War In Ukraine

This is Not a Video Game: U.S. Military Vets in Ukraine

U.S. vets at Columbia and other schools are cutting class to provide medical assistance and combat training in Ukraine

by

Andy had just completed the eight-hour flight from New York to Warsaw and was waiting for his connecting flight into Ukraine when he noticed the man sitting across from him. He was in his mid to late 20s, wearing an old ACU (Army Combat Uniform)–style shirt and pants and a brown plate carrier (a type of bulletproof vest) with a large American flag patch on the front. His black boots, dirty and scuffed, had been removed and were sitting next to his feet.

Andy was no stranger to being around people in uniform, but this seemed odd to him—less than subtle, at the very least. The airport was full of people flying into Ukraine hoping to join the fight against the Russian invaders, and the man in the ACUs was undoubtedly one of them. But given the security concerns for incoming fighters, both foreigners and Ukrainian dobrovoltsi (volunteers) returning home and looking to get in the fight, the lack of subtlety was both telling and dangerous. OPSEC (Operations Security) is always a concern—you never want to advertise what you’re doing or where you’re going. Curious, and deciding to kill a few moments, Andy chatted the man up and was surprised to learn that he had no prior military experience; he had purchased some surplus gear after deciding to fly into Ukraine, hoping to join the International Legion. The plate carrier adorned with the American flag didn’t even have any protective plates inside, so it was useless for protection. “He wasn’t that far off from the quality of a lot of the Western volunteers who went off to fight,” Andy later told the Voice. “They had no military experience and wanted to help. God bless them for that, but one could argue you don’t know what you don’t know. If you grow up playing video games, you’re going to have a different idea of combat. There are no respawn points here.” (The Voice has omitted or changed some identifying details about Andy.)

A website created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine proclaims, “President Zelensky has created the International Legion of Ukraine, consisting of foreign citizens wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupants and fight for global security.” But the preparedness of Americans joining the war as foreign fighters—or of any of the many militias currently operating in Ukraine—has been a mixed bag. The young man at the airport represented a good chunk of the people—mostly, but not exclusively, men—who have left their jobs and homes to fight the Russians in a country they might not be able to find on a map. Most don’t speak either Russian or Ukrainian, and many lack any real-world military experience. Even those who do come from a military background might not come from a combat-arms career field—a Marine with infantry training and time overseas is going to bring a lot more to the table than an army personnel specialist.

Andy represents another type of volunteer: The son of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States and a 15-year veteran of the special operations community, with multiple deployments under his belt, he is also a pre-med student at Columbia University. [Editor’s note: The writer has had a professional relationship with Andy for several years.] When the Russians invaded, he began putting together a team of people with similar backgrounds, connected with the New York/Ukrainian community for support, and planned his trip. He gave the school notice and dropped everything in order to get over there and help. Others from the special operations community and Ivy League schools signed on. At Columbia University alone, the Voice spoke with three other students who were leaving to join the fighting in Ukraine. Another team the Voice spoke to has foregone joining up with the International Legion and has instead linked up with one of the many militias working in the region, who are under the loose guidance of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

Andy’s decision to leave was sudden, but his family connection to the area has deep roots. His mother was raised in Kharkiv, in the northeastern part of Ukraine, and both his grandfather and his grandmother fought in the Second World War for the Soviets; she was a razvedchik, or partisan scout. For his part, Andy speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, which simplified aspects of his trip and his time there. “I started at Columbia three years ago, motivated by a desire to help people,” Andy told the Voice after his return from the war zone. “This was why I wanted to be a medical student, and why I went to Ukraine.” The members of his team were all similarly motivated—videos of Russian forces occupying towns and stories of mass killings that came later informed and molded their decisions. For Andy, it was a now-or-never moment. “We were all uniformly motivated by the understanding that this is one of the rare inflection points in our lives. This was like the eve of World War II. We all had the understanding that this was ‘good versus evil.’”

The Ukrainian and Russian armed forces have a shared, if uncomfortable, ancestry under the Soviet Union. Today, they largely fight with similar weapons, vehicles, and, at times, uniforms. When the Iron Curtain crumbled, both countries struggled with issues of funding, doctrine, and, most destructive, corruption. It wasn’t until after the Euromaidan protests in 2014, when Ukrainians took to the streets to oust a corrupt, Russia-aligned leader, that the Ukrainian military truly began to modernize. The Russians continued to cling to Soviet-era doctrine, strategy, and tactics, and corruption was a constant presence; some new weapons, vehicles, and aircraft have been overseen by the Russian Ministry of Defense, but so far few have been mass-produced and fewer still have been used in the current conflict. New stealth aircraft, such as the SU-57, and improved battle tanks like the T-14 have been widely displayed on social media and in annual Victory Day parades, but only a small number have actually been produced, and, as the Voice went to press, none have been seen at the front. Many are simply refits of Soviet-era designs. The Ukrainian military, on the other hand, began to form a closer relationship with the West after 2014, and worked tirelessly to modernize (though it did hit a bump when President Trump held up a weapons deal with Ukraine by asking President Zelensky to investigate the Biden family, an attempted shakedown that led to Trump’s first impeachment). It’s difficult to overstate the value of these changes. Ukraine’s modernization was not just about equipment (though that was certainly a large element), it also had to do with how that equipment and personnel would be applied on the battlefield. Even more crucial, the Ukrainian military began to understand the value of the professional NCO (non-commissioned officer), and allowed their small-unit leaders to take the initiative. In comparison, Russian doctrine stagnated: Initiative is frowned upon and low-level officers typically take on the responsibilities that NCOs would have in the West. The current invasion has highlighted the differences between these two styles, with Ukrainian forces able to respond organically to the stiff, plodding movements of the Russian invaders. The cross-training with NATO and U.S. military forces that happened before the war has demonstrated why it’s so important for soldiers at even the lowest levels to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. That said, Russian forces have, through sheer force of numbers and volume of firepower, wreaked devastation across Ukraine, indiscriminately killing soldiers and civilians alike while wantonly destroying homes, hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure.   

Where do Andy, his team, and the estimated 6,000 American volunteers fighting for Ukraine fall into this equation? This question does not come with an easy or comfortable answer. Many—particularly early in the war—arrived with few practical combat skills and a romanticized notion of what actual combat would be like, showing up in-country unable to speak the local language, with no knowledge of the historical context of the fighting or even a basic understanding of the local culture. Ukraine was initially starved for volunteers, and in the early days of the conflict was willing to put anyone with a pulse to use. But other volunteers came with the experience of decades of warfare: prior Marines, airmen, sailors, and soldiers who, for many reasons, had decided it was time to fight. Unlike the young man sitting in surplus combat gear at the airport in Poland, these former service members knew the value of OPSEC, and tended to be more circumspect about their intentions.

Some of these volunteers ended up joining one of the many local militias, while others were absorbed into the Ukrainian military proper. Eventually, the process for signing up through the International Legion was codified, with volunteers being processed initially through the website FightForUA.org. Volunteers are now required to have relevant combat or military experience and can apply through any Ukrainian Embassy; they are asked to bring not just documents confirming their past experience but also any relevant equipment, since helmets, plate carriers, and uniform items are in short supply.

Given the nebulous legality of allowing U.S. citizens to fight under a foreign flag, the U.S. State Department is in a tough position: It does allow U.S. citizens to join another country’s military, but, officially, they cannot be recruited from within the United States. According to the Department of Defense, any citizen who volunteers to fight under a foreign flag officially loses their neutral status. This frees the United States from being dragged into a fight—if an American is killed or captured, there can be no expectation of support. In a March briefing, the DoD stated, “If a veteran or any other American citizen wants to support the people of Ukraine, the best way to do that is to donate to the Red Cross … It is not to go into Ukraine.”

Russia has called these foreign volunteers “mercenaries,” and warned that they will not be given the protections of lawful combatants under International law. “At best they will be treated as criminals,” said Igor Konashenkov, chief spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, in a March 3 statement. This is complicated by the variety of authorities the volunteers are serving under: Ukrainian army command or the various militias dotting the country. A team the Voice has been in contact with, composed of prior Marines and current Columbia students who traveled and operated separately from Andy’s, has been able to move in and out of the country at will, working in tandem with one of the local militias without any official status or contract. Even if Russia did give lip service to protections for these fighters as lawful combatants, it would be a shaky proposition at best: Intercepted communications and physical evidence have shown that Russian forces have been more than willing to execute prisoners of war.

From his time in the special operations community and his studies as a pre-med student at Columbia, Andy has built a skill set badly needed on the Ukrainian front. One of the greatest immediate dangers a soldier faces following an injury isn’t infection or loss of a limb—it’s being surrounded by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Too often a fighter with a serious but treatable injury dies at the front from lack of TCCC—“tactical combat casualty care.” A popped artery or sucking chest wound can quickly kill, but both are relatively treatable with the right skills and equipment. Andy and his team began their stint in Ukraine working out of bomb shelters and near the front, showing Ukrainian fighters the best ways to provide immediate care.

“When the war started,” Andy relates, “a close friend called and asked if we thought we could pull off going to help. I talked to my professors, who were very accommodating, and I helped put together a group of about 15 people—entirely former special forces personnel. We had to ask, ‘Hey, does anyone have a spare helmet, can anyone loan me combat pants, or plates, or cold weather gear?’” Andy and his team had to procure everything they’d need to hit the ground running, and the Ukrainian community in New York City played a big part. “Everyone went to Ukrainian businesses and got whatever we needed. When we told them we were going to the fight, they would give you the items you needed. So we were able to organize all of this in three days. We bought our tickets and just went.”

Proper uniforms were important, but also a complicated endeavor in this conflict. The Russian and Ukrainian military have both been using a grab bag of uniform items, some modern, such as “multicam” (a modern earth-tone camouflage pattern used by both NATO and Eastern forces), others locally designed uniforms or those using older woodland or ACU patterns. Because of this array, both sides have resorted to using colored armbands to identify who is fighting for which side. Ukrainian forces have largely been using yellow and blue, while the Russian forces have been using a collection of colors, including silver, red, and white. “Originally, multicam was only for [Russian] special operations,” Andy explains, “but Russian citizens have been buying them up and sending them to their people [at other levels].” Usually these uniforms are Chinese knock-offs, which lack build quality but are visually identical to the real thing. Since some foreign volunteers have been fighting wearing the same colors, patterns, and even helmets, a deadly confusion can result.

Originally, Andy and his team planned to go directly to the International Legion, but the quality of some of the Legion’s troops put them off that notion. “We ran into them and decided very quickly that it was not for us. A lot of people came who had no idea what they were doing. One guy got kicked out [of Ukraine] because he kept using an unencrypted phone and wouldn’t get off Reddit. Some of the guys—points to them for being honest—but they were like ‘I’m a bartender from Florida who likes shooting guns.’ Urban combat is a nightmare under the best of circumstances. Every corner, every window, every doorway can literally kill you. These guys, I don’t know that a lot of them really understood what they were signing up for.”

There are historical analogues to this, perhaps most notably the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. The fighting in Spain and bombing of civilian targets combined with ideological motivations brought in thousands of fighters against Franco’s brutal regime. Today’s motivation seems to be a response to the humanitarian disaster combined with anger toward Russia for its past decade of aggressive behavior. And of course, some people are just looking for a fight.

Theoretically, anyone can train up to be a fighter, and a lot of people did bring their A-game, according to Andy. “There were plenty of good vets who were put into viable teams,” he says, adding that the Ukrainians themselves trained harder than anyone he had ever seen. “Toward the end of the second week, when Kyiv still hadn’t fallen and [the Ukrainians] were still actively fighting the Russians … that was really surprising. It was fantastic,” Andy recalls. “These guys were literally doing things that, if you’d asked any of us, we thought they would have lasted a couple of days. A lot of Ukrainians thought the same thing. But they didn’t—they kept fighting and the Russians withdrew from Kyiv. They hadn’t been able to break through the Ukrainian lines. I’ve never seen a group so motivated. We would be training for 12 hours and they would stay out and keep training until everything was perfect.”

The differences in military doctrine and organizational structure between the two armies crystallized as the fighting continued. There is a natural winnowing of poor performers at the front lines. “For the most part, I did not interact with anyone who did not know what they were doing to an extremely high level,” Andy says. “By this point, [the Ukrainians] had a very competent NCO corps and their officers were really on point. They were also the most motivated fighters I have ever seen…. These people were literally accountants or office managers, business execs or car salesmen before the war. One guy owned a coffee shop in Kyiv, and they were all willing to fight and train properly.”

There were a number of groups working the same mission, and this sometimes caused structural and organizational problems. “When we got there, there were two orgs on the ground actually doing work [in our part of the country]. The Global Surgical and Medical Support Group was there providing TCCC training. World Central Kitchen provided food and refugee support. I have some friends on that team, and they specifically had a huge impact compared to the size of their organization. When we left, the Red Cross, the Samaritans, and Team Rubicon were also there—though they were more risk-averse and not as effective, in my opinion.” To steer clear of complications, Andy’s team worked independently and used local connections to liaise with both the official military and with partisan groups. “Most of what I was doing was training to our specialties. Aside from TCCC training, I was training recon and showing folks how to set up ambushes for tanks. We had guys teaching how to use drones and where to best employ them. These were all lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.” For many prior-service volunteers, this was a particularly satisfying reason to get involved. Russia had more or less openly been putting paid bounties on American soldiers overseas for years—particularly in Afghanistan and Syria—and it’s hard not to take that sort of thing personally.

Working as trainers and being noncombatants didn’t mean Andy’s team didn’t take fire. “After the bombings in Mariupol, we took part in rescue operations,” he tells the Voice. Members of the team managed to find a van, and moved refugees out of the contested area. The Russians didn’t differentiate between fighters and refugees, he explains—they would fire on cars with “children” written clearly on the sides and hoods. “A lot of it was being crazy enough to drive into places that were contested territory. We linked up with these dudes who had trucks and sprinter [vans] and another guy who ran a metal shop and welded steel to the doors. We were able to fill them up with refugees and got them out of Dodge.” Most of the refugees were women and children—very few men tried to leave. With the exception of the elderly and disabled, most men (and more than a few women) of fighting age stayed.

Going from Ivy League student to military instructor wasn’t quite an overnight experience. Returning from the front to an academic environment also requires some readjustment. “One week you’re in class with a bunch of 20-year-old students, and the next you’re with another group of 20-year-olds who are literally fighting for their lives,” Andy tells the Voice in a later interview. “A lot of milvets [a nickname given to military veterans on campus at Columbia] are older than their peers in class, and when you are an NCO or an officer you lead people of a similar age. In the special operations field, you get used to the idea that some of the decisions you make lead to human deaths. You hold onto that a lot. Even walking around Columbia, I still have that same feeling. It’s something in the back of your mind, these are kids still in school and you can’t help but think of the 20-year-old kids you knew who died in Afghanistan. That never really leaves you. People stress out here about things that in the grand scheme of things really aren’t that important. Like if I do badly on a test, I’m still alive … If I misstep in a war, I just die. So far I’ve had the capacity to overcome the challenges. But I mean, it is a wild perspective. One week you’re worried about your exams or your English paper, the next week you’re worried about cruise missiles and sniper fire.”

Realigning himself to an academic environment was all about perspective, and understanding the necessity for a separate mindset while learning to turn off certain reactions. “I suck at calculus. I sweated through my class and it took more effort than my other classes do. Honestly, going back to war was a bit of a relief. I know war. I hate saying it, but I’m good at violence. I’ve practiced a lot to become good at violence. And I think, here, I’m in a very different sort of environment. I’m a professional soldier, but I’m learning to be a professional student.

“There were people from Harvard, Cornell, Columbia—almost all of our people were established professionals within their fields,” Andy adds. And unlike many other volunteers, their mission was not to get directly involved in the fight. “We did not take part in actual combat. The main reason was that, to this day, we’re still really unclear on what our legal status was. There is no law [over there], and we were all veterans of the U.S. military. We were willing to toe the line of offering support—and I absolutely know of a lot of folks who are going to fight in Ukraine. Had there been clarity, I would have fought. If it becomes clear, I’ll go fight.”

He concludes: “Three of the guys on my team, not including myself, have Ukrainian ancestry, and it’s not really well known in the West how militant we can be. You go to Ukraine and the people are very happy-go-lucky folks, but they will absolutely beat the living shit out of whoever’s trying to fuck with them.” ❖

C.S. Muncy is a photojournalist and writer based out of New York City who has worked with a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and the Village Voice.

Correction: Due to a production error, the print version omitted this editor’s note, “[The writer has had a professional relationship with Andy for several years.]”

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