“Projekt Wojownik” (Project Warrior) is more than martial arts training. It is also about psychological support and integration within veteran environment.
Błachowicz, Saleta, Drwal, Wrzosek – these names are well known to anyone who has ever had any interest in combat sports. Polish veterans had a chance to train with stars of hand-to-hand combat thanks to Projekt Wojownik, an initiative of the Military Center for Civic Education (WCEO).
Col Szczepan Głuszczak, a veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan, Head of WCEO’s Multimedia Department, and a big sports enthusiast, organized a series of meetings throughout the country within the frame of the project. He came up with the whole idea when he was watching a mixed martial arts (MMA) event on TV. “I thought that it would be great to organize classes for veterans conducted by martial arts champions. They are very popular and at the same time respected, so I thought attending their classes would motivate veterans to exercise. After all, no one understands a warrior better than another warrior,” he says.
The first training took place in May 2018 at the Communications and Information Technology Training Center (CSŁiI) in Zegrze, and after that classes were organized at the 15th Mechanized Brigade in Giżycko, the Polish Naval Academy in Gdynia, the 12th Mechanized Brigade in Szczecin, the Military University of Land Forces in Wrocław, the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Łask, the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade in Świętoszów and the 6th Airborne Brigade in Kraków. The aim of organizing the trainings in so many places was to make it easier for veterans from all over the country to attend them. However, it turned out distance was never a problem – many veterans travelled all over Poland to face their idols on the mat.
LCpl Marta Gajewska and MCpl Andrzej Gajewski, veterans from Afghanistan, currently serving at the 1st “Podlaska” Territorial Defense Brigade, participated in several of the trainings. “Although as Krav Maga instructors we practice martial arts on a daily basis, we actually learned some new techniques from our coaches. It was a very interesting experience,” said LCpl Gajewska.
MCpl Gajewski pointed out the trainings were a great chance to work on one’s skills, but also to keep in touch with other veterans. “Attending the classes, we met with people taking part in them since the project started. So we not only trained together, but we also became a group of friends. I really hope we will see one another again,” he adds. WO Marcin Michalak of the 1st Air Squadron in Leźnica Wielka, a veteran from Afghanistan, participated in all the trainings. He confirms Gajewski’s words, and adds that “it was good that each training was a bit different. We trained boxing with Przemysław Saleta, MMA with Jan Błachowicz. I also liked the meeting with Mariusz Cieśliński, who showed us Muay Thai (Thai boxing) techniques.” He also emphasizes that “Projekt Wojownik is not only about training, but mostly about creating an opportunity to integrate people from our environment. I also got a chance to meet some people with whom I served during the mission.”
The instructors thought highly of the fitness level and engagement of the veterans. “I am surprised at how well the soldiers are prepared for combat,” said Marcin “Polish Zombie” Wrzosek, a KSW (Martial Arts Confrontation) champion, after the class he conducted in Giżycko. “I expected amateurs and, to my surprise, I saw people with high skills. Even if someone lacked experience, it wasn’t a problem. Everyone executed the given tasks immediately, I never had to repeat anything twice. No wonder – after all, we are all warriors, we just fight on different fronts,” said in Łask Jan Błachowicz, an MMA fighter, who holds the third position in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) light heavyweight ranking.
For some of the soldiers that took part in the classes it was the first experience with combat sports. “The participants’ skill level varied substantially, but it wasn’t important. After all, the aim was to meet and train together. The more advanced ones helped the beginners,” explains Col Głuszczak, which is confirmed by Lt Filip Bątkowski of CSŁiI in Zegrze, an MMA fighter and the organizer of the “Armia FightNight” event, who was one of the instructors within Projekt Wojownik. “The great thing is that people who have not had any contact with martial arts not only came to our trainings but also decided to continue their adventure with the sport – some of them signed up for classes in their hometowns. They woke up the warriors inside them – and that is priceless,” he emphasizes.
Projekt Wojownik is more than just training. As Maj Angelika Szymańska, PhD, a psychologist at the 12th Mechanized Brigade, says: “Fighting on the mat is a good way to let off some steam, also for veterans coming back from a mission. It is important that the instructors selected for the project are professionals. They are well aware the internal fight with yourself is sometimes a lot tougher than the fight with your opponent, which is why there is very deep understanding between the instructors and soldiers.” At the same time, Maj Szymańska emphasizes that physical training should never substitute specialist therapy. This is why the organizer also provided for meetings with a psychologist, who explained how negative emotions can be forged into sports achievements, as well as a dietician, who told soldiers what to eat to get the most of the training.
Another person involved in the project was Cpl Tomasz Rożniatowski, who shared his story with the participants. He lost an arm during a mission in Afghanistan. Today, he serves at the Armed Forces Operational Command. He told his fellow soldiers about his accident and how physical activity helped him to get through the hard time. “I recommend Projekt Wojownik to all veterans. Martial arts is a sport from which everyone can get exactly what they need: intensive physical exercise or tranquility,” he emphasized.
The organizer also invited PE instructors and officer cadets to take part in the project. “We really wanted the knowledge shared by the professionals to reach a wider audience than only the participants of the classes. That’s why we also invited PE instructors, who I believe will pass it on when they go back to their units,” says Col Szczepan Głuszczak. “The situation should be similar with military school students. They are the ones who in the future will command platoons, companies, battalions, brigades. Maybe one of them will someday become Chief of General Staff. If we now show them that we are doing something for veterans, it will be remembered,” he adds.
Also Allied soldiers trained with Poles. In Giżycko, the training was attended by Americans, Croats and Romanians of the NATO Battle Group. Classes were also held at the Polish Military Contingent in Latvia. Polish, Latvian, Canadian, Slovakian and Italian troops trained under the watchful eye of Tomasz “Gorilla” Drwal, the first Pole in the UFC. Altogether, 440 people took part in Projekt Wojownik, out of whom 300 are foreign missions veterans. “I feel that Projekt Wojownik was a successful undertaking. If by organizing the classes we managed to help one person, if at least one person felt better, and I know this is actually the case, then I can say that we achieved our goal. We succeeded in helping veterans in their struggle with stress, not only connected with missions, but also the stress they face every day,” says Col Głuszczak.
However, he is not planning to rest on his successes. Another edition of the project starts already in January. This time, thanks to the cooperation between the WCEO and “Pamięć i Przyszłość” Association for Families of Fallen Soldiers, also families of those who have not returned from missions will be able to take part in the trainings. “I would like to activate families of the soldiers killed on missions, because I feel this group has been somewhat left aside. Military units do help them, but you don’t hear about them very often,” he adds.
autor zdjęć: szer. Natalia Wawrzyniak