American veterans join the fight in Ukraine

Hector served two violent tours in Iraq as a U.S. Marine, then walked out, got a pension and a civilian job, and thought he was done with military service. But on Friday, he boarded a plane for another deployment, this time as a volunteer in Ukraine. He checked in on several bags full of rifle scopes, helmets and body armor donated by other veterans.

“Sanctions can help, but sanctions can’t help right now, and people need help right now,” said the former Marine, who lives in Tampa Bay, Fla., and as a other veterans interviewed for this article, requested that only his first name be used for security reasons. “I can help now.”

He is part of a wave of American veterans who say they are now preparing to join the fight in Ukraine, emboldened by an invitation from the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who announced earlier this week that he created an “international legion” and asked for volunteers from around the world to help defend his nation against Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba echoed the call for fighters, say on twitter“Together we defeated Hitler, and we will defeat Putin too.”

Hector said he hoped to train Ukrainians in his expertise: armored vehicles and heavy weapons.

“A lot of veterans, we have a call to serve, and we’ve trained our entire careers for this kind of warfare,” he said. “Sitting around doing nothing? I had to do it when Afghanistan collapsed, and it weighed heavily on me. I had to act.

Across the United States, small groups of military veterans are gathering, planning, and getting passports in order. After years of service in smoldering occupations, trying to spread democracy in places that had only half-heartedness, many are thirsty for what they see as a righteous fight to defend freedom against an autocratic aggressor with a conventional and target-rich army.

“It’s a conflict that clearly has a good side and a bad side, and maybe it stands out from other recent conflicts,” said David Ribardo, a former army officer who now owns a management firm. real estate in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “A lot of us are watching what’s going on and just want to grab a gun and go out there.

After the invasion, he saw veterans flooding social media eager to join the fight. Unable to travel here due to commitments here, he has spent the last week acting as a sort of middleman for a group called Volunteers for Ukraine, identifying veterans and other volunteers with useful skills and putting them in contact with donors who buy equipment and plane tickets.

“It was overwhelming very quickly, almost too many people wanted to help,” he said. Over the past week, he said he had worked to distinguish those with valuable combat or medical skills from people he described as “combat tourists, who don’t have not the right experience and would not be an asset”.

He said his group also had to eliminate a number of extremists.

Fundraising sites such as GoFundMe have rules prohibiting raising funds for armed conflict, so Mr Ribardo said his group and others have been careful to avoid specifically directing anyone to get involved in the fights. Instead, he said, he simply connects those he’s screened with people who want to donate plane tickets and non-lethal supplies, describing his role as “a Tinder for veterans and donors”.

A number of mainstream media outlets, including Military Times and Time, have published step-by-step guides to joining the military in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has asked interested volunteers to contact its consulates this week.

Several veterans who contacted consulates this week said they were still awaiting a response and believed staff members were overwhelmed.

On Thursday, Mr Zelensky claimed in a video on Telegram that 16,000 volunteers had joined the international brigade, although the actual number was unclear. The New York Times was unable to identify any veterans actively fighting in Ukraine.

The outpouring of support is motivated, according to veterans, by past experiences. Some want to try to recapture the intense clarity and purpose they felt in the war that is often lacking in modern suburban life. Others want a chance to make amends for failed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and see the struggle to defend a democracy against a totalitarian invader as the reason they joined the military.

To an extent not seen in past conflicts, the urge to join has been fueled in part by an increasingly connected world. Americans watching live video in Ukraine can connect with like-minded volunteers around the world with the click of a button. A veteran in Phoenix can find a donor in London with spare airline miles, a driver in Warsaw offering a free ride to the border, and a local to stay with in Ukraine.

Of course, war is rarely as simple as the deeply felt idealism that drives people to enlist. And the volunteers not only risk their own lives, but also drag the United States into direct conflict with Russia.

“War is an unpredictable animal, and once you let it out, nobody – nobody – knows what’s going to happen,” said Daniel Gade, who lost a leg in Iraq before teaching leadership during several years at the US Military Academy. at West Point and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He said he understood the urge to fight, but said the risk of it escalating into nuclear war was too great.

“I just feel sick to my stomach,” he said. “War is terrible and it is always the innocent who suffer the most.”

The risk of an unintended escalation has led the US federal government to try to prevent citizens from becoming independent combatants, not just in this conflict, but for centuries. In 1793, President Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality warning Americans to stay out of the French Revolution. But efforts have been uneven and often swayed by broader national sentiment. So over the generations a steady stream of idealists, romantics, mercenaries and buccaneers have taken up arms, riding with Pancho Villa in Mexico, transporting arms to Cuba, fighting communists in Africa and even trying to establish new slave states in Central America.

The civil war in Spain just before the start of World War II is the best known example. Over 3,000 Americans joined what became known as the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, to fight with the elected left-wing government against fascist forces.

At the time, the United States wanted to avoid war with Europe and remained neutral, but the Young Communist League rented billboards to recruit fighters and members of the establishment organized fundraisers to sending young men abroad.

This effort, now often romanticized as a valiant prelude to the fight against the Nazis, ended badly. The poorly trained and ill-equipped brigades made a disastrous assault on a fortified ridge in 1937 and three quarters of the men were killed or wounded. Others nearly starved to death in captivity. Their leader, a former math professor who inspired the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, was later captured and most likely executed.

On Thursday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told the Russian news agency that foreign fighters would not be considered soldiers, but mercenaries, and would not be protected by the rules. humanitarian concerns regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.

“At best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals,” Konashenkov said. We urge all foreign citizens who may intend to go and fight for the nationalist regime in Kyiv to think a dozen times before setting out.

Despite the risks, both individual and strategic, the United States government has so far been measured in its warnings. Asked at a press conference this week what he would say to Americans who want to fight in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pointed to official statements, first released weeks ago , imploring US citizens in the country to leave immediately.

He said: “For those who want to help Ukraine and help its people, there are many ways to do so, including supporting and assisting the many NGOs working to provide humanitarian aid; themselves providing resources to groups trying to help Ukraine by defending Ukraine and in favor of a peaceful resolution of this crisis created by Russia.

This has not deterred many veterans who know the risks of combat all too well.

James was a medic who first saw combat when he stood in for another medic killed in fighting in Iraq in 2006. He did two more tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing so much blood and death that 10 years after leaving the military, he is still undergoing therapy at a veterans hospital.

But this week, as he watched Russian forces bomb towns across Ukraine, he decided he had to try to get there to help.

“Fighting has a cost, that’s for sure; you think you can come back from the war the same way, but you can’t,” James said in a phone interview from his home in Dallas, where he said he was waiting for news from Ukrainian officials. “But I feel compelled. It’s the innocent people who are being attacked, the children. It’s the children, man. I just can’t sit idly by.

Chase, a graduate student from Virginia, said he volunteered to fight Islamic State in Syria in 2019 and felt the same urgency for Ukraine, but cautioned against simply going to the border without a plan.

In Syria, he said he knew well-meaning volunteers who were detained for weeks by local Kurdish authorities because they arrived unannounced. He made arrangements with the Kurdish Defense Forces before arriving in Syria. There he spent months as a humble foot soldier with little pay and only basic rations.

Tactically, as an inexperienced grunt, he said, he was of little value. But for the people of northeastern Syria, he was a powerful symbol that the world was with them.

“I was a sign to them that the world was watching and they mattered,” he said.

A few months into his stay in Syria, he was shot in the leg and eventually returned to the United States. He went home and worked for a septic company, then got a job writing used cars. When he saw explosions hit Ukraine this week, the part of him that went to war three years ago reawakened.

“Everything here is kind of empty and it doesn’t seem like I’m doing anything important,” he said during an interview at an extended-stay hotel in Virginia where he lives. “So I try to go for it. I don’t think I have a choice. You have to draw the line.

Michael Crowley contributed report.

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