Foreign military in Ukraine
His story is in Ukraine, hers is with their family at home
Von Rachel Jamison
Rachel Jamison holds a J.D. from UC Berkeley and works as an Instructor at NYU Abu Dhabi in their legal studies program teaching Speech, Debate, and Oral Argumentation. At the escalation of hostilities in the war in Ukraine in February 2022, she determined herself to find a way to help and to offer something to the Ukrainians' cause. When the call was made for foreign volunteers, she developed and started working on an idea which would later become the Protect a Volunteer (protectavolunteer.com) project she now runs.
The program works to assist with the movement of foreign volunteers into and out of Ukraine, making use of donations of credit card points and airline miles to reduce the costs of volunteers. Jamison also directs Safe Passage 4 Ukraine (sp4ukraine.org), A Ukrainian NGO which assists foreign military volunteers in case of injury and provides counseling and reintegration support.
Jamison was able to speak with a couple she worked with who were willing to share their story. Tony is a U.S. military veteran who saw the events of the war in Ukraine unfolding and felt a duty to offer assistance despite the peril of the prospect and the difficulties it would pose for his family at home. He shares some of his story and his insight into his time there. Kim, his wife, offers a look into what it's like to run a household and endure the stress and strain of daily life while she supports their family back at home, and him in Ukraine.
Tony: So, when I first had this strong feeling to go over it was mostly due to the atrocities I saw happening to children. Hearing about girls under the age of 10 getting raped and we have a small daughter. I was seeing the massacres in Bucha and Irpin and all those cities by Kyiv where they were killing all the civilians. For me that really tugged my heart strings since we have a son and a daughter. That was one of the big rallying cries for me was wanting to prevent that. It was mainly the kids for me. Just watching that on the news sometimes I would put my kids’ faces on the faces of the kids that I would see and that made me want to go and help.
When it first kicked off at the end of February, my friend and I were wanting to go right away. For all of March we were looking for a non-profit company to go and join with to do evacuations and extractions. We were striking out as many programs said they were going but that never materialized. Finally, at the beginning of April we just left and went to go figure out how we could help. Before I went out I raised some money for equipment, that’s the only way I could afford it. It was about $10,000 per person. It costs more for the winter. I didn’t really tell anyone before I left.
Kim: At first, I told him no. It took me a while to finally come around to it just because I saw how driven he was. It really was a compelling thing for him to want to go there. I had to come around to it and once I did I was a lot more supportive but it took me a while. Obviously, it’s not something our country is directly involved in so I didn’t want to put him in that position. I was very against it at first.
I believe in the cause myself. Even when I was against everything, I still believe that what’s going on shouldn’t be happening. There’s no real reason for it, no matter how hard somebody’s gonna try and justify it. I didn’t want him to have to be the one to go and stop it or help with it but obviously I came around to it because honestly there’s not a better person in this world to do it other than him.
I definitely believe that innocent people shouldn’t be treated however somebody wants to just because of their own agenda. People should be able to have their freedoms and live peacefully. You don’t want it to come to your doorstep. We don’t want our kids to be directly impacted by it. You have to think of it that way unfortunately because that’s just the reality of things.
In April the kids were still in school so I tried to keep routines and not try to break any of that because there was already a lot of change in their lives.
Tony: We went straight to Kyiv and it was pretty interesting to see that in Kyiv life was normal at that point in the beginning of April. They had just beat the Russians back in Bucha and Irpin at that point. In Kyiv everyone walks around like there is no conflict going on besides the air raid sirens it seemed normal. That’s something that frustrated me more and more with time after spending 5 months over there. Any time we go back to Kyiv to resupply you see people acting like they’re bad ass in Kyiv but they’re not doing any fighting.
So, for me that was kind of appalling and it still is. That’s every city I’ve been to, even 5 kilometers from the front things seem rather normal in the cities. There’s a lot of military aged males walking around or drinking at the bars at night that aren’t fighting while we are out there fighting for their country. If you go have a drink somewhere at night they start singing their Ukrainian heritage or war songs but these guys aren’t out there fighting. That’s a pretty strange thing for sure. I’m mainly talking about Ukrainians but foreigners as well. It’s a very interesting thing going to Kyiv. Everyone turns and stares at you wondering who you are.
The first month I didn’t accomplish a lot. I wasn’t with a unit, we were just doing some training things. After that month when we did get to where we wanted to go, time started going quickly. Time just kept passing. I didn’t feel like I had accomplished what I set out there to do so I wasn’t ready to leave yet.
Kim: When he decided to stay for the long haul he called me and said I think I’m going to stay longer and I was like yeah, I know. I already knew. I knew it was going to happen just knowing him. He was like “how did you know?’ I just knew. I already knew that was going to happen and already prepared myself for that. Luckily, I have a lot of support here in the States so I manage everything just fine. It’s definitely hard. It does make an impact on the kids but thankfully they’re involved in enough things it takes their mind off of it.
I told them Dad’s going to be there longer and they were like “okay”. Our son definitely understands more than our daughter as he is older. We’ve done a lot of deployments with him. It’s not necessarily different for them because they don’t really understand the bigger picture of things. And I try not to tell them a lot. We tell them what they need to know.
That’s one reason why I knew he was going to be there longer. He needed to feel like he had accomplished something before he came home. Otherwise he is just going to sit here and want to go back so he can do something else.
Tony: Everything is different. We had the support of the US gov in the Middle East. Everything logistically was super tight. You had air support, you had all the weapons and ammo you need. You had good food, decent lodging. Now it’s pretty much just a free for all. There’s no radios, no communication, barely any equipment. We’re buying our own vehicles. There’s no armor on your vehicles. We’re the guerillas. It’s the enemies, the big brother that has all the intelligence, the air support, the weapons, the artillery. It’s a total 180-degree difference from the Middle East. We’re not used to being the ones with the underwhelming fire power.
It’s hardest to get used to the lack of planning and logistics and things being structurally different. That’s the hardest to get used to for me. Some things are very disorganized. Their military structure is a bit different but also the conflict. They’re throwing a lot of people into the conflict that aren’t trained or don’t have training. The Ukrainian military is kind of the Soviet bloc military, they train their officers but not their sergeants. The officers know what’s going on but they don’t really have the NCO structure that the US military does.
Kim: I didn’t know him when he was in Iraq. I only knew him when he was deploying to Afghanistan. It’s very different. There is an actual conflict at this point, a full-blown conflict. I have two children now. It’s hard but it’s similar in certain ways because Not being able to talk a lot is very similar. Now if I don’t talk to him I get a little more concerned not knowing what’s going on. And just the uncertainty of everything that’s going on. We don’t know what’s going to happen at all. It’s a different war; a different type of war.
He doesn’t have the upper hand anymore so it’s definitely a lot of uncertainty. Knowing I love someone over there is hard. I have to still be mom here and I run a business here. It’s hard to imagine if something were to happen, what would happen to us. But I know him and he’s pretty badass so he’s not going to let anything happen. The longest I’ve gone without hearing from him is about two days. There were times he didn’t have a way of getting in contact with me.
Tony: The money part is tough. You have a mortgage, kids, family. It doesn’t cost much to live in Ukraine especially if the Ukrainians are paying for your food and lodging. I still take out $180 about twice a month. I get money from the VA also. It’s hard working for no pay. The Legion promises pay but I’ve seen how that goes for everybody. Guys get promised pay and it never happens. It’s not very much money anyway. You’re risking your life for not much monetarily.
The people are the best part. I really like our team, they’re like brothers to me. I really like the history that’s in Ukraine, the architecture, the sculptures are all really beautiful and it’s all being destroyed. That’s like the Taliban and ISIS in the Middle East. I feel like Russia is doing the same thing to Ukraine, destroying history. The toughest part is knowing you could be doing more with the proper equipment and not be able to completely do what you know you can with proper capabilities and equipment. Trying to use weapons from all over the world is different.
Kim: We are very lucky to have monetary support. I have a business. You have to cut corners in certain areas and think about how you’re spending your money and not be so frivolous. I can’t speak for everyone because I only know him and I know mentally it was something he really needed to do. A lot of our family members were really against it. But knowing it would help him mentally come home and feel accomplished and not feel so “I could be there helping. I could have done this, I could have done that.” What if it did come to the US and then he said “What if I went there? What if? What if? What if?”
He needs to feel like he is helping in some way shape or form. For our relationship that’s a big thing for us to know that he has a purpose and he is doing something to help the world. People might not know all that. I don’t want to know everything he does. I prefer not to. I don’t read the media. That just leads me to question things and not know the real truth and just get more worried. People don’t realize it’s more of a mental thing for him.
We just try to live normally. The Summer was hard. Having both kids at home is hard. I don’t want my kids to be super affected by it if I’m saying “I don’t want to do anything.” They gotta have a present parent. I have a pre-teen so it’s very hard sometimes. I have a lot on my plate and I don’t like to tell him every little thing that happens. I need to be able to just handle it myself but that’s very overwhelming sometimes. That’s the hardest part. Unless it’s a really big thing I’m not going to tell him and it’s hard for me to hold it in and address it myself.
Kids are both involved in separate activities so I have to be a lot of places at once and make dinner and I have my business. I’m never off the clock. I have a lot to take care of. Luckily, we have amazing kids so it’s not hard but I’m very drained all the time. It was hard over the summer trying to keep them both occupied without a lot of fighting. I have a lot of support here. We live on a great street with great people who help out so they help with the kids because they know he is gone. My mom was here for a while.
Tony: I’ve always wanted to be involved. I think that’s something that’s been part of my personality, even before the military. I think a lot of people give credit to the soldier that’s deploying but not enough credit to the family that’s back home. They can either be supportive and make things easier while you are there or run things well at home, or I’ve seen the other side and they make it 100 times worse for the guy that’s deployed. She has things run smoothly at home. I trust her completely. I know everything is going well at home and it makes being deployed much easier. When it’s the opposite and there’s problems at home because you’re gone that just makes it detrimental to being away. I’ve seen that tear relationships apart and cause many divorces over the years.
I give a lot of credit to her for how supportive she is and how well she takes care of everything. She does everything. She takes care of our kids, she earns money. Having her to call me and support me when I’m over there makes a world of difference. If it was the opposite I wouldn’t be able to stay long. Communication is pretty important so I like to know everything. I like to be kept in the loop
Tony: The hardest part about being a father is being absent for their school activities and their sports and the routine we have established. Breaking routine is never easy. We really enjoy taking them to their sports and watching and supporting. Also, holidays, I miss all the big holidays. Just seeing them enjoy things without you can be difficult when you would like to be there. There isn’t a big FOMO, it’s just missing out in general. I try to be really involved when I am because I enjoy doing that. I don’t think you can really make up for the time.
I feel like there is still a lot more to accomplish and thus will be returning soon. My mental sanity made me come home. Missing my family, dealing with all the bullshit. My bullshit tolerance had run out. My meter was pegged. It was time for a mental break. She’s the one who told me to come home. I wasn’t supposed to come home for another month and then she told me “why not just come home” now and I got a ticket for two days later. She might know me better than I know myself. When I’m home I don’t want to talk about it.
Kim: Before he left, mentally he was very one track minded so when he did come home because he had that accomplishment that was the good part. He still has that one-track mind but he is more relaxed now and he can enjoy being home with us.
The last month was the hardest. He was really frustrated. I could just feel all of that so I told him just come home, you don’t have to be there anymore.
Tony: In WWII people thought it wasn’t our fight until Pearl Harbor. There is a history of that, it spreads to the whole world and then you get involved too late. Why not get involved now when you can cut the head off the snake and stop it before it starts? I think if Ukraine didn’t receive Western support it would have just been a speed bump and by now Russia would be taking back all their ex-Soviet countries.