A Canadian combat medic has been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine, friends and fellow fighters say.
Grygorii Tsekhmistrenko, known to his Canadian friends as Greg and to his comrades in the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine as Doc Snickers because of his affection for the chocolate bar, is the third Canadian volunteer killed in battle since the start of the 327-day-old Russian invasion of Ukraine. He died on Sunday near the front-line city of Bakhmut, which has seen months of vicious fighting in a desperate Russian attempt to take over one of the key transport nodes in the Donbas region.
The specifics of Mr. Tsekhmistrenko’s death are not yet public and a spokesperson with Global Affairs Canada refused to confirm anything late Monday afternoon.
On Thursday, Mr. Tsekhmistrenko posted a photograph on Instagram showing him carrying an assault rifle in his right hand – the first two fingers on his left hand raised in a “V” – in a garage with six other Ukrainian fighters, whose faces were obscured. “Donbass,” Mr. Tsekhmistrenko wrote. “Back when it was still warm.”
Tributes poured in under the photo Monday, including from many who said they’d fought alongside Mr. Tsekhmistrenko.
His sister, Alysa, was shocked by the news and initially denied on Instagram that it was true. Eventually she was convinced that her brother – who spent much of his life in Ukraine but acquired Canadian citizenship three years ago at a ceremony in Saskatchewan – was indeed gone. “He left us like a hero and his family is proud of him … and his sister loves him very much,” Alysa, who lives in Ukraine, wrote to The Globe and Mail in a message.
“Doc was an excellent medic and a hell of a warrior, fearless, devoted,” said a Canadian member of the International Legion. Both he and Mr. Tsekhmistrenko were veterans of the Canadian military, the fighter said, and they had most recently served together in Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv earlier in the war.
The Globe is not naming the other Canadian volunteer, since he did not have authorization to speak to the media. The volunteer, who is also currently fighting near Bakhmut, described the battle there as “the most brutal part of the war … and I’ve seen a lot, so that’s saying something.”
Bakhmut, which was home to 70,000 people before the war, has been under fierce Russian assault since August. Fighters there report enormous casualties on both sides as Russia employs scorched-earth tactics – destroying entire neighbourhoods then taking over the ruins – to slowly advance.
In July, Émile-Antoine Roy-Sirois, a 31-year-old Quebecker, became the first Canadian killed fighting in Ukraine when he and three other foreign volunteers were ambushed by a Russian tank in the Donetsk region. Joseph Hildebrand, a 33-year-old from Saskatchewan, died in November when he came under Russian artillery fire near Bakhmut.
Mr. Tsekhmistrenko’s comrades say he joined the Legion in the first days of the war, and fought in the battle of Moschun, a small town north of Kyiv where an early Russian attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital was slowed by heavy losses.
Mr. Tsekhmistrenko’s bravery was chronicled by Nick Laidlaw, a former U.S. marine who recorded combatants’ stories in his book What War Did to Us, which covers the conflict’s first 150 days.
In the book, a combat medic nicknamed Doc Snickers describes how his unit came under heavy fire from Russian artillery as soon as it arrived in Moschun on March 11.
“Unfortunately we had a few wounded, and, by whatever miracle, none dead. One of the wounded was a section commander, young guy of 22, about 6′6 and 235 pounds of muscle. He caught a big piece of shrapnel in his upper left arm which broke the bone and tore a large part of his bicep/tricep away. He did well and handled it like a man but soon from the loss of blood he couldn’t walk,” Doc Snickers is quoted as saying.
“So the four of us had to carry the guy on a cloth litter in his gear and with our gear for about 1.5-2 km, thru woods by rushing from cover to cover while dodging artillery. Some landing within 15 metres of the hole we currently were praying in to which ever god was listening.”
Mr. Laidlaw told The Globe on Monday that Doc Snickers was indeed Mr. Tsekhmistrenko. The Canadian earned his nickname later that day in Moschun by volunteering to go back to the scene of the artillery strike. He had left his backpack behind while carrying the wounded man – which meant that Mr. Tsekhmistrenko was without dry clothing or his precious supply of candybars. “In essence, I volunteered to go rescue my candy and I would do it again,” Mr. Tsekhmistrenko is quoted as saying.
Instagram posts show that Mr. Tsekhmistrenko later served in Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk, two cities in the Donbas region that were captured by Russian forces last summer after prolonged battles. “We’re going to be okay,” a male voice says in English in a July video as the vehicle the person is driving in tries to navigate a badly damaged bridge, swerving past the remains of destroyed civilian cars and scorched military equipment.
Mr. Laidlaw called Mr. Tsekhmistrenko “one of the most universally liked people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
Mr. Tsekhmistrenko crammed a lot of travel into his life: backpacking through Iceland, beachcombing in the Bahamas, dragging a donkey pinata through the Mexican city of Guadalajara, moose hunting in British Columbia, getting up close and personal with gorillas in the wilds of Kenya and screaming his way through a high-altitude swing in Durban.
He also posted on social media about a quiet Christmas with family back in Saskatchewan, crafting gingerbread houses and pouring hot toffee on baking pans filled with fresh snow – a dessert he joked was a “quintessential Canadian winter food.”
In Ukraine, in addition to his combat duties, Mr. Tsekhmistrenko tried to raise money online to buy medical equipment for the front line. “Due to the bloody and unjust invasion we have had to deal with countless casualties, both civilian and military,” he wrote on the fundraising page. “Even though the government and allies are doing their best to supply us but still many needs, both medical and non-medical, are unfulfilled.”
Jack Frye, a former U.S. marine who founded Atlas Global Aid, an organization that delivers humanitarian aid and military supplies to the front line in Ukraine, said he frequently encountered Mr. Tsekhmistrenko on his trips.
He said Mr. Tsekhmistrenko “lived and breathed saving lives” and had come to embrace Ukraine as his homeland. “He lived in Canada but his family’s from Ukraine. He came to fight for his family’s land.”
With a report from Mike Hager