More than 20,000 fighters from 52 countries volunteered for Ukraine’s military.
By Mark Guarino
When Andy Huynh watched the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, he started losing sleep. All he could think about was the struggle of the Ukrainian people against an aggressor he felt was violating their sovereignty and opening the world up to a third World War.
“All my personal problems didn’t feel important anymore … It felt wrong just to sit back and do nothing,” he said. “I had to go.”
The Alabama man was not alone. Two days after the invasion, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for “friends of Ukraine, freedom and democracy” to serve as volunteers in the Ukrainian military. More than 20,000 volunteers from 52 countries responded, many of whom had served in the U.S. Army, British Army, and, like Huynh, the U.S. Marine Corps, according to Ukrainian officials.
Their experience is credited by Zelenskyy for bolstering the war effort for Ukraine, especially since NATO countries have rejected sending ground troops in fears of starting their own conflict with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in March that 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East would be joining his country’s fight.
Tanya Mehra, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Counterterrorism at The Hague, said the mobilization of foreign fighters on battlefields dates to 1816 and they have played prominent roles in conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Somalia since the 1980s.
Foreign-born fighters have evolved into different classes of fighters, including mercenaries who join conflicts primarily for financial gain and others who are motivated by ideologies, according to Mehra. She claimed that while foreign fighters join the state military and are thus “accountable for the acts they have committed,” mercenaries, who work as outsourced contractors for small governments, tend to be linked to “increases in violence and higher civilian casualties,” which can prolong the conflict.
Many of those foreign fighters serving in Ukraine tend to be older than your average soldier, and in a stage in their lives where they felt they could help through their years of experience.
John Harding, 59, joined the Ukrainian military in 2018, when the country was fighting Russian-backed separatists. As a professional combat medic who served in Syria, the British-born Harding put his experience to use on the battlefield. But he also found he was in demand as a trainer for other medics who had no idea how to apply first aid in a hostile combat environment
“Medics are notorious for getting themselves killed,” Harding said. “You may know how to apply a torniquet, but you also need to know how to apply a tourniquet while watching out for snipers.”
One American, who did not want to use his name because he is still fighting in Ukraine, said he joined the Ukrainian military in April because he felt “it is important for the world to stand up with the Ukrainians and resist aggression.” Having grown up in a military family and a U.S. Air Force veteran himself, the man took leave of his job in IT while living in central Europe to join the fight.
He currently uses his background in cybersecurity, computer networks, and engineering systems to operate drones in anti-tank and stinger missions. On July 18, he claimed his team was in charge of shooting down a Russian Mil Mi-28 helicopter. The man claimed that he makes his own bombs and grenades out of Coke cans and some of the 60 kilograms of TNT that were taken during an offensive in September. They fly using commercial drones that are available off the shelf.
The majority of the foreign fighters the man encountered were Americans, and he claimed that since the spring, the number of them has decreased. The intensity of the combat eliminated the “TikTok warriors,” as he called those who weren’t equipped for the peril or duration of the missions. After seven months, he is still fighting for ideological reasons as well as the survivor’s guilt he experienced after two members of his squad, Huynh and Alex Drueke, both from Alabama, were captured on June 9 after a firefight.
“I thought my two brothers were lost. They came after me to this section. I was very sorry “said he. They contributed in part to my decision to stay this long, she said.
Huynh and Drueke, a U.S. Army veteran, spent 105 days in captivity, including a month in a Russian “black site,” where they endured daily torture. In late September they were released, along with eight other foreign-born volunteer fighters from England and Canada and more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers.
Harding was among those men released. He met Huynh and Drueke in a prison cell after having been captured in May when a Ukrainian unit he was with in Mariupol was forced to surrender. The torture he suffered has led to a diagnosis of permanent neurological damage to his hands, along with broken ribs and damage to his sternum. One aftereffect is “more psychological”: “I have mood swings which I don’t have control of,” he said.
He now lives close to family in Luton, a town in the southeast of England. The results of ongoing medical treatment will determine his ability to work.
“Would I do it again? Knowing what I know, probably not. Would I do it again if I didn’t know? Yes, I would,” he said. “The only thing I would have done different is I wouldn’t have surrendered. I would have fought to the very last round.”
Like Harding, Drueke and Hyunh also say they have no regrets. Back home in Alabama, they are adjusting to their former lives. Hyunh is engaged and will marry soon, while Drueke is contemplating his next career move. They have bonded, not just with one another, but with Harding and the other men in their unit who are either still in Ukraine or returned home. One day they hope to reunite, either in the U.S. or in England — or even Ukraine itself to help rebuild.
“Honestly, Ukraine has really surprised the world. We did not expect them to be that feisty, that strong, that determined,” said Drueke. “They are amazing people.”