Accept the challenges and embrace the adventure.
That’s the advice of Lt. Col. Andrew Hess and his wife, Cymatha, has for military families heading to Poland. They are among one of the first to be stationed at NATO Headquarters in Elblag, following the 2016 Summit in Warsaw.
“Poland captured a piece of my heart,” Cymantha said after experiencing the spirit of the people.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed this sentiment last year when he announced, “Our alliance cannot be at full strength without robust contributions from all allies. President Trump is grateful for Poland’s leadership in contributing its fair share to our common defense.”
Military families in Poland
Consequently, in August 2020, Pompeo finalized the redeployment of American troops from Germany to Poland, adding to the 4,500 service members already there. Most troops are on a nine-month rotational basis without families, but the Hesses lived there for two years.
Cymantha explained because there wasn’t an American base nearby, including DODEA schools, they lived 90 minutes west of the headquarters so their children could attend the British International School of Gdansk. Additional limits included the ability to work as a civilian.
“It was possible to work on the economy and maintain a [Status of Forces Agreement] status, but your employer had to be willing to file for your work permit. It is a costly and lengthy process,” she said
However, challenges didn’t keep them from making the most of their assignment. In Gdansk, many Poles speak fluent English, making interactions easy. For example, Cymantha didn’t hesitate to call specialists, including care for her thyroid condition, knee surgery, trips to the ER and mental health services.
“We had no communication issues and facilities were modern and clean,” she said. “Poland is also amazingly cheap.”
For example, for a family of four, our grocery bill was less than $100 a week and $30 to dine out.
Schools and education
Cymantha also elaborated on her children’s unique academic experiences, explaining her son loved all the outdoor extracurricular activities and her daughter attended an acting workshop in Oxford, England.
Potential drawbacks included class size and the European model of education. As Hess’ children progressed, there were fewer students in each grade, limiting peer circles. In addition, teenagers must attend designated vocational schools based on testing, narrowing academic opportunities.
Other guidance Cymantha gave involved transportation. Though critical infrastructure was expansive and accessible, “Getting a car wasn’t easy and I suggest incoming families do not consider purchasing a vehicle in Poland under current conditions.”
Other than that, Cymantha had no issues.
“It was easy to have visitors. My sisters and niece came to visit twice. They all fell in love with Poland,” she explained.
Overall, though it was difficult being one of the few Americans in the country, Cymantha looked back fondly on her time in Poland because she engaged with others. She reiterated the importance of incoming military families immersing into the community to prevent isolation.
“In the U.S. and prior duty stations, our life was hectic … [But] in Poland our life was simple, and family centered,” she said. “Poland was a breath of fresh air. The people love Americans. I have never felt more welcome. Most people tried to speak English and once they found out we were military, would display admiration for our service. They want us there. Poland has a turbulent history and the American presence gives them peace of mind.”
Also stationed at NATO Headquarters, Lt. Col. Jeff and Nina Byrd lived in a nearby suburb for nearly three years with their daughters. In many respects, the Byrd’s time in Poland was like the Hess’ experience.
However, the lack of an American support structure was an obstacle for Nina, especially with there being more of a language barrier in Elblag. Plus, it wasn’t until April 2020 when a family readiness group became functional out of Szczecin — a seven-hour drive from Elblag.
Another concern Nina discussed was the school. Elblag had one option — a private school that taught in Polish. She explained their older daughter learned Polish quickly but their youngest “struggled the whole 2 ½ years” they were there.
Nina also described difficulties getting medical care despite having access to a NATO translator.
“We had some bad experiences … [So] our neighbors introduced us to an on-call doctor who spoke some English and was willing to see us,” Nina said.
As a result, she expressed appreciation for the support received from Polish friends.
Finally, both spouses expressed the value of military friendships during the challenging assignment. Cymantha reached out to spouses coming into the country, such as Nina. And Nina, in turn, helped families arriving in greater numbers in Elblag. Consequently, Nina mirrored Cymantha’s statement about life in Poland.
“Between friendships created, the amazing work-life balance, and the graciousness of the Polish people, I had the most memorable two years of my life,” she said.Read comments