The car is hurtling toward Ukraine at 100 miles an hour, crammed beyond any reasonable capacity. Every space not occupied by bodies is filled by the sort of luggage you bring when you’ve volunteered for a last-ditch battle in a nuclear-age crusade: armor plates, iodine tablets, field dressings, satellite phones. Everything except guns. Those will be provided.
My fellow riders – four Americans, three of them former military – are explaining why a person would drop everything and travel across the world to risk his life defending someone else’s country.
“All of us have the same story,” Tay, an Afghanistan veteran, says. That’s not quite true, but his story might as well be the starting point.
A month earlier he was home in Dallas, Texas, watching videos about the Russian invasion, when he saw the president of Ukraine addressing the world. “To all the friends of Ukraine who want to join the defense,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “come. We will give you weapons.”
Tay served with the 82nd Airborne in Ghazni province, Afghanistan. He marched in front of armored vehicles, sweeping for mines, and guarded against enemy motorcyclists. His unit was under constant IED attack.
After he began to have seizures, he was honorably discharged and labeled “disabled”, a classification he accepted out of economic necessity but resented. With prolonged treatment, the seizures mostly went away, but not before he went through a bad spell. His marriage ended; he got in fights and trouble with the law.
He spent years pulling himself out of the hole. He “unchubbied” himself, after so much time spent fat and depressed. He found work as a private investigator and later in underwater construction, building docks for rich people. He had partly succeeded at his project of personal reconstruction when he started to see pictures of Ukrainian civilians making molotov cocktails, and bombed-out maternity hospitals, and Zelenskiy in his olive-green zip-up.
That’s when he contacted his congressman’s office, which agreed to secure him an emergency passport after he found a Ukrainian NGO to vouch for him. He began packing, and bought a one-way flight.
When he broke the decision to his friends and family, “the reaction was terrible”. They were distraught that he would walk away from his civilian life, from his nice high-rise apartment, to fight and possibly die for Ukraine.
They did not understand, he says, that this was a way to be useful in the best way he knew how – that this was a chance to make himself right.
After Russian-aligned forces marched into Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, foreign fighters began gravitating to Ukraine. Some fought for the Russian side. The war was narrower then, and got less global attention, so the volunteers were a small and self-selecting bunch who tended to be driven by ideological fervor and post-Soviet grievances.
The volunteers included some extremists – neo-Nazis and alleged war criminals. One of Ukraine’s most effective fighting units, the Azov battalion, started as a far-right militia and is still believed to contain a number of extremists. The existence of the unit, which was folded into the Ukrainian military in late 2014, has featured heavily in Putin’s otherwise groundless claim that he is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine.
Most of these earlier foreign fighters came from the countries of the former Soviet Union. For them, the battle over eastern Ukraine was the latest iteration of a longer war between Russia and its neighbors. Of that first batch of volunteers, “[f]ewer than 1,000 were from the west”, Kacper Rekawek, who studies foreign fighters, told Slate.
When rockets began hitting Kyiv this February, the entire world was watching, and the stakes felt higher. Then Zelenskiy made his appeal, and Ukraine announced the formation of an international legion for foreign volunteers who wanted to join its defense.
Barely a week after the invasion, the Ukrainian embassy in Washington DC said that it had received 3,000 applications to fight.
Groups quickly sprouted on Facebook and Reddit for the purpose of organizing. Some of the potential American volunteers were hopelessly naive. A lot seemed more interested in talking about going to Ukraine than actually going; conversely, some of those most keen to go lacked military experience or any useful skills such as medical training. The first group became known, disparagingly, as “Facebook warriors” and the second as “Call of Duty warriors”.
The more serious volunteers funneled into smaller groups, using Signal, the encrypted app, to communicate, and tried to screen each other. Soon, I was in conversation with more than a dozen Americans who said they were either on the ground in Ukraine or heading there within the week; many had just bought flights and were in the final stages of getting their “affairs in order”, as one person put it.
The overwhelming majority were male, though I talked to a female firefighter and EMT who said she was trying to find a financial sponsor to fund her way to Ukraine. She, like some others I spoke to, seemed to be taking significant financial risks to get over.
Most people said that their loved ones were unhappy with their decision, but became supportive after it was apparent that they could not be dissuaded. Some were planning to go for two or three weeks, then return to their spouses, children, jobs and dogs in the US; others said that they were going for as long as it took. Most of the people asked to be identified by first names only, due to security concerns or because their friends and families aren’t aware of their decision.
“It’s easy to romanticize a war,” or to view it as “one big adventure, as insane as that sounds”, one volunteer, Alex, admitted. When the Ukraine war started, his old army friends – many of whom were not necessarily combat veterans – started joking about going, then discussing it more seriously. When it came time to actually commit, everyone but him dropped out.
Some of the volunteers said that they preferred non-combat roles, and hoped to be useful as medics, firefighters, or drivers. Many were at pains to emphasize that they’d do whatever was most useful to Ukraine, whether at the front or loading supply convoys in the rear.
After I was contacted by someone flying out of New York, we agreed that I would shadow him to Warsaw, where he was meeting several others, then travel with them up to the Ukrainian border, after which they would send me updates as they made their way to the war.
When he sits down next to me at the gate of our airport in New York, Scott is like caffeine in corporeal form. He’s just spent hours in an agitating but ultimately successful negotiation with customs officials.
“I’m not going anywhere without my body armor,” Scott tells me. “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”
Scott is covered in tattoos. He wears glasses and is, at 49, older than I expected when I first started talking to him on Signal. He is garrulous, type A, and slightly intense, with bullet-train speech punctuated by Gen-X mannerisms such as “man” and “dude”.
He’s keeping on his Covid mask, he mentions offhandedly, because he has stage-four leukemia. His treatment has been successful for some time, he says, and his diagnosis is not considered terminal. When I ask him if there is some relation between his cancer and his decision to join a war against Russian imperialism, he seems perplexed by my assumption.
This, I will come to realize, is classic Scott. Later, he will casually mention that he only showers twice a month, not finding additional bathing necessary; when I don’t believe him, he puts his partner on speakerphone so she can confirm. (“For some reason he doesn’t really smell?” she says.)
Scott is a recovering addict, many years sober. When he heard Zelenskiy’s appeal, he tells me, he had the same feeling he’d felt years earlier at one of his first AA meetings, when he was asked to stand and speak: I don’t want to do this, but I have to.
Unlike the others in the group, Scott is not a vet, though he’s an outdoorsman with search-and-rescue experience and is hoping to help the war effort in a logistical capacity. Scott and his partner live in New England. They don’t have children and he currently doesn’t work.
His partner, a marketing executive, encouraged his going to Ukraine, he says, in part because she knows that once he makes a decision there’s no point trying to stop him. As we file on to the plane, I notice that he’s flying business-class. “I don’t normally,” he says, “but she said, you know, if it might be my last …”
Not many days before our flight, Russia bombed a Ukrainian military base where foreign fighters trained; 35 people died, according to Ukrainian officials. Russia claimed to have killed 180 “foreign mercenaries”, and issued a menacing statement vowing “no mercy for mercenaries wherever they are on the territory of Ukraine”.
Scott explains that in the last 48 hours one of the volunteer groups organizing a pipeline to Ukraine completely collapsed. It’s been a mess, with in-fighting and schisms, and he is leery of aligning with possible “cowboys” now that a lot of people are about to show up in Poland unsure of where to go and whom to trust.
Later, as we’re flying somewhere over Germany, Scott beckons me to his window. Through the clouds there are fighter jets on maneuver.
He chuckles. “Does it feel real yet?”
“What does this remind you of, this time in history?” a CNN reporter recently asked three volunteers on their way to Ukraine. “1936,” a young British man answered without hesitation. “When fascism rose in Spain.”
He continued: “A lot of people went over, but not enough. If we’d crushed fascism in 1936, we could’ve averted 1939. That’s what this feels like. If we don’t stop it now, it’s gonna be our kids fighting this fight.”
An estimated 2,800 volunteers left from the US to fight fascism in the Spanish civil war; accurate numbers are hard to come by, but about 800 are believed to have been killed. During the cold war, soldiers of fortune motivated by a mixture of money and ideology wandered between colonial dirty wars, battling communist insurgencies and, in some cases, propping up white minority regimes. More recently, western volunteers went to Syria to join the Kurds battling the Islamic State. Some also joined it.
With Ukraine there is no “ideology or politics, just guys who wouldn’t wanna miss out on a just war”, a former US marine told the Military Times. He said he’d previously volunteered in Kurdish and Yazidi units fighting IS.
Eager to internationalize its cause, Ukraine has welcomed volunteers, though it has tried to prioritize. “We should only take experienced combat veterans – that is the lesson that we are learning,” a Ukrainian general told the American military magazine Task & Purpose. “The others don’t know what they are getting themselves into – and when they find out, they want to go home.”
Some experts have been skeptical about the practical utility of volunteers who can’t speak the local language, or have argued that foreign fighters may escalate the conflict or protract the war.
“If I can help one Ukrainian, it’s worth it,” multiple American volunteers told me. A lot said they don’t really know what to expect, and have taken a get there first, figure out the details later approach.
“I’ve been up since 4am,” Tay says, when he meets Scott and me at a hotel near the Warsaw airport, “babysitting people who don’t have their shit together.” His frustration is palpable but his demeanor is friendly, if faintly restless.
Since arriving several days earlier, he has spent most of his time rescuing strays. One American was sleeping in a park after being kicked out of a hotel for fighting with security; two others, clearly out of their depth, have already decided to go home – decisions Tay has encouraged.
Tay, 30, has “ex-soldier” etched all over him – somewhat literally, with small scars on the side of his face from an explosion in Afghanistan. He has first aid skills that could be useful in a humanitarian or combat medic role, he tells us, but fighting is what he really knows how to do, and he’s determined to go to the front.
He’s single, though he recently bought life insurance with a special policy that he hopes will take care of his sisters if something happens to him in Ukraine. When we spoke on Signal before arriving, and I started to ask if he was really prepared to die for Ukraine, he cut me off. “With my shield, or on it,” he said.
The volunteer pipelines, Tay has heard from other ex-soldiers arriving, are still in chaos. Part of the problem is that few Americans are willing to join the official Ukrainian Legion – they’re expected to sign a contract, which no one wants to do, and they’ve heard that your passport is taken to prevent you from leaving. Some of the militias are rumored to take an even less kindly view of short-termers.
And “people are showing up with no plan”, he says. “There are a lot of guys coming out here amped up on Red Bull. The army babied us – or at least told us where to go and what to do. Here we have to do that for ourselves.”
Rick arrives that afternoon, looking absolutely exhausted. He’s had a bit of an ordeal. First his flight was canceled, then his second one was grounded, and then, while connecting in Amsterdam, he had “just enjoyed a nice tuna sandwich when two humongous Dutchmen came up and asked if I could talk to them”.
The police officers, or whoever they were, interrogated him for 40 minutes about his military gear and his intentions. He told them, honestly, that he was going to Ukraine to help in any way he could. Eventually they let him go.
Rick, 30, is ex-army air assault. He has a beard and the requisite sleeves of tattoos. He joined the military at 17 – “I was a literal child” – and served three deployments in Afghanistan. He spent time at a tiny combat outpost in Gardez, fighting off Taliban attacks at 2am in his underwear. He’s open about his PTSD, and skeptical of combat vets who claim to be untroubled by it.
Rick is less talkative than Scott and Tay, but has a penchant for dry wisecracks. (“I like you, Oliver,” he remarks later. “I’d take a bullet for you. Not, like, a large-caliber bullet. Maybe a .22.”) He is a firefighter and EMT in rural Texas, where he’s also qualified as a firearms instructor. Unlike the other two, Rick has a return flight; he’s planning to go to Ukraine for a week or so and hopefully help out as a medic or in training others. If he’s of use, he may come back.
He decided to go, he says, after seeing pictures of wounded children. “I looked at my eight-year-old and thought, ‘If he was getting shelled, I would hope someone would try to help him.’” Rick doesn’t plan to get too close to the front, though he admits later that he wrote a sealed letter to his son in case he doesn’t return.
Sitting in a hotel room, the group discusses the surreality of everything. When Rick bought his flight, his girlfriend asked if he was high on Ambien.
“She told me not to go a thousand times,” he says.
“Wait, what?” Scott says. “Mine told me to go.”
“I told my son I’d bring him back a piece of Russian tank,” Rick says. “He plays Xbox with a kid in Ukraine, so he heard about the war almost before I did.”
The group talks through a plan: set out early tomorrow morning for the Polish-Ukrainian border, and there catch a train to Lviv, where they will decide whether to stick together or go their own ways. Tay is more gung-ho than Scott and Rick, and I get the sense that makes them uneasy.
At times, the group’s dynamics resemble the world’s oddest platonic group date. Periodically throughout the trip, one of the men will corner me privately and try to solicit my impression of one or another of the others.
Everyone is adamant about not joining the Ukrainian Legion or any of the outfits that require signing a contract, and instead, if possible, working with other Americans in ad hoc groups – both prospects with individual as well as geopolitical risks.
“There’s little doubt an American captive, particularly a veteran, would be a propaganda coup for the Kremlin,” Matt Gallagher, a veteran and novelist who recently returned from training civilian fighters in Ukraine, acknowledged in an op-ed in the New York Times. “There must now be thousands of Americans in the country, working in both military and humanitarian capacities. I fear it’s a matter of when, not if, one of them falls into Russian hands and becomes the main character in a cautionary tale.”
Aren’t you worried, I ask, that if the Russians capture you without insignia they’ll declare you a mercenary or a spy, and shoot you on the spot?
Tay, cleaning his fingernails with a bowie knife, disputes the premise of the question. “Russia has basically said that they’re gonna just fucking kill any foreign fighters,” even those who are part of the official Ukrainian army. “At the end of the day they can say whatever they want to say, since we’re not technically supposed to be there.”
“So, guys,” Rick jokes, “do we want to visit Chernobyl?”
“I guess I wouldn’t need chemo any more,” Scott says.
The early-morning departure for the border is almost immediately derailed. Tay, who is staying at a different hotel, isn’t answering his phone. We drive there to try to find him. Scott is freaking out. “This is not the way I like to do things,” he keeps saying. He argues that if they can’t find Tay soon, they should leave without him.
Rick is resistant. (He says later that he’s had a lot of friends, particularly veterans, who have died in suicides or accidents, “so it was more about just wanting to check that he was alright.”) He gets Tay’s room number from the hotel receptionist then pounds on the room until Tay, naked and hungover, peers around the door. He admits that he went on a bender the night before with another ex-soldier, and lost his phone.
As Rick and Tay make their way out of the hotel, a pair of men covered in Iron Cross tattoos approach and ask if they’re headed to Ukraine. The men are Finnish and, it dawns on Rick and Tay, neo-Nazis.
The Finns strike Tay, who is part Asian, as standoffish, though they loathe Russia and seem to accept him as having common cause. They’ve just returned from Ukraine, and give some practical advice on getting there; they even offer the use of their car. Tay and Rick politely decline.
“Happy hunting,” one of the neo-Nazis says.
“God, I wish I was white now I’ve met these motherfuckers,” Tay says, laughing nervously, as he and Rick squeeze into the overstuffed car. “Am I gonna be the only colored boy in this country?”
The group is slightly unsettled by the neo-Nazi encounter – Rick initially asks me to treat the story as off-the-record, out of concern that it will taint the volunteer cause – but also seem to take it as inevitable that the war will draw some repugnant bedfellows.
Scott is still furious about getting behind schedule.
“I’m sorry, OK?” Tay says. “But I waited four days for you guys to arrive. You could wait half an hour for me.”
We also pick up the final member of the group, who arrived late last night. Alex, 32, is a gigantic, kindly man, more black bear than grizzly. He spent four years in the army and a year in the national guard, but never deployed, a fact of which he seems slightly embarrassed.
His family are worried about his coming, he says, but proud, and his employer actually contributed money for his body armor – “It’s kind of a Tennessee thing.”
The car careens through the outskirts of Warsaw, then onto the highway. The traffic gets sparser as we go. We gun past military convoys and petrol trucks going the same direction.
Tay works through a package of Polish chocolate wafers. He plans to fight in the war as long as it takes, he says, then make “a fresh start” in Ukraine or Romania, where he has friends. He doesn’t want to go back to the US. His home country, for him, is trouble – bad memories, money problems, strangers in bars who challenge you to fights. The cheap cost of living in eastern Europe means his military benefits will “actually do the work they’re supposed to”.
By the end of the hours-long car ride, the earlier tensions in the group have mostly fallen away; a brotherhood has formed, at least for now.
Rick later tells me: “Everyone in that car was thinking about if they’d die, and anyone who says otherwise is lying.”
Przemyśl – a small, pretty medieval city about seven miles from the Ukrainian border – is swollen with people and cars. The train station is thronged with Ukrainian refugees, as well as aid workers, volunteers, journalists, cops, Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelicals from Florida and conspicuously inconspicuous men in plainclothes who loiter near the station observing those coming and going.
The overflowing station is a halfway house for the innocent people caught in Russia’s invasion. The women, children and elderly people here are not Ukrainians with jobs in Poland or relatives in Germany to take them in, but those who’ve spent most of their resources getting to the border and don’t necessarily have a final destination yet.
There are also a number of families waiting for trains into Ukraine. These are Ukrainians who’ve had trouble getting visas, or need to go back for family members, or who got to Poland and found the cost of living too high.
“The main thing was to get my child out,” a 46-year-old Ukrainian, Natalia, explained to Euronews. Ukrainians “are returning because they couldn’t find accommodation, they couldn’t find work – there wasn’t a possibility to live here”. At home in Ukraine, “at least we can live off of our own resources”.
There is fear and misery on display at the train station, but also a striking outpouring of help. Aid workers hand out food and blankets. At this and other border crossings, Polish mothers have been leaving spare strollers, diapers and baby clothes for those arriving. There are also religious groups engaged in what seems to be a more exploitative mixture of helping and proselytizing.
As Scott, Tay, Rick, and Alex stride through the station, three men in baseball caps and boots approach and introduce themselves. One is a middle-aged American; the other two are Canadians he met online. They’re taking the same train.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t come,” the American says. “I had to. I couldn’t sleep.” He says that the time between his decision and his arrival was barely 24 hours. He has seven children and a small business, and set aside money so his workers’ salaries will be paid for several months.
The man seems to be vaguely conservative in his politics – he later, after asking if I write for a liberal newspaper, abruptly stops speaking to me – but the pro-Putin slant in some corners of the rightwing American media sphere clearly hasn’t affected his fiercely pro-Ukraine sympathies. As angry as he is at the Russians, he says, it angers him almost as much that so many able-bodied people in Europe have not volunteered to fight.
Rick, a libertarian and a supporter of the second amendment, says later, of American conservative apologists for Russia: “I’d like for them to have the longest day in their life, then finally get home to their families, and an air raid siren goes off and they have to go hide in a parking garage – I implore them to do that and still say [Putin] has a fucking point, or that we need to stay out of it.”
This is as far as I’m allowed to follow. The four men promise to send me dispatches as they head to Lviv and then toward the front. They seem calm. I urge them to stay safe.
“Honestly, I feel normal,” Alex says.
“I’ve already turned my business switch on,” Tay says.
After crossing the border, the group tells me, the train is blacked out. It travels in darkness for hours, starting and stopping frequently, and it is nearly midnight when they reach Lviv. The train station there strikes them as foreboding; there are latrines overflowing with excrement. The city’s monuments and gargoyles are covered in protective wrap. There is a military curfew in effect, and the group makes haste to their hotels.
In the light of day, Lviv feels more like a normal city – charming, dynamic and, to Americans, cheap. Alex messages me: “You would fit right in, because you’re from New York.”
Shortly after, Russia bombs Lviv. No one in the city is killed, but the strikes are close enough that Rick can see the smoke.
As Rick and the others walk the city, they pass people sitting on sidewalks with their possessions laid out, trying to sell enough to get out of Ukraine. They give money. The Ukrainians they meet seem grateful for their presence.
“We did not meet a single person who was mean to us,” Alex tells me, “and that meant a lot.”
Tay and Alex want to press on to Kyiv, closer to active combat zones; they acquire some extra armor plates. Scott and Rick decide to stay in Lviv for the time being.
Scott volunteers at a depot that is a clearinghouse for humanitarian aid. Tons of medicine has been arriving from countries around the world, labeled in countless languages or not labeled at all, so he helps sort it.
Rick finds work as a nurse at a military hospital. He’s also recruited to help teach weapons and first aid classes. His students are baristas, graphic designers, and software engineers; in an underground bunker, he drills them on loading and cleaning automatic rifles. They practice clearing rooms and stairwells, guns first. An interpreter who used to be a runway model in Milan translates. He teaches a 65-year-old woman, barely strong enough to pull back the charging handle, how to fire a Kalashnikov.
He runs into other Americans who have shown up and been pressed into service. Some of their qualifications seem dubious. He hears of an ex-soldier who has been representing himself as a former sniper as well as an expert on Javelin missiles – a combination that Rick finds improbable. He gets the sense that some vets are exploiting the war as a chance to do things they never got to do when they were actually in the military.
During an air raid alert, Rick and his students take refuge underground. As a way to distract from the air raid, he encourages the students to split into two groups, with one mimicking gunshot victims, squirming and screaming as much as possible.
“By the end,” he brags, “they could put a tourniquet on in 20 seconds.”
After a few days in Lviv, Tay and Alex head toward Kyiv. “My confidence is actually growing,” Alex tells me, en route. “I feel like I’m in the right place, like God has placed me here, and getting on the train east is, obviously, an exciting feeling for me because I was in the military and never got to experience combat first-hand. But at the same time, it’s purposeful, it’s a purposeful feeling that I have. I feel extraordinarily blessed that I can serve the people in this way.”
In Lviv, Rick is working long hours teaching and helping at the hospital, though he has occasional opportunities to enjoy the city as a tourist. Alcohol is ostensibly banned, but one evening three of his interpreters take him to a speakeasy of sorts. Another evening he’s walking when an air raid siren sounds; a random Ukrainian family pulls him into their apartment.
He ends up spending the night there, using Google Translate to help communicate and sleeping on the floor. The family’s apartment is too tiny even for a pet, so the daughter has a cat doll that some aid workers gave her. He’s humbled by the family’s kindness. “This is a little girl whose most prized possession is a fake cat,” he tells me.
“Boots in Kyiv,” Tay tells me by text on his fourth day in Ukraine. He and Alex can hear occasional fighting in the distance and pass bloodied soldiers heading to hospitals. Alex finds work doing first aid training.
Tay meets a unit of citizen-soldiers heading to the front, and the experience is unsettling. They are “heavily armed, severely undertrained”, he says. The language barrier is very real, as is the atmosphere of suspicion. He spends a lot of time trying to prove that he is who he says he is.
Many of the American and foreign volunteers who have arrived haven’t experienced enemy contact yet; of those who have, some are so traumatized or disillusioned that they have decided to head home. An American veteran tells Vice News that he was exposed to more in his “first three days” in Ukraine than his whole tour in Afghanistan.
“Even those with military experience, you’ve got to realize that there isn’t a war that has been fought like this in a long time,” another vet tells Vice. The US and Nato militaries are “spoiled. When it comes to fighting a war, they have air support, medivac, logistics, all kinds of different levels of intelligence, and support. Here in Ukraine, we had none of that.”
Many volunteers seem anxious at the possibility that the Ukrainian military will use foreigners as cannon fodder, though others have gotten the opposite impression – that Ukraine likes the propaganda value of foreign volunteers but prefers to keep them in the rear, in logistical or civil defense roles. Scott thinks that Ukraine wants Ukrainians to be seen doing the fighting. He’s still in Lviv, but planning to join an ad hoc group in the east doing armed evacuations from Russian-held areas.
Tay is determined to get to the front. After a few days of silence, I receive a short video from him. He’s got a scarf covering the bottom half of his face and it’s slightly hard to read his tone of voice.
“I’ve linked up with that unit, so this might be one of the last ones I send you,” he says. “I’m the only American now. Alex is going to do something else. We’re heading to the front soon, and we’re going to take back some of the occupied cities, do a little cleaning … So.”
He throws up two fingers in a V-sign, then the video ends.