A Canadian military veteran who was severely wounded while clearing Russian anti-tank mines in Ukraine is now safe at an Ottawa hospital, making him the first injured volunteer fighter from Canada known to have returned home from the war in Eastern Europe.
The 50-year-old veteran was evacuated from the war zone after months of work by Aman Lara, a Canadian non-profit that was founded in 2021 to help people escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. His return trip was also aided by his family at home, and by $60,000 in donations raised on the online fundraising platform GoFundMe. He travelled to Toronto from Warsaw and arrived Thursday. The Globe and Mail has agreed to refer to him only as JT, owing to ongoing security concerns.
Brian Macdonald, Aman Lara’s executive director, said he is not aware of any other wounded Canadians who have returned from Ukraine.
“Canada’s not at war with Russia,” he added. “But some Canadians are.”
JT was wounded on May 15 in the southeastern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia while serving with a unit of foreign fighters called the Wolverines, whose job was to locate and clear anti-tank mines so Ukrainian fighters could safely advance on Russian positions.
The men operated in pairs. JT’s partner, a 52-year-old U.S. Army veteran named Stephen Zabielski, touched a tripwire and set off a mine. Mr. Zabielski died instantly, and JT called for extraction. When the truck that came to rescue him got stuck on some nearby train tracks, he attempted to free the vehicle. In the process, he set off another mine that was planted alongside the tracks.
What happened afterward is a blur in his memory.
“What I was told was the truck was on fire. One of my guys said that I got out of the truck. That was some sort of auto-function or something like that, because I don’t remember doing that,” he said during a bedside interview in June.
He later woke up in a Ukrainian hospital with a severe concussion and shrapnel in his face. His left arm was broken and he had suffered burns to much of his body. His left tricep was almost completely destroyed and his lower body needed skin grafts.
Mr. Macdonald said bringing JT home was a daunting task that required significant co-ordination, both at home and abroad.
JT needed medical supervision during the entire trip, which began in Eastern Ukraine. From there, he was taken to the Polish border, where he had to pass through customs. He returned to Canada on a commercial flight.
Despite the grave situation, Mr. Macdonald said, JT had to clear the same hurdles any civilian would when travelling internationally, because he was not operating in Ukraine as a representative of the Canadian military.
“All those important details, if you don’t get it right, he’d be sitting in a customs office in Poland somewhere for hours,” Mr. Macdonald said.
Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Lama Khodr said in an e-mailed statement that the department is aware of the situation and providing consular services, but she otherwise declined to comment, citing privacy concerns. Ms. Khodr did not answer a question about how many Canadians are believed to be fighting in Ukraine. She would say only that there is currently an advisory recommending against all travel to the country.
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