A man reclines in a chair in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Rzeszow, Poland, a beer in one hand and his phone in the other.
He has just gotten off a flight from New York, initially intending to head straight for the Ukrainian border, about 65 kilometres to the east. But his body armour was lost on the flight. While he contemplated going in without it, he’s decided to wait and see if it arrives tomorrow.
The man, Cody Heard, from Texas, speaks openly about his background — a former U.S. infantryman, he was medically discharged from the army in 2018. He has no combat experience, no overseas tours under his belt. This is his first international trip ever. He is annoyed about the hoops he had to jump through to get into the country without a COVID-19 vaccination.
He holds up his phone, opening the TikTok app to show off his videos readying for his Ukraine trip. He has 75,000 followers.
“See, since I last checked, I’ve had 433 new followers. All from this video I posted on Ukraine,” Heard says. The video in question, shares his motivations for fighting in a war to which he has no real connection, while pleading for followers and donations. It has 1.4 million views.
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He posted another video on March 20, telling his followers he made it to Ukraine. He never got his body armour. He’s gone on without it.
Heard is one of thousands of foreign fighters who have arrived into Ukraine to take up arms — some with military experience, some without.
Social media platforms are awash with queries from people with no military experience asking for donations and passports to get them there, drawing ire from the general public and Ukrainian volunteer battalions alike.
This has led experts and battalion organizers to question the motivations of these soldiers entering a war they usually have no connection with. They’re concerned many are simply “glory-seekers” or right-wing extremists looking for an excuse to kill.
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For this reason, many volunteer battalions are now tightening their screening processes. The International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, the official channel for foreign fighters, will only consider recruits with combat experience. The Ukrainian military is now urging those without military experience to stay at home.
“Our main priority is combat experience and all of them have to understand their role and place,” Anton Myronovych, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, tells Global News.
“We don’t need mercenaries who think they may make some money or something like that.”
This phenomenon has also raised questions about what will happen when these people return home.
For Canadian foreign fighters, in particular, Veteran Affairs has said it bears no responsibility for physical or psychological injuries acquired by anyone, since Global Affairs has advised against travel to Ukraine.
How foreign fighters are attempting to get to Ukraine
On February 27, three days after Russia launched its invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call for foreign volunteers to help fight for his country’s freedom — an international legion that would operate as part of Ukraine’s military.
The next day, he signed a decree waiving visas for any foreigners who wished to join the fight and launched a website outlining how to apply to the newly created International Legion.
In the month since, thousands of foreigners have applied to be part of the group. Many, however, have failed.
Bryson Woolsey, from Powell River, B.C., spoke in early March of his plans to quit his job as a cook to travel to Ukraine, despite having no military experience.
Several days later, Woolsey posted on Facebook saying he was denied by the Legion due to lack of experience and said he lacked the financial means to help in other ways suggested to him. Woolsey’s admission has since been deleted. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Telegram and Signal channels for foreign fighters are replete with inexperienced civilians asking how they can offer their assistance to Ukraine.
Many ask for monetary donations or a plane ticket to get to Poland. Some ask how to get in without a passport or for sponsorship to get one.
Reddit is a particularly eye-opening glimpse into the world of users who claim to be willing recruits.
“I weight (sic) 370 and am 6’4, I am Canadian and take medication (I would bring enough for many months and hell would be willing to share with the med staff) would they accept me? Would I be more hinder than help? I can stand, I can hold a gun and I can throw a grenade,” one user asks, on the Volunteers for Reddit board.
“I’m a 21 [year old] male. I’m not in very good shape physically. I’m a felon and on probation. I have no combat experience but I really want to do this,” another says.
Others appeal for money to go, asking what the chances are of being injured and coming home alive versus the chances of dying. Some ponder if a battalion of Canadian truckers could be assembled to fight.
However, they are exactly the people the International Legion is trying to avoid.
While he wouldn’t speak to numbers, Corporal Damien Magrou, Legion spokesperson, says the organization has attracted many applications from unsuitable and inexperienced candidates, but he adds the vetting process has been set up for the explicit purpose of weeding those people out.
“Our main criteria is they should have live combat experience. It’s not enough that they’ve been in the military…they need to have been in the line of fire,” Magrou says.
To apply to the Legion, hopeful recruits must fill out a questionnaire that asks about their military experience and criminal history via Ukrainian embassies.
While that part of the process is self-reported, Magrou says it is up to the Legion to verify information that people provide. This is done through tests and a psychological assessment.
“We are conducting fairly stringent assessment procedures for every recruit upon arrival, not only people’s hard skills, but also the suitability of their motivations and general attitude to the Legion are relevant in this process,” he says.
“The first thing we ask them is where did you get this experience, if they can’t answer that, we consider they don’t have it.”
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If approved, they sign a contract which bonds them to the Legion for as long as martial law is in place.
Magrou would not say how many applicants have been turned away because he did not want to deter people from applying. He said, however, that the vast majority of rejects do not return home after being unsuccessful. Instead, they head into Ukraine anyway to attempt to join another volunteer battalion.
The attack on the Yavoriv military base in early March, which killed at least 35 Ukrainian fighters, “had an effect” on some of the Legion’s foreign fighters. They decided to leave and were offered discharges, Magrou says.
‘We have no weapons, no armour’
Before he left to fight for Ukraine, Anthony Walker was a comedian from Port Hope, Ontario. He has no connection with the country and had never fought in a war before, but wanted to put his medical training to good use.
In a media interview before he left, Walker said: “Right now, I’m acting just as a medic, but the further we get into Ukraine, the more of a combat role I’ll take on. So eventually it’ll just be straight-up combat medic. So, like, half shooting people and half healing people.”
In the weeks since, Walker has become vocal about his experiences on Twitter and has amassed 120,000 followers — changing his Twitter handle to include “temporary Ukrainian.”
But things seemingly didn’t go to plan. On March 18, Walker posted a long thread to Twitter, outlining the issues he faced since entering Ukraine. He addressed the post to and tagged President Zelenskyy, saying: “I’m with a special forces group in Ukraine — but we’re not being used. We have no weapons, no armour and apparently no one can change those things. We are looking to get to the front lines but apparently aren’t needed?”
It’s unclear who Walker is with and why he has no armour. He spoke earlier of taking his own.
Walker’s post went on to say that his group were getting “jerked around by everyone we meet,” and then suggested that the Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force were killing Ukrainians deliberately and that Zelenskyy should “take the weapons from these people and get them into the hands of people willing to go shoot the actual enemy. It’s not really that difficult.”
Walker has since made his Twitter account private. He did not respond to a request for comment from Global News.
‘Glory-seekers’ often motivated by social media
Harrison Jozefowicz, founder of volunteer group, Task Force Yankee Ukraine, which is helping army veterans into the International Legion and other volunteer battalions in Ukraine, says about 55 per cent of their recruits are rejected due to inexperience or questionable motives.
Jozefowicz was in the US army for five years, serving as an airborne paratrooper, did a tour of Afghanistan and then returned home to become a Chicago police officer.
He started his task force the day after the war in Ukraine began to act as a “logistical pipeline” in getting volunteers signed up with battalions, coordinating medical training and bringing in aid from Poland. Most of the recruits are from the U.S. or Canada.
The group has its own vetting process which uses a questionnaire and asks for credentials, before referring them onward.
“It’s everything short of a background check. Then we dive into their social media — checking their motivations, head space and stuff,” Jozefowicz says.
Prior experience as a veteran of the armed forces is a preference but not required, the group’s questionnaire says. People who don’t fit that criteria can often be used as volunteers in other ways or as stateside support, Jozefowicz says. Applicants must also pay for their own flight to Poland and have $2,000 in savings to sustain them. The task force tries to help with accommodation options and food supplies.
“A qualified candidate is any motivated, physically fit, individual of sound character and financial stability,” Jozefowicz says.
“We’re putting a stop to unskilled civilians coming here. When we meet them, we try our best to help them out, but we are very blunt with them. People from all backgrounds need to realize that Ukraine is not for the faint-hearted, it is an active war zone,” he says.
They have had several far-right applicants applying, but Jozefowicz says these people are usually found out in the vetting process.
Far more of a concern, he says, are the number of “glory seekers.” These are the people who exaggerate their war stories and show up for gloating rights and clout. Many, he says, are motivated by social media.
“I met two individuals in Poland who said they wanted to come over here for two to three days to get some videos and photos of themselves helping refugees, to get in with the girls on Tinder,” he says.
“It’s very disheartening.”
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Of the 55 per cent of people the group rejected, Jozefowicz says he would consider less than 10 per cent far-right extremists, 20 per cent unskilled civilians and 25 per cent without “the level headedness that we need. They say they just want to get over there and go kill some Russians.”
The latter reason is one that Walter Callaghan, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who studies mental health issues among veterans and served in the Canadian Armed Forces for almost 10 years, believes should be among the most important red flags for recruiters.
“I did work as a recruiting officer for my unit and…when [people] go, ‘I want to go kill some ‘racist expletive of your choice’ it’s like, yeah, I’m not processing your application, you’re not what we want in the army,” Callaghan says.
“You really do have to look at the motivations for why people are wanting to do this.”
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Untrained fighters are ‘a liability’
Callaghan acknowledges that while far-right wing individuals are being recruited to fight in Ukraine, in groups such as the Azov brigade — a far-right military unit accused of espousing neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies and part of the justification Russian President Vladimir Putin has for the war — these examples are few and far between.
“Their message is a lot scarier because they are more than willing to take anyone who has absolutely no training because they just want cannon fodder and they’re willing to take any kind of loss of life because it also props up their ideological basis,” he says.
But, far more often, it is the untrained fighters who become far more of a hindrance than a help — especially those who aren’t signed up to an official group.
“You’re just wandering around the countryside and you’re going to be taking resources away from the actual Ukrainian army, because they’re not going to be sure who you are or why you’re there. The immediate suspicion is going to be that you’re some Russian saboteur,” Callaghan says.
“Those are troops who should be and could be fighting the Russians and are now going to be having to deal with you. You’ve now caused a problem for the very people you’re supposedly trying to support.”
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The issues with inexperience extend far beyond that, Callaghan says. Soldiers with combat experience not only know what fighting in a war is like, but they also know how to react in certain situations. In an ambush, for example, untrained civilians can panic or react badly, often resulting in higher casualties.
“You’re a liability to anyone who’s going to try and save you the moment you get shot,” he says.
“You’re not prepared for this. This is not Call of Duty. This is not a video game.”
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But this is also not a new phenomenon, Callaghan says. Foreign fighters have flocked to wars in Syria and Vietnam. Perhaps the best example is the Spanish Civil War — when the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, or the “Mac-Paps” fought alongside fascist forces against the wishes of the Canadian government. Mac-Pap survivors did not receive government pensions and largely missed out on Veteran Affairs support since they were not recognized members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
Similarly, members of the CAF were recently banned from joining foreign fighters in Ukraine.
Veteran Affairs has also made it abundantly clear that support will not be available to any Canadians fighting unofficially in Ukraine — leaving foreign fighters to face a similar fate as the Mac-Paps.
A Veteran Affairs spokesperson confirms services and benefits for veterans are provided to only those who serve with the CAF.
“Anyone who is injured or becomes ill as a result of circumstances unrelated to Canadian military service is not eligible for benefits,” the spokesperson said.
“Global Affairs Canada continues to advise all Canadians against travel to Ukraine for any reason.”