DISPATCH: On the Eve of Battle With an American Volunteer in Ukraine

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A foreign volunteer soldier, serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, at a base in Kyiv. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

KYIV, Ukraine — The nearby shelling is loud enough to rattle the walls. From the upper-story balcony of this safe house on the edge of Kyiv, a thick, black plume of smoke is seen rising from a scene of destruction a couple of kilometers away at most. Much closer, other puffs of fresh smoke show where artillery has just fallen within a field. The boundary between lethal danger and relative safety is narrow and constantly shifting on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital city. It’s a different kind of war than what Tyler, a 30-year-old US Army combat veteran of Afghanistan, has previously experienced.

“What I experienced in Afghanistan was nothing like this. It would be much easier to die here than in Afghanistan; the Russians have some heavy firepower,” Tyler tells Coffee or Die Magazine during an interview in Kyiv before his first deployment to the nearby front lines as a Ukrainian Foreign Legion volunteer.

“I’m not here to fuck around,” Tyler says. “I know exactly what I’m getting into. I spent a lot of time and money creating a will before I left for Ukraine. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe this was worth dying for. To be a good soldier, you have to be willing to say goodbye.”

From the balcony, listening to the snarls of a nearby battle, Tyler watches a woman on the street below casually saunter by as she leads her dog on an evening walk. This correspondent remarks, “Welcome to the twilight zone.”

“It’s so surreal,” Tyler says. After a pause he adds, “I wish I could have seen Kyiv before the war.”

kyiv skyline

Looking toward the outskirts of Kyiv where intense combat has been raging for weeks. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

For security reasons, Tyler requests that his last name and certain identifying information not be disclosed. After crossing into western Ukraine from Poland two weeks earlier, he enlisted with the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine, otherwise known as the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. According to the terms of his contract, he can leave the country at any time.

On March 6, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry estimated that some 20,000 foreigners from more than 50 countries had applied to fight for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. Among that number were about 3,000 Americans, Voice of America reported.

Trim, bearded, and well spoken, Tyler has a well-paying and prestigious job back home in the US and is on good terms with his family. He isn’t running away from anything, nor is he seeking to scratch some existential itch in a war zone or achieve social media fame. In fact, he’s scornful of other foreign volunteers who portray themselves as heroes on social media.

“If you’re looking to be famous, that’s not the right reason to be here,” Tyler says, adding that during his time in Ukraine he’s met some highly trained and capable foreign volunteers, as well as some bona fide “war tourists” who have no business on a battlefield. For any prospective foreign volunteers who want to serve in Ukraine, Tyler’s advice is this: “Understand the risks — this is not a safe place. If you haven’t made out a will, and if you aren’t willing to risk your life, you shouldn’t be here.”

Tyler has no personal connection to Ukraine — no family background, no wife or children or girlfriend in harm’s way, and no friends besides the ones he’s made over the past two weeks since his arrival. In short, he had every opportunity to avoid this war and go on living in peace. Even so, he risked his job and spent a “shitload of money” to travel to Ukraine in order to fight in someone else’s war.

American volunteer

A foreign volunteer soldier, serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, at a base in Kyiv. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“If you see a bully picking on someone, you don’t just walk on by. You have to help,” Tyler explains. “When I saw what was going on in Ukraine, I asked myself, Are you just going to watch, or are you going to do something about it?

Apart from his innate desire to get involved, it was, in the end, the courageous actions of the Ukrainian nation that finally convinced Tyler that their cause was worth fighting for.

“A lot of countries would have given up already,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if Ukrainians hadn’t resisted the way they have.”

Tyler is scheduled to link up with a unit of foreign fighters, including other US military veterans, at a front-line location to the east of Kyiv. Outwardly, he displays no overt signs of anxiety. He acknowledges the risks, as well as the fact that combat in this war will be far different than what he experienced in Afghanistan. Even so, there’s little free space for fear to creep in. His mind is occupied with last-minute chores, and, perhaps most importantly, he’s not alone.

With him this evening is another American volunteer and two Ukrainian friends. They’ve just arrived in Kyiv this afternoon and have spent the evening smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee on the safe house balcony while the sun sets and the nearby war rumbles.

In contrast, it is during the quiet moments of solitude and inactivity that one’s imagination has more liberty to run wild with dark imaginings. For his part, Tyler says he tries not to envision what it will be like on the front lines. Rather, he simply focuses on the necessities of the here and now.

Ukraine volunteer

A foreign volunteer soldier, serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, at a base in Kyiv. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“I had the most anxiety before I arrived in country,” Tyler says. “I had some moments when I asked myself, What the fuck are you doing? There are so many unknowns when you’re not here. But now that I’m here and there aren’t as many unknowns, I’m sleeping better than I did back in the US.

“My biggest fear is to die because I did something stupid,” he adds.

Tyler kept his departure for Ukraine under wraps from his employer. As for his parents, he told them he was simply headed to Ukraine to volunteer. “But they know,” he says. In fact, his father’s parting words were “Kick some ass.”

“He never said that before I went to Afghanistan,” Tyler says.

The one person Tyler completely confided in was his brother, a fellow US Army veteran.

“My brother was my biggest help and supporter with everything I had to do to get out here, and I couldn’t have done it without him,” Tyler says.

Kyiv 2015

A soldier in the 318th Kyiv Territorial Defense Battalion at a training exercise outside Kyiv in March 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson.

A soldier in the 318th Kyiv Territorial Defense Battalion at a training exercise outside Kyiv in March 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson.

The Ukrainian military divides foreign volunteers into three categories: those with military backgrounds and combat experience, those with military backgrounds and no combat experience, and those without any military backgrounds. Volunteers like Tyler who have combat experience are not required to undergo any additional training and can be quickly fielded into combat units.

And while his combat experiences in Afghanistan may not match the kind of force-on-force warfare ongoing in Ukraine, Tyler is confident in his proven ability to effectively operate while under fire, and under pressure.

“It’s hard to measure a person’s potential from their resume,” Tyler says. “I didn’t come over here thinking that my experiences from Afghanistan had fully prepared me for this kind of war. But nobody knows how they’re going to be until shit happens. So, in that sense, I have a slight advantage. You have to be physically ready for war, that’s true. But it’s mostly mental.”

Read Next: DISPATCH: ‘This Is Hell’: Survivors of the Mariupol Siege Share Their Stories

Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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