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war on ukraine

US veterans complain red tape is blocking them joining fight in Ukraine: ‘This is an attack on freedom worldwide’

US veterans tell Rachel Sharp that they feel it is their ‘duty as Americans’ to respond to President Zelensky’s call for foreign nationals to join Ukrainian troops in defending the nation from Russian attack. But a lack of direction from officials could be wasting precious time to save the country

Tuesday 01 March 2022 13:21 GMT
Ukrainian soldiers fly the flag on top of their armoured vehicle in Kramatorsk
Ukrainian soldiers fly the flag on top of their armoured vehicle in Kramatorsk (EPA)

US veterans responding to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s calls to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia have said that their attempts to join the resistance are being held up by red tape and a lack of direction from officials - delays that could ultimately cost Ukrainians their freedom.

On Sunday, Mr Zelensky made an appeal to foreign nationals to travel to Ukraine and fight “side by side” with its troops as part of its newly-formed International Legion of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

Since then, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar has said that several thousand people from across the globe have volunteered to join.

“We already have several thousand statements from foreign nationals who want to join the resistance to the Russian occupiers and protect world security from the Putin regime,” she said in a statement on Monday.

Ex-US Army and Marine members told The Independent on Monday that many of them are ready to go, saying it is their “duty as Americans to help where we can”.

Some had contacted the Ukrainian Embassy in the US as early as last Thursday - the day Russia declared war on Ukraine and three days before Mr Zelensky launched the legion - volunteering their service.

But, they revealed that their attempts to enlist have so far fallen short with widespread confusion over how to apply and questions going unanswered by the embassy.

John Murphy, a former Marine who now lives in South Carolina, said he fears that such delays are wasting precious time as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army increases its assault on Ukrainian civilians by the day.

“If they don’t get the help they need soon then Russia will take Ukraine,” he warned.

“It’s admirable to see Ukrainian butchers and lawyers and traffic cops fighting to keep Russia out of their country but, if we’re being honest, a professional soldier is worth 15 guys with an AK-47s if they don’t know how to use them.”

There appears to be little information available as of yet for US veterans seeking to join the international legion.

The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said that people should contact the Ukrainian embassies in their home countries to apply.

On Monday - one day after Mr Zelensky’s appeal - the website for the Ukrainian Embassy in the US (based in Washington DC) appeared to be down for much of the day.

John Murphy pictured during his time in Marine Corps (John Murphy)

Veterans that The Independent spoke to said that emails and calls also went unanswered while others spoke of their confusion on social media.

Repeated attempts by The Independent to contact the embassy by email and phone on Monday were also unsuccessful, with the phone line going straight to answerphone each time.

It appears that the only clear and readily available instructions for applying come from an anonymous US official who gave an interview with Military Times after the military publication received several questions from veterans about how they could enlist. The first step: apply to the Ukrainian embassy.

Mr Murphy said that, at the age of 60, “my wife says I’m crazy” to be thinking about serving in the legion.

“But then I see 60-year-olds in Ukraine who have worked as butchers and candlestick makers and they are defending the country when there’s people like me who have spent years in the military and in law enforcement and so have the skills and are just sitting around,” he said.

He said he feels a duty to respond to Ukraine’s appeal for help as he fears that if the West doesn’t take action to stop Mr Putin’s forces now, things will only get worse and other countries may also come under attack.

“It’s not that I want to go but the way I see it, if we don’t stop Russia’s aggression now, it’s going to escalate into something even worse,” he said.

“I’m a bit of a history buff and I look at the inaction of the world in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and the world stood by and just watched it happen.

“I fear if Ukraine doesn’t come out on top, it won’t end with Ukraine. Then will China take advantage of the situation in Taiwan? And will North Korea be the bad actor and come at Israel? And then we’re in World War Three.”

He added: “If the world as a whole was to stand up and say it’s not acceptable behaviour... well you can’t fight the whole world.”

John Murphy today. The veteran has contacted the Ukrainian Embassy in DC about supporting Ukraine (John Murphy)

Because Ukraine is not in Nato, neither the US, UK or any other Nato nations are sending troops into Ukraine to engage in combat against Mr Putin’s forces.

President Joe Biden has doubled down on multiple occasions this past week that US troops will not be fighting in Ukraine.

Mr Murphy said that, while he “understands the delicacy of the situation”, a lack of action from the Western governments is part of what is leading him to feel that he has no choice but to step in.

“The Russian government needs to be held to account and if other governments aren’t going to be the ones doing it then the people are going to have to,” he said.

Having spoken about the situation with several dozen of his fellow Marine Corps veterans, he said many of them also feel a duty to help Ukraine.

His younger friends especially have no doubts about going as they think that if the situation escalates - for example if Russia invades a Nato country and the US recalls people with military experience - they could be called up to serve anyway.

However, Mr Murphy said that if there continues to be a lack of a “definitive plan”, it will likely deter veterans from joining.

He said he first reached out to the embassy by phone and email on Thursday but “got nowhere whatsoever” and has been searching online trying to find ways to do things.

After posting on the Facebook page for the Georgian National Legion, he said he was inundated with messages from around 100 other people from all across the world asking him for any guidance about how to sign up.

“As of yet, the most reliable way is to just fly to the Ukrainian border and then knock on the door,” he said.

“There’s no real information. The only information is to get to Poland and once you’re there go to the border crossing and say I’m here to join the legion but that doesn’t leave a lot of room.

“And that will be the largest detractor for anyone with combat experience as you don’t want to jump on a plane to Poland and turn up and all you have is a slingshot to fight with.”

While these things take time, it’s time he said Ukraine does not necessarily have.

James McCall pictured while he was in the US Army (James McCall)

On Monday night, satellite images showed a Russian military convoy stretching more than 40-miles long heading for the capital Kyiv.

Mr Putin bombed residential areas of the country’s second-largest city Kharkiv killing at least three children and six adults, as Russian forces increasingly strike civilian areas.

James McCall, who served eight years in the US Army including a tour of Afghanistan, told The Independent he too is waiting to hear back from the embassy after emailing and calling several times.

As a result, he said there are “no logistics” right now for how or when he will go to Ukraine.

However, he said that if he doesn’t hear back from the embassy, he has a “plan b”: “I’ll just hop on a plane and go to Poland.”

He said he has also been in touch with the Georgian National Legion, a group of volunteer fighters - all ex-military - first set up by Mamuka Mamulashvili in 2014 to defend Ukraine in the War in Donbas, as another plan b option.

Either way, Mr McCall said it’s a matter of when not if he will go to Ukraine.

“It’s not a question of thinking. It’s just getting things ready to go,” he said.

Mr McCall, who now lives in Oklahoma, said he feels a duty to fight to defend Ukraine because it is a fight for democracy and freedom.

“This is an attack on freedom worldwide and an attack on democracy and if we let it stand then it will continue to grow and overflow everywhere else,” he said.

“We as the free people of the world can’t stand by and let this happen. Zelensky asked for help and it’s my duty as an American to help where I can.”

He too feels that the response from the US - and the rest of the West - has fallen short and so he and other veterans have been left with no choice but to take action.

“Sanctions are great but it’s not enough. I feel like we’re not doing enough and I don’t stand alone,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of brothers in arms who feel the same way.

“In the history of America we’ve always helped other countries and this is no different.”

James McCall now. Being a husband and father has made him more determined to support the families torn apart by Russia’s assault (James McCall)

Being a husband and father of four motivates him even more to go and help, he added, after seeing Ukrainian families torn apart by the Russian invasion and their “homeland being invaded by foreign occupation”.

“I couldn’t imagine having a foreign military presence entering my hometown like that,” he said.

Mr McCall said he is not concerned that going to fight as a foreign national, he will not have the same protection from the US as when he served in the Army.

“If I go over there I go on my own free will to help and I don’t expect others to put themselves at risk for me,” he said.

The US has not yet given its position on American citizens joining the fight on Ukrainian soil.

And other Western nations have given somewhat mixed messages.

Following Mr Zelensky’s announcement, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she would “absolutely” support British nationals who choose to travel to help Ukraine.

But her comments were quickly contradicted by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace who said that only “trained military personnel” should be traveling to the country and that Britons should not “put yourselves in harm’s way”.

A Downing Street spokesperson then said, when pressed by a reporter, that the Foreign Office advises “against all travel to Ukraine”.

Despite this - and reports of difficulties applying to sign up - some Americans have already made their way to Ukraine to fight anyway.

Mr Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian National Legion and former Georgian military officer, spoke to The Independent on Monday from his position on the frontline close to Kyiv.

While the Georgian National Legion has been ongoing since 2014, he said he began receiving more applications from Americans and Britons wanting to join the legion in support  of Ukrainian troops as the conflict began escalating in Ukraine.

He began recruiting more ex-military members around 10 days before Thursday’s invasion, after which time he has recruited even more and received more applications to join.

“After it got to the active phase, we received lots more applications and lots more guys joined us,” he said.

Mamuka Mamulashvili is recruiting foreign nationals to fight in Ukraine (Mamuka Mamulashvili/Facebook)

Over the next few days, the legion is expecting its first major wave of recruits since the war started, Mr Mamulashvili said.

He is expecting around 50 Americans, 100 Britons and around 400 Georgians in total.

“Then I think there will be more activity and more ex-military people joining,” he said.

“We get a lot of good ex-US and ex-UK soldiers joining us.”

While the Georgian National Legion does not include civilians, he said that it did train around 300 Ukrainian civilians as tensions were escalating and war became an increasing possibility.

“We had a sense that war would come,” he said.

“The Ukrainians are motivated and as time goes on more and more civilians are getting engaged in the battle process and making it harder for the Russians.”

Mr Mamulashvili said the Georgian Legion will now work closely with Mr Zelensky’s international legion.

Some of the first recruits in the international legion are said to include a 10 special operations veterans who are preparing to cross the border from Poland into Ukraine.

A US Army veteran recruiter told Buzzfeed News the group, made up of six American, three British and one German veteran, are all Nato-trained with experience in counterterrorism and close combat.

Two other former American infantry officers will lead the group, the veteran recruiter said.

While Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Defense said several thousands have volunteered for the international legion, it is not clear how many have been or will be enlisted or how many Americans are among them.

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