When you read about selection processes around the world, you can probably say they are all similar, but anyone who actually experienced it has his own, unique story, full of pain, sweat and probably tears.
The difference about GROM selection is that we believe is happens every day and never ends.
Initially, the selection process for candidates who wanted to join GROM was based on English SAS selection. Slowly with time, it had changed based on experience and Polish character. One thing has not changed, though. It is still and always will be bloody hard.
The selection takes place twice a year, early Spring or late Fall.
The place of the event is special. During one training with SAS operators, English described it as “Polish fucking jungle.” They were talking about Bieszczady of course – Polish mountains.
They are not very high, but there is something magical and unspoiled that makes them unique in Europe, with an amazing history.
The fights between the Ukrainian partisan army (UIA – Ukraine Insurgent Army) and the new Polish communist government continued despite the end of the World War II. In order to cut off the army from the support of local people, the majority of the inhabitants of that region were displaced, leaving the few that stayed put to their own devices. Even today, the region is isolated, remote, unspoiled and scarcely populated. Bieszczady are situated in the eastern part of the country, close to Ukraine and Slovakia. The amount of rain is rather high, which makes the local flora as wild as in a jungle.
The first stage of the selection that I found particularly easy was a 3-km run, pull-ups, sit-ups, 50-meter swimming, underwater swimming and close combat, of course. As always there are targets you have to reach, but the truth is only the best go to the next stage, not the ones who simply reached the targets.
The next step was a climbing test that required climbing up the speleo ladder, onto a 25-meter tower and then jumping off it in so-called “American line.” The harness is strapped to the candidate using two ropes and a snap hook. One of the ropes is permanently fixed to the ground, the other one is held by an instructor who is slowing down everyone coming down too fast.
At that stage most candidates quit.
One of the biggest surprise for GROM candidates is that they are not asked to carry extra luggage for the hike. The idea is simple. Take what you think is necessary. If you don’t want to take a sleeping bag and you can sleep on the ground, that’s your decision. You have to survive the night and be ready for a new day.
On the other hand all kind of vitamins, food rations, supplement are confiscated. You have to deal with hunger. The distribution of field rations was very cunning. It consisted of 2 tins, a pack of bread biscuits and chocolate. The only thing unlimited was water in the spring. The thing is, the rations were given out one day in the morning and late in the evening the next day, therefore you have to be ready for a constant feeling of hunger.
Every day of the selection is also a lonely march through wild mountain terrain. Candidates must not walk together. Everyone has to go through it alone. The time for teamwork and friendship will come once you’ve passed it.
During the march it’s very easy to get lost, although there’s a tree sign every few dozens meters. Many have problems to cope with these lonely marches and get lost. They become easy prey for wolves and bears.
No fatal accident has ever happened, but the awareness of the fact that the animals are close makes any lost candidate scared. If a candidate is lost and then found, usually the first thing he asks is to take him to the nearest bus stop to go home.
It’s not all about walking. Usually at dawn and dusk there’s time for warm-up by doing numerous push-ups and general workout, and there is always a 3-kilometer run at night so that we don’t have stupid dreams.
Usually this fun lasts about one week, but very often the exact time depends on weather or the weakest candidates. If the weather is fine it takes longer, if there is no one left – shorter.
But enough of the technical aspects. I want to tell you about my last day of the selection. This day is called “marathon,” but if you think it has a set distance, you are wrong. It is thanks to that day I’ve become who I am now.
It started at 1 a.m. Some kind of bloody tradition made us begin by crossing the river – unfortunately this time it was high, to our waists. Some candidates walked barefoot with boots in their hands. I, on the other hand, set off exactly as I stood to save time. I had never been the one who avoided puddles. My feet were very swollen, so I decided to walk in sneakers I had taken just in case. While walking I could feel every rock under the soles and there was absolutely no support for the ankle.
You have to know that nobody had ever given us the distance, or time of how long we had to go, or what to expect. The only thing I heard throughout was “give up”, “you won’t make it anyway so what’s the point.”
That day was not different.
I heard that if I go straight on that road there would be an instructor at the end of it and I would be able to resign. When I was getting close, the guy at the end of the road said that my time was bad enough and there was no point going further. I tried not to listen to those poisonous words.
I was walking as far away from that kind of thinking as I possibly could. From time to time somebody went passed me, other times I was faster. Finally, dawn came and after another lonely hour I heard at a check point that the end was behind that mountain but I could quit whenever I wanted to. I was to hear this phrase many times more.
I walked three, five, seven hours and the sun was burning me alive, or maybe my feet were burning, I wasn’t sure. Another check point. This time I didn’t ask about the end when I heard, “It’s not far, man. You’ll be ok.”
By that time, I’d run out of water and chocolate and my sneakers were falling apart while my feet were 3 sizes bigger than a few days before. The stripes of my backpack were gnawing into my shoulders. You could see two bloody marks running down my back.
Finally, after another turn I saw two black Mercedes parked. Next to them there was a field kitchen, you could smell traditional, military pea soup and you could see crates of beer.
Nobody welcomed me. I was only told to come closer and stand in line.
This was the time to get myself together and think about what has just happened. My time was something around 8 hours after having walked 50 kilometers. The weather was good – that’s why we had got another 10 kilometers to walk.
What came next was a short talk with brigadier general Petelicki, which seemed like the last stage of the selection. He was the commander-in-chief and the founder of GROM. For us, he was already a legend.
“Why do you want to join GROM,” he asked.
“I want to be a real soldier,” I replied.
He looked at my papers and then at the chief of selection who was sitting beside him, nodding his head. He confirmed my timing was good.
“Welcome to GROM,” He said. He had an incredibly firm grip.
And then all of a sudden something wonderful happened. All these men who up till then had been emotionless, untouchable, were now shaking our hands, congratulating us, complementing on a good job and welcoming us in GROM as if we were old friends they hadn’t seen in years.
Everyone got a bowl of soup and beer that made our blood run faster. I hadn’t strength to do anything else.
I sat on the grass thinking that I was having the time of my life. I felt like a winner of the most important race in my life.
My head was spinning. I didn’t know whether it was the beer or the exhaustion. I didn’t feel any pain at that moment. It didn’t exist anymore.