An American in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion
From the outset of the Russian invasion, and even prior going back to 2014, Ukraine has seen an influx of foreigners eager to support the nation. From medical and training support to logistics and warfighting, thousands came to help in any way. However, the primary task of defending the country by strength of arms took immediate priority.
Georgia was one of the most supportive in terms of volunteers. Many Georgians saw Ukraine's struggle parallel to their own troubles with Russian aggression. Not all of the volunteers coming from the South Caucasian nation were Georgian though. One particular volunteer had made his home in the mountains of the Racha region.
Coming from the mountains of north Georgia, in the United States, Ryan had grown up in a warm family and a love of the outdoors. In the country of Georgia, he had his own business offering guided hiking tours in the highly visited Racha region. February 24th changed everything for him.
Foreign soldiers who volunteered to fight for Ukraine participate in training exercises. (Geovien So/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Upon returning to Kutaisi from conducting his business in the remote mountains, he learned of the Russian invasion. Immediately he bagan to make the necessary arrangements to travel to Poland, the gathering place for many of the international volunteers hoping to help Ukraine. Flying out of Georgia, and after stopping in Spain, he finally arrived in Warsaw. First-hand witnessing the massive wave of refugees, he crossed the border and made his way to the early formations of volunteers preparing for the fighting that lay ahead.
With no military experience, he bonded with other early arrivers as he was one of the first arrivals in what would later be labeled the Ukrainian foreign legion. Officially named the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, the International Legion had to quickly train its new members. However, as Ryan states, there was no formal training regimen in place when he arrived at this training center.
“It was a complex situation at the beginning. They’re forming a new military unit in the middle of a war, so there’s a shortage of everything including personnel.” Ryan explains that each person had to share their knowledge with the group in order to help train each other.
“So we had maybe 20 or 30 people so we were organizing our own training sessions to get familiar with each other. We started looking at what skills we had and what we could learn from each other. For example, I was teaching people how to use a compass and navigate with a map. It wasn't until later when we started to get more people that we had trainers from the Ukrainian army. Then we started having more formal courses.”
Vietnamese-American Hieu Le volunteering for the International Legion in Ukraine. (Hieu Le/Facebook via Business Insider)
Upon completing their training, Ryan and his team of new recruits were sent on special tasks against the Russian invasion. His experiences are unique to most Western militaries. Facing the onslaught of a modern military, complete with advanced artillery and other weapon systems, was a distinctly unique obstacle many in NATO armies can't relate to.
“There’s so many things I’d love to mention, but that we’re not allowed to say. Most of this is out there, but we’re just now allowed to say it ourselves. I think the most interesting thing is the experience of being under heavy shelling or cruise missile strikes. That’s something people in Western militaries can’t really relate to. Maybe the Taliban can relate to that better.”
Ryan’s unit operated somewhat separately from the Ukrainian units that fought in the streets around Kyiv. “ I was involved in a few very interesting smaller missions, but I wasn’t in any high intensity firefights. They just weren't all that common at the beginning of the war for us. There was fierce street fighting, and it was nasty stuff, but that wasn’t our task. We did normal infantry stuff like being in holes. I would say that we had tasks that you would associate with the term ‘light infantry.’”
(AFP / Sergei Supinsky)
Today, even while on leave and discussing his experiences, he has the energy and eagerness for a counterattack. Ryan expresses his feelings intensely, with an air of confidence not only in himself, but also in his unit.
“I’m going to stay for a while longer. I don't have plans to leave in the near future. We are all ready to start pushing back, and everyone’s ready for the word that we’re going to start to retake territory.” His eyes are intense while explaining the readiness of his International Legion unit. He explains that things are not what they seem on the outside. There is no defeatism, at least not in his or any adjacent units. The feeling, he describes, is electric.
“This is what everyone is preparing for and where everyone’s mind is at. I was worried people would begin to accept a malaise where people would begin to accept a static situation and it remaining that way. That’s not the feeling at all. My forces, all the other forces I meet, are ready and eager to start hitting back and retaking land.”
He describes the immense support his unit has been receiving. Not only in material, but financial. So much so, that his unit even has its own ‘bookkeeper’ of sorts to organize and track the financial donations allotted to them. From items of personal kit and thermal scopes to 4x4 all-terrain vehicles, they have a budget set aside for everything.
“Everything we do is about preparing for that, such as getting more equipment, building our cohesion, and how we can help other forces. We're preparing and waiting for that opportunity.”
Authors Note: No images used with this article contain Ryan due to operational security (OPSEC) reasons.
Cover Photo by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine