What wasn’t normal, he said, was the feeling of fear as he hid and listened as Russian attack helicopters punished the position his team of tank hunters had just fled from. That moment, he said, “was honestly the most troubled thing I’d been all along.”
Dakota, now 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 condition that his full name not be made public, citing concerns for his safety and that of family and friends.
American killed in Ukraine was voluntary, other fighters say
In interviews with The Washington Post, foreign fighters from the United States and elsewhere described conspicuous differences between what they expected the war to be like and what they experienced. They remembered going into battle underarmed and armed, occasionally thrilled to blow up Russian vehicles and feeling torn about whether to go back to Ukraine. Some intend to do so. Others saw friends die and decided that enough is enough.
For more, a turning point came in late April when 22-year-old Willy Joseph Cancel, another Marine Corps veteran, was killed in action northwest of Mykolaiv, a region that has experienced rampant violence as Russian commanders have sought to expand territorial gains. The full circumstances surrounding Cancel’s death remain a mystery and his body has not been found. Attempts to talk to Cancel’s family failed.
There are no known U.S. military personnel in Ukraine, and the Biden administration has tried to discourage U.S. citizens from independently joining the fight, though it’s not against the law to do so. Officials have said the battlefield is complex and dangerous, and that Americans who want to help the Ukrainian cause should seek to do so by other means. And while the exact number of Americans volunteering is unknown, an estimated 4,000 expressed interest after the invasion in late February. Many joined the fray after Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, personally appealed to foreign volunteers to travel there and fight.
Despite risks and official warnings, U.S. veterans join Ukrainian war effort
Military veterans, in particular, have been drawn to the war, encouraged by their combat training and an eagerness to apply their skills in a conflict that, for many, feels like a battle between good and evil.
But the conflict has also attracted Western military veterans who have either never previously been deployed in combat or have only experienced asymmetrical uprisings — not this type of war, with disputed airspace, incessant rocket bombardments, and swarms of drones with sophisticated thermal targeting technology.
Dane Miller, a U.S. Army veteran, went to Poland to take on a calmer but significant role — helping to run logistics for refugee relief centers and sending essential supplies across the border to Ukraine. He has also assisted volunteer networks in reviewing the military records of potential foreign fighters to assess whether they “have the chops … to take on a massive military,” he said. While many do, a common theme is that swagger sometimes stands in the place of relevant experience, he noted. He has advised some veterans not to go into Ukraine.
“There’s this idea of heroism, and it’s glorified. I’m going to look at your 214 and let you know if you’re ready for this,” he said, referring to the U.S. military’s printing papers, DD Form 214, which show the trainings and certifications completed while in uniform.
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In the Marines, Dakota spent four years as an antitank missile gunner, according to his service record provided by the Marine Corps. He never saw combat, but spent time in Afghanistan as a contractor, he said.
He put his first semester of college on hold so he could fight the Russians, saying a “righteous indignation” forced him to go for it. He arrived in Ukraine a few days after the invasion. Commanders were eager, he said, to take advantage of his knowledge of America.nsk manufactured Javelin anti-armor weapons, thousands of which have been transferred to the Ukrainian army.
Dakota’s cohort of foreign volunteers was attached to a Ukrainian military unit and brought by yellow school bus to Kiev, from where they were sent northwest into a crowded city outside the capital. That was in early March. They were issued antitank weapons and Javelin missiles, but no batteries for the launch unit, he said. Without a power source, the equipment was unusable.
Homes were on fire, Dakota recalled. His unit gathered for a patrol through the woods. A commander moved his hand: “Everything that way is Russian.” Artillery covered the area. Ukrainians and their volunteers dispersed. Some walked in trench lines, others went into homes. An abandoned residence still had a Christmas tree set up, he recalls. Some Russian troops fell back as the fighting intensified, leaving a wounded comrade wailing into the night, Dakota said.
By the end of the second night, eight of the 20 volunteers in Dakota’s unit had left their positions, he said, including another Marine veteran who appeared to be breaking his machine gun with a rock in hopes of handing it over as combat damage. Another pretended an injury, he said.
Dakota fought throughout the Kiev region and was later sent south to help train others to use the Javelin. On one mission, he said, he was unable to get a lock on a Russian tank with a cold thermal signature. Then four men climbed onto the hull to sit and smoke. The sight latched onto their body heat. His missile pulverized the vehicle, an attack captured on video.
Russian artillery knocked down their position half an hour later, and Dakota’s team retreated under cover of night. About a week later, he got nausea and motion sickness. He was diagnosed with a brain injury related to his proximity to the shelling, he said, and traveled home in late April. He’s been in recovery ever since.
“It’s not over. It’s not done. It’s not finished,” he said.
Other volunteers described various frustrations. Pascal, a veteran of the German Army, was on a team with Cancel, the American killed in action in late April. Problems arose during their first mission, he said.
The team suspected that their two-way radios were being monitored by Russian forces and they lacked extra batteries, forcing them to rely on unsecured cell phones and WhatsApp to communicate. Shortly after they exchanged plans, their position was attacked by Russian artillery, he said.
The volunteers felt underinformed during many of their missions without knowing where they were — and vitally, where the Russians were, Pascal said. The day Cancel was killed, he said, they took fire from a position they thought was Ukrainian but did not have radio communications to confirm. Two members of the team ventured out to investigate. Gunshots sounded and they never returned, he said.
The remaining team members came under heavy fire, including artillery shells, from the same direction, Pascal said. One team member was killed in the shelling. Pascal and another volunteer turned their attention to Cancel, who had been hit by shrapnel, he said. They applied tourniquets in a fruitless attempt to stop the bleeding. Their bodies were left behind when Pascal and another survivor retreated.
It was Pascal’s last mission. He later crossed into Poland. Miller, the American volunteer, met him at a bar in Warsaw and noticed how shaken he seemed. They stepped outside, and Miller comforted him using Google Translate to find the right words in German. They hugged.
“From the beginning, we had no chance,” Pascal said in an interview. “I asked myself why I survived and the others didn’t.”
A Ukrainian-born man who is a naturalized U.S. citizen spoke to The Post on condition that he was identified only by his radio call sign: Texas. He remembered how, early in the war, he saw pictures of his hometown on fire and left to join the fight two days later.
Texas, who returned to his home in Houston earlier this month, never served in the military. He works in an office. But he’s a quick investigation, he said, and soon he was conveying the experiences of his U.S. counterparts to the Ukrainians with whom he fought — things like tactical theories to conduct mbush and stay out of sight of Russia’s surveillance drones and vehicle mounts. optics.
Texas patrolled hunter-kill teams in southern Ukraine, he said, including a mission in which he discovered a T-72 tank dug into a berm near Mykolaiv, its tower barely visible from more than two kilometers away. Texas fired a missile, and it cut through the tank right next to the turret. A success – but the rest of the team let out a moan. They wanted to see a pillar of fire propelle the tank’s turret high into the air.
“It didn’t explode the way we wish it would,” said Texas, whose lessons were documented in an April report from the Wall Street Journal. “We were a little bummed about it.”
Life at home lacks the sense of purpose and excitement, Texas said. He is stuck in divorce cases that were initiated before leaving for Ukraine, and occasionally hears from friends who update him over text about their successful tank harvest.
In quiet moments, he reflects on what he has taken with him from the experience, good and bad. He is more relaxed at work and does not stress about small inconveniences like he used to. But something is missing, he said, and he is tempted every day to get it back.
“When you see that contrast between life and death and you get back to a peaceful life and a peaceful job,” he said, “everything seems to be less meaningful in comparison.”