For a full year, the dedicated men and women of Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade are sharing their experience and know-how with Ukrainian soldiers who are eager to defend their country.
The deployment of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is part of the U.S. Army's commitment to take part in a multinational effort -- Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U) -- to make the Ukrainian army 'NATO interoperable' by 2020. The other nations participating in JMTG-U are Canada, England, Poland and Lithuania.
News 9 was given the rare opportunity to travel to western Ukraine and report firsthand on the various ways that these partners, and specifically the Thunderbirds, are contributing to the mission.
On Feb. 1, members of the 45th's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, Bravo Company, were enjoying a relatively warm, but very windy day out on one of the many ranges here at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center. They were waiting for a squad of Ukrainian soldiers to indicate they were ready to begin their next training run.
"What they're gonna do," explained Sgt. Walter Tuttle, "they're gonna utilize their tactical vehicle to maneuver down the range and engage several targets."
Tuttle said this is the sort of defensive field maneuver that could save lives when these Ukrainians are sent 800 miles east to the ATO -- Anti-terrorism Operation Zone -- where the real fighting against Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists is taking place.
The role of Tuttle and his fellow Guard members, part of an experienced light infantry unit, is to share their expertise.
"We observe the training and then we'll put in our two cents, telling them about things that we like to do and some of the things that might help them in the future," Tuttle said.
This day, a Tuesday, the Ukrainian squads were conducting blank runs -- no real ammo -- which meant Bravo Company leaders could walk right behind them and shout out occasional corrections.
"Spacing, spacing, spacing," urged Tuttle.
Such admonitions would likely be meaningless, without linguists to translate the Americans' words into Ukraine. Indeed, the translators are seemingly ubiquitous, making sure that each side understands what the other is saying.
Following this latest run, Tuttle gathered the Ukrainian squad and its leader together for a critique, or what he calls a 'hot wash': "The spacing was perfect...all the safety features were there...I think the only improvement we have to work on, is the fire control," he said.
The next day, Wednesday, cold and spitting rain, it's the same maneuver, but now, the Ukrainians are using live rounds.
After what appears to be a technical problem with their Soviet-made BMP, a Bradley-like infantry fighting vehicle, the Ukrainians begin to move down the range methodically, the well-spaced soldiers hitting the ground on command and firing their AK-47’s at distant targets.
The BMP, lumbering ahead in the lead position, then lays down a suppressing fire, and a soldier fires an RPG, successfully hitting the main target at the end of the run.
"I think that the presence of American instructors here is crucial for us," said Maj. Vitaliy Sokolenko through a linguist.
Sokolenko is a morale officer with the unit going through the training rotation, Ukraine's 1st Battalion, 28th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. He said the 45th's presence is crucial, "because they have combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they share this experience with Ukrainians."
Not all of the training takes place out on firing ranges; there's plenty of classroom work.
"So just let us imagine the situation when we have firing position," translated a linguist during a lecture on calling for fire.
A couple dozen Ukrainian forward observers were getting a lesson -- again, with members of the 45th overseeing -- on another critically important battlefield skill.
"Calling for fire is extremely significant," said 1st Lt. John Riley, Bravo Company's executive officer, "[because] field artillery is known as the king of the battlefield -- nothing reaches out further than artillery and mortars."
Back out on a different range, on that same raw Wednesday morning, the Ukrainians were practicing direct-lay mortar fire, and elements of the 45th were right there, doing safety checks, sharing information, and raising the Ukrainians' standards.
"Really, what we're out here to do overall, is to validate their trainers...what we like to say is 'training the trainers,'" explained Sgt. James Cockrell.
The training rotation for each Ukrainian battalion that comes through is 55 days, and then they are likely to deploy to the ATO, where 10,000 lives have been lost since the hostilities began in early 2014. The Ukrainian soldiers know, even with this training, their lives will be at risk.
"Of course, I worry," said Sgt. Alexander Petrov through a translator. "My family worries for me and wants to see me, but it is my obligation to defend the country. And who else, if not us, will defend the country?"