For three days, a fire grew in Graham’s belly as he watched the news. First, the explosions in Kyiv. Then, the standoff between the Russian warship and 13 Ukrainian guardsmen. The artillery fire at the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv that killed a 6-year-old. The painfully slow-moving sanctions.
Like dozens of other American veterans from the murky wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, Graham, 38, saw in Ukraine a different, more straightforward conflict, with a clear fault line of good and evil. He knew he had to go.
His journey from Central Massachusetts to a war zone began in a place that so many strangers have turned to when in need of advice or community: Reddit. He posted a simple appeal in a group called Ukraine Volunteers, a sprawling forum of more than 1,300 veterans typing into the ether.
“Looking to head over to Ukraine from Boston. Former marine looking for company,” he wrote.
In Marblehead, Trevor LeBlanc, a 28-year-old handyman, had also been scanning the forum. Also unsettled by the invasion, he’d spent that weekend rummaging through the boxes in the attic of his childhood home, searching for the Marine fatigues he’d packed away after being discharged in 2018. His mom paced downstairs, feeling foolish for taking solace in her son’s civilian status when watching television pundits debate the role of American troops in the war.
LeBlanc lit up when he saw Graham’s post.
“Never used Reddit before today but I’m looking for other veterans in the area to link up with,” he responded.
The two exchanged messages before deciding they should meet in person to size each other up. “Hope your [sic] for real,” texted Graham. Where there is bravery and conviction, there is often also bravado and theater. The Reddit threads (and the Polish-Ukrainian border, for that matter) teem with people — both well-meaning and exhibitionist — who say they’re eager to help Ukraine but never act on those words.
Within minutes, they were cracking military jokes and sharing stories from their seven-month tours in the Middle East. And within days, they had landed in Poland on tickets booked by Graham’s wife. Graham, a father of three, requested that his last name not be used out of fear that harassment might be directed at his family.
In Poland, a local businessman shuttled them five hours to the Ukrainian border, where agents at the checkpoint scoffed at their small survival knives. “Go get some Russians,” they said, handing them a larger and sharper one. Graham — bright-eyed and silver-haired — and LeBlanc — tattooed and broad-shouldered — rambled east toward the conflict zones.
LeBlanc came from a family of service. His father was a Marine and his sister enlisted in the Navy at the same time that he joined the Marines. She likely would have boarded that same plane to Poland had she not just given birth to a baby girl.
Meanwhile, Graham’s mom, Michele, often wondered what drew him to the Marines. The closest relative with military experience was her father, who served in the Korean War, but somehow landed a cushy role downhill skiing in the Alps for the Army.
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t even like people owning guns,” she said. “This is all really foreign to us. But how do you ask your kid not to do something that he feels deep down inside is the most intense and purposeful thing he’s ever done in his life?”
If Michele couldn’t stop her son from going, at least she could try to help keep him safe. She posted a long-shot call for help on Facebook, soliciting contacts in Poland and Ukraine. By chance, a former colleague said she knew of an Irishman posted outside Lviv.
Twenty-three years in the Royal Air Force and five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq had landed Aaran Leyland — red-headed, bushy bearded, and brash — in a series of security consultant gigs, most recently for Northrop Grumman. Days after the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, he hugged his 9-year-old daughter goodbye and boarded a plane to Poland wearing a black T-shirt that read “Not Today Jesus.” He felt driven, he said, by a fiery vision of blowing up Russian tanks in Kyiv.
Why would these men, with stable livelihoods, loving families, and no past connection to Ukraine, drop everything to join a war oceans away?
“This may be happening in Ukraine, but it is the world’s fight. I’m young and I started my own business. I have a nice place to live. I have nice stuff. Everything I want. And it’s just like, well, everybody should have that, everybody should be free,” said LeBlanc. He joined the Marines at age 19, anchored by a similar belief.
Graham and Leyland also acknowledged that after decades of Western forces bogging down in smoldering, sullied occupations in countries lukewarm at best to democracy, they were eager to join a seemingly righteous fight to protect freedom and rebuff autocracy.
“I’m not altogether altruistic,” Leyland said one night in April by phone from a new training camp south of the Belarusian border. “I came here to atone for old wrongs. Them wars never seemed right. And the way that we left. ... What the f*** was the point of it all?
“But the point now is that I stayed because of the strength of the Ukrainian people and the fact that the Russians thought they were going to walk all over this country and that hasn’t been the case at all.”
Like Graham and LeBlanc, Leyland entered Ukraine with little plan other than to join the fight in active conflict zones and shell Russians. But along the way, he was introduced to Ruslan Kavatsiuk, a museum director tasked by the government after the invasion with arranging combat training centers for Ukrainians with little, or no, military training.
To Kavatsiuk, it was obvious that the war would drag on for months, if not years. And if Ukraine was to keep up its resistance against Russia, its civilian population too must learn how to defend the country. What they most needed from foreigners intent on helping was not motivation to fight, but a willingness to lead their training. In Leyland he saw a useful partner.
Before the war, Kavatsiuk, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old Ukrainian, served as the deputy director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, which pays tribute to the 33,771 Jews slaughtered by Nazis in a nearby ravine of the same name. When Russian troops invaded with the purported goal of “denazifying” the country, Kavatsiuk and his family fled their home in a suburb of Kyiv.
Russians moved into his brick three-story with a rooftop terrace and backyard where a hammock hung and children’s toys dotted the grass. On March 1, a Russian airstrike targeted a television tower beside the Babyn Yar memorial complex, killing five. When the troops retreated, they left behind a blackened shell of a home and streets strewn with bodies.
“When my wife saw photos of the house, she said to me, ‘And you used to be worried about the children writing on the walls?’ ” Kavatsiuk said one night in mid-April, having not seen his family since evacuating them to safety in Poland. “How small it all seems now.”
A week after they met, Kavatsiuk and Leyland enlisted Graham and LeBlanc to join the training camp. Their pitch, teaching civilians in topics such as field hygiene, the Geneva Conventions, and marksmanship, was far less blockbuster than setting Russian tanks ablaze and joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, a military unit comprised of international fighters with 3,000 American civilians in the ranks.
“I’ll be honest, we fully went to Ukraine to brass up some Russians. But we just kind of fell into this gig as a force multiplier,” said Graham.
By then, anecdotal warnings had emerged that the foreign legion lacked training and equipment, as well as oversight from Ukrainian officers. Kavatsiuk argued the three men — with their combined decades of military experience — would have a greater effect disseminating their knowledge rather than barreling unassisted into Kyiv.
The Ukrainian civilians arrived by the dozens. Doctors. Graphic designers. Farmers. Bankers. All commuted each day to the training camp to undergo 10 hours of instruction. Some held guns for the first time in their lives. Others donned Soviet-era uniforms.
They listened intently as two Massachusetts guys and an Irishman explained how to absorb the recoil of an automatic weapon, make a stretcher from scratch, and avoid being spotted by Russian snipers. The lessons trickled out one sentence at a time: first in the type of accented English you’d hear at an Irish pub in Dorchester, then translated by an interpreter into Ukrainian.
In just three weeks, they taught more than 250 civilians. Among them was 23-year-old Rustlav, a boyish and sparky recent college graduate, whose last name has been withheld to protect his family unable to flee from Ukraine. He moved with his girlfriend to Kyiv after graduating in January, eager to escape his sleepy western hometown and start a career in finance. They abandoned that new life a month later, with sirens blaring at sunrise on February 24, and returned home.
“Look for me, this is really wild. I know university, real estate, and finance. I know nothing of the military,” said Rustlav, a tuff of brown hair peaking out from beneath his gray hoodie during a video call.
His two brothers and mother left the country after the invasion. His father, a territorial defense captain in the Ukrainian army, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers remain. The younger generation chops wood to keep the house warm for the family’s two matriarchs, ages 93 and 90.
“My group was full of my childhood friends. We didn’t want war. We did not want to shoot someone. But the war is at the point where if you are proud of Ukraine, you learn to fight. So we find opportunity to learn to fight,” Rustlav said.
The three men provided the Globe with dozens of videos and photos from the training camps. In one video filmed at the end of a three-day courses, LeBlanc — feet tapping with anxious energy — spread his arms in salute to the group.
“I’m proud of you,” he shouts to a crowd of a dozen Ukrainian men. “I love you guys. You are ... awesome.”
After four weeks, Leyland and LeBlanc drove east to train a new group of Ukrainians in the suburbs of northern Ukraine. They plan to stay through the end of the month if funds allow. Then what? If there are more civilians to train, they’ll continue doing so. If not, the foreign legion awaits.
Meanwhile, in keeping with his promise to his wife, Graham returned home on his round-trip ticket to Logan Airport. There were birthday parties to throw. Construction projects to complete. But he’s struggled to readjust to the quiet rhythms of American life.
“It was harder leaving there than it was leaving Iraq. This isn’t an insurgency. This is a country taking over another country. The web of destruction just goes like this,” said Graham, his hands spreading wide atop a barstool in an Irish pub in Worcester.
The dichotomy between the world he just left and the one he inhabits now leaves him in a disoriented limbo. The war creeps closer to the doorsteps of the civilians he trained with each passing day. But here in Worcester people are sipping Guinness at 2 p.m. and the television screens reel with video of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.
On the flight back from Poland, a woman from Texas saw the service patches on Graham’s flak jacket and struck up conversation. She promised she’d rally her church to raise $50,000 to help fund Leyland and LeBlanc, who have had no income since arriving in Ukraine in early March. “I’ll call you on Tuesday,” she said. He hasn’t heard from her since.