Foreign volunteers race to train new Ukrainian troops to be sent to the front
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
The Ukrainian army continues to conscript thousands of new troops to replace heavy losses on the battlefield. One thing those new soldiers need - good training. Some retired foreign military members are volunteering to teach fighting skills, but they say they need a lot more time to prepare these troops for the front lines. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Ukraine's Donbas region.
(SOUNDBITE OF RIFLES CLICKING)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There are about 15 Border Force soldiers basically lying on the ground, this snow covered field, and they're learning how to cock and fire their weapons, fortunately with no bullets in them at the moment.
MAGNUS EK: Hello. I'm Magnus. I'm an instructor from Sweden.
LANGFITT: Magnus Ek served as a lieutenant in the Swedish army. He spent months here training Ukrainian troops. As the conscripts stand in line, Ek shows each one how to hold an AK-47.
EK: Try to put this here - on here like this. Can I borrow?
LANGFITT: So he's showing him how to put it on his shoulder and get his eye down right on the sight. Ek teaches through humor. He twists his body like a pretzel, aiming the gun in various directions to show soldiers what they shouldn't do. Some of the conscripts can't help but laugh.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So funny, so funny. Yeah.
LANGFITT: But the situation here - it's no joke. For these conscripts, this is their seventh day as soldiers. Before, they worked as electricians, welders and construction workers. Volodymyr (ph) - he doesn't want to give his full name - is 36 years old and worked in a blast furnace. He finds Magnus' instruction entertaining and useful.
VOLODYMYR: (Though interpreter) Absolutely. You learn how to handle a gun, how to assemble it, disassemble it to understand how it operates, how it shoots.
LANGFITT: Have you worked with guns before?
VOLODYMYR: (Through interpreter) No, never.
LANGFITT: When was the first time you picked up a rifle?
VOLODYMYR: (Through interpreter) Yesterday.
LANGFITT: Ek has just one day with Volodymyr and his fellow conscripts. He won't even have the opportunity to do something very basic - show them how to adjust the sights to their rifles so they can aim accurately. It's called zeroing a gun.
EK: They did not want to zero the guns.
LANGFITT: Not enough time?
EK: I don't know. I don't know - maybe some other time.
LANGFITT: Lieutenant Colonel Vyacheslav Andrusenko is deputy head of combat training for Ukraine's Border Force. He says these conscripts will get about 17 days of instruction. By comparison, basic training in the U.S. Army is 10 weeks. So I asked him, if you were able to, how long would you give them training?
VYACHESLAV ANDRUSENKO: (Through interpreter) I believe in order to be efficient so they can do their tasks, they all need at least 35 days.
LANGFITT: How do you feel?
ANDRUSENKO: (Through interpreter) How do I feel? Well, I'd say I'm concerned. I'm a bit concerned. I just hope that everything we give them, they will use in battle and it will help them to do their tasks to the maximum potential.
LANGFITT: Kelly Kilhoffer is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. On a couple of occasions, he says he was able to get three to four weeks with soldiers. Far more often, he got three to five days. Kilhoffer, who's now back in the U.S., raised concerns.
KELLY KILHOFFER: I was talking to Ukrainian officer. I'm like, look. If we had more time, these guys would last longer. And he said, well, they got three days' training, and they've learned. They've adapted, and they're doing great. And I said, well, yeah, but you're talking to the alive ones. I said, you're not talking to the dead ones.
LANGFITT: One of the dead ones was a gung-ho Ukrainian graphic artist turned soldier named Ed. His passing hit Kilhoffer hard, as well as Kilhoffer's training team, which included Magnus Ek and a retired U.S. Marine staff sergeant named Stan. Ed was a favorite.
STAN: Really funny guy, always a big smile, trained and trained and trained.
KILHOFFER: He'd load up extra magazines. He'd practice shooting. And his total duration of military service was less than two weeks from conscription to death.
STAN: I have him on Signal. His phone isn't on. Like, I used to send him messages. Sorry I'm, like, tearing.
LANGFITT: That was Stan referring to the encrypted messaging app Signal, which is how he stayed in touch with Ed. Stan says Ed died on his first mission, an assault on a Russian trench line that went wrong.
STAN: Minefield, lost both legs - they couldn't retrieve him. And he's still out there to this day. And then this really hurts the most. They said that they heard him. They still heard him.
LANGFITT: The foreign volunteers say they come here for various reasons. Kilhoffer says he saw Russia as a bully, was appalled by the human rights abuses. Ek wanted to put his skills to use from a decade as an instructor in Sweden. And then there's another team member, Shannon Taylor. She's a 25-year-old trauma nurse from New Zealand, provides battlefield first-aid training. She was inspired by a TV show about combat nurses in World War I.
SHANNON TAYLOR: That's when these five nurses found, like, an abandoned building, and they developed it into a field hospital. And they just treated all the wounded soldiers. And since then, like, I've always just wanted to do that.
LANGFITT: Stan, who said he didn't want to use his full name for privacy reasons, sees himself as something of a crusader. He also says there's a common thread among those drawn to this war.
STAN: Atonement. A lot of people are escaping their past, escaping, supposedly, sins that they think they have the chance to, I guess, redo and make the cosmos good again.
LANGFITT: Stan did not elaborate. Back at the training range, a group of soldiers huddle around Taylor. She's kneeling in the snow, showing them how to patch an abdominal wound.
TAYLOR: Do not apply pressure. You just want to apply wetness to the abdominal area, wrap it around just to keep it in place. With the abdominal wounds, you want to make sure you don't push anything - intestines, nothing - back inside.
LANGFITT: Speaking in the team's apartment, Taylor says the training is paying off. One soldier she trained told her he was able to treat two others in the field. One had suffered a head wound. The other lost half his hand.
TAYLOR: He just walked in the door and gave me a massive hug and said that, yeah, he was able to use those skills and - from the time that I had spent with them to rescue these two guys. That just made it all worth it.
LANGFITT: Taylor had planned to fly back to New Zealand in January, but she's delayed her return. She says she wants to stay in Ukraine as long as she can. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kramatorsk.
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