You’ll find that the most difficult part is to admit, “I want to go”. If you manage, your life will turn upside down in an instant. A new home, a foreign language. But once everything falls into place, you become aware that you are at the heart of NATO. And this is an experience you’ll find difficult to compare with any other.
Commander Piotr Wojtas: “When I first came to Brunssum, it was like I had thrown myself in at the deep end. I took up my duties on August 1, 2015, and six weeks later I flew to Zaragoza for ‘Trident Juncture’ exercises. At that time, these were the largest NATO manoeuvres in over ten years. We only managed to move out of Poland, and I had to be away from my family.”
Junior Warrant Officer Rafał Tyrka: “I was afraid of that trip. It’s true, I had passed all the exams and qualifications, I had been learning English for over a decade, but... I was ruminating: There are people from all over the world working there. Various accents, pronunciation, lively language. And if it turns out that I don’t speak so well?”
Lieutenant Colonel Grzegorz Stanisz: “First weeks? You must get a pass, get access to all kinds of systems, get used to the so-called battle rhythm. This means, to penetrate the complicated structure of NATO, to become an element of this huge machine...
In a country without borders
Brunssum is a town of 30,000 residents in the heart of Limburg, the Netherlands. Sometimes, the region is referred to as a borderless land or the Balcony of Europe, because a few countries lie literally at your fingertips. This is where the key NATO cell is located. The NATO Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFC-B) was founded in 1963. For three years, it operated in Fontainebleau, but when France withdrew from the military structures of the alliance, it was moved about 500 km to the northeast, to the borderland of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. Today it is one of the two operational headquarters in NATO. The second one is in Naples. They both report to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).
The responsibilities of JFC-B included supporting the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It also regularly commands the NATO Response Forces and coordinates international manoeuvres. Soldiers of the command also undergo intensive training. There are about 800 of them in Brunssum, representing 29 member states of the alliance. On top of this, there are representatives from Sweden, Finland and several other ‘Partnership for Peace’ countries. “The Polish delegation comprises an average of 40 people,” Commander Wojtas explains. “Our officers and non-commissioned officers serve in all staff cells: from operations, through planning, all the way to security.”
A new way of life
Commander Wojtas began his army experience in the already non-existent 9th Fleet of Coast Defence. He served for three years in the crew of a mine destroyer. “I quickly realised that I wasn’t likely to become a ship commander. I was just really interested in doing other things,” he admits. In 2009, he joined the press office of the Navy Command. Then he took part in three missions as spokesman for Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 – SNMCMG1, when he spent a total of 12 months on board the Polish Command ship “Rear-Admiral Xawery Czernicki”. “Finally, I became the spokesman for the international exercises ‘Dynamic Monarch’ in 2014,” Commander Wojtas recollects. “I didn’t even think about going to Brunssum at that time. But when I got the opportunity, I thought: Why not? I had experience from serving in NATO structures, my wife speaks the languages and can do her work remotely, the children completed kindergarten,” he recounts. Finally, he applied to a special recruitment unit of the General Staff. He passed exams and health tests and was qualified. In 2015, he began his three-year service in Brunssum.
Before coming to the Netherlands, Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz also worked as a member of international teams. “I was on two missions in Iraq and one mission in Afghanistan,” he recalls. In Poland, he served in the Operational Command of the Armed Forces. “For six consecutive years, I served in the CIMIC and InfoOps departments, and then I moved to the ongoing operations department,” he explains. There, he was involved in activities that may be identified with the broadly understood information warfare. Although he himself tries to avoid the word “warfare”. He prefers to talk about activities aimed at forcing the opponent to adopt a certain attitude. “I have learned a lot in Poland. Serving in a similar position, but in international structures, was another step in my professional development,” the officer admits, and then adds: “I had changed garrisons a few times before, so my relatives had time to get used to it. However, this trip was the greatest challenge for my children and wife.” They arrived in the Netherlands less than two years ago.
JWO Tyrka admits that as far as private matters are concerned, he had fewer links to Poland than many other soldiers did. “I occupied a business apartment in Kraków, and I had no children. My wife had a job but was ready to try exploring new possibilities. I wanted new professional experience. I was supposed to start my first mission working in Brunssum,” he says. He was granted permission from his superiors to leave, so he applied, and then for nearly a year he reconciled his service in the 5th Command Battalion in Rząska near Kraków with further tests and research. Finally, he was told: “We’re deploying you”. It was July 2015, and Tyrka had just begun one of the most important chapters in his life. As it was to turn out soon: also in his personal life.
The piercing spearhead
In Brunssum, Commander Wojtas started working in the press office. “There are a number of soldiers working there, and the competences are strictly divided. I had to plan,” he recalls. The NATO Headquarters prepares guidelines for strategic communication but leaves the drafting of details to specialists from lower levels of command. “Since Brunssum is responsible for coordinating the exercises, the narrative is developed and then set out into the world here. I was responsible for coordinating the work of our office with the spokespersons of other units,” explains Commander Wojtas.
“Trident Juncture ‘15” exercises on the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese training ground turned out to be his first serious test. The scenario assumed that there was a water conflict in North Africa. NATO forces were mandated by the United Nations and headed to the hot zone to restore peace. The manoeuvres gathered 36,000 soldiers from 30 alliance states and cooperating countries, and as they took place shortly after the annexation of the Crimea and the outbreak of the war in the Donbass, they stirred great media attention from all over the world. “We had a lot of work, but we managed,” recollects Commander Wojtas. Then came the next important undertakings, such as “Brilliant Jump ‘16” manoeuvres, which included the transfer of the newly established Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), the so-called Spearhead, to Żagań, Poland, and computer exercises “Trident Jevelin ‘17” for all NATO quarters. “Although it took place there in headquarters, it posed a greater challenge to the press services. We had to react to many situations created by specialists. For example, we found out that the ship had sank and that we needed to set up an information policy quickly,” Commander Wojtas recalls.
In his time in the press office, there were over a dozen people working, including people from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain. “All of them had their own experience. The Dutch, for example, do not have press structures in their army. In other NATO countries, for a change, those structures had been present long before they were established in Poland,” he concludes.
Around the time when Commander Wojtas started working in the press office, JWO Tyrka was in the division responsible for planning, organisation and coordination of NATO military exercises and the “Partnership for Peace”. “In Brunssum, I served as a non-commissioned officer of the J7 staff unit. Inter alia, I was responsible for preparing trips for officers and non-commissioned officers who served there and who actually travelled all over the world,” explains JWO Tyrka. He was also responsible for supporting the division commander in preparing for conferences and working group meetings, managing the Automated Personnel Management System, which contained data of all soldiers serving in Brunssum, and acted as a Division Security Officer. “No phones, Bluetooth devices or recording equipment may be brought into the headquarters. The DSO ensures that safety procedures are followed and provides related training,” he explains.
JWO Tyrka recalls that during his three-year service he worked desk-by-desk with soldiers from Germany, Great Britain, Greece and Lithuania. He reported directly to a Frenchman who was first subordinate to a general from Estonia and then to a general from Lithuania. “You have to get used to working in an international environment and switch to thinking in English. Luckily, I was able to do it as quickly as possible,” he says. Trident Juncture ‘15” manoeuvres turned out to be a good test, as in the case of Commander Wojtas. “Together with the captain sent from Poland, we were transferred to Portugal with JLSG [Joint Logistics Support Group] and included in the logistics support group in the CIMIC section,” he recalls. During the conflict created for the needs of exercises, Tyrka and his colleagues were responsible for contacts with civilians. “The scope of my duties was therefore quite different from those at Brunssum, and the working conditions were completely different. But it was good for me,” concludes the non-commissioned officer.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz still serves in the NATO command and can observe closely the changes that are taking place in it. And even take part in them. “I started my service at JFC Brunssum as an officer responsible for the synchronisation of information activities in the InfoOps department. Following the implementation of NATO’s directive on the consolidation and integration of communication activities, the headquarters have created a Communications Division [Comms Div] within their structures, reporting directly to the Chief of Staff, and InfoOps itself was given the rank of a branch on December 1, 2017,” explains the officer and adds: “Comms Div is the first structure of this type, excluding NATO headquarters, and perhaps a sign of a new trend in communication activities in the alliance,” he adds. Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz cooperates on a daily basis with all internal cells of the Brunssum headquarters, officers who are responsible for information activities in other NATO headquarters, as well as battalion battle groups deployed in Poland and the Baltic States.
The English Netherlands
But Brunssum is not only about service. It is also everyday life. “Poles are concentrated in one delegation sent to the Netherlands by the General Staff. They stay close to each other. During my term of office, we met during Christmas picnics but also on more formal occasions, like national holidays,” explains Commander Wojtas. Many of the 40 families lived even in the close vicinity, at a street that got an informal Polish name “Wspólna”. “Of course, we weren’t obliged to rent a house there. We decided to rent a house in Maastricht, 30 km away, mainly due to the proximity to the school,” admits Commander Wojtas. When choosing a place, you can use the services of a JFC cell dealing with those matters. The army also helps to pay for children’s education. “Usually they go to an international school with an English lecturer, which is paid for by our defence department. If you want to send your child to a Dutch school, you can get a subsidy for your children to study Dutch,” the officer explains. But in practice nobody goes for it. “People in the Netherlands do speak English. For three years I met only one person who didn’t speak the language or for some reason didn’t want to speak it,” recalls the officer. He sent children to a United World College. “The contact with peers from other countries and a different education system than the Polish one broadened their horizons. When we arrived in the Netherlands, my children hardly spoke English. For three years, they absorbed it from everywhere,” stresses the officer.
There is also a Polish school in Brunssum. “Actually, it is the Brigadier General Stanisław Sosabowski School Consultation Point,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz. “Children of both Polish soldiers and those from the Polish community study there. Thanks to our excellent and dedicated teachers, the School Consultation Point is really of great support to us,” he adds.
Living in a town of 30 thousand residents has some disadvantages. One of them is the limited possibility of getting a job for the spouses of soldiers. On the other hand, however, due to its location, it is a good place to live. “From the south of the Netherlands, it is close to the other Benelux countries and Germany; for example, Aachen and Brunssum are only 25 km away. Thanks to this, you can easily visit really interesting places in your free time,” emphasises Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz.
Three years of adventure
Commander Wojtas returned to Poland a few months ago. He is now serving in the Operations Centre of the Ministry of National Defence. “The experience gained at Brunssum was helpful even in the autumn of 2018, when I was sent to the next edition of ‘Trident Juncture’,” he says. JWO Tyrka emphasises that the three-year mission was probably the biggest professional adventure. “I gained self-confidence, learned a lot, improved my qualifications. For example, I took part in the NATO NCO Intermediate Leadership course, but there are other reasons why I will hold the adventure in Brunssum dear, too. We lived in a nice place with my wife and rented a small house. And above all, right at the beginning of our service in the Netherlands, our first child, Gabriela, was born”.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Colonel Stanisz is going to stay in Brunssum. “There are certainly many challenges ahead of me. The biggest ones are related to the inclusion of my counterparts from the NATO Response Force in cooperation with JFC Brunssum – they will start their duty in 2020, and preparations for the exercises ‘Trident Jupiter ‘19’. But I can already say that the time I have spent here so far has been special for me: I have become secretary of the InfoOps working group, I have received the Joint Service Achievement Medal from the U.S. Defence Secretary, I have had the opportunity to meet King William Alexander,” he concludes.
autor zdjęć: Marc Andre Gaudreault / JFTC