I trained Ukrainians to fight Russia. I have never seen a war like this.
Mark and I are veterans of the fighting in Iraq. I served 14 years as a Marine Reconnaissance Force before retiring from medical care in 2018 and enrolling in art school; Mark had served for 10 years. We had no idea what this war would be like, but we knew what to be careful of in a combat zone, and we wanted to use our combat medicine and resource coordination skills to help people. We bought plane tickets and packed light; we did not bring any weapons. The next day we were on a flight to Bucharest. If someone asked our plans while we were en route to Ukraine, we’d say we’re hiking in Romania.
We were lucky to have a friend whose father lives in Romania. He dropped everything to pick us up from the airport and drive the nine-hour drive north to the Ukrainian border in rain that turned to snow. We stopped at pharmacies for medical supplies. Using Google Translate on our phones, we asked shopkeepers for as much cotton gauze, elastic bandages, burn cream, scarves, eye patches and eye drops as they were willing to sell us. We were strangers heading north; they knew right away that we were trying to help. A few pharmacies provided supplies free of charge.
At the border, we saw a tent village for incoming refugees, with stalls selling free food, clothes and diapers. Tons of people were arriving in Romania. We seemed to be the only ones trying to go the opposite direction. We unloaded the car and walked to the level crossing. In a small hut on the Romanian side of the border, a guard stamped our passports. We stared at each other for a minute, not knowing what to do. Would that really be it? After that ? The guard leaned out of the window and shrugged at us, pointing to his left: “Now you’re going to Ukraine.”
On the other side of the border, what would have been a customs post looked more like a military post. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and carrying AK-47s checked our papers and passports. Then we took a trip to Yuri’s hometown in the Chernivtsi region near the southern border. Along our route, we were slowed down several times by military checkpoints with large concrete barricades stopping traffic; it was a beautiful place, but the view reminded me, unfortunately, of Iraq. Yuri’s mother and sister cried when they saw him. He hadn’t been back since he was 21, and finally he came back – but for this.
We went to the local military base to talk to the commander, a Ukrainian army lieutenant colonel, about what he needed. He said he had no more uniforms for the new Territorial Defense Force militia. It was made up of local men who a few weeks earlier were working as traders and truck drivers and almost every other job you could think of didn’t involve holding a gun. Their leader had made a living selling aquarium supplies in town. He had only recently joined the defense force when the war began; now he had been made a major.
We had no uniforms to give away. But between Mark and me, we had trained soldiers in more than a dozen countries. We could help teach the militia basic patrol and infantry tactics.
Most militia members were wearing tracksuits and boots of some kind, or sneakers – even with five inches of snow on the ground. When I am asked what the Ukrainian fighters need, I think of medical supplies and I think of the lieutenant colonel’s answer: uniforms. The guys I met were away from the Russian forces at the time and had sent all their military-grade gear and uniforms, along with their active duty and reserve soldiers, to the front lines in the east. Of course, it would be nice for them to have chest rigs (rifle magazine holders that rest on the chest) and helmets. But I can’t help but think that having uniforms would immediately make them feel like they’re in a real army.
It was a war I had never fought in. I had trained fighters all over the world – in the Philippines, in Jordan, in Thailand – but they were professionals, deployed in another part of their country. I had never trained people to act as the last line of defense for an invasion on their doorstep. I lived through asymmetrical situations, in a country where the war seemed to be invasive and where the fight was 365 degrees against an insurrection.
I had never imagined entering a symmetrical battlefield, with front line and rear forces. Here, with the militia wearing yellow on their arms and the Russians wearing red, it was almost like paintballing in the yard, but with a horrible human toll. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, at the time 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 soldiers had been killed, while Russia claimed in early March that the number was over 2,800. The United Nations estimates that there have been at least 816 civilian deaths, which is likely an undercount. This war feels like throwing bodies at each other, until the bodies on the other side fall farther back.
So we started training. It was nothing crazy or advanced. It was things like how to walk with a weapon, how to use cover and concealment, how to move through an alley safely to avoid being shot, how to patrol silently and communicate with hand signals and of the arm. The highest priority was combat medicine: putting on tourniquets, dressing wounds. I wasn’t teaching anyone how to use a sniper rifle; few of them knew about weapons.
Every morning we went to a western-style cafe with a pink frosted donut sign out front—we could have been in Georgetown or Lincoln Park, but the latte was 75 cents. Then we would prepare the militia for war. At the end of my week there, I was so proud of these guys: they were doing well, teaching each other new things, staying patient, working hard, preparing for the worst. We had to remind them to rest. If they were going full speed, 24/7, they would be less ready if the enemy came.
In the evening, Yuri’s mother cooked us incredible Ukrainian dishes, starting with borscht, to keep us warm. We watched the news on TV, with Yuri interpreting for us. I would call home to tell my girlfriend, write down what happened that day, and then continue to work. The local military base, where the Territorial Defense Forces operated, was essentially a single building in the middle of town, so we advised the Lt. Col. to bolster their defenses and camouflage their movements. We also took care of the logistics so that the nonprofits could get resources and medical supplies to Ukraine. We helped secure their accommodation, food delivery, personal drivers and interpreters, and generally organized their contacts on the ground for a smooth transition once they arrived. We slept at midnight or 1 a.m., and at 6 a.m. we woke up and knocked again.
I was so moved by the Ukrainians I met – their love for each other, their love of country, their pride and selflessness. Yuri’s hometown motto translates to something like “We all sleep under the same blanket”. The men set up sandbags; women have turned gymnasiums into assembly lines, cutting up clothes and turning them into camouflage nets. The militia included young Ukrainians who lived abroad but returned home to defend their country; it also included older men, joining the roster as if they were 19 at boot camp. The locals offered to drive us or act as interpreters, and when we asked what they wanted to be paid, they refused: “It’s our part of the battle. When we went out to eat, people insisted on ordering on our behalf and the restaurant staff didn’t want to take our money. I had never encountered this kind of hospitality and kindness.
Hardly anyone in Ukraine asked me why I was there. They were just happy for the help. When people in the United States ask me why I went there, all I can say is that I felt compelled. Unlike my deployments, it was not my literal job to go to Ukraine. The US military is not actively engaged in this conflict; no one gave me orders. But I felt the need to head into this war more than any war I had fought in before.
The issues in Ukraine are different. It is so obviously wrong that Vladimir Putin is coming to the country, claiming to “denazify” it and kill innocent people. By the time of our flight home, it was difficult to leave. We are already planning round trips. I don’t think it’s up to me to go and fight the Russians on behalf of Ukraine. But I will train innocent people to defend themselves against attackers who try to kill them.
Do I think they could repel a Russian invasion of their city? I do not know. At least now, I hope, they have a fighting chance.
As told to the editor Sophia Nguyen.