One year after they left and all of Oklahoma's soldiers are back from a key training mission in Ukraine.
The Oklahoma Army National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team was deployed to western Ukraine to assume command of a multi-national mission to train Ukrainian soldiers. Officially, the mission's aim is to make the Ukrainian Army "NATO-interoperable" by 2020. Unofficially, NATO allies are trying to push back against Russian aggression and better secure Eastern Europe.
Last month, two members of Oklahoma's Congressional delegation, Senator James Lankford and Congressman Steve Russell, dropped in on the training operation, and came away more convinced than ever of the mission's importance.
"Everything is at stake with what Russia is doing there," said Rep. Russell, R-OK District 5, "they want to try to coerce these countries to bring them back into their fold."
Since 2014, Eastern Ukraine has been under siege, with pro-Russian rebels, often referred to as separatists, leading a bloody and violent uprising.
"They've declared them as separatists and rebels," stated Sen. James Lankford, "but they're actually Russian officers, leading individuals that they're training to be in the Russian army and to be able to function as Russian-trained military."
Sen. Lankford and Rep. spent time with Oklahoma Guard members at the International Training and Security Center in far western Ukraine, but also visited the capital Kiev, where they met with Ukrainian government leaders and were briefed on current battlefield conditions.
"Literally, individuals are coming off the front lines in the eastern part of Ukraine," said Sen. Lankford, "they're coming to western Ukraine to be able to be trained."
News 9 saw that training up close last winter, Oklahomans working with Ukrainians at the individual, squad, and battalion levels, in an effort to raise Ukrainian Army standards. More than that, Oklahoma Guard members were aware that they were giving these soldiers skills that could very well save their lives.
"Our Oklahomans can take great pride that they had a hand in that," said Rep. Russell, "they are saving lives."
While the Oklahoma National Guard is now back home, the training mission continues. The New York Army National Guard has now taken Oklahoma's place.