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Oklahoma National Guard soldiers return home from Ukraine

After spending a year helping build the Ukrainian military into a more modern, capable fighting force, the Oklahoma National Guard is passing the baton to their counterparts from New York.

Soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team have been in western Ukraine since last year, training Ukrainian troops and helping set up a national training center designed to carry on that training for years to come.

On Wednesday, the unit handed the mission off to about 220 soldiers from the New York National Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the New York National Guard reported.

The first wave of Oklahoma soldiers returned to the state Wednesday. The remaining members are expected to return in the coming weeks.

The unit that returned this week was the last of two Oklahoma National Guard battalions to deploy to Ukraine this year. Members of the 45th's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment left for Ukraine in December. That battalion returned earlier this year, and soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry Regiment replaced them.

During the deployment, Oklahoma soldiers trained Ukrainian troops who were returning from the conflict in eastern Ukraine and also oversaw Ukrainian-led training exercises. Soldiers also helped establish the Yavoriv Combat Training Center, a military training facility in far western Ukraine, near the Polish border.

Although the training Oklahoma soldiers provided helped equip Ukrainian soldiers for combat, the military training center is likely to have the most lasting impact, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe.

Speaking Wednesday during a phone interview from Ukraine, Hodges said that, while the training center has been in the works for three years, the biggest gains have come in the past six months, under the leadership of the Oklahoma National Guard.

The facility is modeled after U.S. Army training facilities at Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Irwin, California; and Grafenwoehr, Germany. Those facilities are "the three crown jewels of the U.S. Army training capability," Hodges said. The Ukrainian training facility is designed to bring similar capability to the Ukrainian military.

"Eventually, we'll work ourselves out of a job and Ukrainians will be able to train themselves and prepare their own units," Hodges said.

The mission is a part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, an international program designed to help the country modernize its military and bring stability to the region. The training group is led by the United States, in partnership with Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland and Lithuania.

Much of eastern Ukraine has been embroiled in conflict since early 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian-held Crimean Peninsula. Since then, Russian-backed separatists have seized control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. In June, the United Nations published a report estimating that 10,090 people, including 2,777 civilians, had been killed as a result of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

As that conflict continues, Hodges said the training the Ukrainian military receives at the Yavoriv center has already begun to pay off. Among other techniques, Oklahoma soldiers trained Ukrainian troops on the best methods for treating and evacuating wounded soldiers — techniques the U.S. military has developed and improved during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hodges said. During visits to Ukrainian military hospitals, wounded soldiers have told Hodges how proud they were that their fellow Ukrainian troops were trained and equipped to save their lives.

In the coming years, National Guard soldiers from New York and then, late next year, from Tennessee, will continue the work that the Oklahoma National Guard did at the training center. That work might include establishing other military training centers in Ukraine or bringing in other allies to assist. But whatever form it takes, it's likely that the work will continue to be done by National Guard soldiers rather than the active Army. Hodges said he appreciates the support those guardsmen get from their families and civilian employers.

"I don't have the capacity to do this mission, so the National Guard is essential for us to accomplish this strategic task," he said.

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›