalled Candelaria. “One of the cooks was really emotional, because we were the first rotation that took the time to talk to them.”

After returning stateside and in quarantine at North Fort Hood, Matson related how the unit’s soldiers’ days were filled with activities such as long phone conversations with loved ones, playing video games, watching movies, or with details cleaning the barracks or serving food to their fellow soldiers.

“It’s great to be back on American soil, (but) we can’t wait to leave the heat to return to our homes,” said Sgt. Wynston Ryder, and intelligence analyst from Bozeman.

The relationships the soldiers of the 652nd built with their Polish counterparts was so strong that many plan to return with their families for a trip.

“I built lifetime friendships with people in Poland,” Campbell said. “They’re family.”

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© 2020 the Independent Record