Ukrainian war volunteers return home and reckon with a tough fight
What was not normal, he said, was the feeling of dread as he lurked and listened to Russian attack helicopters strafing the position his tank destroyer team had just fled. That moment, he said, “was quite honestly the most troubled I’ve been in all this time.”
Dakota, now at home in Ohio after seven weeks of fighting overseas, is among the legion of Western volunteers who have taken up arms against Russia. Like others, he spoke on the condition that his full name not be released, citing concerns for his safety and that of his family and friends.
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In interviews with The Washington Post, foreign fighters from the United States and elsewhere have described stark disparities between what they expected from the war and what they experienced. They recalled going into combat under-equipped and under-equipped, the occasional thrill of blowing up Russian vehicles, and feeling torn about whether to return to Ukraine. Some intend to do so. Others saw friends die and decided enough was enough.
For many, a turning point came in late April when Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, another Marine Corps veteran, was killed in action northwest of Mykolaiv, an area that has seen fierce violence as Russian commanders sought to expand territorial gains. The full circumstances surrounding Cancel’s death remain a mystery and his body has not been found. Attempts to speak with Cancel’s family were unsuccessful.
There are no known US military personnel in Ukraine, and the Biden administration has sought to discourage US citizens from joining the fight independently, although it is not against the law to do so. Officials said the battlefield is complex and dangerous, and Americans wishing to help the Ukrainian cause should seek to do so in other ways. And while the exact number of American volunteers is unknown, around 4,000 expressed interest after the invasion in late February. Many entered the fight after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally appealed for foreign volunteers to go there and fight.
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Military veterans, in particular, have been drawn to war, emboldened by their combat training and eagerness to apply their skills in a conflict that, to many, looks like a struggle of good versus evil.
But the conflict has also drawn in Western military veterans who have never been deployed in combat before or who have only experienced asymmetric insurgencies – not this type of warfare, with contested airspace, relentless rocket bombardment and drone swarms with sophisticated thermal targeting technology.
Dane Miller, a US Army veteran, has traveled to Poland to take on a more low-key but important role – helping manage logistics for refugee aid centers and sending crucial supplies across the border. border with Ukraine. He has also helped networks of volunteers review the military records of potential foreign fighters, to assess whether they “have the chops…to take on a massive army,” he said. While many do, a common theme is that arrogance sometimes takes the place of relevant experience, he noted. He advised some veterans against traveling to Ukraine.
“There is this idea of heroism and it is glorified. I’ll look at your 214 and tell you if you’re ready for it,” he said, referring to US Army discharge documents, DD Form 214, which lists training and certifications completed while in uniform.
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In the Marines, Dakota spent four years as an anti-tank missile gunner, according to her Marine Corps service record. He never saw combat but spent time in Afghanistan as a contractor, he said.
He put his first semester of studies on hold so he could fight the Russians, saying “righteous indignation” compelled him to go. He arrived in Ukraine a few days after the invasion. Commanders were eager, he said, to exploit his knowledge of US-made Javelin anti-armour weapons, thousands of which have been transferred to the Ukrainian military.
Dakota’s cohort of foreign volunteers were attached to a Ukrainian military unit and brought by yellow school bus to Kyiv, from where they were sent northwest to a besieged city outside the capital. It was early March. They received anti-tank weapons and Javelin missiles but no batteries for the launch unit, he said. Without a power source, the equipment was unusable.
Houses were on fire, Dakota recalls. His unit assembled for a patrol through the woods. A commander waved: “Anything like this is Russian.” Artillery covers the area. The Ukrainians and their volunteers dispersed. Some went into trenches, others into houses. An abandoned residence still had a Christmas tree, he recalls. Some Russian troops retreated as the fighting intensified, and they left behind a wounded comrade who cried into the night, Dakota said.
By the end of the second night, eight of Dakota’s unit’s 20 volunteers had abandoned their posts, he said, including another Marine veteran who appeared to smash his machine gun with a rock in his arm. hoping to pass it off as battle damage. Another faked an injury, he said.
Dakota fought throughout the Kyiv region and was later sent south to help train others in the use of the javelin. On one mission, he said, he was unable to lock on a Russian tank with a cold heat signature. Then four men climbed onto the hull to sit and smoke. The sight focused on their body heat. Its missile pulverized the vehicle, a strike captured on video.
Russian artillery pounded their position half an hour later, and Dakota’s team withdrew under cover of night. About a week later, he was feeling nauseous and had car sickness. He was diagnosed with a brain injury linked to his proximity to the bombings, he said, and returned home around the end of April. He has since been recovering.
“It’s not over. It’s not done. It’s not over,” he said.
Other volunteers described different frustrations. Pascal, a veteran of the German army, teamed up with Cancel, the American killed in action at the end of April. Problems arose during their first mission, he said.
The team suspected their two-way radios were monitored by Russian forces and lacked extra batteries, forcing them to rely on unsecured cellphones and WhatsApp to communicate. Shortly after switching plans, their position was attacked by Russian artillery, he said.
The volunteers felt underinformed during many of their assignments, not knowing where they were — and, more importantly, where the Russians were, Pascal said. On the day Cancel was killed, he said, they fired from a position they believed to be Ukrainian but had no radio communication to confirm. Two members of the team ventured out to investigate. Shots rang out and they never came back, he said.
The other team members came under heavy fire, including artillery shells, from the same direction, Pascal said. One team member was killed in the bombardment. Pascal and another volunteer turned to Cancel, who had been hit by shrapnel, he said. They applied tourniquets in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the bleeding. Their bodies were left behind as Pascal and another survivor retreated.
This was Pascal’s last mission. He then crossed to Poland. Miller, the American volunteer, met him in a bar in Warsaw and noted how shaken he seemed. They walked out and Miller consoled him, using Google Translate to find the right German words. They kissed.
“From the start, we had no chance,” Pascal said in an interview. “I wondered why I survived and the others didn’t.”
A Ukrainian-born man who is a naturalized US citizen spoke with The Post on the condition that he be identified only by his radio call sign: Texas. He recalled how, at the start of the war, he saw images of his hometown on fire and left to join the fight two days later.
Texas, who earlier this month returned to his home in Houston, has never served in the military. He works in an office. But he studies quickly, he said, and quickly passed on the lessons learned from his American colleagues to the Ukrainians he fought with – things like tactical theories for conducting ambushes and staying out of sight of surveillance drones. Russians and vehicle-mounted optics.
Texas has patrolled hunter-killer teams in southern Ukraine, he said, including a mission where he spotted a T-72 tank dug into a berm near Mykolaiv, its turret at barely visible from more than two kilometers away. Texas fired a missile and it went through the tank right next to the turret. A success – but the rest of the team let out a groan. They wanted to see a column of fire propel the tank turret high into the air.
“It hasn’t exploded the way we would like it to,” said Texas, whose lessons were documented in an April report by The Wall Street Journal. “We were a little bummed about it.”
Home life lacks meaning and excitement, Texas said. He is mired in divorce proceedings, initiated before he left for Ukraine, and sometimes overhears friends who inform him by text message of their successful harvests.
In quiet moments, he reflects on what he learned from the experience, good and bad. He is more relaxed at work and no longer cares about small annoyances like he used to. But something is missing, he says, and he tries to get it back every day.
“Once you see this contrast between life and death and return to peaceful living and peaceful work,” he said, “everything seems to make less sense in comparison.”