By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson
652nd Regional Support Group
As a tent full of joyful children played games, unwrapped presents from Santa Claus, sang karaoke, and played video games on Bemowo Piskie Training Area North Atlantic Treaty Organization base camp in Bemowo Piskie, Poland, Sgt. Solomon Carlson and Spc. Norman Kloszewski II watched quietly, but contently, from the background.
The two Pennsylvania Army National Guard Soldiers, both Infantrymen attached to the 3rd Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and who work together in the unit’s operations section, had spent countless hours preparing for the Christmas Day party.
“Back home, Christmas is very important to me,” Kloszewski, who had been preparing a large Christmas ham dinner since early in the morning, said. “I have three beautiful children, but I instill in them that this is about giving, not just getting. At the end of the day, if we can bring a smile to the face of some of these children who may not have that much for Christmas, that’s what we wanted to do.”
Carlson and Kloszewski worked with Sgt. Katie Burke, a fellow Pennsylvania National Guard Soldier attached to the 278th, as well as Sgt. Austin Eveland, an Army Reserve Soldier from the 652nd Regional Support Group out of Helena, Montana, as well as Soldiers from the United Kingdom, Romanian, Croatian and Polish Armies to plan and execute the event, known as “Operation Christmas.” The party, in which 24 children from local orphanages visited base to interact with Soldiers from the different Armies, marked the end of the operation.
Each nation played a part in the operation. All of them donated gifts and spent time with the children. The Americans hosted the event to bring the children onto the base camp, during which time the children participated in a host of activities, from painting hand-crafted wooden snowmen made by the Romanians, to getting to sit in and operate military vehicles in a static display hosted by the Croatians, and even watching a special magic show performed by Master Sgt. Daniel Hillbish, a licensed magician from Reading, Pennsylvania.
Operation Christmas was started four years ago by Polish Army Cpl. Przemyslaw “Nick” Oleska, 15th Mechanized Brigade.
“It started small,” Oleska recalled. “We started going to orphanages and hospitals. In the beginning it was only two hospitals and three orphanages. Right now, thanks to the help of the other nation’s Soldiers we were able to go to five hospitals and four orphanages, and from my understanding the Soldiers on the base camps throughout Poland went other places as well.”
The Soldiers visited the hospitals and orphanages, and gathered toys for a large toy drive to give children at these locations. Toys were donated through Polish citizens and Soldiers, as well as from the other NATO allies.
“We wanted to give something back to our country, and the kids in the hospitals and the orphanages,” Oleska said. “The hospitals that we go to, the kids spend anywhere from six months to a year – and last year in one case, a girl was 13 years old and she spent 11 years there. They go to school there and when they start chemotherapy their parents have to be there all the time with them. It’s something we wanted to give our hearts to.”
Oleska, who brought his own children to the party on base, said the event has been made more special to him personally after he spent last Christmas in an oncology hospital with his own son.
He said he starts planning for the drive every year around September, getting approval from the different military’s chains of command and local orphanages and hospitals.
Oleska said while the toys are nice, Soldiers spending time with the children is the main goal of the operation.
“It takes months of planning, but for a couple days we put smiles on the faces of the kids, and you can’t take that away from nobody, that’s the most important thing,” Oleska said. “It’s not about gifts. Sure, a gift is something special, but our presence there is the most important thing.”