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Following a ‘call to duty,’ Washington veteran faces uneasy entry into Ukraine

UPDATED: Tue., March 22, 2022

Washington Iraq War veteran Carl Larson arrived in Ukraine earlier this month to volunteer in the fight against Russian invaders. Larson, seen here in a town in western Ukraine, is with a small team of other veterans that hope to protect convoys.  (Courtesy of Carl Larson)
Washington Iraq War veteran Carl Larson arrived in Ukraine earlier this month to volunteer in the fight against Russian invaders. Larson, seen here in a town in western Ukraine, is with a small team of other veterans that hope to protect convoys. (Courtesy of Carl Larson)
By Hal Bernton Seattle Times

Nearly two decades ago, Carl Larson served in the Army as American troops toppled Saddam Hussein in a war that ignited home-front protests, claimed the lives of 4,418 U.S. service members by the end of 2010 and unleashed widespread sectarian violence in Iraq.

Now 47, the Snohomish County resident is back in a war zone, this time to help the Ukrainian people in their fierce defense against Russian invaders.

Larson says he has been inspired by what he sees as the stark moral clarity of preventing the slaughter of civilians and thwarting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of occupying an independent nation.

“This is our generation’s call to duty. Our grandfathers fought and defeated Hitler, and now it’s our turn,” Larson said in a phone interview from Ukraine. “There is no ambiguity here.”

The Russian invasion began Feb. 24, meeting heavy resistance even as Russian missiles and bombing raids have caused heavy civilian casualties. To help “combat the occupiers,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the formation of an international legion for foreign citizens. And by March 7, more than 20,000 people from 52 countries had indicated they would like to join the effort, according to Ukrainian officials.

Larson arrived in the country March 11 and remains committed to the Ukrainian cause. But he also is more wary.

Larson initially balked at signing a contract to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine (Ukrainian Foreign Legion) because he had no idea where he would be sent or what he would be asked to do.

Larson also is concerned about the qualifications, and character, of some of the U.S. and other volunteers whom he met. He thought some are unstable or otherwise not fit to serve.

For his own team of what is now six veterans, Larson says he has instituted a vetting process that includes background checks before allowing anyone else to join. He said he and his team brought several totes filled with night vision goggles, body armor and other military gear. They have networked with officials in western Ukraine to better define their work, which Larson hopes could include escorts of convoys bringing supplies stacked in Polish warehouses to areas of eastern Ukraine in need.

“None of my team are Rambos. None of us are blood thirsty. We are trained veterans, and levelheaded,” Larson said. “We’ve kicked several people out who are not a good fit.”

The team includes Kawika Rogers Jr., who was raised in Hawaii, and served in the Marines from 2014 to 2018, according to his military records. Rogers said in a phone interview he connected with Larson through a Facebook volunteer group. He said he is willing to join combat troops, help in the humanitarian aid effort or offer other assistance.

“We are trying to find the way to be the most effective,” Rogers said.

Joining the war effort

Larson, who grew up in Mill Creek, joined the U.S. Army four months before 9/11, according to his discharge records. He was 26 and served as a combat engineer with a unit based in Germany that in 2003 participated in the initial invasion of Iraq. He said he later was involved in reconnaissance around Baghdad where he took enemy fire but was never injured.

Larson recalls how some Iraqis in the south waved American flags they had printed on napkins when U.S. troops first arrived. Looking back, Larson thinks the U.S. leadership in Iraq made “terrible mistakes” that helped undermine support for the occupation.

After nearly a year of service in Iraq, Larson in 2004 received an honorable discharge, according to his discharge records. He returned to Washington and works as a digital marketing consultant.

Larson is a member of three Facebook groups formed for volunteers seeking to serve the war effort in Ukraine. They collectively have more than 4,000 members, some who say they are veterans with combat experience, others with no service background but still eager to join the battle or participate in humanitarian relief efforts or other assistance.

Many people post asking for practical advice about what to do once they arrive in Poland (a common entry point for volunteers), what gear they can bring on board an airplane or what to expect when they get to the border. Others are seeking to join an organized team, such as the one formed by Larson. And others are offering words of caution.

The State Department has advised U.S. citizens not to travel to Ukraine. Russia has said volunteers seeking to participate in the war effort – if captured – will be treated as mercenaries, rather than lawful combatants or prisoners of war. Thus, they may be subject to potential criminal prosecution or at heightened risk for mistreatment, according to Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government promotes its foreign legion with a brash recruiting video packed with fiery images. The narrator said that Putin planned a “blitzkrieg but got the blitz-(expletive),” and encourages “soldiers and heroes of the world to join the fight for liberty.”

The website includes a seven-step process to join that begins with an application to a Ukrainian embassy in applicants’ home countries and ends with signing the service contract to “engage the Russian occupiers together.”

But for the Ukrainian government, battling the Russians on multiple fronts, the development of this foreign legion is still a work in progress.

Uneasy entry

Larson said he and three other members of his team on March 10 met with recruiters from the Ukrainian Foreign Legion at the Polish border.

Larson said that the recruiter instructed them to put their bags on the bus and report to a Yavoriv military base near the Polish border.

Larson said he told the recruiter he had not yet made a decision to join, and asked to see the enlistment contract, which he said detailed the term of service as until martial law ended in Ukraine.

Instead of signing the contract and heading to the base, which was attacked March 13 by a Russian airstrike, Larson and his team went to Lviv in western Ukraine, then to a small town farther south where they were hosted by a Ukrainian family as they worked on developing a possible plan for convoys.

On Sunday, Larson and Rogers boarded a train to return to Lviv for more meetings with Ukrainian officials.

The Seattle Times also interviewed by phone two other volunteers from Western countries who were frustrated with their initial experiences.

One man is a Norwegian volunteer who said he was at the Yavoriv base when it was bombed. He agreed only to be identified by his first name, Fredrik, due to concerns about his security. After the bombing, Fredrik said he and other volunteers were put out to defend the base without body armor or weapons amid what proved to be incorrect reports that Russian paratroopers had landed nearby. He is now in Poland, recovering from a bout with COVID-19, and said that his savings are running low. He plans to return to Norway.

“We expected to get bombed; it’s war. We didn’t expect to not be able to defend ourselves,” Fredrik said.

Another volunteer from Canada, who requested anonymity because of security concerns, said he also was at the base when it was bombed. He said he witnessed unarmed volunteers being asked to defend the base, and he had only a pistol with about enough ammunition for a minute of fighting.

“We didn’t think it was a smart place to be, so we decided to bug out,” said the Canadian, who spoke Sunday from Kyiv.

As of Monday, Larson had returned to Lviv where he hopes to speak with Ukrainian officials about how the recruiting process might be improved. He proposes that Ukrainians should make an earlier disclosure to those who seek to enlist in the foreign legion.

Larson says he does plan to enlist this week. But he also wants to talk about how the volunteers can be best utilized if they have the proper skills and pass background checks.

“We don’t want to discourage volunteers from coming here and joining the fight,” Larson said. “But guys don’t want to just sit around and wait for bases to be rocketed.”

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