23 Mar 2023

Kane Te Tai remembered as man of honour committed to aiding Ukraine

10:13 am on 23 March 2023
Former NZDF soldier Kane Te Tai has been killed while fighting in Ukraine.

Colleagues of Kane Te Tai are recalling him as a man who was respected for his professionalism, skill, leadership and sense of humour, while he was in Ukraine. Photo: Supplied

Whānau and friends of slain soldier Kane Te Tai say he will return home as a warrior in life and death, and be remembered as a man who always fought for what was right.

RNZ understands the body of the slain New Zealand soldier has officially been identified as Te Tai and is now being transferred to Kyiv.

He is understood to have been killed while clearing a trench in the Vulhedar area of Ukraine.

Sources have told RNZ he had moved deeper into the trench, away from his team, when he was killed by Russian soldiers.

His team were forced to leave his body there, before Ukrainian marines went in and recovered him overnight.

Veteran support and advocacy group No Duff is now working to ensure a New Zealander can be available to escort his body through the country to the Polish border, before travelling with him for his final journey home.

Comrades and friends have said they believed it was important a Kiwi was always with him, but the process would not be simple.

Te Tai co-founded No Duff with Aaron Wood, who told Midday Report his mother had asked them to manage the journey home.

"We're pulling all the pieces together. A number of volunteers and interested people from New Zealand, all the way through to Ukraine and in between, are coming together to make this happen."

It was highly likely they would be able to bring him home, Wood said, but there were numerous jurisdiction challenges ahead.

Deeply respected during time in Ukraine

Te Tai joined the Defence Force after leaving high school and went on multiple deployments while serving in the 2/1 Royal Battalion.

He left the Army in 2010 and travelled to Ukraine in April last year, operating under the call sign 'Turtle'.

Te Tai was a prominent character in the warzone and was widely followed on social media.

His colleagues described him as well-known and deeply respected for his professionalism, skill, leadership and relentless sense of humour.

They said he never underestimated the importance of his job, or the lives he held in his hands.

His death marks the third New Zealander to be killed in the combat - after the deaths of his best friend Dominic Abelen and humanitarian Andrew Bagshaw.

Te Tai had become the unofficial expert for New Zealanders in Ukraine, often acting as the point of contact for Kiwis wanting to travel to the warzone. He would ensure people knew what they were signing up for, a way to get into the country and a unit to go to.

He admitted in an interview with RNZ his initial motivations for going there were selfish, but that changed quickly on arrival.

The soldier became an infamous figure in the war, often featuring on Russian propaganda sites - seen by RNZ - particularly the Wagner group, who put a NZ$11 million price tag on his head.

In a conversation with friends he joked about ratting himself out for the money, illustrating his sense of humour.

Te Tai always said to his friends he was not afraid to die, but he also was not afraid to live.

During nearly a full year in Ukraine, he garnered respect from people in all walks of life. He volunteered with Ukrainian families, taught civilians how to fight and eventually found a spot at the frontline as one of the team's leaders.

Te Tai said he was fiercely protective of his team and did anything to make sure they were safe.

During one mission in August 2022, his best friend, Abelen, was killed in trench warfare. In an interview after the mission, Te Tai said the team were unable to get his body back and it ended up in Russian hands, but that did not stop him from trying.

He told RNZ they only stopped because Abelen would not have wanted them killed in the process.

Just last week Te Tai posted on social media, revealing that while clearing a Russian position he had found a "long lost friend" who had wanted to visit New Zealand.

Te Tai had thought his friend was dead and was amazed to find him alive, describing it as a "Hollywood moment".

He said at first he did not recognise the man, who had been shot four times and was skinny.

"He'd been starved by Russians for two months and drinking anti-freeze because the Russians wanted a laugh."

The man did not want to be left with the Ukrainians, but Te Tai had to keep fighting. He promised he would return and walk him personally to hospital.

That was exactly what he did, he said.

'The people grow on you'

Army veteran Kane Te Tai

Kane Te Tai Photo: Supplied

In that August interview with RNZ, Te Tai said he had fallen in love with the country and its people, and was deeply respectful of their resolve.

"I was sort of getting a bit bored of being at home... and coming into this conflict was just one of those things that selfishly I thought I could be close to the war without getting too entangled.

"But then that sort of changes... I've met so many people, I've been everywhere in this country and the place grows on you, the people grow on you, and their strength, and that's why I'm still here."

Te Tai said he was prepared to leave everything in Ukraine, but in the weeks before his death he had made moves to return home.

His mother said he always kept her up to date, ending the calls with "I love you Mum", but more recently it was like "I'll see you soon".

In a Facebook message to another friend he said he loved Ukraine, but it was time to start living a real life - "gotta put the toys away and start to build while I can", he said.

"That's enough war for me, I love this place, it's like a playground where I can do anything I want.

"But that's the problem isn't it? So before the game gets me or before I decide that life here is too easy, maybe it's time to start living my real life.

"This place is pure escapism, we are all trying to run from something, mine is from having a real life, but the time is near."

Passionate about the cause

Te Tai is being remembered by his friends and comrades as a man of honour who was passionate about his cause, always doing everything he could to protect people.

Longtime friend Aaron Wood described Te Tai as a beautiful man, who he loved to bits.

"He just wanted people to live their best lives and he wanted to help as many people as he could.

"That sounds like a cliché, but with him it's a truism. That's his whole life... Just serving people, that's what he did, that's what his message was."

That was what he died doing, Wood said.

His mum, Ngaire Te Tai, said there was never any talking him out of it.

"He never did anything by halves, my son. We tried to stop him, but he had his mind made up, that's just Kane.

"When you were around him, you just felt safe."

A gift she said she knew he spread much further than just Ukraine.

Ngaire Te Tai's final comment about her eldest boy was: "Don't let my son's death be in vain."

He leaves behind a 12-year-old daughter.

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