As de­ploy­ment ends, Na­tional Guard unit marks suc­cesses

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - METRO | STATE - BY SI­LAS ALLEN Staff Writer sallen@ok­la­homan.com

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.”

[PHOTO BY SGT. AN­THONY JONES, 45TH IN­FANTRY BRI­GADE COM­BAT TEAM]

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.

[PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. ERIC MCDONOUGH, 45TH IN­FANTRY BRI­GADE COM­BAT TEAM]

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.

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