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A military vehicle drives through Bemowo Piskie, Poland, on Feb. 18. The village has a NATO base and about 1,300 residents.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Kamila Radzaj holds her three-year-old son Mikolaj close as she thinks about her husband who’s serving in the Polish army.

Ms. Radzaj lives on the top floor of a squat three-storey apartment building that overlooks a sprawling military complex next to Bemowo Piskie, a village in northeastern Poland. The base is home to more than 4,000 Polish and NATO soldiers and it’s a stone’s throw from Poland’s borders with Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Everyone here knows all too well that if a war involving Poland and Russia ever broke out, soldiers from Bemowo Piskie would be among the first to fight.

“I am a bit afraid,” Ms. Radzaj, 25, said as she stood in her small kitchen clutching her son. Her husband, who’s a year older, has been in the army for six years and he’s spent most of his time lately patrolling the Belarusian border trying to stop Middle Eastern migrants from crossing into Poland. But Russia’s standoff over Ukraine is never far from his mind. “He doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Ms. Radzaj, whose brother is also a serviceman.

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The area around Bemowo Piskie has been a military garrison for more than 200 years and today it’s one of the largest Polish army encampments in the country. In 2017, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also set up an Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup at the base, one of four EFPs in Eastern Europe. That brought in more than 1,000 troops from the United States, Britain, Romania and Croatia.

With Russia threatening to invade Ukraine, Britain has sent 350 extra troops to the base and there have been reports that NATO is considering expanding the battle group.

Unlike some other military facilities, there’s no top-secret mission here. Bemowo Piskie specializes in preparing soldiers to fight in wooded terrain that’s common across this part of Europe.

Roughly 15,000 hectares of the surrounding forest is constantly in use for tank drills, shelling practice and combat manoeuvres. Signs posted along the highway warn people to stay clear of the woods, and armoured vehicles are so common on the road that it’s strewn with potholes.

Not that long ago, this area had a more sinister reputation. During the communist era, the nearby town of Orzysz was the site of a notorious military prison where harsh punishment was meted out to tens of thousands of deserters and men who failed to show up for compulsory service. Even now, many Poles refer to Orzysz as home of the “criminal unit.”

Poland’s populist Law and Justice government has been eager to change that impression and instill a sense of pride in Orzysz’s military history.

Today, a sign on the highway into Orzysz welcomes visitors to the “military capital of Poland” and the walls of several buildings have been painted with giant Polish flags. The phrase “feeling proud and patriotic” is written across the top of each flag along with the Law and Justice party logo.

And just in case anyone missed the welcome sign on the highway, the same slogan is splashed across a mural on a long wall outside the town hall that also depicts three soldiers carrying machine guns.

Kamila Radzaj and her three-year-old son Mikolaj in her apartment in Bemowo Piskie, Poland, on Feb. 18.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Across the street from the town offices, Katarzyna Gakzak works in Orzysz’s military museum, which opened six years ago and is already set to double in size thanks to a government grant.

Ms. Gakzak proudly shows off the museum’s collection of uniforms, helmets, gas masks, landmines, grenades and other memorabilia, some dating back to the 1700s when Orzysz was part of Prussia and known as Arys. One case contains models of tanks, armoured cars and a scud-missile launcher, and outside a real tank sits next to a children’s playground.

She’s reluctant to talk about Russia – “I don’t watch TV” – but she says Orzysz’s 5,500 residents have become immune to the sounds of war. “We joke that we probably wouldn’t even notice if the Russians invaded because we are so used to hearing gunfire around here,” she said.

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Marcin Lipinski is also tight-lipped about the Russia situation, for fear of saying anything too political. But he’s happy to talk about how his business has flourished because of the base and the recent military activity. He owns four restaurants around Orzysz and plans to open a fifth this summer. He also runs a car-rental company and leases 14 apartments.

One of his eateries, the Dollar Bar and Grill, opened just after the NATO battle group arrived. It has an English menu, an American-themed decor and offers a range of burgers and steaks that few locals can afford. On a recent Friday evening, the restaurant was jammed with boisterous young Americans jockeying for tables and swilling back beer.

“Business has been good,” Mr. Lipinski said. “I’m overworked. It’s enough for me for the whole of my life.”

American soldiers enjoy themselves at The Dollar Bar & Grill in Orzysz, Poland, on Feb. 18.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Bogdan Bednarski, the mayor of Bemowo Piskie, said NATO troops had been an economic godsend to every town all the way to Elk, a small city about 30 kilometres away. American soldiers helped renovate the school gym in Bemowo Piskie and build a library. Romanian troops also regularly play volleyball with a group of locals and next month the base is holding a women’s volleyball tournament.

The community even raised enough money to fix up the village hall and on Friday about 50 villagers gathered for a potluck supper, a dance and several shots of vodka to celebrate the renovated venue.

“Of course bars, and stores, and shopping centres are very happy,” said Mr. Bednarski, whose daughter married an American soldier two years ago. “Elk is very happy. Orzysz is very happy. The girls are very happy.”

Taxi driver Daniel Silkowski, left, in front of the NATO base in Bemowo Piskie, Poland, on Feb. 18.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Not everyone is feeling as upbeat. Plenty of people are worried about Russia invading Ukraine and what that will mean for relatives and friends in the Polish army.

“The old people are scared,” taxi driver Jakub Malicki said as he waited for fares outside the gates of the base. “My mother is scared.” Most people he knows joined the army to get a job, not to fight a war.

Another cabbie, Daniel Silkowski, also has friends in the Polish army and he wonders if NATO countries will support Poland or Ukraine if war breaks out. “Training is training. War is war,” he said. “Everyone says, ‘I will help you. I will help you.’ But if something happens, they wash their hands of it.”

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