Help From The Heartland: Why Are We There?
YAVORIV, Ukraine - Right now, soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard are on the world stage in western Ukraine.
Just under 250 members of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team are taking part in a mission that could help bring peace to this embattled nation, as well as, greater security to the western world, by stifling Russian aggression.
Six weeks ago, News 9 traveled to Ukraine to report firsthand on the efforts Oklahomans are making and the impact those efforts are having, and also to gain a better understanding of the stakes involved and why we are here in the first place.
A violent crackdown on pro-European protests in Kiev in late 2013, and Russia's annexation of Crimea early in 2014 combined to plunge Ukraine into a bloody struggle for its future. The violence has played out in eastern Ukraine, waged between separatists backed militarily by Russia and the Ukrainian army.
"And we was not ready for this," explained Roman Vorobei, a retired Ukrainian colonel. "We have a lot of troops, but those troops were not ready to fight with [the] enemy."
Vorobei, who now works as a linguist at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC) here, said the Ukrainian soldiers were eager, but lacked combat experience.
"We don't have very good logistics and our technique was old, more than 20 years old," he said.
The result, said Rostyslav Soroka, a member of Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers, was tragic.
"At the beginning of this conflict, we had huge losses of the people who were volunteers and patriots, they just went to protect our country," Soroka said, through a translator.
Since the fighting began, 10,000 lives have been lost, a quarter of them civilians, and most Ukrainians feel Russia and Vladimir Putin are at least partly to blame. The continuing unrest is a grave national concern.
"Yes, I think it worry every person who lives here," said Vladimir Shved, a student from Kiev.
Shved said he has dreams of someday moving to the United States, but right now, his concern is the sovereignty of his homeland, and standing up to Russian aggression.
"Absolutely, if we don't stop it now, it can be worse," he said, "It can go further into Ukraine and maybe to some European countries."
Concern over Russia's actions relative to Ukraine is certainly not limited to Ukrainian citizens. The U.S. and European Union have hit Russia with sanctions, but with little apparent effect; negotiated cease-fires have failed and the bloodshed continues.
Therefore, in 2015, after some initial hesitation, the U.S. Army joined a multinational effort to train Ukrainian soldiers: Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U). Other partner nations include England, Canada, Lithuania and Poland.
"We basically start at the individual training level, with movement techniques and just individual soldier skills, and they start moving from there," said Lt. Col. Scott Holt, Oklahoma's deputy commander of the 45th IBCT.
The goal of JMTG-U's mission is to make the Ukrainian army NATO-interoperable by 2020. Holt said the Ukrainians have been easy to work with, and the 45th, which is the third American detachment to rotate through the the IPSC, is performing, he said, with usual excellence.
"It's a very strategic mission," Holted allowed, "and we should be very proud that the 45th was selected for this mission."
The Ukrainians said they are indeed grateful.
"I want to say 'thank you' to all those soldiers who came from Oklahoma," said Soroka.
The 45th's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry, based in Stillwater, arrived in Ukraine in mid-January and will be here until early summer. They will be replaced by Sand Springs-based 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry, which will complete the Guard's year-long deployment.