«One hour at Bucha is worse than eight months in Afghanistan» - American Legionnaire in Ukraine

Theodore Verona is one of the Foreign Legion volunteers in Ukraine. He is 32. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, his military specialty being a mortar man. He first saw action in Afghanistan. He went to Ukraine almost immediately after the start of the war – as soon as he was able to get there from Mexico, where he lived. Verona told The Insider why he decided to fight for Ukraine, about the chaos of the first days of the war and why he is confident Ukraine will regain all of its territories, including Crimea.


Theodore Verona

I had visited Ukraine in 2019 and was immediately taken aback by how patriotic the people were. The clarity of mind that they had to determine their own future, their own destiny. There was certainly debate about what they were going to do with their future, their country after the Maidan revolution. But so inspiring was the Maidan Square. The people's resolve to. To reinvent their country after so many years of domination and oppression by the Soviet Union, that I just I felt that this was a country that, in a weird way, was experiencing the same journey the United States had in our struggle for independence and identity after our civil war, which was beyond imagination, bloody and ruthless, but was a reinventing of ourselves and living up to our ideals. So, I became very passionate about following Ukraine from Maidan onward. But after my 2019 trip, I followed Ukraine very closely. As far as politics very closely. Economics very closely. And I just wanted to be a part of that journey and help out in any way that I could.


I was completely surprised with how easy it was for me to enlist into the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. For better or for worse, in different ways. So when the invasion happened, I was utterly outraged. You know, this is a nation that just can't seem to be left alone by its neighbors throughout his whole history, just can't seem to be given the opportunity to determine its own fate, you know, without the meddling and bullying of its neighbors, not to get into the long line of historical events and invasions.


Theodore Verona

During the first day of the invasion, I told my employer here in Mexico that there is a high probability that I am going to volunteer in Ukraine. They didn't take me seriously. Two days later, I quit. The plan was to enlist in Poland at the Ukrainian embassy. So I immediately got a ticket, flew over to Poland, saw the gigantic lines, the overwhelming mass of people fleeing their homes and the destruction that the Russians had been had already wrought. And I just said to myself, okay, the best way to go about this is just to drive to the border and beg them to let me in.


So I did get a ride from a friend of mine that that resides in Warsaw. And then once I got to the border, I decided to hitch a ride into Ukraine. And luckily, a car full with four other Ukrainians were on their way into Ukraine. Which was already a proof to me that Ukrainians resolved to win this war and to fight because these were men that were going into a country that there was no way that they were going to be able to get out due to the law that had been passed that no man under the age of 65 can leave.


They took me to a recruiting station. And from a recruiting station, I was picked up by two officers. They didn't speak a lick of English. They were very, very gracious towards me, very appreciative towards me. They gave me a what seemed like a lifetime supply of cigarettes and wouldn't stop shaking my hand. I was driven to different recruiting stations, because none of the recruiting stations knew what to do with me. And finally, they must have made a phone call to somebody saying, we have this this American here, and he wants to fight. And so, the two officers picked me up drove me for about an hour to the Yavoriv base near Lviv. That's where foreigners are being staged. I was interviewed and processed to understand what my skill set, my experience was. And they were impressed. They immediately put me on a special brigade team that was to deploy within two days to the front in Kiev.

They wouldn't stop shaking my hand, but none of them knew what to do with me

And with my team, we were about 25 strong, all with very varying degrees of experience. You know, due to the chaos of it all, we did end up accepting some fighters that simply had no business being in a war. I don't know how they made it onto the team. It's often difficult to tell until you're in combat.


My personal rifle was an FAL. It's Belgian made. However, I believe that it was of Japanese construction. It's a Belgian design rifle of Japanese construction because it had Japanese letters all over it. It's an assault rifle, which is more of a civilian categorization, but it is an automatic weapon capable of being automatic and semi-automatic. And it fires a 5.56 bullet. It was not a good weapon to be to be taken in the cold and the mud and the dirt of north of Kyiv. It was jamming. At one point it was a single fire weapon for me before I'd have to take it, take it apart, clean it, put it back together, and then I'd buy myself one more shot. I mean, I truly felt like an American Patriot in 1777 at one point.

I truly felt like an American Patriot in 1777 at one point

I was in Yavoriv only for three days before we shipped to Kyiv. We loaded our weapons and our ammunition onto two trucks that we shared with a Georgian unit. The Georgian unit was a striking unit to behold because they were quite literally ages 18 to 58 and fierce looking men. You know, you look at a Georgian unit and it makes you appreciate the Mountain Warrior mystique that those men embody.


At this point, I had seen no maps, I had gotten no situational report, I had gotten no prior information as to where I was going and what I was walking into, which, again, I found ridiculous, and it made me nervous. The drive was scary. The further we got closer to the front, the more we could hear the shelling and see various areas of devastation. And we were offloaded from the trucks about four kilometers from where the trench line would be. Again, I didn't know we patrolled through a wood line straddling another village to our left that had been attacked and we had repulsed Russians prior. But they were still reports, word of mouth, that there were still small units of Russians inside that village that were ready to ambush us. Thankfully, they didn't. But we patrolled through this forest and the shelling got pretty intense. I had never experienced shelling quite anything remotely close to what's happening in Ukraine. So it was a very. You know, I'm a mortar man, so mostly I shell people. It was artillery and probably 105 mm caliber just from the sight of it.


We finally got to our trenches. And their trenches were of hasty construction. So very shallow, not looking like they were permanent or had been there for a long time. And immediately upon getting into the trenches, we were attacked. I had no idea where I was because no one told me, and I hadn't seen a map since I arrived in the country. But I saw this town directly in front of the trench. And that was the only time my rifle wanted to work for more than one round.


Village of Moshchun near Kyiv. Aftermath of a battle

It was evident that this would be World War One style trench warfare. Upon arriving there and I remember immediately thinking to myself that I'm going to have to adapt. Our team divided itself. A third of the team moved to an advanced position inside the town of Moshchun (a settlement in the Bucha district of the Kyiv region) to set up a picket, so to speak, a trip line and a position for sniper fire. And they were in the thick of it, horrible, thick fighting for the first night that we were there. The Russians were constantly attacking that building, and they were dropping Russians like crazy. You could see them killing Russians one after another. I'd say in front of that house, there was about 70 dead Russians. Horrifyingly enough, you could hear wounded Russians dying. I was still in the trench, so I was in a much safer position than they were. Yet it was aggravating because we had no leadership. We had no idea really what we were supposed to do. It was only because one Ukrainian happened to speak English that he took us under his wing and made sure that we were fed, made sure that we kind of knew where orientated ourselves between adjacent trenches. And he wasn't even ordered to. He was just a Ukrainian private that just took it upon himself to help us. Incidentally, his call sign was Maniac because he had no regard for his personal safety. But a very good man, very mild-mannered man.


The subsequent days were all about being shelled constantly, day and night. Occasionally the Russians would attack our trench line. They would get about within 300 meters and start shooting at the berm. And this is when my rifle just would not work. Nothing I could do to make it work. So I would return fire when I could. But most of the time I just hugged the bottom of the trench because there wasn't a whole lot I could do. Each day that passed, we lost men, foreigners to cowardice. This is where things began to look ugly. The men, tiny groups of 2 to 3, would just leave. They would just run in the night back four kilometers through wood lines, back to a friendly area, which was quite disturbing. Some of them even left doing horrible things. One individual took the only pair of MDGs that we had. We had two machine guns destroyed by one individual because he wanted to deny the enemy the two machine guns. Later, especially the last night, those machine guns were sorely missed.


Things got the most nerve wracking for me and truly horrifying when I was ordered with six other men to fill a gap between trench lines. So we were shown the position that we were supposed to man and we decided to dig foxholes. And we did. The Russians were trying to exploit that gap, which I thought it was ridiculous that only six men were going to be there to plug it. The Russians were peppering us constantly with fire. And then once we saw that a drone had located us and would never leave us alone, I knew that we were going to be shelled for God knows how long. So I dug my hole as deep as I could. I mean, it was well over my shoulder by the time I was done digging, and I held the bottom of it. And for about 4 hours the artillery concentrated on those six foxholes.


Ukrainian trenches in March. Location unspecified

It's not easy to dig even a single foxhole. We had two shovels for six men, so we traded. And when I didn't have a shovel, I used my hands. The other thing that was bad was I would return fire, and then I have to take apart my rifle. It has lots of little pieces as opposed to any of the AK variants. So I would have, you know, the little pieces on my lap in the hole trying to clean it. And then another eight rounds of artillery would be blowing up around me. And so I'd have to duck and try to keep all my pieces from scattering, you know, then when I had a five minute break from the shelling, try to put the weapon back together and return fire. After a while, I just gave up shooting back and I thought, you know, if the Russians try to make a go at our try to attack our little six foxholes, then I guess I'll hit them with a shovel or try to stab them. I really didn't have much of an option left. And so, it was the most horrifying 4 hours of my life. It was on either March 13 or March 14.

I guess I'll hit them with a shovel or try to stab them

I would be a liar if I said I wasn't terrified and afraid and totally eager to leave. What steeled my resolve was, I guess, that at 32 I'm able to do better than a lot of 22-year-old men. I'm able to look into the future and knew that I couldn't live with myself and had I left. So, you know, there is that internal motivation. The external motivation to hold my ground was looking at the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were not going to leave, and they made no indication that they were even afraid. Once I saw them, I said, look, if these guys are going to stay and die in this trench, then I'm going to stay and die in this trench.


Finally, we were ordered to leave those foxholes and return to the main trench. I was [00:18:30] ordered to go hunt a BTR, an armored vehicle that fires a 30-millimeter auto cannon. Those large vehicles had been shooting giant bullets at our trench. We were ordered to go hunt it with three men. And I went through a section of the burnt and destroyed city. And on my way [00:18:50] to try and find this BTR and destroy it, I saw a number of of half blown up houses and to my horror and amazement, I saw families in there. I saw people huddled around tiny little fires that they had built in their destroyed house. And I just said to myself, how dare I turn my back on these people and run for no? Once I saw that, I resolved myself to standing my ground until ordered to leave or until the end. And, thankfully, a tank took out the BTR we were supposed to hunt. So, I passed off my anti-tank rocket to a Ukrainian far away from my own lines.


Once I returned to my line, we had been told that the Russians were preparing a renewed attack, that there were at least three companies in front of our trench, and they were pulling up a lot of armor and that they were going to attack us. I had almost forgotten about my rifle because it was just useless at this point. So, I picked up a new rocket and that was going to be my one-shot glory. And in that moment again, I thought, maybe, I should skedaddle. Get out of here. Would anybody blame me if I don't even have a rifle? But when I saw one of the Ukrainians stabbing knives into the parapet of the trench, making it abundantly clear that if they did make a go for our trench en masse, that we were all going to stay here.

When I saw one of the Ukrainians stabbing knives into the parapet of the trench, making it abundantly clear that if they did make a go for our trench en masse, that we were all going to stay here

Thankfully, this attack never materialized. What the Ukrainians would do, and it saved my life, was the Ukrainians would organize small teams, assault teams, and would attack the Russian lines through the town. I don't think the Russians were ever organized enough or could be organized enough to launch a concerted attack at the trench. I remember at the time thinking it was ridiculous, saying like, why don't you just let them come to our trench, let them take this town, but let them come to our trench, we are in defending position. One of the Ukrainians, Maniac, explained to me that if we keep attacking them, then it keeps them off balance and it keeps them tired and keeps them scared. And the wisdom of that was true. And this massive attack on our trench never materialized.


My biggest fear was snipers. I didn't know where they were coming from, but the sniper was able to really get inside our trench. He did kill one Ukrainian, he got shot in the neck. I saw another Georgian get shot in the left shoulder and it blew out his most of his back, the one Ukrainian civilian had been hit by artillery and had his all his whole back removed. You could see every vertebra and muscle in his body, which was, you know, demoralizing, because there's nothing you can do for a person like that.


I would roll up my entire eight-month deployment in Afghanistan into an hour of my afternoon in Moshchun. That was unlike anything America has experienced. Maybe, Fallujah could compare. But even in Fallujah, we still had all the assets, the insurgents didn't have planes.

I would roll up my entire eight-month deployment in Afghanistan into an hour of my afternoon in Moshchun

For instance, in Afghanistan you could count on a helicopter coming to pick you up and within an hour, you're going to be at the most state of the art hospital. In Ukraine, during the first stage of the war, the medevac plan was driving a car up to the front and stuffing your body in there, stuffing the wounded in there and then driving off. And meanwhile, that car is being shelled and shot at.


On the way to the trenches, you could see a graveyard of civilian cars. I mean, really like about two kilometers of cars lined up after another that have been in various degrees of destruction. They were civilian vehicles, riddled with bullets and shrapnel. I don't know who drove them, but whoever they were, if they're volunteers, as rumor had it, they deserved some sort of a medal because they were driving right up to the trenches, picking up a wounded guy and then driving off as fast as they could to get this wounded person to safety. But if you got wounded inside the town proper, I just can't see your chances of survival being great. If it's any kind of a serious wound, you'd have to walk back through presumably enemy fire and not bleed to death and not die on the way just to wait for a car to come pick you up. You know, what really psychologically hurt my little American mind was me realizing just how much I hope I get hurt just in the best of circumstances with people around me. It also made me wish that the Americans would send, you know, MRAPs, mine resistant vehicles, like I had in Afghanistan. Just something like that would at least deflect bullets.


I spent six nights and seven days in Moshchun. But it seemed like an eternity. And I probably slept a combined 8 hours throughout the whole thing. You know, aside from the fighting, it was bitterly cold. I would wake up with an inch to two inches of snow on me. The only thing that Ukrainians had for comfort was a blanket. It was so bad, the cold food, food wise, they would bring up as much kind of odds and ends of food, a lot of crackers, snickers, Ukrainian pickled stuff. And I and I also remember not drinking water. I just never had a lot of thirst because it was so cold.


I also remember the dogs They came to us. What was tragic about it was these were clearly dogs whose owners had left them or hopefully not, but that they were fully domesticated, wonderful dogs. And they would come to the trench, and they would cuddle up with us whenever we had some time to sleep. And in fact, one time everyone got very mad at me because I plopped down on a part of the trench without realizing that there was a dog there in the middle of the night and I hurt the dog. And, you know, I think some of the Ukrainians thought I did it on purpose. And boy, I got a lot of Russian and Ukrainian words thrown at me that didn't sound nice. One of the dogs did get hurt. I don't know if it died, but it got hurt by a piece of shrapnel, which was sad and demoralizing.


After being pulled back from the front line I spent several weeks in Ukraine. I linked up with a foreign outfit that was training like fresh off the street recruits from Lviv. And it was it was a very rewarding feeling there. They're still in contact with me. And all of them have been in different theatres of combat. And we were training guys that had never held a rifle before.


Russians just seem to have just an inexhaustible amount of materiel. It doesn't matter how many tanks they destroy, it doesn't matter how many voters and BMPs get destroyed. It just seems that they always have a replacement right behind it. And the sheer kind of willingness to die on the part of the Russians! I apologize if this comes across as a little bit insulting. But, you know, the Russians have a history of absolutely not caring about their men in terms of death and, you know, needless sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. Some of my friends will describe, you know, Russians just dying en masse just in an instant after one dumb order to attack a position. We took three dead from my trench line, three dead. But in front of our trench, within sight, there were more bodies than I care to ever see, 60 to 70. In Moshchun I would watch the Russians run up a street with no tactical awareness, almost ineptitude, completely exhausted, and just drop one after another from our snipers and from rifle fire. Just they would round a corner and they would be killed. And then the other guy would round the corner right after him and be killed. And then, even more horrifying, it doesn't look like they make much of an effort to even save their wounded. Most of them, they didn't die instantly. They certainly died slowly. And nobody went out there to help them. I could hear one Russian man specifically in the night just begging for anybody to help him.


Ukrainians deeply care for each other. They would do whatever they could to get help for their wounded and morale like a pure resolve to stand their ground and to continue this fight all the way to live. It's their advantage. There was an instance when one Russian got very close to our trench and was spraying the trench line with bullets. Well, the Ukrainian Maniac just got a rocket, an American AT4 rocket. He read the instructions briefly, stood up on the parapet with bullets flying around him, took a well-aimed shot for 3 to 4 seconds with bullets flying around him. When he got back inside the trench, he said, I just hope I didn't kill them. I just want them to go away. He took no joy in what he had just done, no sadism. That was common that I found with the Ukrainians. They didn't take any joy in this, but they were not going to leave.

The Ukrainian got an American AT4 rocket. He read the instructions briefly, stood up on the parapet, took a well-aimed shot, and got back inside the trench

And it's not because anyone's holding a gun to their back, but if they surrender, they will cease to exist as a people. One story my friend told me was that there was a small trench line that they manned with 20 men, and they put them there as an observation post. And the Russians just would not stop shelling and attacking it. And the only discernable benefit of this observation post was to kind of draw fire away from one more important position. Well, by the end of about a week of them staying there, there was only four men left fighting in that trench line, but no one left.


I've noticed that there's that idea among the foreigners that are there, that are fighting, that are professional, good and brave men (we've filtered out those who just played Call of Duty video games and want to, you know, want to test out their mettle) that surrendering is not an option, nobody wants to go to the Russian gulag. When I go back to Ukraine, I'm operating under the mentality that I'll make it real hard for them to take me alive. I have to be incapacitated, basically.


Foreigners serving in the AFU

I've never been tortured before. And I would never want to be in the position of saying something bad about my country or about Ukraine. The Russians have been good at those types of things for a long time. So, I don't want that on my conscience. If I can't blast my way out, then, I hope God forgives me, I'll take my own life.


I don't think the Russians have defined what their war aims now are at this point. I think that in any occupied area that remained occupied by Russia, they would never be able to be a Russian and go to a restaurant without looking over his shoulder because somebody will stick a knife in it. So even no matter how much territory they take, if I know Ukrainian men well, this is going to be a ruthless insurgency which never, never really bodes well as the Americans have discovered for the occupying force. No, I'm in full confidence that Ukraine will not only win this war, but restore all of its territorial integrity, including Crimea.


My biggest fear, what keeps me up at night is that the West starts applying pressure on Ukraine to make concessions. I would be so deeply hurt and ashamed of the West if it did that. We already sold out Eastern Europe, and I will I refuse to live to see that day of that betrayal yet again. I'm very worried about European resolve to stick this out to the end.


Ukraine needs weapons. I do think that what really will turn the balance is much more sophisticated weaponry coming from the West. If we could just get a platoon of Abrams tanks, we could rout whole columns of those old busted T72s and T64 tanks that they have. But for every bit that we delay, you know, there is a Ukrainian man dying in a foxhole.

 
By Konstantin Eggert, The Insider. Cover illustration: Kharkiv / Sergey BOBOK / AFP
 

The article was prepared for publication by volunteers of the Res Publica – Civic Resilience Center.

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