Oklahoma National Guard troops train Ukrainians for battle
Last year, just days before a contingent of Oklahoma soldiers deployed on a training mission to western Ukraine, Col. David Jordan predicted the troops would learn as much from their Ukrainian counterparts as they taught them.
So far, Jordan, commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, appears to be right.
About 250 soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment deployed in December as a part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, an international program designed to boost that country's military capability and bring stability to the region.
During the deployment, Oklahoma soldiers, alongside about 200 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 Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. But in working with those Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom have seen combat, the Oklahoma soldiers have been able to pick up techniques that they'll be able to bring back home once the deployment ends.
“We learn just as much from them as they learn from us," said Staff Sgt. Walter Tuttle, a platoon sergeant in Company B, 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment.
Tuttle, of Enid, said he's been impressed with the caliber of work his Ukrainian counterparts do. Many of them have fought in Kosovo and other combat theaters as well as eastern Ukraine, he said.
That experience fighting in lush forests gives them different skills from their American trainers, many of whom have experience fighting in the deserts of Iraq, he said. For example, many of the Ukrainian soldiers Tuttle has trained are exceptional at camouflaging large vehicles, he said.
Oklahoma National Guard advisers also are assisting Ukrainian officials in establishing a national training center in Yavoriv, Ukraine, similar to the U.S. Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
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Soldiers from Oklahoma go into the field with Ukrainian units to observe training, said 1st Lt. Kayla Christopher, a spokeswoman for the unit. Typically, American soldiers stand by and watch as Ukrainian trainers from the national training center put soldiers through exercises. When one of the American soldiers notices something that needs to be corrected or could be improved, that soldier speaks to the Ukrainian trainer, who makes the change, she said.
"We call it 'train the trainer,'" Christopher said.
The Ukrainian military has struggled to control eastern portions of the country since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, which culminated in the ouster of the Russian-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Shortly after Yanukovych was removed from office, Russia annexed the Ukrainian-controlled Crimean Peninsula and pro-Russian separatist groups seized control of portions of the Donbas region. Since then, the Ukrainian army has fought those groups to a stalemate.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, said in a phone interview that the training mission is a part of a broader effort to contain Russian aggression.
At the end of the Cold War, Western democracies hoped Russia would emerge as a partner, Hodges said. But in 2008, Russia dashed those hopes by invading the former Soviet republic of Georgia. More recently, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian-held Crimean Peninsula and sent troops to the embattled Donbas region, the Western world had to respond, Hodges said.
“What's happened in Ukraine is a symptom, or maybe a manifestation, of Russia's aggression, which is changing the security environment in Europe," Hodges said.
The training group is a part of a broader U.S. policy of providing nonlethal aid to the Ukrainian armed forces.
In the near term, that policy is designed to ensure the country can survive and defend itself against Russian aggression, Hodges said. In the longer term, officials hope to reform and improve Ukrainian institutions and help the country integrate itself into the West.
The deployment represents the first time an Oklahoma National Guard unit has embarked on a long-term training mission of this kind, said Lt. Col. Lindy White, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma National Guard.
While Oklahoma units have trained local soldiers in the past, it's generally been as a part of a broader mission, White said. For example, when the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which includes the 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, deployed to eastern Afghanistan in 2011, it conducted so-called full-spectrum operations, meaning it handled all military duties in the region. Those duties included training Afghan soldiers, but also counter-insurgency operations and construction projects.
But Hodges said using National Guard troops to support the training center has been crucial to its success. When the training group was launched, the United States sent active Army units to support the effort, Hodges said. And when the Army didn't have enough active soldiers in Europe to keep up, the Department of Defense looked to the National Guard to fill the gap, he said.
“I do not have enough men and women over here assigned in Europe to do what I need to do, so I depend on the Guard and Reserve," Hodges said. "They're like oxygen.”
Because California had a pre-existing relationship with the Ukrainian military through the National Guard's State Partnership Program, the Defense Department selected it to be the first National Guard to send a unit to Ukraine. But once that deployment ended, the Oklahoma National Guard was selected to replace the California troops.
Hodges was especially impressed with the Oklahoma National Guard's ability to prepare for the deployment on relatively short notice, about four months. Typically, a unit has a year or more to get ready.
The effort appears to be paying off, Hodges said. In interviews with Army officials, Ukrainian soldiers who have been through the training and then gone back to the front have said they felt better prepared for the fight.
In particular, Ukrainian soldiers have praised the medical training they received, Hodges said. During visits to four Ukrainian military hospitals, wounded soldiers have told him they appreciated the American first aid kit the training group provides, and also the fact that someone in their unit knew how to use the kit.
Although the training program is designed to help the Ukrainian military, certain elements of it may work to the benefit of the U.S. Army, as well, Hodges said. Most Ukrainian troops who go through the program have been under Russian artillery fire or faced down tanks manned by Russian soldiers — experiences their American counterparts don't have.
In working with Ukrainian troops, American trainers get a better idea of Russian capabilities, Hodges said. Officials will take those insights and incorporate them into training programs at American military training centers, he said.
"It's been very helpful,” Hodges said.