A Canadian military veteran who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan before volunteering to fight for Ukraine will spend Canada Day lying seriously wounded in a hospital, hoping an online campaign will raise enough money to pay for his evacuation home to Ottawa.
JT, as the 50-year-old career soldier is known, escaped serious injury through two tours in the Balkans and four in Afghanistan, where he served in both Kabul and Kandahar. But on May 15, his good fortune ran out.
His unit of 12 foreign volunteers – who had adopted the nickname “Wolverines” – was on a mission in Ukraine’s southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, clearing anti-tank mines so Ukrainian troops could advance on a Russian position. They were operating in pairs. JT – the unit’s mine-clearing specialist – and an American moved through a forested valley, using handmade grappling hooks to pull mines out of the path of the planned Ukrainian attack.
Then came the radio call that would forever change several lives. Another member of the Wolverines – U.S. Army veteran Stephen Zabielski – had touched a trip wire and detonated a mine. The 52-year-old was killed on the spot, the second U.S. fighter to die in this war. Another American was seriously wounded.
The blast had probably alerted the nearby Russian forces to their presence. JT and his comrade called for their extrication vehicle – a pickup truck – to collect them so the Wolverines could evacuate their casualties and withdraw before the Russians moved in.
But the unit’s misfortunes began to multiply. The Ukrainian driver of the pickup got the vehicle wedged on the railway tracks that run through the Zaporizhzhia forest. JT, a retired combat engineer, took command of the situation and told the others to proceed to the rendezvous point while he and his U.S. colleague tried to get the truck unstuck.
That’s when JT made a “bad call.” The only way to free the vehicle was to back it up down the tracks. In the fray, he threw the truck into reverse without first checking that the tracks hadn’t been booby-trapped.
That’s when the truck backed over an anti-tank mine.
He doesn’t recall what happened after that. “What I was told was the truck was on fire and one of my guys said that I got out of the truck. That’s some sort of auto-function or something like that because I don’t remember doing that,” he told The Globe and Mail in a bedside interview.
The next thing he knew he was coming to in the hospital, unable to see and fearing his eyes had been welded shut, before collapsing back into unconsciousness.
JT’s eyes were fine, but he had shrapnel in his face and a severe concussion. His left arm was broken, and much of his left tricep had melted away. His legs and buttocks were also badly burned, requiring skin and tissue grafts from the front of his thighs.
The front line trauma centre that JT briefly awoke in was the first of six Ukrainian hospitals he would be moved through in quick succession, as local medics stabilized him and proceeded to treat 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 wounded in the war – and the most seriously injured. The Globe is not using his family name, or naming the city where he is receiving treatment, until he is out of the country.
The lingering effects of the concussion mean he will require long-term medical attention. He speaks slowly and said he sometimes has trouble – lying in his hospital bed, surrounded by Ukrainian-speaking doctors and nurses – understanding what is real and what is a dream.
“It’s hard for me to say this is really happening. I don’t know that the explosion didn’t kill me,” he said, pausing several times to search for words. “Until you showed up at the door, I didn’t know this [interview] was real. Until I get a bandage change, I don’t know that I’m getting a bandage change.”
He said the only reality he can focus on is the moment he will be back home in Canada, to hug his friend Erika, who is running the GoFundMe campaign to get him out of Ukraine. In his current condition, he would need specialized transport to Poland and then some kind of medical flight to Canada.
So far, the “Get JT home from Ukraine” campaign has raised slightly more than 10 per cent 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 saw happening to the country. He had retired as an active soldier in September, so there was nothing standing in the way of him volunteering – at least from a legal perspective. He asked for and received a one-year leave of absence from his government job in Ottawa.
Upon arriving in Ukraine, he enlisted in the International Legion, a loosely organized volunteer formation that was created on Feb. 27, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for foreign fighters to help his country.
At a training centre in western Ukraine, JT connected with other English-speaking military veterans and decided that they had enough compatible training and skill sets to form their own unit – nine Americans, two Brits and JT. They adopted the nickname “Wolverines” without ever acknowledging out loud that they had borrowed it from Red Dawn, a 1980s movie about a group of American teens 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 Ukraine’s cities – then moved to Kyiv, where they were asked to help train less seasoned foreign volunteers. With the war largely focused in the east and south of the country, JT says the unit was getting frustrated with being so far from the fight they had come to join.
Finally, they were deployed to Zaporizhzhia, where they found the action they craved. But fighting the Russian army – which has a 10-to-one artillery advantage along the front line – proved to be very different from fighting the lightly armed Taliban in Afghanistan or serving in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.
Despite the severity of his injuries, and not knowing how or when he’ll go home, JT doesn’t regret his decision to volunteer.
“I have no regrets. I might have checked the ground before I backed up the truck, but I would still have come,” he said, grimacing as he shifted in his bed. “One thing that I always said when I was in the Canadian military is you’re always Canadian first, and Canadians genuinely want to help people. Like for me, I just, I couldn’t watch it on TV any more … I couldn’t not do something.”
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