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Why this American is on the frontlines of Ukraine’s long war

The war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is in its sixth year, with around 13,000 dead and no sign of resolution. The U.S. has provided financial support to Ukraine, but not soldiers. And although there is no U.S. troop presence anywhere near the fight, some American citizens have elected to join the battle on their own. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky shares one such story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was widely reported that the Trump administration may block $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine as part of its overall efforts to curtail foreign aid.

    Mr. Trump began supplying weapons to Ukraine two years ago in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. The war there is now in its sixth year, with thousands dead and no signs of an end in sight.

    And with no U.S. troop presence anywhere near the front lines, some American citizens have decided to go and fight anyway.

    From those front lines, special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Damien Rodriguez is an American citizen from the Bronx with a habit of fighting in wars that many would say are not his own.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    My passion is to volunteer for different militaries, militias, and help defend their land.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In 2015, Damien traveled to Syria.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    The ISIS videos that were coming out decapitating people, burning people alive, selling women, I felt like I had to do something, and our government wasn't doing enough, and heard that people were out there helping and decided to go and help.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    He had no military experience. The only branch he'd served in was a bank branch in Delaware.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    I dealt with all the automated cash transactions, a lot of spreadsheets, Excel. Not for me, I guess.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Today, he's a long way from the spreadsheets, fighting an enemy even more formidable than ISIS or arithmetic, the Russian military. Last year, Damien joined the Marine Corps of Ukraine.

    We're in a trench on a hill that's overlooking some of the Russian-backed forces' positions. The reason Damien's unit's been sent here is because they're to provide covering fire for another Ukrainian unit that's hunting anti-tank crews that have been harassing Ukrainian vehicles lately.

    This machine gun nest overlooks the positions of the Russian military and their local separatist allies, who want to wrest control of Eastern Ukraine from the central government in Kiev.

  • Man:

    Go, go, go, go, go, go, go.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    It's a war that's claimed the lives of some 13,000 people since 2014. And aside from the occasional foreign volunteer, Ukraine, which has regularly committed its troops to America's wars around the world, has had to wage this fight on its own — well, almost.

    Damien came here, not just without the blessing of his government, but also without his family's. He left his girlfriend and two sons behind in the United States.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    That didn't go over too well. She was extremely upset, couldn't understand why I would give up my family. She's seeing it as giving up my family, because, of course, there's a possibility of death.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Extremely upset is putting it lightly.

    In the months leading up to his departure to Syria, Damien's ex sued him for withdrawing money from a joint account. And when he returned in 2017, he was arrested for missing thousands of dollars in child support payments.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    She kind of basically told me they want me out of their life. And at that time, I wasn't in a good state of mind. I had just came back from Syria. And…

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Are you saying that you lost custody of your son?

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    Yes.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So, the United States — the United States has sent $1.5 billion of military aid to Ukraine, but there are no boots on the ground.

    That $1.5 billion goes to weapons, equipment and training. The only American servicemen here are in a facility near the Polish border, over 800 miles west of the front lines. Like the Canadian and British soldiers who are also in Ukraine, they're providing training at a safe distance from the violence.

    There's hundreds of other Americans far away from the front lines in a much safer environment. What does it feel like to be one of the only ones actually on the front line in the only active war in Europe?

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    Last thing we need is another war. If you have more boots here, then that means Russia's going to have more boots over there. And, you know, do you really want this to be a huge, you know, possibly world war, you know?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    One of his commanding officers tells us he's grateful for the fighters from the U.S., Great Britain and Estonia that have joined this unit.

    How did you feel when the foreigners first joined your battalion?

  • Andriy Pidlisny:

    We know the reason why we are here, Ukrainians, because it's our land. We defend it. But why foreign guys come here? We didn't — these guys, very good guys, they're very patriotic. One of them want to take Ukrainian citizenship now, because our allows to do that.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Following in the footsteps of the U.S., Ukraine changed its laws to make it possible for foreigners serving in the military to receive citizenship.

    Not everyone plans on taking it, but the Defense Ministry says there are currently about 130 foreigners serving, including several Americans.

  • Archil Tsintsadze:

    Someone who proves that he wants to be Ukrainian citizen, and he also has the good record of fighting for this country, well, he also has the privilege to be granted Ukrainian citizenship.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The reforms are seen as part of an effort to redirect internationals away from volunteer battalions that were not fully under the Defense Ministry's control, groups like the Azov Battalion, which has recruited many of its fighters from the ranks of the far right and has ties to organizations that participated in the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

  • Archil Tsintsadze:

    That's why you need somehow to regulate these volunteers or foreign fighters or whoever is fighting on your side. It was impossible to plan some military operations because volunteers never accepted your orders, and they did their own military operations.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So, what about the equipment provided with U.S. tax dollars? Some of it has apparently filtered down to the troops.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    We were issued night vision. And I actually just used it last night.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But there is a desperate shortage of one thing on these front lines: safe armored vehicles.

    In this sector, we saw none of the Humvees America handed over with much pomp at this ceremony in 2015. We were told there weren't enough to go around.

    Drones are another area where the Ukrainian military improvises. And Damien is his unit's pilot.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    So, this video actually shows me actually using the drone as a weapon.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Whoa. There it goes. And he runs back into the dugout.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    We were targeting the vehicle. We had no clue who was in the vehicle. It just so happened to be one of the big commanders of that battalion.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Anyone can order this quadcopter from Amazon for around $1,500, but it has one deadly handmade modification.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    It just has an attachment here to drop bombs. Stuff this — plastic explosives into the tube, set a detonator inside, and once it hits the detonator, explodes. Get a bunch of nice little screws inside there.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Should an American like you really be here fighting another country's war?

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    Our government actually supports Ukraine, very much so. I would never go against my country's wishes. Syria was a bit on the line.

    When I got back, guys from, like, Homeland Security and even FBI guys, they were like, oh, thank you very much, you know?

    I share a room with another guy. This is my bed. Sorry for the mess.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    For Damien, being out here on the front lines, despite the constant dangers, things somehow seem easier and more straightforward than the life he abandoned in the U.S.

  • Damien Rodriguez:

    Don't get me wrong. I love America, I love my home and my family. But Ukraine is growing on me, and I really respect the people, especially the people here in the military.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Few Americans have dared openly fight against Russia in its war in Ukraine, but if Kiev continues welcoming foreign fighters, America and other Western countries may get more boots on the ground than they ever bargained for.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine.

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