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Far More Hospitable Than Vieques, Poland Cashes In by Renting Battlefields for War Games

Foreign Armies Are Again in the Country, But Now They're Practicing, Not Invading


December 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved. 

DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland -- The Apache attack helicopters lifted off, in eight groups of five, as troops dressed in camouflage hunkered down and the freezing downdraft from the aircraft hurled bits of turf and mud into the air.

Capt. Tom Bryant missed part of the action. The square-jawed Alabaman was hunting up a trash bin to toss out an onlooker's discarded apple core. "We aim to leave the place in better shape than we found it," he said, looking mildly disgusted as he wiped his hands on his fatigues.

That was one goal of Victory Strike III, three weeks of war games in which 5,000 troops from the U.S. Army's V Corps and a few hundred Poles used attack helicopters and weapons to practice for a possible war with Iraq . Good hygiene was just one reason Poland was delighted to play host to the training. Some 212 square miles near the German border were cleaner and the government and local suppliers were richer when the troops withdrew from their drills. "It would be much better if the soldiers stayed permanently," said Zbigniew Jakomulski, mayor of the town of Drawsko Pomorskie, which hosted the V Corps.

War can't be counted on for economic benefits, but war games have pumped about $60 million into the Polish economy in the past two years. Per diem warriors from eight countries regularly work out in the former Warsaw Pact country. Repeat customers, including Italy and Germany, have so far booked 13 maneuvers for next year, which looks to be the busiest yet. The U.S. Army will come back for two Victory Strikes next year.

Poland's convenient location in the heart of Europe attracted plenty of uninvited armies in its war-ravaged past. Now the country is cashing in, leasing more land and airspace for war practice than any other European member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to which it has belonged for three years. "Times have changed," says Col. Klaus Haacke of Germany, which, under the Nazis, invaded Poland in 1939.

The Polish army is accommodating, environmental laws present no problems and there are few pacifists to get in the way. In other words, it is far more hospitable than Vieques, Puerto Rico, an island the U.S. Navy uses as a practice bombing range, drawing frequent protests. With 120,728 square miles, Poland has the perfect military training terrain: vast flatlands, oozing swamps and rugged mountains, not to mention the frigid Baltic seacoast. Poland's waters haven't been rented by any navies yet, but the Polish Ministry of Defense is trying to drum up interest. "We send marketing materials to all NATO countries -- plus nonallied," says Col. Zdzislaw Gnatowski of the Polish Army General Staff Office.

For Victory Strike III, the U.S. government paid $5.6 million to rent training ground and airspace and for supplies and services. Maj. Jeff Harrington, Victory Strike's chief contracting officer, crisscrossed the region in a rented Ford Mondeo, accompanied by a finance team of three. In six weeks, they spent $565,379 to rent 20 tents for operations centers and a mess hall, $140,000 for gravel for roads and Patriot missile pads, $238,800 for interpreters and $78,400 for kitchen help.

Polish businesses got contracts for gasoline, lumber, forklifts and door-keys. The Lobelia travel agency in Czaplinek landed an $80,000 deal to provide buses to ferry troops around. Widerange Enterprises in Drawsko Pomorskie cleaned up by supplying 150 chemical toilets. At the Hot Cat, a brothel in Oleszno, business surged.

"We see a 100% increase in business during maneuvers," said Andrzej, the brothel's bouncer, who would give only his first name. The U.S. bans its soldiers from the Hot Cat, but the Army's many local hires, as well as troops from some other NATO countries, aren't restricted. "The Italians," Andrzej said, "they really fill the place."

Victory Strike III had two men on full-time collateral-damage control. For nearly a month, Craig Walmsley, a U.S. Army environmental engineer, and Salvatore Giangrego of the V Corps' Maneuver Management Division circled the training fields in their cars, using global positioning systems to record every mashed road shoulder or broken tree, so the Army could pay to fix or replace it. They stopped at helicopter refueling stations to make sure hose joints were strapped to pans of sand to absorb drips.

During night maneuvers, when children flocked to watch the helicopters refuel, Mr. Walmsley tied small flashlights around their necks so pilots could spot them. Mr. Giangrego rerouted soldiers in dirt-speckled Humvees to avoid trenching muddy areas and cautioned drivers to stay off spongy farmland with their 1,000-gallon fuel trucks.

In the more than 40 years that Poland was NATO's enemy, alliance troops worked out in West Germany, girding against the Soviet threat. Tens of thousands of soldiers and scores of tanks, some weighing 70 tons, regularly tore through the Teutonic countryside, taking out trees, crops and livestock. "The sidewalks were vaporized," said Mr. Walmsley. During those years, maneuver damage in Germany cost the U.S. about $30 million a year. In Poland last year, the tab was only about $25,000, thanks to the efforts to leave everything pristine.

War games are a boon to isolated Czaplinek, a wooded burg of 5,000 where a neighbor's new car is big news. "Meeting another language, people with different skin colors ... is very important," said Piotr Spirin, owner of the Lobelia travel agency. More important to him was this year's bus contract, which accounts for half his annual revenue. He got the contract last year, too, and with the profit bought four off-road vehicles and 20 canoes to rent to summer tourists from Germany, which once owned this region.

The U.S. Army always plans a humanitarian project during Victory Strike. This year the 94th Engineers built a new emergency ward for the hospital in Drawsko Pomorskie. Capt. Bryant bounced his SUV into the rubble-strewn parking lot one day, waving a copy of a local newspaper story at soldiers covered in plaster dust. "Hey guys, here's a story about you -- it's called 'Shooting and Building,' " he shouted.

The hospital project cost $70,000. The U.S. bought materials locally and hospital maintenance staff helped American soldiers do the work. "We've learned a lot from our Polish colleagues," said Lt. Adrienne Sykes, a crew leader fresh from West Point, as the electricity failed again. Despite such obstacles, the crew of 32 finished the ward in a month. "We thought this would take seven years," said Mariusz Brych, the hospital director.

Last year, an Apache helicopter crashed in a stand of trees near the Ziemsko airfield, killing the pilot. The U.S. Army paid the Polish Ministry of Defense $25,000 for 150 broken pine trees, and Warsaw used part of the money to put up a commemorative plaque honoring the pilot on the site. "The support here is phenomenal," Mr. Giangrego said, pausing on his rounds. This year, "They sent a village priest to bless the Apaches."

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