Ukraine volunteer Elliot Kim sat down with NextShark to share his experiences in the Russo-Ukrainian war zone, including what he did beforehand to prepare, how he got into the country and what he saw once he landed.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 left the rest of the world scrambling to deal with the repercussions.
Many Western nations implemented sanctions against Russia while also sending billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and allowing refugees to cross their borders.
The invasion was a staunch reminder of the fragility of the world’s geopolitical climate. Tensions have risen between China and Taiwan, for example, along with the thought that other countries could follow Russia’s lead.
Several American volunteers, most of whom were former soldiers, have gone to serve in Ukraine’s volunteer army. The volunteers who have gone missing, such as veteran Grady Kurpasi, were reportedly captured by Russian forces.
Kim participated in Ukraine as a soldier in an international volunteer legion from the end of April to mid-June. He then returned home to Atlanta.
He was one of the many volunteers who had a military background, having joined the army right out of high school in 2005.
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After going through basic training, he joined the Artillery Corps and did two tours in Iraq before attending Georgia Institute of Technology for college in 2011.
“I’ve been a civilian ever since,” says Kim jokingly.
When faced with the opportunity to fight in Ukraine, it had been 11 years since he left the army. There was a lot of uncertainty, Kim admits, as to whether he could make a difference in Ukraine.
While volunteering to fight was not an “overnight decision,” he shares that “a very haunting picture” of the Bucha massacre, where over 400 dead bodies were found — many of whom were civilians executed with their hands tied behind their backs — played a large role in his ultimate decision to go.
The image was something Kim found “hard to shake.” He says you could see the “heartbreak” in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s face.
“And I think it’s silly to say, ‘Oh I went over there because of one picture,’” says Kim, laughing. “But that was definitely one of the driving factors.”
“So that's how I arrived at the decision to go over there; knowing that I had the skill set, knowing that I could help. If you're able to help, maybe you do have an obligation to help, and so I ended up putting in my two weeks' notice and arranged for my travel.”
Kim shares that when you exit the military you have to return all of your body armor and field gear, but there are some “scraps” leftover. For the things he needed to buy, he says he “went off memory.”
He also was in contact with the Ukrainian embassy, which gave him basic instructions on how to get into the country.
“I was definitely not alone in this. There are thousands of people from around the world — from [the] United States, from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia — you know, that were going over there. So the Ukrainian embassy was in a position to facilitate that travel for many people, not just myself.”
Kim says that after he put in his two weeks' notice, he had “time to just sit there” and conclude his shopping. He spent his time packing and talking with his brother and some “old army buddies” to ensure he had everything he needed.
“And it was kind of a group effort,” he adds.
In total, Kim took about 100 pieces of equipment to Ukraine, including a Swiss Army knife, 550 cord and some ponchos. His uniform included neck gaiters, boots and grenade pouches. The most expensive pieces of gear were big items, such as his helmet and body armor, all of which civilians can buy in the country.
“So the body armor — the front plates [cost] about $700, back plates are about $700. Then you had about two side plates, which are about $400. Helmets [cost] about $700. I think in total, [it] ended up running about almost $5,000 in equipment, maybe a little bit less.”
Weapons were the one thing Kim did not have to pack and prepare.
“When you get here [Ukraine will] issue you one and then you don't have to worry about resupply,” he shares.
When asked what he felt while on the plane heading over, Kim answers that fear is inevitable, saying, “There’s definitely always an element of fear for sure. I think, you know, maybe there are some people who choose not to admit it or choose to block it up. But I think it's pretty universal. There's always that fear.”
Kim adds, “With that being said, because this was not my first time I'm going into a combat zone — in a weird way, it's almost comforting, this kind of familiar[ity]. When I flew into Iraq, we did the exact same: We flew up to New York and we flew up to Greenland and then Germany and we went through Europe. So the flight path that I took was very similar, and the flight, the boredom. The flight is very familiar. It was almost like riding a bike — a very dangerous bike.”
He states that his “primary” concern, however, was worrying that he had forgotten some things about combat.
“I've been working in system operations in a financial company for the last 10 years," he says. "Do I even still remember how to train on basic combat, maneuver the basic combat drills, how to do basic rifle marksmanship? These are things that I'm supposed to help the Ukrainians train with. Do I remember all the little details?"
"So there was more of just worry and reviewing old Army field manuals to make sure that I go over there and help, that I'm actually providing good quality help, and not just, ‘Oh, yeah, this is how you do it.," Kim adds. "So it's, I guess, more worrying, nervousness and, to a lesser degree, a little bit of fear. But I think you get over that after your first combat tour.”
He also adds that he has his own rifle, which he would fire “occasionally” around “once or twice a year” to “keep that skill from completely degrading.”
In Ukraine, Kim first went to the capital city of Kyiv, which seemed far from a war zone.
“Once you get there, at least within the city of Kyiv, it doesn’t feel like there’s a war going on,” he states. “It’s almost [like] you can pretend it’s just a normal European city: you have restaurants open, they have people walking around, people going shopping.”
“There’s not too much damage, especially in the middle of Kyiv, so you could almost pretend that there’s no war going on," he adds. "Maybe the air sirens, occasional caliber cruise missiles coming from Russia. Beyond that, you can pretend there’s no war going on.”
One thing Kim says he noticed, however, was the complete absence of children.
“All the schools are closed, almost all of the children have been evacuated," he says. "So it’s kind of weird to get a city of just adults.”
A huge component of Kim’s work was to teach Ukrainian soldiers how to use U.S. weapons because many of them did not have experience using the missiles or drones sent over by the U.S government.
He says that “90% of the time,” he and his team were focused on just training, but anything could come up in a day.
“There were some days, you know, you drive by a house and the roof is just completely blown off and you go talk to the owner, and it’s some old lady who is still living in this house even though her house is completely destroyed,” he shares.
“This is in an area called Irpin, which had been hit particularly hard," Kim says about the following video he shared with NextShark. "Her son and her husband had been killed in the attacks and it was just her and no roof right above her bed, nothing but bullet holes.”
Kim confesses that he felt there was not much he could do for the woman at that point, and that building a roof “feels like such a drop in the bucket” considering everything she had gone through.
The desire to share their experiences was something Kim found to be a common theme amongst the Ukrainian civilians.
“There's just this feeling amongst a lot of civilians that the world may have forgotten or is okay with what’s going on over there,” he says. “They’re happy to just come up and volunteer to share their stories and volunteer their information. ... And you just listen.”
It is illegal for Ukrainian men to leave the country, so for those whose wives and children have evacuated, “stories” are all they have left, adds Kim.
Regarding the language barrier, Kim shares that he used a bit of Duolingo for Ukrainian; however, two weeks was not enough time to learn a new language.
“Fortunately, speaking English in Ukraine — and I guess many of the Eastern European countries — is something that people do when they’re seeking higher job prospects,” he says. “I would say about at least 10% of the population speak some English, with some speaking more fluently than others for sure.”
Kim could not disclose the location of the places he slept; however, he shared that they operated out of a “main facility” in which the soldiers slept on the ground.
“It’s important to have our packing list when we come over,” says Kim, who brought his own sleeping mat and sleeping bag.
While the facility had running water, there were no showers.
“Locals would provide us [with] showers in their own homes and hotels," he shares. "I would say every couple of days — maybe three or four, sometimes longer — we would just take a shower.”
For days, the soldiers had no place to wash and would wipe themselves down with baby wipes.
As for food, locals would cook meals for them, something they were “happy to do.” Kim fondly recalls the locals creating “a very welcoming environment.”
Now that he is home, Kim reflects that “things are very, very rarely black and white,” especially with the “particularly dark” things he witnessed in Ukraine.
“It’s never really [as] Hollywood [puts it] — good versus evil,” he says.
Despite everything the Ukrainians have encountered, Kim says something that he tried to communicate best was the global standards of war which were established during the Geneva Convention. Not executing prisoners of war, for example, is a standard he tried to emphasize.
“But it’s very difficult to teach the locals, ‘You have to treat these Russian prisoners of war ethically.’ It’s hard to get that message through to them, you know, when their loved ones have been murdered. And it’s almost like the evil begets more evil.”
President Biden recently pledged another $1 billion in security assistance to Ukraine on Monday, bringing the country’s commitment to a total of $9.8 billion. This includes munitions for long-range weapons, trucks and armored medical transport vehicles.
Featured Image via Elliot Kim