Trapped in the Trenches in Ukraine

There was no electricity, heat, or working plumbing in Vuhledar, and the only remaining tenant in the building appeared to be a middle-aged woman in a shabby coat and a tracksuit, named Lena. Alcohol seemed to have enhanced her delight at having guests.“We’re alive,” Rambo said.At the house, Doc looked like a different person. His

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There was no electricity, heat, or working plumbing in Vuhledar, and the only remaining tenant in the building appeared to be a middle-aged woman in a shabby coat and a tracksuit, named Lena. Alcohol seemed to have enhanced her delight at having guests.

“We’re alive,” Rambo said.

At the house, Doc looked like a different person. His eyes were bright and tense, his face smeared with sweat and grime. Even his speech was unnaturally animated. He emanated a kind of physical energy that, in another context, might have suggested mania or narcotics. “It’s endorphins,” Doc said.

Turtle told me that he’d been “one hundred per cent” certain that they were going to die. I talked to him more about this the next day. Throughout my two weeks with the team, I’d been struck by what seemed to be a fatalistic anticipation of his own death. The “dead” tag that Dominic Abelen had given him was just one example. Turtle regularly made comments such as “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” “I wake up every morning ready to see the big guy in the sky,” and “I’ve had a good life, I can die happy.” When I asked him to relate his mind-set in the tree line, he said, “There was not a thought of regret. I was, like, It’s been a great ride. No tears. It was just acceptance. Like, Wow, here I am.”

He’d once told me that many volunteers who quit the Legion did so because they hadn’t been honest with themselves about their reasons for coming to Ukraine. “Because when you get here your reason will be tested,” Turtle said. “And if it’s something weak, something that’s not real, you’re going to find out.” He was dubious of foreigners who claimed to want to help Ukraine. Turtle wanted to help, too, of course, but that impulse was not enough; it might get you to the front, but it wouldn’t keep you there.

I asked what was keeping him there.

“In the end, it’s just that I love this shit,” he said. “And maybe I can’t escape that—maybe that’s the way it’s always gonna be.”

The photographer and I left for Kyiv the next morning. Tai came with us. So did Doc, who was flying to New York to attend a Veterans Day gala, where he hoped to solicit donations. Herring also caught a ride. He had a girlfriend in Bucha, whom he’d met on a dating app, and he was due for a visit. T.Q. was staying—but not for long. In his logical fashion, he had concluded that he could be more of an asset to the team if he spoke Ukrainian, and, given his linguistic aptitude—he was fluent in German, English, and French—he’d decided to take classes in Kyiv.

We were loading up our bags when Rambo received a call from Grek. A Russian armored unit was pushing on another tree line near the coal mine, and the infantry troops there needed backup. As we left the house, Rambo, Pan, and Turtle were donning their gear. That night, while I was in Kyiv, Turtle texted me a GoPro video: the three of them bounding through a cratered field, emptying their magazines, bullets zinging past them, a shell sending up a shower of dirt. When I called him, he said that they had been forced to pull back from the tree line but that no one had been hurt.

I asked if they would be returning.

“I fucking hope so, mate,” Turtle said.

Three days later, members of a Russian brigade that was leading the Pavlivka offensive published a letter alleging that about three hundred of their troops had been killed, wounded, or captured, and that half their armored vehicles had been destroyed. In an unprecedented public rebuke, the brigade members called the decision to invade Pavlivka “incomprehensible,” denouncing their commanders for treating them like “meat.” Despite the uproar over casualties, Russia plowed ahead with its offensive, and the 72nd Brigade eventually withdrew from the village. The defeat marked the largest loss of territory for Ukraine since the summer. Russian shelling of Vuhledar has subsequently intensified, imperilling it as well. Now that the trees in Donetsk are without leaves, it is unlikely that the Ukrainians will be able to reoccupy any of their surrendered trenches before the spring. Although Ukrainian forces recently liberated Kherson, a major port city on the Black Sea, the trench and artillery warfare being waged in the Donbas shows no sign of relenting. The grinding stalemate in Bakhmut continues to inflict a horrific toll on both sides, with little ground lost or won.

On November 1srcth, General Mark Milley, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that Russia and Ukraine had each sustained “well over” a hundred thousand casualties since February—a staggering number, if true. The International Legion declines to say how many foreigners have been killed or wounded. After the prisoner exchange in Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian government announced that it was holding Joshua Jones’s remains as part of a war-crimes investigation. Jones’s father, Jeff, a U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf War and a retired police officer, told me that he had identified his son in a photograph, and that the corpse had been “charred.” He was awaiting the results of an autopsy that would indicate whether Jones had been alive when his body was burned. Jeff said that he had spoken to Joshua on the phone in the weeks before his death, and that “he seemed content over there, like he finally found his place in the world.”

A few days after I spoke with Turtle, Rambo sent me a video of himself with a bandage over his face and his right hand bundled in a splint. The Hyundai had come under fire near the coal mine, sending him careering into a ditch. A couple of weeks later, Herring was riding in a truck through the dachas when a shell landed in the road. When he regained consciousness, the truck was on its side and wrapped around a tree. Herring climbed through a shattered window but lacked the strength to stand. The next time he woke up, a Ukrainian was slapping him in the face and he could hear muffled explosions. He was evacuated to a hospital in Dnipro, where he was told that he had four broken ribs and a punctured lung. His face and torso were covered with lacerations. When he called me from his room, which he was sharing with multiple wounded Ukrainians, he credited his rubber duck with having saved his life. “Either the duck or my helmet,” Herring quipped.

Tai, the Kiwi who quit the Legion, did not have a change of heart this time. His only regret, he told me, was leaving Ukraine without Dominic Abelen’s body, which he had hoped to escort to New Zealand. That was why he’d stuck around as long as he had. But, he said, “I realized that if I stay I’ll probably die as well, waiting for him.”

When New Zealand soldiers are killed overseas, their units welcome home their caskets with a haka—the ceremonial Maori dance. Turtle and Tai plan to lobby for Abelen to receive the same honor. If they succeed, the casket will be brought to his former unit’s parade grounds, in Christchurch, through a wooden gate decorated with traditional carvings, called a waharoa. Abelen’s comrades will stomp their feet, beat their chests, and stick out their tongues. Each battalion in the New Zealand Army has its own haka, with its own words that the soldiers hiss and bellow. The name of the haka that Abelen’s unit will perform translates as “We Are Ready.”

After attending the Veterans Day gala in New York, Doc went back to Kyiv, where he plans to buy an apartment. He is currently raising funds to produce and distribute an innovative overhead-protection system for Ukrainian troops deployed in frontline trenches.

More than any other foreign volunteer I met, Doc seemed to be genuinely motivated by a conviction that the conflict was “a clear case of right and wrong.” I sometimes wondered to what extent his desire to participate in such an unambiguously just war was connected to his previous military career. The cause for which he is fighting in Ukraine is righteous because it consists of one country resisting occupation by another. But Doc’s adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan viewed their causes similarly—and, in Afghanistan, that galvanizing sentiment may be why the Taliban prevailed. This is a thorny topic for veterans, and Doc was not willing to concede a moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russian invasions. However, the experience of defending a country against an outside aggressor that was superior in numbers and in firepower had given him a new appreciation for his former enemies. “I used to think, What kind of pussy fights with mines?” he said. “And here I am, laying mines.”

I also suspected another appeal in Ukraine for International Legion members. During my lunch with Doc on Andriyivsky Descent, in October, I’d been unexpectedly moved when the old man in the fedora thanked him for his service. I shared Doc’s discomfort with similar gestures Stateside, but something here was different. Although the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were transformative for those who fought in them, they had no real impact on most Americans and Europeans. Everyone in Ukraine, by contrast, has been affected by the Russian invasion; everyone has sacrificed and suffered. For some foreign veterans, such a country, so thoroughly reshaped and haunted by war, must feel less alien than home. ♦

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