18 Mar 2022

Army veteran travels to Ukraine to train volunteer fighters

From Morning Report, 7:12 am on 18 March 2022

A New Zealand Army veteran has joined the ranks of Westerners who travelled to Ukraine to train thousands of volunteers how to hold and shoot a gun as the war wages on.

Civilians learn to use AK47 rifles in a cinema at the Lviv Film Center on 5 March 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine.

Civilians learn to use AK47 rifles in a cinema at the Lviv Film Centre (file image). Photo: AFP/Andalou

The former solider served for six years specialising in logistics, with experience in Iraq as part of the New Zealand training team.

The man, who RNZ agreed not to name, is currently in Lviv after travelling from Aotearoa to help the Ukrainian war effort.

He thought there were roughly 300,000 refugees on the streets of Lviv, maybe more, as they arrived daily.

The refugees were those who had not been able to cross the border to Poland or were waiting for paperwork to travel out of the war-torn country.

The city, which is yet to be attacked by Russia, had also become a bit of a training ground for volunteers, he said.

While they had no military experience, they were committed to fight, the veteran said.

"These are ridiculously strong people, the spirit is indomitable."

Each day, volunteer trainers leave the city to an undisclosed training ground where they hand in their cell phones to the local district commander.

The veteran said this was an essential measure after Russia bombed a shooting range earlier in the week, killing 35 and injuring more than 100 others.

"I felt that the other morning, because it's only 30 kilometres from here, I was actually woken up by the blast."

He believed it became a target after geo-locations from cell phones pinged at the site, alerting Russia to their whereabouts.

They were also battling a constant problem of infiltrators feeding information back to the Russians, he said.

The training team he was working with was small but growing steadily, although they were very light on resources, he said.

Because it was a volunteer operation, it was hard to equip people with helmets, body armour and weapons, but they had a very simple training focus.

"Everything from basic weapon handling to tactics, you know, within peers, but also within small number of soldiers, between two and 14 soldiers, teaching them to operate within their groups.

"Hopefully, they can pass that knowledge on to others"

He thought about 90 percent of the volunteers had no military experience at all, and those who did were not necessarily prepared for combat or a real-life war scenario.

"We are training on different AK [rifle] variants, there's nothing heavier than that... these guys are just at such a basic level."

They were also limited because of supply issues, a problem which stretched into the front line.

"I know guys that are actually fighting on the front lines, who haven't even got a weapon.

"Some of them who have had to take weapons from fallen soldiers, because otherwise there's nothing else."

What was out there was also very low quality from overseas donators, he said.

But the volunteers were determined to learn and committed to fighting against the Russian army for their country.

Instead of leaving, they were staying to defend their home, he said, with tens of thousands waiting for training.

"A lot of these guys are motivated by the fact that they've got family and friends in the east or in the north who were actually suffering because they're close to the front lines or in occupied towns, and these guys just want to learn to fight, so they can do their best, very patriotic people.

"These guys take the training very seriously, much more than any other group I've ever trained. They just want to do their best to defend their homeland."

When asked why he left New Zealand and headed to a war zone, the veteran said he felt he had to help.

"I got in touch with a lot of people all coming to Ukraine for various reasons. Some of them wanted to come and fight, some of them wanted to come deliver humanitarian aid. I think others just wanted to be war tourists.

"But I'm here to train, that is my background."