A Canadian military veteran who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan before volunteering to fight for Ukraine will spend Canada Day seriously injured in a hospital, hoping an online campaign will raise enough money to pay for his evacuation to Ottawa.
JT, as the 50-year-old career soldier is known, escaped serious injury during two tours in the Balkans and four in Afghanistan, where he served in Kabul and Kandahar. But on May 15, his good fortune ran out.
His unit of 12 foreign volunteers – who had adopted the nickname “Wolverines” – were on a mission in the Zaporizhzhia region of south-eastern Ukraine, clearing anti-tank mines so that Ukrainian troops could advance to a position Russian. They operated in pairs. JT – the unit’s mine clearance specialist – and an American moved through a wooded valley, using handmade grappling hooks to remove mines from the path of the expected Ukrainian attack.
Then came the radio call that would forever change many lives. Another Wolverines member – US Army veteran Stephen Zabielski – had hit a tripwire and detonated a mine. The 52-year-old was killed instantly, the second American combatant to die in this war. Another American was seriously injured.
The explosion had probably alerted nearby Russian forces to their presence. JT and his comrade called in their extrication vehicle – a pickup truck – to pick them up so the Wolverines could evacuate their wounded and pull out before the Russians intervened.
But the misfortunes of the unit began to multiply. The Ukrainian driver of the pick-up truck stuck the vehicle on the railway tracks that cross the forest of Zaporizhzhia. JT, a retired combat engineer, took control of the situation and told the others to get to the rendezvous point while he and his American colleague tried to extricate the truck.
That’s when JT made a “bad call”. The only way to free the vehicle was to back it onto the tracks. In the fray, he threw the truck in reverse without first checking that the tracks had not been trapped.
It was then that the truck backed into an anti-tank mine.
He doesn’t remember what happened next. “What I was told was the truck was on fire and one of my guys said I got out of the truck. It’s some sort of automatic function or something because I don’t remember doing it,” he told The Globe and Mail in a bedside interview.
The next thing he knew was that he was arriving at the hospital, unable to see and fearing that his eyes were sealed, before falling back into unconsciousness.
JT’s eyes were fine, but he had shrapnel to his face and a severe concussion. His left arm was broken and much of his left triceps had melted away. Her legs and buttocks were also badly burned, requiring skin and tissue grafts on the front of her thighs.
The frontline trauma center where JT briefly awoke was the first of six Ukrainian hospitals he would be quickly transferred to as local medics stabilized him and treated his various injuries. Today, the Calgary-born Ottawa resident, who grew up and attended community college in Edmonton, is in serious but stable condition in a hospital in a mid-sized city in western Ukraine, not far from the Polish border.
He is the third Canadian to be injured in the war – and the most seriously injured. The Globe does not use his last name or name the city where he is receiving care until he is overseas.
The lingering effects of the concussion mean he will need long-term medical attention. He speaks slowly and says he sometimes struggles — lying in his hospital bed, surrounded by Ukrainian-speaking doctors and nurses — figuring out what is real and what is a dream.
“It’s hard for me to say that this is really happening. I don’t know if the explosion didn’t kill me,” he said, stopping several times to search for his words. “Until you got to the door, I didn’t know [interview] was real. Until I change the dressing, I don’t know if I’m going to change the dressing. »
He said the only reality he could focus on was when he would be back in Canada, to hug his friend Erika, who runs the GoFundMe campaign to get him out of Ukraine. In his current state, he would need specialized transportation to Poland and then some kind of medicalized flight to Canada.
So far, the “Get JT home from Ukraine” campaign has raised just over 10% of its $200,000 goal.
JT said he decided to join the fight for Ukraine in March, after deciding he “couldn’t turn away” from what he had seen happen to the country. He had retired as an active soldier in September, so there was nothing stopping him from volunteering – at least from a legal standpoint. He applied for and was granted a one-year leave from his government job in Ottawa.
Upon arriving in Ukraine, he enlisted in the International Legion, a loosely organized volunteer formation that was established on February 27, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called in foreign fighters to help his country.
At a training center in western Ukraine, JT connected with other English-speaking military veterans and decided they had enough training and compatible skills to form their own unit – nine Americans , two Britons and JT. They adopted the nickname “Wolverines” without ever admitting aloud that they had borrowed it from Red Dawna 1980s film about a group of American teenagers who band together to fight off a Russian invasion.
They spent several weeks training – focusing mostly on urban warfare tactics, expecting street-by-street battles for control of Ukrainian cities – then moved to Kyiv, where they were asked to help to train less experienced foreign volunteers. With the war largely concentrated in the east and south of the country, JT says the unit was frustrated to be so far from the fight they had come to join.
Finally, they were deployed to Zaporizhzhia, where they found the action they dreamed of. But fighting the Russian army – which has a 10-to-1 artillery advantage along the front line – has proven very different from fighting the lightly armed Taliban in Afghanistan or serving in peacekeeping missions. peace in the Balkans.
Despite the severity of his injuries and not knowing how or when he will return home, JT does not regret his decision to volunteer.
“I have no regrets. I might have checked the ground before backing the truck up, but I would have come anyway,” he said, grimacing as he shifted in bed. “One thing I always said when I was in the Canadian army is that we are always Canadian first, and that Canadians sincerely want to help people. As for me, I could no longer look at it from television… I couldn’t not do something.
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