ZAGAN, Poland –
“It’s been about building things.”
That’s how Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Anderson, an information services technician warrant officer from Bellingham, Washington, serving with the 652nd Regional Support Group as mayor of the Karliki base camp, described his mission in Poland.
Anderson, and Sgt. Ashton Clark, of Helena, Montana, are the two-man mayor cell team for the base camp at Karliki. That means, as the mission statement posted proudly on their wall reads, they are responsible for “managing facilities, providing administrative and logistical support of Soldier’s services, and ensuring the security of personnel and facilities on a base camp.”
Karliki is one of 11 (originally 10) base camps throughout the country of Poland that the 652nd is tasked with providing basic life-sustaining services for U.S. Soldiers and their allies.
To accomplish this mission, as Anderson said, he and Clark have had to build physical things, processes, and relationships with units occupying the camp, the contractors who work there, the local population, and the Polish officials who own and run the base.
When people describe Karliki base camp, they often use the words “creepy” and “eerie,” and for good reason. The camp is on the site of a former Nazi prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III, which imprisoned more than 10,000 Allied Soldiers, many of them officers, including more than 7,000 Americans, during World War II. The POW camp, which is not far from Zagan, Poland, is historically significant for The Great Escape, during which 76 Allied Soldiers successfully dug three tunnels which they used to escape the camp on March 24, 1944. The escape was made more famous by the 1963 Hollywood movie starring Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. A museum dedicated to the prison and its inhabitants is only minutes from the Karliki base camp.
The concrete pillars and barbed wire from the prison security fences still line much of the base camp at Karliki. Additionally, Soldiers on one side of the camp must walk through a heavily-wooded path to shower on the other side. Clark and Anderson have the path lined with white engineering tape for safety, but when navigating the often foggy path, especially at night, many Soldiers remark of the spooky feel, especially as they look to the pillars that provide a haunting reminder of the camp’s original purpose.
There is also a mass grave site on the camp, near a railhead.
Another remnant of the railhead on Karliki are some old boxcars that have been repurposed into living quarters that Polish Soldiers inhabit.
Anderson described Karliki with an analogy most people in the United States can relate to.
“In the United States, they have KOAs (Kampgrounds of America),” he said.
“It’s kind of like a military KOA. You’ve got large, climate-controlled tents with comfortable cots that you sleep on. And you’ve got showers, latrines – it’s like a fancy campground on a historic piece of Poland.”
Building physical things and processes
When it comes to building things, Clark is Anderson’s ace.
The two arrived on Karliki and procured a tent, but it had nothing in it. So Clark went to work while Anderson ran an errand.
“I said ‘I’m gonna go ahead and take off,’ and he said, ‘Ok, I’ll get started.’ I wasn’t even gone an hour and I came back and the desk was built,” Anderson marveled, sitting behind the large, sturdy desk.
Clark did this with minimal tools and some wood he said he had to “scrounge up.” He also used his artistic ability to draw a logo and a sign for the mayor cell team, mounted prominently on the front of the desk.
When one enters the meticulous office, the first thing he or she sees is the desk and Clark’s sign. Clark also used old pallets to construct a table and chairs that look as if they were ordered from an expensive furniture store.
Anderson, meanwhile, went to work using his organizational and systems skills in making the office operational. Within three days of their arrival, the two had white boards with upcoming tasks, maps and contact numbers posted the cell was up and running.
With a place to work established, the two went to work identifying ways to improve the quality of life for Soldiers there, and then providing those services.
The camp is divided into two living areas, and only one had a Morale Welfare and Recreation area, so Anderson and Clark set one up. They worked to get the Armed Forces Network installed on a television in the dining facility, which sits, naturally, on a television stand Clark made.
They worked with an engineer company to have two large pedestals for satellite dishes on the base built, which Clark and Anderson stained and weather-proofed during their weekend off. They are currently working with contractors to provide Wi-Fi to the base camp.
The team also brought needed services to the camp, such as the addition of a base camp barber.
Building trust and relationships
The first relationship Clark and Anderson had to build was their own. The two had met just before mobilizing to Poland, and didn’t know each other at all. Though both had deployed before, Clark, a fueler, and Anderson, with an information technology background, had never undertaken a mission like this one.
Though only two people, they were responsible for working long hours to make sure hundreds of people on the base camp were able to live comfortably.
“There are a lot of people depending on us,” Anderson said. “We’re taking something from the ground level and building it up. We’re talking about sustenance as far as food and water, housing, communications, transportation, personnel. It’s a multi-faceted mission that I haven’t experienced before.”
As they quickly found out, they are both very different people.
Anderson is a detail oriented, self-described perfectionist. He said he is a concrete thinker, and works as a network administrator in his civilian job.
“Networking is the ability to make things communicate and ensure there is successful communication and that’s what we’ve been doing in regards to people here,” Anderson said.
“We’ve been networking and introducing ourselves and putting ourselves out there so people know where to come for help.”
Clark, meanwhile, said he possesses more “street smarts” and often thinks outside the box to get things done, taking a creative approach. Though only 29, Clark took three years of carpentry in high school, worked three years as a construction worker, installed sprinkler systems, worked at an auto body shop, and is a self-taught mechanic as well. He describes himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none.”
Both are also similar in some regards. Both are experienced Soldiers, with Anderson having served in the Navy and Clark in the Marines.
Though there were early trials, when the two learned each other’s strengths, they say they have been able to work together to get any task presented to the team done.
“His desire for continued improvement works with the way I think,” Clark said. “I’ll build something and he finds a way to use it to improve our fox hole.”
Beyond their personal relationship, the next relationship the two said they quickly built was a strong bond between themselves and who they refer to as the third member of their team, their linguist Przemek, whose nickname is Fred.
“Without him, we wouldn’t have made the contacts with the Polish Karliki Management team, the Polish Military Logistics officer who helped us with furniture for the MWR, nor the Polish barber,” Anderson said.
Przemek heard the two talking about the need for a barber on the base camp, and reached out to a Polish hair stylist, the wife of a retired Polish Warrant Officer and communications Soldier (much like Anderson), who has a salon in Swietoszow.
Anderson and Clark were able to arrange for the stylist to travel to Karliki and provide haircuts for the Soldiers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This led to another strong relationship, as the stylist invited Anderson and Clark to her home for a traditional Polish Sunday dinner with her family. The Soldiers said the dinner is one of their fondest highlights of this mobilization to date.
“We had a big Polish meal that started with soup, included a wonderful baked chicken entrée accompanied by two types of salads and finished with chocolate cake. Afterwards, we were treated to coffee and thought the meal was coming to an end,” Anderson said. “The next thing you know, she brought out two more side dishes, and another entrée. It was all delicious and when we left there we were like, wow!”
“It just goes to show that the relationships and the bonds we’re building have extended all the way to families within the local community. Being invited into their home was an honor that we will not forget. It was a family dinner that reminded us of home and the importance of our mission here in Poland,” Clark said. “They were super kind and we were grateful for their hospitality.”