YAVORIV COMBINED ARMS TRAINING CENTER, Ukraine – Overseas deployments for Soldiers of the New York National Guard have usually meant Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.
But deployment for 220 New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team meant a trip to Europe.
Since November 2017, Soldiers from the Syracuse-based 27th brigade have been serving in Ukraine to help train and mentor Ukrainian Army units. The New York Soldiers are part of the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, known as JMTG-U, serving as cadre and advisors at the Yavoriv Training Center helping Ukrainian Army units meet the goal of achieving NATO compatibility.
"I started ROTC in 2008 and I commissioned in 2012," said 1st Lt. Chasen Smith, a plans officer in the JMTG-U."When someone said where do you think you're going to deploy, my first thought was Iraq or Afghanistan, maybe later on Syria. I never expected to be pulled onto a mission like this."
Smith currently serves alongside other soldiers from Canada, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom as part of the multinational group.
Following a month at Fort Bliss, Texas, conducting pre-deployment training, the unit -consisting predominately of Soldiers from the Niagara Falls-based 2nd Squadron, 101st Cavalry- arrived in Ukraine to relieve the departing 200 members of the Oklahoma Army National Guard's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
For two weeks, the Oklahoma Guard Soldiers mentored the New Yorkers before handing over command of the mission at the Combined Arms Training Center on November 22, 2017.
Now, after eight months working alongside the Ukrainian Army, the progress made by the training group is evident, Smith said.
"When we first arrived here the training center (staff) was struggling to conduct their planning any more than two to three days out," Smith said.
"Through our efforts with them, we have moved them to the point where they are now planning two to three weeks out. The third week is all theoretical, the second week is confirming and checking plans, and, by week one, the majority of the questions have been answered and plans are for the most part locked in," Smith explained.
"They have also made vast improvements in the way they present the training," Smith added."We're dealing with a partner nation and trying to teach them to operate the way we do."
The U.S. Soldiers act as mentors and instructors to the Ukrainian training center personnel when needed.
Originally, the U.S. and allied nations conducted direct training for Ukrainian Army battalions that rotated through the center. Now, three years later, the bulk of the training is taught by Ukrainian instructors now stationed at the combat training center.
American Soldiers continue to act as mentors, providing guidance and clarification to both the rotational units training at Yavoriv and the Ukrainian instructors facilitating the exercises.
"During the rotation we will go out to the field, supervise the action, and make on-the-spot corrections as needed," said Staff Sgt. Riener Mogerson, a Charlie Company mentor.
As a mentor, Mongerson works directly alongside Ukrainian soldiers stationed at the training center.
"We have been trying to get away from Americans directly teaching classes and move toward assisting them teach their own classes," he said.
Though the bulk of the training has been handed over to Ukrainian personnel, the Americans and multinational partners here are ready to share their expertise and experience with their Ukrainian counterparts, Mogerson said.
Ukrainian partners, especially first line junior leaders, are willing and eager to learn, Mogerson said.
"We want to change the culture and empower junior leaders and NCOs to take the initiative," he said.
"When I'm giving a class, it will usually be for most of their non-commissioned officers and a few of their lieutenants," Mogerson said."I want to be able to be able to instruct their non-commissioned officers so that they can then turn around and teach their soldiers."
While working alongside a partner nation and trying to overcome both language and cultural barriers, the need for creating strong relationships is paramount, he said.
"One of the things we were told before coming over here is that Ukrainians don't take criticism well," Smith said.
"While that is true to an extent, the lower-level leadership is very receptive to criticism, especially once you establish a rapport. Don't underestimate the relationships you make between yourself and your counterparts. This job is all about building relationships," he added.
"We're mostly there to supervise and give guidance when needed," said Staff Sgt. Jamah Figaro, a Bravo Company training NCO.
Each time a Ukrainian battalion completes a training rotation, the quality of the exercise improves as the Ukrainian staff and their U.S. mentors find ways to improve the training experience, Figaro said.
"You see a lot of professionalism out in the training area, and we strive to get things perfect." Figaro said.
"At first they might say it’s because of our equipment, but we show them how resourceful we can be and they realize it’s more about basic leadership skills, and leading by example. Once they see that, they realize why the United States Army is the most powerful army in the world," he added.
Along with providing training to the personnel staffing the combined training center, the U.S. Soldiers here say they are also working diligently to improve both the facility’s infrastructure and training aides.
One valuable resource is MILES gear. MILES, short for Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System similar to a laser-tag system that allows soldiers to conduct simulated battles as they exchange shot-for-shot.
The gear consists of a laser module and harness. The laser is mounted on a soldier's rifle, and the harness, which is covered in receivers, is worn by the Soldier.
When the soldiers fire a blank round, it triggers the laser. If the laser strikes a receiver mounted on another Soldier's vest, a hit is recorded.
In addition to individual MILES gear, there are vehicle-based system that can be mounted on tanks, trucks, or armored personnel carriers.
Since the Ukrainian training center began using MILES gear as a training aide, the Ukrainian training center staff has surprised their U.S. counterparts with their skills and resourcefulness, said Staff Sgt. Michael Powell, the joint training group simulated munitions –“simunitions"—NCO.
"It used to be that if a piece of MILES equipment went down, that soldier was out of the fight for the rest of day. Now they are able to fix it out in the field and get that soldier back into the fight," he observed.
"I've watch them tear a whole miles unit apart and repair it with locally purchased parts." Powell said."They will go to a hardware store and buy a bunch of doorbells, tear them apart, and use them to fix MILES components."
"The end state is for us to be able to outfit an entire Ukrainian brigade with MILES gear," he said.
Though MILES is a useful training aid, issuing the gear to the individual soldier is often a lengthy process. Fortunately improvements have been made that creates less work for both the MILES section staff and the rotational unit, Powell said.
"They used to have each soldier stand in line and sign for their MILES gear," Powell said."It took hours to do. Now the commander comes to sign for the equipment and has his subordinates distribute it. Having the commander come and sign for the equipment is allowing the unit to save two to three hours of time where they can train with the gear instead of standing in line."
Though the mission is to train the Ukrainians, the U.S. Soldiers stationed at the training center are learning from the Ukrainians as well, the New York Guard members said.
"One of the biggest things we have learned from the Ukrainians is how to make do with what you have," Smith said."These days we are so dependent on optics. Thermal and night vision. The Ukrainians don't have any of that, but they still conduct night operations."
"One of the things they use to overcome that deficiency is through the use of vehicle mounted spotlights," Smith said."Once they get an idea of where somebody is, they hit that spotlight, engage the target, then turn the spotlight off."
As the Yavoriv training center continues to evolve and change, one thing remains constant. The enthusiasm of the U.S. and Ukrainian soldiers stationed there, New York Soldiers said.
Now nearing the completion of their rotation, the New York Soldiers are slated to be relieved by the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, who are scheduled to take over command of JMTG-U later this summer.