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Life In The Legion: Americans Fighting & Dying In Ukraine

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Photos by Carl Larson and Chris Vader

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, following a months-long buildup of forces across their shared border, and in Belarus.

U.S. intelligence agencies warned of the impending operation, Russian authorities denied it, and most of the Ukrainian population existed in a state of denial due to normalcy bias, including most of their elites. “We didn’t think this would happen,” explained the wife of a Ukrainian politician we interviewed. “There was no reason for Russia to invade.”

Of course, history took a different turn. In the West, people who previously had a Black Lives Matter icon in their Twitter profile embraced the Current Thing and switched over to a Ukrainian flag. Others took a different approach and decided the only way to counter Moscow’s aggression was to shoot Russian troops in the f*cking face. 

So when the Ukrainian government sent out an appeal for foreigners to serve in a hastily organized international fighting force, Americans, Brits, Poles, Mexicans, and a whole ragtag army of other nations’ citizens showed up to pick up a rifle. 

Life In the Legion (9)
Legion fighting position in eastern Ukraine, Spring 2022.

The result was exactly as well run and organized as you’d expect, but despite initial hiccups, the International Legion served to hold the line and slow Russian advances, while Ukraine mobilized its population and quadrupled the size of its armed forces.

The International Legion still serves, and Americans are still joining, so after almost a year, we figured it would be a good time to see who was involved, what they were doing, and how others might help.


The International Legion had a somewhat chaotic birth. Information as to how to actually join was contradictory, and mechanisms to induct volunteers were disorganized and fragmented. This might not have been a huge problem, had complete units been available to slot into the ORBAT. 

But according to Carl Larson, a Legion volunteer from Seattle, Washington, who at one point was involved in recruit induction, “About 80 percent of people who showed up had no business being there.” According to him, the people they weeded out either had mental health issues, drug addictions, or their military experience extended only so far as owning a gun and playing Call of Duty. 

Larson with UA Wolverines patch.

“We ended up with two types of people — the younger guys who wanted the adrenaline rush of combat, and grizzled old bastards who wanted to help, but weren’t super keen on the whole dying part. We tried to encourage the latter. This was very much a psychological challenge, and the older guys knew the importance of trading ego for the greater good.” 

One of those grizzled old guys was Chris Vader, a former Marine machine-gunner who fought through the bad old days of Fallujah and Ramadi and quit his job as CEO of a tech company to join the Legion. He arrived in Poland just a couple of days after the call went out for volunteers, and as he left Warsaw airport expecting someone to at least acknowledge his presence, he looked around to find nothing but the usual queue of taxis. 

Life In the Legion (7)
MG3 is a direct descendent of the MG42. Something, something, history repeating itself.

“There were a few guys wearing bits of uniform who looked scared and were looking for an excuse to say, ‘Well, we tried, now we can go back home.’ Myself and another couple of guys got ourselves to the border, and even the border guards didn’t have a clue.” 

Despite the complete lack of organization that tends to happen when a neighboring country invades your homeland, Vader managed to find his way to an army outpost and then on to the former NATO base at Yavoriv, just in time for the Russians to hit it with Kalibr cruise missiles. 

“When the missiles hit, we ran out of the buildings into the woods in subfreezing temperatures, and I was standing in my underwear when somebody handed me his jacket. We became friends.” According to some accounts, 37 recruits were killed that night, with over 130 wounded.

With continued Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, generators are life.

Another volunteer who cycled through Yavoriv was Brad “Top” Crawford, who wound up drafting the training program for the entire volunteer force, despite resistance from army brass. “They handed me a pamphlet with their training program based on Soviet-era doctrine and I said, ‘Have a nice day.’ Then, Zelensky got everyone together in Kiev and we came up with the doctrine for the Legion, cutting out the establishment.” 

Crawford’s experience based on leading overseas training teams for the U.S. Army placed him in high demand in the eyes of both the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces. He wound up a senior tactical advisor to the UA marines, rebuilding the 36th Brigade, which was ground to dust in Mariupol — and on a Wagner group kill list. 

Eventually, the Russians caught up with him when they targeted his safe house with missiles.

Life In the Legion (23)
Aftermath of the attack on Brad Crawford’s safe house. This close …


Once volunteers had made the journey to Ukraine, having waded through the morass of bullsh*t on Reddit, bought kit, secured plane tickets, and bid farewell to friends and family, the process of turning random individuals into cohesive units began. Vader was appointed company commander and quickly developed a local training program based on his years in the Marine Corps. 

“We concentrated on patrolling, fire and maneuver, and weapons handling for the most part. Working with guys from all different nationalities was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in the military.” 

Work up training before deployment. Not exactly the Ritz.

Issued equipment ran the gamut of barely functioning Soviet-era leftovers to hastily improvised, locally produced facsimiles, to U.S. and European gear. There were reports in Western media in April of factories fabricating body armor from scrap leaf springs, the kind of feel-good, David-versus-Goliath human interest story that gets passed around Twitter accounts in a 2022 version of the “Fwd:Fwd:” email chains of boomers past. 

“The only trouble was, these leaf spring plates definitely didn’t work and were horrendously heavy,” recounted Larson. “We did get some pretty nice plate carriers and M4s courtesy of the U.S. government however.” 

Magpul has entered the chat.

About half a given Legion battalion would have Stoner-pattern rifles, while the rest would use AK-74s with a smattering of random European small arms thrown in, such as CZ BREN 2 and FN FNC carbines. 

Modifications in the field were routine. “I outfitted my ’74 with a folding stock and Holosun red dot, which was more of a status symbol.” As far as more Gucci kit, like FGM-184 Javelins and Switchblades, forget it. “We’re the red-headed stepchild when it comes to getting heavy weapons.”

Life In the Legion (15)
While steel armor will stop 5.45, 7.62×39, and x54R, it’s heavy and spalls.

For five weeks, the recruits lived on a training area in central Ukraine, where this modern-day version of the Brigadas Internacionales of the Spanish Civil War met the harsh realities of life as light infantrymen. Larson was promoted to platoon commander during this time, and in a scenario that’ll be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever been in that role, got to experience the downside to leading Joes. 

“I spent over 50 grand of my own money and was always buying equipment for my troops. We had a small shop on post, and every week we’d have a town run where I’d load up on stuff to fix our tents, or backpacks, or cleaning kits, while the guys were more interested in buying hamburgers and cigarettes.” Infantry platoon sergeants and commanders throughout the ages will no doubt relate to this.

Recruits were schooled in small unit tactics and got to fire their weapons in live drills that reflected the urgent nature of the desired results. Safety protocols that in the U.S. would be hammered home with endless PowerPoint presentations and rigidly enforced by NCO’s protective of their careers were largely ignored in order to save time and push guys out to the front lines, which for the majority of Legionnaires at that time were near Kharkiv. 


It was there that the reality of their situation hit home hard. They arrived in their new AOR on May 28, and shortly after, one of Larson’s platoon members, a big, bullet-headed German who went by the callsign Panzer was killed by artillery fire just outside a building they were using. “We had no means of charging the batteries in our radios, and by the time we’d gotten medics to him by sending a runner, he bled out.” Then, the platoon’s female Brazilian medic was hit in another house, and she and a team member who tried to rescue her both perished in the fire that followed. 

AP mines are a common hazard throughout the contested areas. Here, troops are using Russian SM320 trip flare in training to simulate a POM series mine.

While Larson escaped injury, Vader was not so lucky. His unit was dug in about 2 km from the Russian border, and his fighting position was attacked mercilessly with mortars, artillery, and armor. “We saw three tanks, but heard five, and then a drone was used to direct fire onto our position for about 15 minutes until they hit us. 

I managed to put tourniquets onto my arms and legs and set about helping the rest of the guys, then they started again, trying to finish us off — we think they quit when the drone ran out of battery.” 

When both men returned home to the U.S., they set about creating a 501(c)(3) charity in order to support their brothers in arms. According to Vader, the most important items people can fund or send changes according to the phase of the conflict. In the early days, sandbags and shovels were vital — now they need vehicles and drones. When it comes to patrolling or reconnaissance, “A drone can do the job of 10 guys, and not put them in harm’s way.” 

5.56 NATO ammo cans and ex-Soviet RPG-18 make for an odd combo.

As far as joining the legion goes, the advice from both men is the same. If you don’t have any operational experience, then find another way to help out. “If you do decide to go, then make sure your will is up to date and you give power of attorney to someone to handle your affairs. There is a very real possibility that you will die.” 

In any conflict, 90 percent of casualties are borne by the infantry, and the troops of Ukraine’s International Legion are the lightest of light infantry, at the very end of a precarious and ad-hoc supply chain that’s struggling to get supplies in and casualties out. 

Despite enduring conditions that’d test any professional soldier, none of the troops we spoke to either for this article or in previous visits regretted their decision. “Democracy is under threat both here and abroad,” said Larson. “I just decided to do something about it.” 


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