Legionnaires of the Defense of Ukraine: How Russian Terror Turned a Veteran of a Foreign Army Into a Volunteer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Legionnaires celebrate Day of the National Flag - the flag that represents Strength, Unity, Freedom and a Nation defending its sovereignty / Photo credit: www.facebook.com/ukr.international.legion
Legionnaires celebrate Day of the National Flag - the flag that represents Strength, Unity, Freedom and a Nation defending its sovereignty / Photo credit: www.facebook.com/ukr.international.legion

They came to fight against Putin's horde and defend the freedom of Ukraine, putting their lives at risk. They arrived from different places throughout the globe to stop the Russian terror. They left their safe and peaceful daily life behind in order to protect innocent people by force of weapons and courage. They can terminate their contracts at any moment, but most of them will fight till victory. They are doing the impossible on the battlefield, and they keep returning to the frontline after having received heavy injuries. They are the salt of the earth of our civilization. They are soldiers of the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine.

Marking the one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Russian military-terrorist troops into Ukraine, we are starting a series of articles "Legionnaires of the Defense of Ukraine". We would like to tell about humble, but very decent, strong and courageous men and women – volunteers from different countries, who refused to sit back and watch how the Russians commit their murder and destruction in Ukraine.

Veteran of the US Army Michael: I love the spirit of Ukrainians, their ability not to retreat and not to break

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“There is no courage without fear” Michael, a soldier in the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine

There is no place for romanticism in a real war. There is blood and dirt, pain and death. Still, true characters reveal themselves even more vividly during the war. Our interviewee is not a Hollywood action hero, although screenwriters would probably envy his life story. He is one of those who conducts offensive operations, pushes the frontline forward, and if he gets an order – he crosses the line without hesitation and operates in the enemy rear. An experienced soldier, decorated with awards for his heroic service in the US Army, a good Christian, and a very positive person. He could not stand aside when armed formations of the Russian terrorist state brought murder and destruction to Ukraine. We present to your attention an interview with a true contemporary hero – an American veteran, a volunteer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a soldier in the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine – Michael.

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express

- What were you doing before joining the Legion (job, hobbies)?

- I was working in business. I was also studying for real estate license to open up my own property management company. My hobbies were working out and hiking.

- How did you make a decision to come to Ukraine and join the Legion?

- I was watching on TV all the bombings and innocent civilian people being killed by the Russians. I was also seeing women and young men who didn’t know how to fight, they were given AKs and they went to fight. I thought to myself: “I am a professional, I have combat experience, and I can help”. But at the time, the President of Ukraine did not open the door yet. So, I said a prayer, I was like: “God, if there’s a way for me to go help – I’ll go help”. And then President Zelensky a few days later said that all foreign fighters, professionals, are welcome. Then I decided to come, because I was in Iraq, in Afghanistan, I was trained for this. So why not to come and help?

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express

- You already knew what war is, and you’ve been aware of the risk. Weren’t you afraid?

- I was nervous, but in Afghanistan I was in a lot of combat before. So, I just decided to come, and then it didn’t really bother me.To me, helping the people was greater than the fear.

- What was the reaction of the people close to you?

- The reaction was not good. They were upset, they called me crazy, they were like: “You are only one person”. And I was like: “If everybody said no, then nobody would come and help”.

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express

- What was the first combat in your life?

- My first combat was in 2012 in Afghanistan. We were in a village, and there was an ambush in the next village set up for us. We had an IED bomb-sniffing dog. They had an ambush on top of the buildings. They were planning to shoot at us as went up the road. But the dog stopped for rest. So the Taliban thought we spotted them, but actually we didn’t.

I saw this really tall Taliban, about 2.15 meters tall, in front of me. I’ve seen him raising something up. I was a primary target, because I was a mortarman. In the meantime, there was a contact from the other side, an RPG flew over us. And my muscle memory, my military training just kicked in. I shot the enemy soldier while I was running towards the building for cover.

My commander was right behind me. I had a mortar in my backpack, we use 60-mm mortars for hand-held shooting. The commander ordered me to fire a round, and as soon as I fired the round – they ran. The Taliban didn’t think we were going to shoot the mortars that close. The distance was around 300 m. I had a mortar in my backpack with four 60-mm mortar rounds. We didn’t use bipod legs, just aimed, and shot.

If you shoot the mortar that way, you don’t need to call the battalion for air clearance. You just have to visually check that thereare no friendly helicopters in the sky, and you are allowed to fire. That was my first firefight.

- And your first combat in Ukraine?

- At my first contact in Ukraine, we didn’t engage. We were on a mission to find the trail and pull security for the Ukrainian forces beyond the enemy line to push the line forward. We saw the enemy as they were moving, but we were not supposed to engage. After we set up security, and Ukrainians were dug in, we started leaving. And we got engaged by the Russians, they started shooting at us.

And I remember: we are set up in the bushes, and we see a person walking down the road with a dog, but you can’t see through the bushes, you can just see a figure. We first thought it was one of the Russians, but it wasn’t, they were on the other side. So, my commander actually saw it was an old woman. The Russians were engaging us, and she was just walking… Then he ran and grabbed her, and we exfilled her to our vehicle. As the vehicle left, it was full. Four of us stayed behind. My commander – it was a Ukrainian commander – he pulled up a thermal vision to see where we were getting shot at from. He saw them, and he told me and the other guy who had a grenade launcher to aim and fire, and he and another guy, they went up towards the Russians. I didn’t understand what exactly he was saying, but I heard him screaming in Ukrainian and Russian for them to surrender, or else we will have them killed. So, one guy surrendered, and the other guys – they fled, but then we caught them. It was pretty cool, actually. That was my first time in Ukraine.

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express
"Today one of our teams returned from a mission and they brought a “guest”. We're proving once again, through their actions on the battlefield, that legionnaires are not mercenaries but lawful combatants, who follow the laws of warfare set by the Geneva Conventions", - International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine

- What is similar and different between the Taliban and the Russians as the enemy?

- Firepower, for one. Russians have a lot more firepower. And they are in uniforms. The Taliban would fight, and then blend in with the civilians. And the Russians actually surrender, while the Taliban don’t.

- How do you assess the Russians in terms of their tactics, how do they react to getting hit?

- The tactics is pretty military-based. Kind of book-type tactics. They use artillery the way normal militaries are trained. They try to break us up like that.

Some of it is cowardly – well, to me, because whenever they leave, when they are losing, they will destroy it all, throw landmines, anti-personnel mines, and they will kill anybody, like civilians, and stuff like that, on the way out. I don’t like that.

- Last year the European Parliament declared Russia to be a terrorist state. What do you think about it as a person who saw the Russians at a close range and fought them?

-I agree, because they kill innocent people. That’s not war tactics. You are supposed to go after soldiers, you are not supposed to go after civilians.

- You have a track record of successful and heroic actions. Have you received any awards for your previous service, or maybe even for your service in Ukraine?

- In the US Army I have the Purple Heart, because I got injured from an IED. And I have an Army Commendation Medal with valor for running into the machine gun fire trying to suppress the enemy.

In Ukraine my unit wants to give me a medal, but they are waiting for me to heal, because I was wounded.

- Please tell us about your last combat.

- My last combat – it was a night mission. One of our teams and a Ukrainian team, we were supposed to go in a Russian-occupied village, sneak into a house, collect intel and take out small Russian teams. An in the morning, Ukrainian army was going to take the village. As soon as we got there and left the vehicle, they knew we were there. We were exposed. And all hell broke loose.

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It looked like scene from WWII. We were taking extreme artillery fire really close, and machine gun fire as well. At one point we all thought we were dead. So, we all get down on the ground, and we take cover. And I am a mortarman, I was in artillery, so I just knew that if they hit one more fire for effect – we’re done.The ground was cold, but when the rounds were landing, you could feel the heat of the blast. So I told myself: if I die, I want to die trying to save somebody. So I rolled over to the guy next to me, and I just laid on top of him. I was praying to God, and I said: “God, I don’t want to die today, but if I die, let this man live”. But then there was a break in fire. It usually happens when the enemy is shifting or adjusting fire. And my commander yelled: “Get up! Get up! Let’s move!”

Then we started making our way to the house, and we came up to a crossroad. I remember how I looked to my right, and I’ve seen a mortar round hit the house about 50 meters from us. The house caught fire. Then there was another explosion. It was not even a second, I felt a punch, as if somebody punched me in the side. It didn’t knock me down, but it made me wobble. I remember I just took a really deep breath, and I was like: “I’m hit! I’m hit!”

Then I fell to the ground. My commander ordered everybody to take cover, but two brave men screamed: “We’re not leaving him! We’re staying with him!” It was reckless, because you are supposed to gain fire superiority over the battlefield before you take care of the wounded. But these two men, they were holding pressure on both sides of my wounds, and every time a mortar round or a grenade launcher round came in right behind them, they were covering my body. In a while, my commander also joined them and helped to treat my wounds. The truth is, the pain was so bad that I almost thought of telling the guy next to me to shoot me. But I am a Christian, so I thought: “Don’t do that, you can’t do that. You know where you’re going to go if you do that”. I remember, I was praying to God as they evacuated me. They finally got me to the vehicle. I was screaming the name Jesus, and I was praying for God to take me, because the pain was so bad. But then I thought of my loved one, and I changed my prayer to: “Give me more time, just take my pain”.

After a few hours we finally made it to the hospital, and they put me to sleep. Thirty-six hours later Ukrainian surgeon gave me surgery. Ukrainian surgeons are really good. They saved my life. That was it, that was the last time I was in a fight.

I remember having a bad feeling about that mission. And I remember praying, because I always pray before I go out: “My God, if they shoot something at us – let me take the full blow”. I guess, He heard, because I took the full blow.

- How are you feeling now, as a person who has come back from the other world and has done the impossible?

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express

- I feel great. I feel more grateful for life. I’m really thankful that I can walk, and that I will be able to run after I completely heal. I’m just trying to enjoy life better. You know, more grateful than before, and more appreciative of life.

- Taking into account all the events that happened, don’t you regret your choice of coming to Ukraine?

- No. No way.I think of how those guys saved my life, about the bravery of everybody. About how we saved the lady from that mission. Saving even one life is worth it for me.

- What impressed you the most during your stay in Ukraine?

- I guess, when I survived, and I met the person that I loved. That broke me down, I started crying. That was pretty awesome.

- Will you tell us about her?

- I’d rather not. She is a good woman – smart, funny, intelligent. Always there for you. Trustworthy person.

- Many soldiers who fight for a long time do not have experience of doing offensive operations or operating beyond the enemy line. How do you feel when you do these extremely dangerous missions of moving forward and crossing the enemy line?

- I feel fear. But I guess, there is no courage without fear. I try to think like – you know, when people play sports: when you’re afraid to get hurt, you’ll get hurt, and you can’t do your job professionally. I don’t think that I’m going to get hurt. I try to put that out of my mind, just so I can do my job for one hundred per cent.

- What are your plans for the future?

- Hopefully, when I heal, I would like to go into training people, or maybe logistics. I love the fighting, but I don’t think I can endure another painful experience like that again.

- Medical evacuation is a challenging exercise, and it is even more so when the terrain is controlled by the enemy. What can you say about the Legion in this respect?

- In the Legion everybody is trained to be able to treat the guy next to you. So, the guys are pretty good at it. Considering the guys that saved my life, they didn’t leave me. They kept me and treated my wounds under heavy fire. So, I would say that the atmosphere is pretty good. And the guys that actually evacuated me – they were Ukrainians. They were there to come and get me.

- What brings you confidence during combat?

- Knowing that in my unit all the guys are trained really well. That brings me confidence. So, I know: if I am looking in one direction, the other guys cover my back. And the commander of my unit, he is a Ukrainian. He is really good. He is smart tactically, and he knows what he is doing. That helps too.

- What can you tell about combat mindset, an altered state of mind of a warrior?

Legionnaires of the Free World, Defense Express
Photo credit: www.facebook.com/ukr.international.legion

- It depends on a person. Some people don’t have it. I’ve seen that in Afghanistan. It’s like your adrenaline pumps so hard, everything goes almost in a tunnel vision. Everything kind of slows down and becomes clear. The first time I got shot at in Afghanistan, I remember thinking to myself when I heard the bullets passing me, I was like: “Shit! That’s close!”

Then everything slowed down. Have you seen the movie “The Matrix”? How everything slows down? That’s kind of what it feels like. That’s why military training background is really important. It’s actually something called “muscle memory”. You are trained to react. Not to think. Well, you are thinking, but your body is just moving. I don’t think like: “Oh, I’m going to kill somebody”. You are just there, doing your job.

Legionnaires of the Defense of Ukraine: How Russian Terror Turned a Veteran of a Foreign Army Into a Volunteer of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Defense Express

- Would you like to send greetings to somebody?

- Yes, I would like to say hi to my family in the US, if they ever see this. And to the guys that saved me – thank you! And of course, thank you to Jesus, because I know that’s why I’m alive.

- What is your impression of Ukraine and Ukrainians?

- I love Ukraine, actually. I like it a lot. And my favorite thing about Ukrainians is their spirit: not to back down and not to break. The enemy is huge, but they refuse to back down. And I love that.

Volodymyr Patola

Translated by Oleksandr Goral

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