YEPPOON, Australia -- Seventeen Indiana National Guard Soldiers stood at attention and raised their right hands in the open air of a hillside memorial dedicated to American troops stationed here during World War II as their brigade commander, Col. Robert Burke, led them through a once-in-a-lifetime extension ceremony on July 3, 2018.

Though united in purpose each Soldier had individual motives for extending their service during the special ceremony held while the unit was in Australia for a joint-military training exercise called Hamel.

"My best moments in life have been in the Army," said Spec. Emily Pickens about her participation in the extension ceremony. "It's a career that I've had at least six years but it's also something that I will take with me forever. I wasn't ready to leave that."

The Indiana National Guard Soldiers traveled nearly 9,000 miles to join the Australian Defence Force during Exercise Hamel, an exercise that pairs U.S. forces with their Australian counterparts. The 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team is currently in Australia as the main task force for Pacific Pathways, a yearlong series of military exercises that support U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and build foreign partner interoperability, capacity, cooperation and relationships. Follow the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team "Nighthawk Brigade" on Facebook to learn more about this year's Pacific Pathways exercises.

The crackle of an American flag snapping sharply in the ocean breeze, held aloft by a uniformed color guard alongside colorful campaign streamers attached to the guidon of the 76th IBCT, was the only other sound as each Soldier repeated an oath reaffirming their commitment to serve in the Indiana National Guard.

Pickens said that the strong relationships formed with fellow citizen-Soldiers during her previous experiences in the National Guard kept her from leaving at the end of her contract. "The thought of leaving my 'family' wasn't a feeling that I liked."

The personal relationships Spec. Brianna Parsons forged during her time in the Guard also make her feel like she is part of a family. "Last year I went through the worst time of my life and if it wasn't for my people here I would've been lost," said Parsons. "So many times I was really low and they were the ones that kept me going."

The Soldiers participating in the ceremony were offered the opportunity to take the extension oath on the hillside overlooking the ocean at the coastal town of Yeppoon in Queensland because a monument dedicated to U.S. Army troops stationed in the area during WWII is located at the site. From 1942 to 1944 the nearby city of Rockhampton and the surrounding community was home to two of the four U.S. Army divisions training in Queensland, one of which, the 41st Division, was also a National Guard unit and the first U.S. division sent to Australia during the war.

"I am proud of our Soldiers who extended with the 76th IBCT and the Indiana National Guard today," said Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen J. Bishop, the brigade's highest-ranking enlisted member. "Any time a Soldier volunteers to continue to serve our country is special but having the opportunity to do it in Australia really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a very fitting way to end an incredible training exercise where we improved our brigade's readiness and strengthened our 100-year-old relationship with our Australian brothers and sisters-in-arms."