Help From The Heartland: A Day With Alpha Company
YAVORIV, Ukraine - Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade has taken a lead role in the multinational effort to train the Ukrainian army, and bring it up to NATO standards.
In the process, Oklahoma National Guard members are bringing "Help from the Heartland" in unique and, perhaps, unexpected ways. As a reporter given the opportunity to spend several days with the 45th's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment earlier this year, I discovered that myself.
Alpha Company, one of four companies in the 1-179 to make the trip, extended a special invitation to me upon our arrival in Ukraine on a Monday in late February: please join them on a five-mile road march on Thursday morning.
How could I say no? The march was to begin at 0500 (military time), which for me and photographer Darrin Johnson, staying an hour and a half away in Lviv, meant getting up at 0300 -- but, still, how could we say no?
I have never served in the military, so I was somewhat unsure how intense this road march would be. It appeared, at first, that it would be fairly laid back, as everyone slowly assembled in the darkness at the base parade ground.
But "slowly" is not what Alpha Company's leaders were wanting, and so I got a quick demonstration of how "slowly" can turn to "quickly" with a few sharp commands.
"Fall out!" ordered the sergeant, and, with just a few strapped on headlamps lighting the way, we were moving.
A digital thermometer mounted on one of the administration buildings told me it was 1 degree Celsius as we headed out into the early morning chill. We formed two lines and struck a brisk pace which, along with the packs on our backs, made the cool air feel good.
It was peaceful, the only sounds coming from the gravel and ice crunching under a hundred boots, and the occasional shout from the rear to warn of an approaching vehicle.
Alpha Company does these marches every Thursday morning. Capt. Matthew McCoy, company commander, said the purpose is two-fold: maintain fitness and enhance teamwork.
"It seems kind of goofy," McCoy explained, as he walked alongside, "but road marching is a fundamental of being in the infantry ... we're together as a unit, we're together as a team."
Alpha Company's teamwork goes beyond road marches and training activities. In fact, it goes beyond the borders of the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, where they are carrying out their mission, to a small classroom about 15 miles away.
"My name is Briar," said Cpl. Briar Swan to three young Ukrainian students.
"What is your favorite holiday?" asked Swan.
"My favorite holiday is St Nicholas Day," answered one of the students.
"Ooh, that's a good day," agreed Swan, smiling along with the young girl.
The classroom is part of a very modest, private foreign language school called "Hollywood" in the small city of Novoyavorivsk.
The head of the school says more and more families, even in relatively remote and poor parts of the country, understand that, in order for the next generation of Ukrainians to succeed in an increasingly global economy, they must learn other languages, including English.
"It was my dream to speak [English] with native speakers, and to show our pupils Americans, and I think it's very useful to communicate correctly with Americans, because our pupils and people don't have a chance to speak English," said Tania Kuchma.
For the Americans of Alpha Company, who visit the school once a week, they learn something about Ukrainians, and show the Ukrainians a different side of them.
"The side where we get to be with the people, with the kids," said Swan, "and show that we're here for more than just professionalizing the military."
Of course, professionalizing the Ukrainian military is the primary reason Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade is here, even through something as fundamental as a road march.
"Nobody magically becomes a winner at the big game, if they have bad fundamentals," stated McCoy, "so we have to bring that home to the Ukrainians, too."
McCoy said, simply put, they have to practice what they preach.
For me, the march was simple, but thrilling. It was also an honor, even for just a moment, to be able to step out into the world that our Oklahoma soldiers inhabit, and to understand the tradition they stand for, and for the way they carry that tradition with them wherever they go.
"Company--attention!" commanded the sergeant, once everyone was back at the starting point.