News | June 5, 2020

The rest of the team: Linguists major part of mission at Poland base camps

By Master Sgt. Ryan Matson 652nd Regional Support Group

For the past eight months, the 652nd Regional Support Group have been busy running the day-to-day operations of 11 base camps throughout the country of Poland.

They have not been alone. Each mayor cell – the 652nd’s team of Soldiers who manage each base camp – has said that aside from the Soldier’s on the team, the unofficial final member of their team has been their Polish linguists.

“Honestly our mission here would not be nearly as successful if not for them,” 1st Sgt. Alicia Roethler said. “You get very close to your linguists, because you have to trust them. They know how to convey what we want and it’s what makes the team successful. They become just like family.”

Roethler, the first sergeant for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 652nd RSG, manages a team of four linguists who are assigned to the mayor cell at Powidz Air Base – Grzegorz Czaplicki, Hubert Werner, and Tommy and Marek Wisnewski.

Roethler is quick to point out that each linguist brings a unique skill or specialty to the team. In addition to literal translation of spoken and written word, the linguists also serve as an “alternate supply chain”, tour guides, service managers, mediators, advisors, and about any imaginable role.

Roethler said whatever a Soldier is interested in, or if there is something a Soldier needs, regardless of how obscure, the linguists know a person who does it or a way to get it. For example, Werner recalled once finding a blacksmith anvil for a Soldier from a previous unit who had experience with forging.

“I can pretty much give them anything to do and they’ll find a way to get it done,” Roethler said.

Czaplicki, or “Super Terp,” as he is often called – and which he also has tattooed on his left shoulder, is a very proud member of the team.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the military,” Czaplicki, who is Polish, but was born in Morocco, said. “I went to the United States for the first time in the summer of 1999. I went to West Point and I have a picture of myself as an 11-year-old kid sitting in a Humvee in the motor pool. It’s one of my favorite pictures. I never thought that 20 years later I would be doing that for my job.”

While the other members have assigned areas of duty, Czaplicki, who has been a linguist for the Army for just over two years, shows his versatility by serving as an all-around linguist.

Czaplicki has done everything from speak to large crowds at basketball games or school events to using his resourcefulness and connections to find a suitable Christmas tree for the base camp. His biggest asset, many who work with him have said, is that he is easy to relate and talk to.

“He’s great at working with everyone, from the Soldiers to the mayors. He has a public affairs background,” Roethler said.

Czaplicki is a man of multiple talents. He has served as a photojournalist for several prominent news organizations and a photographer for many famous brands. However, when asked about his most important day as a linguist, he didn’t have to think about an answer.

“March of last year I was working down in Boleslawiec with combat engineers and sappers and they had a nasty car accident in which seven people were injured,” Czaplicki recalled. “I was up nearly two days trying to help coordinate medical evacuation for the wounded Soldiers. We managed to get a C-17 to land on a private airfield. I witnessed a neurosurgeon who came on the flight drill into a Soldier’s skull to relieve pressure. It was a horrific event but all the Soldiers came out more or less fine, and it got me much closer to the Soldiers I was working with. I was awarded an honorary membership to the unit, and I got a nice thank you from the first sergeant and battalion commander. It set me up for the rest of my time working with the Armed Forces.”

Werner, who is from nearby Torun, has three years experience as a linguist with the U.S. Army. He serves an important role on the mayor cell mission, as he is responsible for acting as a liaison between medical staff and Soldiers. When a Soldier requires medical attention beyond or in addition to the services provided on Powidz, Werner accompanies the Soldiers to the appointments and makes sure they are cared for properly.

Just like Czaplicki, Werner, a self-described “nerd” who holds a degree in military history, has always had an interest in the military.

“The first time I encountered the U.S. Army was in 2016 during the Anaconda training exercise at the Torun training area,” Hubert said. Prior to that, he was working as a civilian linguist for a large company in the town of Bydgoszcz, Poland. He said he searched the internet for military linguist jobs and then applied for “risk and excitement.”

He said his job has been satisfying because he has been able to make a difference in the lives of American Soldiers and Polish citizens in a variety of ways. He said something as simple as preparing work orders for civilian contractors when he worked at Zagan base camp made a huge difference in Soldier’s quality of life there. Furthermore, Werner was able to locate a local homeless/drug dependency shelter when the Powidz base camp had used mattresses that would have otherwise been destroyed.

“I think I mitigate potential conflicts between Polish and American Army and local people when there’s a misunderstanding,” Werner said.

The last two members of the Powidz linguist team are the Wisnewski brothers, Tomasz and Marek. Though only 20-years-old, Tomasz, the youngest of five siblings, has been serving as a linguist off and on for the past two years.

“I had a friend who was offered a job during Sabre Strike 2018,” Tomasz said. “She thought maybe I would be interested, so I did a quick interview and the next thing I knew I was at Bemowo Piskie Training Area with some military police headed to the Lithuanian border for 17 days. I was 18-years-old; I had just finished high school.”

After a semester in college, Tomasz returned to linguistics in March 2019 at the Boleslawiec base camp where he worked with an Army Reserve Signal company, and where he met Czaplicki.

The Wisnewski brothers grew up in Northeastern Poland, an area they described as “Polish Kentucky”, despite neither have ever been to Kentucky. Nonetheless, the two know all about American pop culture.

“American pop culture is huge in Poland,” Marek said. “I grew up knowing all about traditional American country music – Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed. And in Warsaw rap music is big. I learned English not from school but from American game shows, cartoons and movies.”

Marek had worked in Afghanistan as a communications contractor at Bagram Airfield and in Poland as a television production worker before joining the Powidz team in February. Soon after, he was joined by his younger brother Tomasz.

“Tommy has been instrumental in our base dealing with COVID-19,” Roethler said. “He gives me daily updates – for instance, as Poland goes through the phase process – he feeds me the information as to whether the numbers are getting better or worse. They hear things before anyone. They have a network. They know things before they ever get done because everyone talks to them.”

A fifth translator, Sylvia Taberska, serves as the personal translator for Col. Erica Herzog, the commander of the 652nd. This entails her traveling throughout the area of operations with Herzog, and translating in an endless series of meetings with VIPs throughout the allied Armed Forces and Europe.

“I want to raise my game to a new level for her because interpreting for a person like this is not just interpreting,” Taberska said. “For example, if Col. Herzog is going to a meeting, you need to find out who is going to be there, what they are going to talk about; you have to do research.”

Taberska, who holds a three-year degree in Polish/English translation and has lived around the world and speaks five languages fluently, said she has actually been a translator her entire life. She said when she was a child she moved with her parents from Poland to Germany and she would translate things for her mother, since she picked the language up quickly.

Taberska and Herzog have formed a mutual bond of respect throughout a year of constant interaction.

“She’s a very intelligent and wise woman and I look up to her,” Taberska said of Herzog. “She’s my role model and I love her leadership skills. I love how strong she is and at the same time, she has a really good heart – which I think is the perfect combination.”

“Sylvia is a rock star!” Herzog said.

“She follows up on all personal engagements, phone calls and emails even before I can remind her about them. She takes the initiative to offer strategic engagements with relevant personnel for my consideration related to our base camp mission, community and holiday events, and even recommendations during foreign dignitary visits for liaison opportunities.”

In addition to the personal bond she has formed with Herzog, Taberska said she loves just being around the American Soldiers.

“I love that I’m surrounded by American people, because it feels like a country within a country here,” Taberska said. “It’s like I’m in the United States in Poland – I speak English every day, I’m surrounded by Americans every day, so it’s like a tiny, tiny piece of the United States here, and I love that.”

While all of the linguists said they enjoy getting to be around Americans and experiencing the culture, the genuine care they show for the Soldiers is why the 652nd mayor’s cells refer to their linguists as “the rest of the team.”

“I like to help the Soldiers out – any interest that they may have out of their boots,” Czaplicki said. “We all have different hobbies – I used to play in a band so I’ve got my guitar here. There’s always something you can find a connection to. I know of a linguist who would do rap battles with Soldiers. We find things that are universal as humans.”