In training with Poland's volunteer militia

SIEDLCE, Poland (Reuters) - As Poland prepares to mark the centenary of its independence this November, thousands of Poles are training in all weathers for a part-time force meant to help defend the eastern European state from invasion.

More than 12,000 volunteers have joined the Territorial Defence Forces (WOT), as well as more than 2,000 professional soldiers. The government expects to add 10,000 recruits annually, to reach a total of more than 50,000 by the end of 2021. This year alone, the defence ministry plans to spend 568 million zloty ($153 million) on WOT, nearly as much as on the navy.

The Territorial Defence Forces forces are modelled on America's National Guard, and are prepared to die for their country: In its mission statement, the formation says the biggest benefit for the nation and for recruits will be its "contribution to national security and the strengthening of patriotic values through the practical dimension of sacrifice for Poland."

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In training with Poland's volunteer militia
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In training with Poland's volunteer militia

A recruit lies on the ground during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training.

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Marcin Wierzbicki, 44, a manager in an energy company, cleans his weapon after exercises during 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. "I am a pragmatist and I believe that we will not take part in battles," he said. "We will take care of things that are necessary for people, such as guarding key objects, controlling road points, defending population of course, and minimising the impact of an attack on the community." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, crawls with an ammunition box during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, and other recruits check in at a barrack on their first day of 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 1, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A commander instructs a recruit during a 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits wait on their first day of 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 1, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruit marches toward breakfast meal after morning exercises during 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Territorial soldiers practice first aid during their training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Territorial soldiers train in moving through an urban area on the outskirts of Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruit fires carbine during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, stands in her garden in Puzdrowizna village near Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland, May 29, 2018. Last winter, Pawlik's days were spent crawling through mud and digging trenches in frozen ground, training as a volunteer for Poland's territorial army. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby."

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Shooting shield is seen during training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits line up before field exercises during their 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, near a shooting range, near Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, plays with her daughter Helena at their home in Puzdrowizna village near Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland, May 29, 2018. Last winter, Pawlik's days were spent crawling through mud and digging trenches in frozen ground, training as a volunteer for Poland's territorial army. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby." Painting on the wall depicts late Pope John Paul II. The text reads: "It will still be beautiful, after all. Just put on comfortable shoes, because you have your whole life to walk through." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits enter a truck to go on a shooting range during their 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruit cleans his shoes after exercises during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, works at her office in City Hall in Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland, January 16, 2018. Last winter, Pawlik's days were spent crawling through mud and digging trenches in frozen ground, training as a volunteer for Poland's territorial army. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits wait on a truck to go on a shooting range during their 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits wash themselves as their weapon stands in a bathroom during their 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 14, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Marcin Wierzbicki, 44, a manager in an energy company, shaves during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a barrack in a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 14, 2017. "I am a pragmatist and I believe that we will not take part in battles," he said. "We will take care of things that are necessary for people, such as guarding key objects, controlling road points, defending population of course, and minimising the impact of an attack on the community."

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, says goodbye to his wife a day before his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, in Warsaw, Poland, November 30, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, marches at a parade after being sworn in as a territorial soldier in Bialystok, Poland, December 16, 2017. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, looks on during a swearing-in ceremony after his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, in Bialystok, Poland, December 16, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruit washes himself in a bathroom during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 14, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, works with his boss on a project before his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, in Warsaw, Poland, November 30, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Territorial soldiers practice first aid during their training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits register on their first day of 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 1, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, and other territorial soldiers takes a break during their training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Territorial soldiers take a brake during their training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruit fires flare gun during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits prepare their accommodation on their first day of 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 1, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A recruits cleans his weapon after exercises during 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 14, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training.

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruit Damian Krasnodebski, 27, an architect, takes part in morning exercises during his 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 8, 2017. Faith in ideals and willingness to serve his country made Krasnodebski want to join the territorial army. "It is so important that you believe in some ideals to do something for your country," he said. "NATO is an old alliance. Hopefully, they will never have to show how it works in practice. I think you have to rely on yourself, on your own strength." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits collect cartridges during their 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, December 7, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

A commander instructs recruits as they gather at a barrack on their first day of 16-day basic training for Poland's Territorial Defence Forces, at a military unit in Siedlce, Poland, December 1, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Town hall clerk Monika Pawlik, 24, holds her rifle after a break during her territorial soldiers training near a shooting range near Siedlce, Poland, April 21, 2018. When Pawlik was doing her training, she says, she learned how to fire weapons and was surprised to find she was no weaker than the men. She wants to be a professional soldier. "If I go for something, I take it to the end," she said. "But I'm not doing it all for myself. I'm also doing this for the baby." 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Recruits are sworn in as territorial soldiers in Bialystok, Poland, December 16, 2017. Nearly 15,000 Poles have joined the country's volunteer forces since the territorial army's inception in 2017. A volunteer formation requires recruits to spend four months over three years in training. 

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

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Damian Krasnodebski, a 27-year old architect from Warsaw who joined last year, says the force will provide guerrilla fighters to help deter potential attackers, particularly Russia. Polandjoined the NATO Western military alliance in 1999, but he believes NATO is not enough.

"A guerrilla force is always difficult to fight against," he told Reuters. "If there was fighting in Poland, there would be problems with supply lines, subversive activity. That's always difficult for the opposing military."

Most Poles perceive their main threat to be from Russia, which has built up significant conventional forces along its western borders after annexing the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Opinion polls show that since then, nearly half the people in Poland feel their country's independence may be under threat.

ANXIOUS

The WOT formation's creators also hope it will have clear resonance with a Home Army that fought against occupation in World War Two, and with later resistance fighters against Communism.

Monika Pawlik, a 24-year-old town clerk and young mother, was one of four women at a training session last winter. "I wanted to try something new, and above all I wanted to have this sense of security," she said. Now she feels confident about handling weapons: "I know what to do with them, I know how to aim."

Poles are not the only people in the region who are anxious about Moscow. Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - all bordering Russia - have sharply raised their defence budgets in recent years. They are among the few NATO allies that meet, or are close to meeting, the alliance's target of spending 2 percent of economic output on the military.

Finland, not a NATO member but also a European nation bordering Russia, plans to boost its army with 50,000 troops to 280,000. As of this year, it is spending additional 55 million euros ($64 million) a year to improve the army's combat capabilities, including army reservists.

PATRIOTISM

Poland's military planners launched WOT in 2017, just over a year after the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in October 2015. Its creator, Antoni Macierewicz, who was defence minister at the time, argued the formation was needed because of a growing threat from Russia and as a way to bolster patriotism among young people.

Macierewicz said Poland took its operational example from the United States, where the National Guard reserve military force is made up mostly of civilians with part-time military duties. "We have consulted repeatedly with Guard officers," Macierewicz told public broadcaster TVP Info in 2016.

So far, Poland's WOT force has only participated in one major effort: a search through forests in parts of Poland for animals that died because of African swine fever. It's a highly contagious disease that affects pigs and wild boar and has been spreading in eastern Europe in recent years.

Young people who join are expected to spend at least four months in training over three years, including 16 days in basic training in battlefield readiness, marksmanship, topography and first aid. Any holiday trips need to be cleared with a local unit commander. In return, recruits receive a 300 zloty ($80) monthly stipend as well as education and training allowances.

Marcin Wierzbicki, a 44-year-old manager in an energy company, says that by joining WOT he is following in the family tradition set by his grandfathers of defending Poland. He does not expect to take part in battles, but to support the operative army, guard key assets, control road points and so on.

"Poland will be safer now and in the future," he said.

(Edited by Sara Ledwith)

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