The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I trained Ukrainians to fight Russia. I’ve never seen a war like this.

I served in the Marines for 14 years. I felt more of a need to head toward this war than any I’d fought in before.

About three days after Russia invaded, my friend Mark texted to ask if I wanted to travel with him to Ukraine.

A man named Yuri, whom Mark coaches at his jujitsu gym in Naperville, Ill., had immigrated from Ukraine 11 years ago. He wanted to return to see his family, and Mark said he couldn’t let him go alone. I couldn’t, either. I told my girlfriend and called two friends to let them know where I was headed. “If things go terribly,” I said, “make a GoFundMe for my kids.”

Mark and I are Iraq combat veterans. I served for 14 years as a Force Reconnaissance Marine before medically retiring in 2018 and enrolling in art school; Mark had served for 10 years. We had no idea what this war would look like, but we knew what to look out for in a combat zone, and we wanted to use our skills in combat medicine and resource coordination to help people. We bought plane tickets and packed light; we didn’t bring weapons. The next day, we were on a flight to Bucharest. If anyone asked us our plans while we were en route to Ukraine, we would say we were going on a hiking trip in Romania.

We were lucky enough to have a friend whose father lives in Romania. He dropped everything to pick us up at the airport and make the nine-hour drive north to the Ukrainian border, in rain that turned into snow. We stopped by pharmacies for medical gear. Using Google Translate on our phones, we asked the shopkeepers for as much cotton gauze, elastic bandages, burn cream, arm slings, eye patches and eye wash as they were willing to sell us. We were foreigners headed north; they knew right away that we were trying to help. A couple of pharmacies threw in supplies for free.

Despite risks and official warnings, U.S. veterans join Ukrainian war effort

At the border, we saw a village of tents for incoming refugees, with stands for free food, clothing and diapers. Tons of people were coming into Romania. We looked to be the only people trying to go the opposite way. We unloaded the car and headed to the crossing on foot. At a tiny shack on the Romanian side of the border, a guard stamped our passports. We looked at each other for a minute, unsure what to do. Could that really be it? What next? The guard leaned out the window and shrugged at us, pointing to his left: “Now you go to Ukraine.”

On the other side of the border, what would have been a customs checkpoint looked more like a military checkpoint. Soldiers wearing camouflage and carrying AK-47s checked our papers and passports. Afterward, we got a ride to Yuri’s hometown, in the Chernivtsi region, close to the southern border. Along our drive, we were slowed multiple times by military checkpoints with large concrete barricades stopping traffic; it was a beautiful place, but the sight reminded me, sadly, of Iraq. Yuri’s mother and sister cried when they saw him. He hadn’t been back since he was 21 years old, and finally, he had returned — but for this.

We went to the local military base to talk to the commander, a lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian military, about what he needed. He said he had run out of uniforms for the newly formed Territorial Defense Forces militia. It was made up of local men who only a few weeks earlier worked as shopkeepers and truck drivers and almost any other job you could think of that didn’t involve holding a rifle. Their leader had made a living selling aquarium supplies in town. He had only joined the defense force recently, when the war began; now he’d been appointed major.

We didn’t have any uniforms to give. But between Mark and me, we had trained soldiers in more than a dozen countries. We could help teach the militia basic patrolling and infantry tactics.

Most of the militia members wore tracksuits and boots of any type, or sneakers — even with five inches of snow on the ground. When people ask me what the Ukrainian fighters need, I think about medical supplies, and I think about the lieutenant colonel’s answer: uniforms. The guys I met were far away from Russian forces at the time, and had sent all their military-grade equipment and uniforms, along with their active-duty and reserve soldiers, to the front lines in the east. Sure, it’d be great for them to have chest rigs (rifle magazine carriers which sit on the chest) and helmets. But I can’t help but think that having uniforms would make them feel like they were in an actual army immediately.

‘It is impossible to turn such close nations against each other, it is inhuman’

This was a war unlike any I’d ever fought in. I’d trained fighters all over the world — the Philippines, Jordan, Thailand — but they were professionals, deploying to some other region in their countries. I’d never trained people to act as the last line of defense for an invasion on their doorstep. My experience was in asymmetrical situations, in a country where war felt all-enveloping and the fight was 360 degrees against an insurgency.

I hadn’t imagined ever going into a symmetrical battlefield, with a front line and rear forces. Here, with the militia wearing yellow on their arms and the Russians wearing red, it was almost like backyard paintball, but with a horrific human toll. Though trustworthy numbers are hard to come by, as of this writing, the United States estimates that at least 7,000 Russian troops have died; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last weekend that around 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed, while Russia claimed in early March that the number was more than 2,800. The United Nations estimates that there have been at least 816 civilian deaths— which is probably an undercount. This war feels like throwing bodies at each other, until the bodies on the other side fall farther backward.

So we started training. It wasn’t anything crazy or advanced. It was things like how to walk with a weapon, how to use cover and concealment, how to move down an alleyway safely to avoid getting shot, how to patrol silently and communicate with hand and arm signals. The biggest priority was combat medicine: putting on tourniquets, packing wounds. I wasn’t exactly teaching anyone how to use a sniper rifle; not many of them were familiar with weapons.

Each morning, we would go to a Western-style coffee shop with a pink frosted-doughnut sign out front — we could have been in Georgetown or in Lincoln Park, but the latte was 75 cents. Then we’d go and prep the militia for war. By the end of my week there, I was so proud of these guys: They were doing well, teaching one another new things, staying patient, working hard, preparing for the worst. We had to remind them to rest. If they were going at full speed, 24/7, they would be less ready if the enemy arrived.

In the evenings, Yuri’s mother would cook us amazing Ukrainian food — starting with borscht, to keep us warm. We’d watch the news on TV, with Yuri interpreting for us. I’d call home to update my girlfriend, write down what happened that day, then keep working. The local military base, where the Territorial Defense Forces were operating, was basically a single building in the middle of town, so we were advising the lieutenant colonel about hardening their defenses and camouflaging their movements. We were also tackling logistics so that nonprofits could get resources and medical supplies into Ukraine. We helped secure their lodging, food delivery, personal drivers and interpreters, and generally organized their contacts on the ground for a smooth transition once they arrived. We’d sleep at midnight or 1, and at 6, we’d wake up and hit it again.

Americans will sacrifice more to help Ukraine than most did for our own wars

I was so moved by the Ukrainians I met — their love of one another, their love of country, their pride and selflessness. The motto of Yuri’s hometown translates to something like, “We all sleep under the same blanket.” Men set up sandbags; women turned gyms into assembly lines, cutting up clothes and fashioning them into camouflage netting. The militia included young Ukrainians who had been living abroad but came home to defend their country; it also included old men, joining the training like they were 19-year-olds at boot camp. Locals offered to drive us around or act as interpreters, and when we asked what they wanted to be paid, they refused: “This is our part of the battle.” When we went out to eat, the people insisted on ordering on our behalf, and restaurant staff didn’t want to take our money. I had never encountered that sort of hospitality and kindness.

Almost no one in Ukraine asked me why I was there. They were just happy for the help. When people in the States ask why I went, all I can say is that I felt compelled. Unlike in my deployments, it wasn’t my literal job to go to Ukraine. The U.S. military isn’t actively engaged in this conflict; no one gave me commands. But I felt more of a need to head toward this war than any war I’d fought in before.

The stakes in Ukraine are different. It’s just so obviously wrong for Vladimir Putin to come into the country, claiming to “de-Nazify” it, and kill innocent people. When it was time for our flight back home, it was hard to leave. We’re already planning return trips. I don’t think it’s my place to go fight Russians on Ukraine’s behalf. But I will train innocent people to defend themselves against the aggressors trying to kill them.

Do I think they could repel a Russian invasion of their town? I don’t know. At least now, I hope, they have a fighting chance.

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.