As deployment ends, National Guard unit marks successes
When about 250 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers landed in Ukraine at the end of last year, there was no one there to show them around their base, introduce them to their Ukrainian counterparts or walk them through the training they’d be leading.
Now, with their own deployment winding down, members of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team hope to leave their replacements in a better position. For the next few weeks, members of the unit will be working alongside soldiers from the New York National Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, who will take over the mission once the 45th returns to Oklahoma.
“We want them to kind of be our shadow for a couple weeks,” said Capt. Kayla Christopher, a spokeswoman for the brigade.
About 250 members of the 45th’s 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment deployed to Ukraine in December as a part of a mission to help the war-torn country modernize its military and stand up to Russian aggression. That unit returned to Oklahoma earlier this year, and soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry Regiment replaced them.
The second unit is scheduled to return to Oklahoma before the end of the year. But before it does, the unit is holding a
face-to-face handoff with their counterparts from New York, walking them through the work they’ll be doing in a few weeks. By doing so, Oklahoma officials hope to help minimize the confusion Oklahoma soldiers experienced at the beginning of their deployment.
“We felt like we really struggled the first month we were here just figuring out who was who,” Christopher said.
The unit’s mission is a part of Joint Multinational Training GroupUkraine, an international program designed to boost that country’s military capability and bring stability to the region at a time when Russia is occupying the Crimean peninsula and Russianbacked separatists have seized control of the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine.
In June, the United Nations published a report that estimated that 10,090 people, including 2,777 civilians, had been killed as a result of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
During the deployment, Oklahoma soldiers, along with others from Canada, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, act as mentors to Ukrainian soldiers, preparing them to fight in the conflict in the Donbass region. Trainers also are helping Ukrainian officials establish a national military training facility near Yavoriv, a city in western Ukraine, near the Polish border.
One of the biggest changes Christopher has seen in the Ukrainian army since she arrived in Yavoriv a year ago has been better use of its noncommissioned officers — corporals and sergeants, soldiers who have earned their ranks through years of experience and training rather than at a military academy or an ROTC program.
Until recently, Ukraine’s army looked like a Soviet-style fighting force, heavy laden with commissioned officers. More recently, though, the army has shifted toward relying more heavily on its noncommissioned officer corps for training and mentorship. That shift allows the military to take advantage of the experience those soldiers have gained during their time in service, Christopher said.
“Your (noncommissioned officers) have more experience than your officers, so when you don’t use them to train your soldiers, you’re really limiting your knowledge base,” she said.
One of the chief accomplishments of the Oklahoma National Guard, and the multinational training group more broadly, has been preparing to hand off most of the operations at the training center to the Ukrainian military, said Maj. Gen. John Gronski, U.S. Army Europe deputy commanding general for the Army National Guard. Gronksi visited Oklahoma National Guard soldiers in Ukraine late last month.
When the first Oklahoma National Guard unit arrived in Ukraine, it conducted most of the training exercises at the new facility itself, Gronksi said. Since then, Oklahoma soldiers have been able to hand off much of that responsibility to their Ukrainian counterparts. Gronski said he hopes Ukrainian officials will be able to take over the training facility in its entirety within the next year to two years.
The training the center offers is a critical part of the effort to help Ukraine stand up to Russian aggression, Gronski said. Better training means soldiers are better prepared for combat and, ultimately, more likely to come back alive, he said.
The soldiers that pass through the training center have already shown themselves to be a willing, capable fighting force, Gronski said. During the visit to Yavoriv, Gronski met with a Ukrainian army battalion in which about 75 percent of the soldiers had seen combat in Donbass.
“I was really inspired by the morale of those soldiers, even after coming back from a combat rotation,” he said. “They appear to be very, very willing to defend their country, and I was very impressed with their attitude.”
Spc. Nathan Randell, an Oklahoma City resident and member of A Company, 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, briefs soldiers during an October field training exercise. Members of the unit are deployed to Ukraine to help modernize the Ukrainian army.
Soldiers with the Ukrainian army’s 1st Battalion, 95th Separate Airmobile Brigade train with a DShK 12.7 mm machine gun during a training exercise in September. Members of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team are deployed to Ukraine to help modernize the Ukrainian army.