In March, Iraq War veteran Carl Larson took a leave from his digital marketing job in the Puget Sound region to join the Ukrainian struggle against the Russian invasion of their country.
He spent his toughest weeks in the front-line trenches of northeastern Ukraine.
Artillery fire kept him awake through most of the nights, and it was easy to confuse stray dogs walking nearby with Russian soldiers who might be scouting the position of his unit of the International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine.
The risks of exiting the trenches were brutally demonstrated on the afternoon of May 31. Larson and several other soldiers gathered by a command post in a nearby house. A Russian shell hit a tree, then shrapnel fragments struck the head and groin of German legionnaire Bjorn Clavis.
The soldiers lacked a generator to charge their radio, and also a vehicle. So they had to use a runner to summon medics.
Some 40 minutes later, this aid arrived. But Clavis died in an ambulance.
“He lost too much blood,” Larson said.
Larson is convinced Clavis could have been saved if the unit had been able to charge their radios. And since his July return to his home in Snohomish County, he has been raising money to buy generators and other supplies for the legion soldiers, who amid the fall chill have shifted from defensive positions in trenches to joining Ukraine’s fast-moving offensive to reclaim territory held by Russians.
On Thursdays, Larson gathers with a group of legion supporters in a banquet room at European Foods, a grocery and restaurant in north Seattle. Over bowls of borscht and plates of cutlets they share news about the legion and what equipment is needed.
Larson says Ukrainian as well as legion units suffer from supply shortages despite international aid that includes more than $18.2 billion in US government security assistance since 2021.
The legion’s current list of needs includes more cold-weather equipment, drones, communications and vehicles. And some who have served in the legion say that their units, when compared with other front-line forces, have had more serious shortcomings.
“We’re a great PR stunt because ‘Wow, look at all these foreign soldiers who are willing to put their lives on the line for Ukraine,'” said Stuart Burnside, a British veteran from Yorkshire who has been in Ukraine since February. “But we’re fed on scraps – to be fair.”
Others say shortages are a shared hardship.
“Unfortunately, right now, the reality is there’s not enough supplies,” said Evelyn Aschenbrenner, an American who left a teaching job in Poland to staff an International Legion administrative job.
Ukraine ‘way more stressful’
The legion was formed by the Ukrainian government to organize combat units of foreigners to fight in the war. The Russian government declared that they would be seen as mercenaries – and if captured, lack the standing of regular-duty troops. But that did not deter a surge of people, many from North America, Great Britain and Europe, but also some from Latin America and the former Soviet Republic, from making their way to Ukraine, where they receive training and are paid for their service.
Larson, 48, joined the US Army four months after 9/11 and worked as a combat engineer in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As he settled into middle age, he was inspired to take up arms again by what he viewed as the moral imperative of preventing the slaughter of civilians and thwarting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of military conquest.
He said his experiences in Ukraine were “way more stressful and frustrating” than his service in Iraq.
Early on, Larson was dismayed by some of the would-be recruits who had no military experience, or appeared unstable. And Larson initially balked at joining the International Legion, concerned by where he might be sent, what he would be tasked to do and who he might serve with.
But after discussions with Ukrainian officials, he took a job helping to screen new recruits to the legion and prepare them for service. Then, he joined a legion battalion and spent five weeks in training, much of it as a platoon leader, before deploying to the front.
Larson said his unit took up position in zigzagged trenches, some of which were initially made by German soldiers during World II then reoccupied some eight decades later.
“We just dug them out.” They were quite well made,” Larson said.
In the hours before dawn, he sometimes had to deal with business back home — calling contractors to fix a house that he and his wife had bought in Snohomish County.
Some of the legion soldiers Larson encountered served for a few months and left, others had been in Ukraine since late winter. Most get a code name that can be easily remembered and spoken over the radio. Larson was told he would be the Grinch.
Through the course of his service, Larson said the legion evolved, emerging as a more cohesive, fighting force composed largely of a more professional mix of hundreds of military veterans. (Detailed legion troop numbers are not publicly released.)
Larson concluded his military career in Ukraine had dead-ended after clashes with a Ukrainian officer whom he alleged stole money from the unit. The officer was reprimanded but remained in command, and Larson was assigned a new job digging ditches.
A legion spokeswoman said she could not comment on “individual allegations and individual situations. But she said that “we have firsthand experience standing up against corruption and problematic people. It can be done, and it is done.”
With his wife eager for his return, Larson decided to fly back home to Washington a few weeks earlier than he had planned.
Return to Washington
Back in Washington, Larson has stayed in touch with some of the legion soldiers as they have advanced to towns once held by the Russians. The legion casualty count has climbed.
“Now, we have soldiers who engage in combat, and they are more direct targets for tanks and grenades,” Aschenbrenner said.
The legion has released what the communications spokesperson called a partial list of eight legion deaths.
Burnside, as of Oct. 5, said more than a dozen had died. “It’s difficult. We are losing friends,” he said.
Larson recently formed a nonprofit to help supply the legion. He says that a chain of custody to combat those trying to divert and profit from aid has been established to get supplies to legion soldiers.
He also raised money for the legion at events organized by the Ukrainian American community in the Puget Sound region.
Larson does not plan to return to duty with the legion.
“My wife has hidden my passport,” he said. “Hopefully, she hasn’t burned it.”