Poland Rolls Out 'Holidays with the Army' in a Recruitment Drive with Russia in Mind

Volunteers in Poland's army learn to apply camouflage face paint during basic training in Nowogrod
Volunteers in Poland's army learn to apply camouflage face paint during basic training in Nowogrod, Poland, on Thursday June 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

NOWOGROD, Poland — With assault rifles laid out before them, the young Polish men and women kneel on the grass and follow orders on how to pack their survival kits. Next comes a lesson on applying camouflage paint to their faces. Not too much neon, an instructor says as he shows them how to add dark streaks of green.

Many at the training in eastern Poland are new high school graduates, with the men's heads freshly shaven and the women's hair tied back. They have signed up for a new summer program, “Holidays with the Army,” which offers basic military training for thousands of Poles aged 18 to 35.

The military introduced the program in a search for recruits as Poland expands its 198,000-member army in the face of renewed Russian aggression in the region, including neighboring Ukraine.

Despite the program's name, this is no holiday. The recruits rise early to learn combat and survival skills. When not in the field, they clean their quarters. There is no leaving the base, 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the border with Belarus, for visits home or nights out. They earn 6,000 zlotys ($1,500) for the 28 days.

There has been great interest in the program, which is taking place at 70 locations across Poland, officials say.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has sparked an impulse among Poles to want to defend the nation, said Maj. Michal Tomczyk, a spokesperson at the Defense Ministry.

“We haven’t had such a threat since World War II," Tomczyk said. He said they had planned for 10,000 volunteers for the program and have more than 11,000.

At the end of the training, the volunteers will take a soldier’s oath in which they swear “to serve loyally the Republic of Poland ... even at the cost of losing my life or blood.” Those who choose a military life can join a branch of the professional armed services or the Territorial Defense Forces or be on standby as reservists, said Col. Pawel Galazka, commander of the 18th Lomza Logistics Regiment, a unit training the volunteers.

“The army wants to train as many citizens as possible,” Galazka said. “Everyone knows about the threat that comes from the east.”

The Lomza regiment's training field is in a forest clearing near the Narew River. The surrounding area has been defended by generations of Poles, from the time when Poland was partitioned and ruled by foreign powers starting in the late 18th century until the early 20th century, to World War II, when the Germans and Soviets invaded.

Bunkers in the area are evidence of the Polish defense line that was broken when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, sparking World War II.

The patriotism nurtured by the history passed on in schools and by families helped motivate young people to join the new program, Galazka said.

One volunteer, 18-year-old Dominik Rojek, originally planned to study computer science. But the troubles in the region led him to shift to a military career, driven by the desire to defend the homeland. He hopes he can still pursue his passion for computer science in the military and use his skills in cyberdefense.

“Someone has to do it,” Rojek said. “Not everyone is capable of this, but we are capable of this. ... There is no other way.”

Rojek's generation came of age in peace and enjoyed the rising prosperity that has been the dividend of Moscow-backed communism’s collapse across the region 35 years ago.

But young Poles, like those of their generation along NATO's entire eastern front, fear they can no longer take that peace for granted.

Russia’s initial seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014 sent jitters through the region. But its full-scale invasion has brought a major security realignment from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and forced nations and individuals to consider the prospect of one day taking up arms.

Sweden and Finland broke with their neutrality to join NATO, and some nations are considering introducing compulsory conscription. Denmark says it plans to expand its conscription to include women.

In Poland, a member of both NATO and the European Union, the threat feels close. Some stray Russian missiles have landed in Poland.

At the border with Belarus, an ally of Russia, migrants arrive in large numbers trying to enter every day, and have recently attacked Polish officials, killing one soldier. Warsaw says the migration pressure has been created by Russia and Belarus and view it as a form of hybrid warfare against the West.

“The Russians and the Belarusians have engineered an assault on our border,” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said at a recent international conference in Berlin devoted to Ukraine's recovery.

Russian officials have repeatedly threatened Poland. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and ally of President Vladimir Putin, has called Poland a “dangerous enemy” that risks losing its statehood.

Along Poland's northern border is the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, where Poland believes Moscow stores about 100 tactical nuclear warheads.

Poles must think about what could happen and be prepared, said 34-year-old Magdalena Klos, one of the volunteers in the new training.

She had long dreamed of becoming a soldier but was waiting for her children to be old enough. They are now 9 and 11, and she feels the time is finally right.

“I am proud that I am wearing the uniform," she said. “I am not only a mother and a wife but also a soldier.”


Rafal Niedzielski contributed to this report.

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