Help From The Heartland: Meet the 45th IBCT
YAVORIV, Ukraine - More than 230 members of the Oklahoma National Guard have put their lives on hold, in order to come and make a contribution to Ukrainian security and, perhaps ultimately, to world peace.
The 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is currently fulfilling the United States' role in a multinational effort to train the Ukrainian army and make it NATO inter-operable by 2020. Ukrainian leaders believe the training will help them regain control of the eastern part of their country, under siege from Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
News 9 had the unique opportunity to spend nearly a week here documenting the efforts of the 45th IBCT's 1-179th Infantry Regiment, the battalion that's taken the first six-month shift in a one-year deployment. (The brigade’s 1-279th battalion, based in Sand Springs, will take the following six months.)
The soldiers, most of them from central and western Oklahoma, are not only delivering on their promise to improve the skills of Ukrainian soldiers, but also are connecting with young people in local communities.
"That's just how Oklahomans are," said Lt. Col. Scott Holt, deputy commander of the 45th IBCT. “They want to help people and they want to do the best they can to assist other folks.”
Holt, when not carrying out his National Guard duties, teaches middle school in Mannford, Oklahoma. He downplays his sacrifice and says it was no trouble getting enough members of the brigade willing to volunteer for this deployment.
"I mean, soldiers want to go do their job. They want to deploy. They want to do the mission," Holt stated. "And I think they're genuinely excited about this mission."
As exciting as the mission may be, the soldiers have to leave their families and jobs behind, which can be hard for many reasons.
First Lieutenant Ben McKinney knows his business, when it comes to showing the Ukrainians light infantry defensive maneuvers, but he also knows something about running a business. He is in the middle of opening a new pub in Oklahoma City.
"Since I got called up for this mission, I had to hire someone to do my job for me back home," explained McKinney, "[to] help my business partner get set up and get ready to roll."
The professions of Oklahoma's Guard members vary as much as their jobs with the 45th do. A list provided by the 45th's public affairs office shows the Ukrainians are being trained by everything from bankers, electricians, and farmers, to a mortician and even a train conductor.
One of the most common careers is law enforcement.
Capt. Josh Byrd serves as the 45th's chaplain in Ukraine, but is a state trooper back home. He says it was tough to leave, knowing how shorthanded the highway patrol is right now.
"I know it's hard on my partners, but they all understand and support me," Byrd said, "because we're out here doing what we can for our country."
Federal law requires employers put Guard members back on the payroll when they return from deployment, but that doesn't necessarily make it easy for them to be away.
"It's tough to be away from the students, ya know," said 1st Lt. John Riley.
Riley is an Oklahoma City high school teacher. He's also a father, who says he does his best to overcome the 8-hour time difference to talk with his daughter
"Sometimes I'll be waking up at 3:00 a.m. to facetime with the kiddo before she goes to bed and stuff like that," Riley said. "But it could be much worse."
Six months is not as long as some deployments, but still long enough, soldiers say, to miss friends and family.
"I miss my parents and my little sister," said Spc. Austin Vogt, a student in Enid.
Asked if he had a message he'd like to send to anyone in Oklahoma, Sgt. James Cockrell, of Stroud, said, "To my wife, I want to say I love you, and I'll see you soon."
Asked the same thing, Sgt. Walter Tuttle, an Enid police officer, laughed and said, "Send dip."
Not one soldier we spoke with feels the mission isn't worth the sacrifice.
"For me, yes of course it's a sacrifice, I miss my husband," said 1st Lt. Kayla Christopher, who lives in Oklahoma City. "But I'm really glad that we're doing what we're doing."
"I miss my family. I miss my dog," admitted Sgt. Anthony Jones, of Stillwater. "But, to understand the importance of this mission to the security of Europe and the security of the United States, as well, you understand that it's worth being away from home."