Three veterans, three different stories that have one thing in common. Foreign mission experience not only had an impact on their career, but it also changed their lives.
When “Łycha” first heard the proposition to go on a mission, he agreed with no hesitation. For a pilot, who had just only started his MI-17 helicopter training, it was not only a chance to verify his skills in practice, but most of all to earn some valuable experience. He had to prepare for it well, though. A year later, after a cycle of trainings, exercises and certifications, he joined the 14th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent (PMC), a part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. As a pilot of the Independent Air Assault Group, he had duties in rapid response forces, he would transport soldiers between bases and do reconnaissance flights. In some missions, he participated in the operations of Task Force 50 special force combat teams.
“We were very well prepared, but in time of peace you simply can’t fully portray the real-battlefield situation. And that’s what we had to face there,” said “Łycha”, a Mi-17 pilot at the Polish 7th Special Operations Squadron. To illustrate his words, he tells us about his service in rapid reaction forces. “We had practiced that multiple times in Poland, but there, in Afghanistan, it turned out to be something completely different. All this time each of us had a feeling that we were at great risk, particularly when we were running to our helicopters straight from the shelters,” describes “Łycha.”
Up in the air, the risk was still there. The pilots not only had to struggle with harsh weather conditions, dust and landing in hardly accessible places, but also keep in mind at all times that they can be shelled by the Taliban. “Somewhere in the back of our heads, we were aware that someone could start shooting at us at any moment, but these thoughts were not predominant. We assumed all would be fine. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to focus on our tasks. Sometimes the bullet holes were only discovered on the occasion of our helicopters’ overhaul,” recalls “Łycha.”
The 14th PMC in Afghanistan was the last one during which the Independent Air Assault Group carried out their combat tasks, and at the same time it was the only mission in which “Łycha” took part. The pilot emphasizes that experience gained in Ghazni boosted his self-confidence, and confirmed the significance of all the training he had received. This time also shaped him as a man. “Mission shapes character. It reveals how people behave in extreme situations, but also teaches them how to cooperate in a group. Without trust and mutual respect, you can’t perform your tasks,” says “Łycha.” He is still in active service.
Sagacity and Self-Control
Self-confidence and precision, which should be characteristic features of a pilot, are also quite welcome in other soldierly specializations. Best aware of this is SrCpl (Res) Zbigniew Tułacz, a sapper of the 6th rotation of the United Nations Emergency Force II (UNEF II) in Egypt. “As a soldier of compulsory military service, I excelled in my good health condition and training, so very soon I was offered a chance to leave for a mission. I was 23 at the time,” he recalls. After rigorous qualification procedures and a three-month training, ultimately twenty sappers left for Egypt. Their task was to clear the buffer zone of mines – a zone created by the UN between the Egyptian and Israeli forces after the Yom Kippur War. “We would find there abandoned air bombs, mortars, machine guns, sometimes heavy equipment. Some of this stuff was still mined. I had to dig them out of the sand, check the fuse and decide whether it could be rendered safe and transported, or whether it should be blown up on the spot. Later on, the soldiers from Sweden, Ghana and Senegal were stationed there, and they really trusted us,” Zbigniew Tułacz tells us.
A sapper’s service meant serious risk-taking. Polish soldiers were not familiar with the military equipment and ammunition used in western countries, so they had to learn how to disarm them on the spot. Unfortunately, not every mission participant came back home. “Four of my fellow soldiers died, they drove straight onto a mine. I was not fully aware of the danger. The fact that we were treated very well while being there both by soldiers of other contingents and the local people, was very helpful. It was only later in Poland that I had some days when I really agonized over it,” said the sapper.
After his return from Egypt, Zbigniew Tułacz ended his active service. As a graduate of agronomy, a specialization quite appreciated at the time, he would hold managerial positions as a civilian. He admits that his engineering knowledge was not the only thing that proved useful. “My military service gave me such skills as precision, self-control and sagacity. During the UN mission, I also learnt how important it is to bring peace. That’s not all. My father was forming a fire brigade unit, and my military experience helped me to become a commandant there,” recalls Zbigniew Tułacz.
Experience gained during the UN mission was very much appreciated in his professional career, but due to political reasons, the course of the mission in Egypt had to be kept in secret. For many years, the veteran could share his knowledge about it only with his closest ones. Therefore, he now gladly speaks about his participation in the mission. “It’s very important to me. Once I took part in a meeting organized by the Center of Foreign Missions Veterans (Centrum Weterana) in a youth correctional center. We presented different missions there, and imagine that these young people considered sappers to be the most interesting. After the official part was over, for the next two hours we were explaining to them what this service is about, and what you have to do to become a sapper,” tells us SrCpl (Res) Zbigniew Tułacz.
The Essence of Rescuer’s Job
For veterans, mission experience is of particular significance, but one should keep in mind it is earned in the conditions of war. There are situations where survival depends on the level of training and the psychophysical condition of other soldiers. To be more specific, of medics, such as Lt Monika Trajdos, the Manager of a Cycle of Battlefield Medical Simulation at the Military Medical Training Center (Wojskowe Centrum Kształcenia Medycznego, WCKM). “I’d made my decision about going to Iraq about three weeks before the rotation started. My friend called me and said that the hospital in Wrocław was forming a contingent, and they needed paramedics. At the time, you could count medics in the army on the fingers of one hand, but despite that fact my commander gave me his permission to go,” she recalls.
As a recent graduate of a cadet school and paramedic studies, Monika Trajdos found herself in a place where medics have their hands full. “At first, I thought: Gosh, what am I doing here?! But then I met fascinating people who wanted to share their knowledge with me, and very soon they trained me to do my work. What I went through in Iraq shaped me as a medic and as a human,” emphasizes Lt Monika Trajdos. She adds that in spite of the stigma all mission veterans bear, she always tries to be helpful towards people she meets on her way. “Missions I participated in were not easy, but the opportunity to help other people makes your forget all the bad things. This is the essence of our job – the fact you save people’s life or health,” concludes Lt Monika Trajdos.
After Iraq, there were other missions, such as the one in Afghanistan. Lt Trajdos recalls that at the time you could already see that soldiers were more experienced with what they had lived through in earlier rotations. The same could be said about the medics who were now more acquainted with the realities of war. “I had better equipment at my disposal. I also knew what kind of injuries to expect. During seven years of my ER work, I only once saw a gunshot wound, and it wasn’t a a serious one. During the missions, wounds of this kind or those made by IED explosions, as well as amputations, were something I experienced on a daily basis,” she says. Lt Monika Trajdos shares her knowledge and experience with paramedic trainees. It is hard to overestimate a teacher who, when teaching battlefield medicine, can present examples of her own practice. “In Afghanistan, I met one of my trainees who had failed one of my exams. He confessed to me he was angry at first, but being there, on the mission, he realized how important this knowledge was, and that he couldn’t have managed without it. He ultimately said he would start the course again once he was back, just to have a proper training this time. I liked that attitude very much,” she said.
Professional experience earned in foreign missions is not the only thing these three veterans have in common. Each of them also makes it clear that the need to help another man – whether it is a local resident, a fellow soldier or a colleague from the same rotation – is crucial. This is what makes all the hardships of the mission meaningful. All three of them emphasize that this was the most important lesson they learned at the time.
autor zdjęć: Bartek Bera, arch. prywatne, WCKM