McKaughan, director over the program, along with Oakes and Lance, are all members of the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s (OKARNG) 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT). The Brigade is currently on alert for a year-long deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. They are set to deploy early this year.
The CN Veteran’s Advocacy program was created in 2005 to assist Native American veterans with filing claims for the benefits to which they are entitled. They do this by establishing contacts with the Veterans Administration, helping to file claim forms, and answering any questions the veterans may have in the process. They also aid in obtaining copies of necessary documents such as medical and military personnel records.
“The men who work in the Veteran’s Advocacy program at the Choctaw Nation have great pride in the job they do, assisting veterans and soldiers. This program has not only helped hundreds with government paperwork, they also send care packages to the members of the military who are serving our country in war zones today,” said Chief Gregory E. Pyle. “If there is something special a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq wants or needs, our advocate here in the tribal office will make a tremendous effort to get that item mailed to them as soon as possible.”
Oakes explained further how being service members themselves has helped them do their job more efficiently. “When this department started up, Chief Pyle’s vision was to have a ‘one-stop shop’ to assist our veterans,” he said. “The fact that we all are in the military as well is an advantage because it makes it easier to relate to the veterans we’re serving and understand the issues they may be facing. There’s a kinship we share,” he continued.
That kinship translates into smooth operations and likely a smooth transition as they hand off the responsibility to a recently added staff member, Jason Burwick, also a member of the OKARNG. The operations within the department will still go on while the three men are deployed, but the logistics will be just slightly modified until they return next year. Burwick will take on the duties for the department with the aid of staff members from the Choctaw STAR (Success Through Academic Recognition) program.
John Jackson, executive director over the program, says the men will leave big shoes to fill but is certain Burwick will have no problem meeting the challenge.
“Obviously, it’ll be difficult for one person to step in and fill the shoes of these guys,” said Jackson. “It would be unrealistic to bring in someone who has not had their experience and knowledge and just expect him to pick up where they left off. But I’m confident Jason (Burwick), with the assistance of the STAR staff, will do a great job and the department will continue to make the Choctaw Nation proud.”
And by knowing they’re leaving their jobs in good hands the men can focus on what matters most to them – their families.
The three men, all married with children, know that leaving their families for a year will be a difficult undertaking, but realize it is just one of the burdens they unselfishly take on as citizen-soldiers.
“This is just one of those things that we always knew was a possibility,” said McKaughan, a married father of two, saying it’s the nature of serving in the military.
Oakes echoed that sentiment, stating, “I’m excited about the experience, but I know it’ll be hard to leave my family,” referring to his wife and two children. “I know it [deploying] is just part of the territory though,” he continued. “My wife has worked hard to prepare herself for me being away.”
Lance, also a husband and father of two, says his family is also very supportive of him and being away from them will be the hardest part of this mission.
McKaughan, a Lieutenant Colonel assigned to the 45th IBCT headquarters in Oklahoma City as head of the Provost Marshal, volunteered to go on the deployment, which will be his second trip overseas. With nearly 25 years of service under his belt, he is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, and has twice mobilized for stateside missions. He also served in Cuba.
The deployment will be the first for Oakes and Lance, both Specialists previously assigned to Camp Gruber as Military Police. Oakes has been in the OKARNG for three years and served four years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force. Lance has nine years of service with the OKARNG.
Along with McKaughan, Oakes and Lance, several other Choctaw Nation employees are also deploying to Afghanistan this year. Those employees are Chris Ribera from Performance Excellence (Tribal Complex); Jeremy Quinn from Tribal Security (CN Health Care Center in Talihina); John Michael Gruebele from CMDC (McAlester); Bradley Johnson from the Dietary Department (CN Health Care Center in Talihina); Duston Heflin and Steven Ensey from Gaming (Durant Casino Resort); and Kevin Rond Jr. and Tony Collins, both of Tribal Security (Durant Casino Resort.)
For many of them, this will be a case of “been there, done that.” This will be the third deployment for Ribera, a logistics officer with the IBCT. He previously deployed to Iraq in 2007 and the Sinai Peninsula in 2003. Collins, an infantryman, will be deploying for a second time, his first being a year in Iraq in 2007. Heflin will be making his third trip overseas. The infantryman served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Johnson has deployed twice, first to Afghanistan in 2003, then Iraq in 2007.
Chief Pyle recognized their sacrifices when he met with several of the men recently. He also presented the group with a Choctaw flag to carry with them to Afghanistan.
He expressed his support and gratitude and made sure they knew they could turn to the Choctaw Nation while they’re away.
“Thank you for the incredible sacrifice you are willing to make for all of us here at home,” said Chief Pyle to those getting ready to deploy. “We honor you and respect you for the job you are taking on.”
Additionally, the Choctaw Nation hosted a farewell reception for the soldiers at the Choctaw community center in Durant earlier this month to allow employees the chance to show their support and wish the men luck on their mission. The recurring theme throughout the reception was “family.” Chief Pyle referred to all employees of the Choctaw Nation as a large extended family, one that takes care of one another. “You all are appreciated and loved,” he said to those deploying. “The least we can do while you’re all away is be here for your families,” he told them.
That support puts many minds at ease.
“The Choctaw Nation has been 100 percent supportive,” said Lance. “That makes this experience much easier.”
So, with preparations in place for a smooth road ahead as they deploy, it’s business as usual for these employees as they continue to serve tribal members until time for them to pack up their Army boots and serve the country.