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Help From The Heartland: The Soul of Ukraine

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Lviv, with its street musicians, ancient edifices, and cobbled streets, has a very western European feel. Lviv, with its street musicians, ancient edifices, and cobbled streets, has a very western European feel.
This city of about three-quarters of a million people was founded in 1256 by King Daniel of Galicia, who named it after his eldest son, Leo. This city of about three-quarters of a million people was founded in 1256 by King Daniel of Galicia, who named it after his eldest son, Leo.
Perhaps few places in Lviv reflect that fact as well as the sprawling Lychakiv cemetery, founded in the late 1700's, at about the same time the city and surrounding region were placed under the Hapsburg monarchy's large thumb. Perhaps few places in Lviv reflect that fact as well as the sprawling Lychakiv cemetery, founded in the late 1700's, at about the same time the city and surrounding region were placed under the Hapsburg monarchy's large thumb.
LVIV, Ukraine -

For the members of the Oklahoma National Guard in Ukraine right now, the primary focus is on the mission of training Ukrainian soldiers.

But, when they're not delivering their Help from the Heartland, many in the 45th Infantry Brigade are discovering a city, just a short drive away, that Ukrainians say is the soul of the country.

Lviv, with its street musicians, ancient edifices, and cobbled streets, has a very western European feel.

This city of about three-quarters of a million people was founded in 1256 by King Daniel of Galicia, who named it after his eldest son, Leo. Today, Lviv is known for its beautiful opera house and centuries old Greek, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, as well as, for its famous chocolate factory, beloved coffee shops, and vibrant pedestrian district.

It is a popular regional tourist attraction.

"We came with friends for the weekend," explained Vladimir Shved, a young man from Kiev. "We want to visit some nice places in Lviv. It's a very nice city."

Ukrainians consider Lviv to be the country's cultural capital, although a virtual carousel of rulers over the centuries has left it with no single cultural identity, but rather many. In fact, local officials take pride in the city's diversity.

"We can say that Lviv is a very multi-cultural city, very many communities are present here," explained Rostyslav Soroka, a long-time Lviv resident and a member of Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers.

"For instance," said Soroka, through a translator, "the Armenian community, the Polish community are both very strong, and Lviv is not a closed city, not a conservative city, but it's very open to foreigners and to multi-culturalism."

Of course, Lviv is also multi-generational. Some elderly citizens remain influenced by the country's former communist ties, while younger citizens, who have come of age under the 26-year-old flag of Ukrainian independence, yearn for stronger ties to the West.

Still, Soroka says, even with these differences, the people of Lviv share a common goal: "The people who live in this region are hard-working, hospitable, and they love peace and want to live in peace."

While Lviv is many hundreds of miles removed from the conflict with Russian-backed rebels, the city and surrounding region have still felt the impact, as scores of locals who've gone to help in the fight have come home in body bags. People here long for peace and for self-determination, both of which have eluded them for centuries.

Perhaps few places in Lviv reflect that fact as well as the sprawling Lychakiv cemetery, founded in the late 1700's, at about the same time the city and surrounding region were placed under the Hapsburg monarchy's large thumb.

Lviv remained part of the Hapsburg's Austrian, and subsequently Austro-Hungarian, Empire until its defeat in World War I. Following a brief clash between Western Ukrainian nationalists and Poland, the city fell under Polish control.

A large field of crosses at the cemetery marks the graves of Poles who fought off the Red Army in 1919 and 1920. And right next them is a monument commemorating the bravery of three American pilots who joined the Poles -- and also were killed -- in that fight.

From 1920 until 1939, Lviv was one of the most populous cities in the Second Polish Republic. But, caught in the middle of intensifying Nazi-Soviet treachery, Lviv fell into the hands of the USSR in 1939, only to be occupied by Hitler's Nazis in 1941. Recaptured by the Soviet Union in 1944, Lviv remained under communist rule until Ukraine finally was able to declare independence in 1991, 47 years later.

Lychakiv cemetery now bears the scars of the current conflict -- another field of crosses, personalized with photos, is devoted to local soldiers killed since 2014 in the ATO, the anti-terrorism operation zone.

"They are heroes, that's what I think, and that's what most people think," said Vladimir Shved, whose home in Kiev has put him much closer to the fighting.

Oklahoman soldiers who visit the cemetery may be struck by these crosses in the same way many are moved by the field of chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial: They are a powerful reminder that, just as preventing terrorism saves lives, so will training Ukrainian soldiers.

"You understand," said Sgt. Anthony Jones, who has visited the cemetery, "that it is an important mission and it's worth being away from home."

The 45th's home away from home, Central City, accommodates all of the Oklahoma soldiers' basic needs, but for those wanting something more, Lviv is close by.

"Central City's nice," said Sgt Jones, "but it is great to be able to go into Lviv and see more than just each other."

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