The first group of Oklahoma soldiers deployed to Ukraine earlier this year are now all back on home soil.
The Oklahoma National Guard held a homecoming ceremony at the Armed Forces Reserve Center for more than 100 members of Task Force Tomahawk, the designation given to the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team unit tasked to support the U.S. Army's Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine.
Close to 250 members of the 45th's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, headquartered in Stillwater, deployed in early January to the International Peacekeeping and Training Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Demobilization took them, first, to Fort Bliss; about half of the Guard members returned home to their families and jobs two weeks ago, with the remaining 100-plus soldiers being welcomed back today.
"Great job!" exclaimed Brig. Gen. Hopper Smith, the Oklahoma National Guard's Land Component Commander.
Gen. Smith spoke directly to the task force members, but also to their loved ones; "These soldiers need to know -- and they've probably already heard what a great job they've done -- but you need to know what a great job that they've done."
The Guard's mission, as News 9 reported in February and March from Ukraine, was to help the U.S. Army fulfill its role in the multi-national effort to train units of the Ukrainian army -- bring them up to NATO standards and allow them to retake control of the eastern part of Ukraine from Russian-backed separatists.
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"Task Force Tomahawk's efforts have put the Ukrainian Army on pace to achieve their goal of gaining NATO inclusion within the next two to three years," said Maj. Adam Headrick, commander of the battalion, "so your soldiers have had an historical impact in eastern Europe."
The true final step in the demobilization process is reintegration, and that got off to a good start, with hugs, kisses, and big smiles.
"This is my daughter," said proud father, Sgt. John Appleton, "this is Katie Ellen Appleton."
Little Katie had her first birthday while Sgt. Appleton was in Ukraine. He's proud of what he and his colleagues accomplished, but was sorry to have missed such a milestone event.
"That was the worst part about it all," Appleton said.
Also among those returning today was 1st Lt Benjamin McKinney. He comes home to a small business -- a pub in downtown Oklahoma City -- that he had to leave in the hands of a partner while he was away. He says the sacrifice was worth it.
"We understood why we were there and we believed in it fully," Lt McKinney allowed, "but it's definitely nice to be home."
The 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry was replaced by the 45th IBCT's 1st Battalion, 279th Infantry, which is based in Sand Springs. Those soldiers will be in Ukraine, carrying out the same mission, through the end of the year.