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After several tours as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a Green Beret in Europe, David Bramlette thought his fighting days were over. But last March, he went to Ukraine and fought against the Russians for almost 11 months, leading a multi-national team of volunteers. Bramlette joined William Brangham and gave his perspective on the war and what Ukraine needs to counter Russia.
For more on what Ukraine needs in order to counter Russia, we get a rare perspective from an American who has fought in that war.
William Brangham has that story.
After doing several tours as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan and then several years in Eastern Europe as a Green Beret, my next guest thought his military days were over, and he decided to go to graduate school. But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and that all changed.
Former Staff Sergeant David Bramlette left the U.S. last March, went to Ukraine, and voluntarily fought against the Russians for 10 months. He led a multinational team of up to 50 other volunteers and former soldiers.
David Bramlette is back and back getting his master's degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And he joins us now.
David, thank you so much for being here.
Can you explain a little bit more about the decision you made? You seemingly had put your military life behind you. You're in graduate school. But that all changes. Why?
Staff. Sgt. David Bramlette (RET.), U.S. Army: Yes, I was sitting in graduate school.
We were talking about Ukraine with my previous military experience in the Green Berets. And I thought, I could sit in class and talk about Ukraine, or I could actually go over there and do something about it. So, I did. And it's that simple.
Is that right?
Staff. Sgt. David Bramlette:
And it was the fact that the Russians had illegally invaded another country, that that's what stood out to you?
Yes, to me, this conflict is black and white.
And after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq three times, I felt that it was time for me to go put my skills to use in a conflict that was good vs. evil, in my opinion. This is as clear-cut as it gets. I think it's going to — I think it's probably the most righteous conflict, most righteous war that I will see in my lifetime, to be honest. This is democracy in Europe we're talking about.
We need to stand up and fight against tyranny, essentially.
Given you're over there volunteering your services to the Ukrainians, you have got a very unique perspective that I think a lot of us are curious about one particular thing. Why do you think that the Russians have seemingly done so poorly and the Ukrainians done so well?
So, I will go back to my Iraq and Afghanistan experience on this. You can see, I saw on the ground, what a motivated group of individuals can do to a superpower, essentially. And if you look at the Ukrainian resolve to resist their willpower to fight, I think it ultimately comes down to that.
And, unfortunately, I think a lot of people, a lot of academics, a lot of people in government place too much emphasis on quantitative analysis, number of tubes, number of tanks, et cetera, number of soldiers, and don't place enough emphasis on qualitative factors of willpower.
And I think it's because they're hard to measure, right? So, I think that, fundamentally, that's why.
As you know, President Zelenskyy has — was just at the E.U. He was in the U.K. and in the U.S. before that asking for more and better weapons.
Again, from your perspective, pushing up against the Russians, what do the Ukrainians need most?
So, I may be a little contrarian on this. I think, instead of focusing on combined arms maneuvers and big battle tanks and artilleries and getting them to work together, I think we need to focus on weapons systems that are going to have immediate effects on the battlefield, like ATACMS.
That would be huge. HIMARS.
These are high-powered surface-to-surface missiles.
Yes. And they haven't been given yet.
And the U.S. says, we don't have enough to give right now.
So, in my opinion, with Ukraine, I think that what happens in Ukraine is going to determine the precedent. Like, it's going to set the precedent for the next decade. So we may not have enough of them for us right now, but I think it's worth opening up our stocks of what we have to give it to them, because, if we can push those logistical hubs back farther, outside of HIMARS range, outside of ATACMS, you're going to increase the survivability of these newly formed units, these new brigades of conscriptees, Ukrainians, when they actually have to go on the offensive and push up against those Russian lines.
So you think that is the most critical thing right now, that even though we are hearing these signals that the Russians might be amassing more air force along the border, you think those are the more critical tools?
I would say those are critical.
I have no idea what the stock is on things like MANPADs of Stingers. But those are absolutely essential, because they allow — A, they allow a decentralized form of air defense, so, if the Russians decide to try and make a play for air superiority, which, in my opinion, would be probably the worst-case scenario for Ukraine — for Ukraine at this point.
If Russia can gain air superiority, it's going to be an entirely different battlefield, and the Ukrainians are going to have a very, very hard time of putting up conventional resistance.
Here in Washington, D.C., there is seemingly a split over our support for Ukraine.
The president, his party, and some Republicans argue, we need to be doing everything we can and more. There are some Republicans who are arguing, we're spending too much money supporting Ukraine and our interests lie elsewhere.
What would you argue to those people who are saying enough is enough?
I would ask them to go to places like Kharkiv, Izyum, Donetsk, Kramatorsk, and go see those places firsthand and then come back and tell me the same thing.
What are they going to see there?
Well, you're going to see Izyum, for example, Kharkiv, there are whole neighborhoods that have essentially been leveled, I mean, razed to the ground, there's not a single roof in sight.
This is an epic battle for the heart of democracy. And if we don't take care of this problem now in Ukraine, we're going to have tons of problems downstream internationally, Taiwan, other authoritarian regimes. What does it signal to them if we aren't able to stand up and defend democracy in Europe?
David Bramlette, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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