The two military officers, crisply attired in blue dress uniforms, ascended the front porch of a single-family home. One clutched a vinyl case containing an ornate white urn and, within, the ashes of Army veteran Andrew Peters.
The scene that April evening in Marshfield, Wisconsin, was strikingly similar to the thousands of casualty assistance calls made by members of the U.S. military over 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the officers offering condolences on behalf of a grateful nation as the soldier’s parents, John and Heather, shuddered with grief. But there was a significant difference: Peters, 28, had died in February while fighting as a volunteer with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, and the respects paid to his father and mother were delivered not from the U.S. government but by Ukrainian military personnel dispatched from their embassy in Washington.
“It’s a weird, mixed feeling,” John Peters said, recalling the experience. “It’s great to have him home and his remains, but it’s finally sunken in: He’s never going to come back.”
As America’s most recent wars fade into history, some veterans have chosen to take up arms in Ukraine and, in at least 16 instances, given their lives while either defending its people from Russia’s onslaught or aiding those trapped in the violence. They’ve done so as private citizens, disregarding repeated official warnings from President Biden and others in his administration that grave danger awaits anyone who sets foot on the battlefield.
It’s unclear how many Americans have taken such risks. Possibly thousands. Ukraine claimed at the war’s outset last year that upward of 20,000 U.S. citizens expressed interest in joining the country’s foreign legion, which pays between $500 and $3,500 per month in exchange for a contractual commitment to serve for several months.
Survivors of those killed say the decision to trade the relative safety of home for a cause in a country not their own was inspired by the same democratic ideals that undergird service in the U.S. military: love of liberty, disdain for tyranny. Sometimes the choice was influenced, too, by a desire to escape personal turmoil, or a lust for action.
Memorial Day, by tradition, is a remembrance of those who’ve fallen fighting America’s wars. This year, for these families, it surfaces a complicated set of emotions as they are forced to reckon with the meaning of service under one flag and sacrifice under another.
Two flags on display
Andrew Peters, like many other American volunteers in Ukraine, had been affected by the televised images of civilian suffering and by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeal to military veterans worldwide for help repelling the Russians.
He had struggled adjusting to civilian life in Wisconsin after leaving the Army a few years earlier, his father said. And initially, Peters’s parents tried to talk him out of going to Ukraine. But when their son was undeterred, the family approached the decision together, with his father, a Gulf War veteran who also served in the Army, considering volunteering, too.
“After a couple of weeks, I kind of came to my senses and was like, ‘Is this something you really want to do at 53?’ ” John Peters said. “So I told Andrew, ‘I’m going to sit this one out.’ He never admitted it, but I think he was probably relieved that his old man wasn’t going to come along and embarrass him.”
Memorial Day resonates differently this year, he added, with heartache because of his son’s death. But the father knows the situation isn’t quite the same as if Andrew had been killed while in the U.S. military, and he has balked at suggestions from friends that his son’s name should be added to a local memorial that recognizes U.S. troops killed in combat, he said.
“I could see that being a disaster waiting to happen or cause some grief with people who probably have no business speaking their mind,” he said.
The family will mark Andrew’s death in other ways, his father said. He’s hung American and Ukrainian flags outside their home. They also plan to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony.
The white urn containing Andrew’s remains still sits on a mantle in the Peters home, next to a photograph of him and his black Labrador retriever, Pepper, a service dog who helped him work through the difficulties he faced after leaving the Army.
Most days, Pepper now goes to work with Andrew’s mother, a sixth-grade teacher.
Nick Maimer, 45, who had served two decades in the Army and taught English in Spain before Russia’s invasion, told the Idaho Statesman last year. His “moral compass” guided him to Ukraine, he said.
Quiet and contemplative, with little regard for personal possessions, Maimer instead focused on helping anyone he came across, his uncle, Paul Maimer, recalled, saying that those values earned his nephew enduring friendships throughout his hometown of Boise and beyond.
Often, that meant sharing his knowledge and passions. Maimer for years visited the middle school where his aunt teaches science, enthralling students with presentations about snakes.
“And that’s what he did when he went to Ukraine. He had this knowledge, being an ex-Green Beret,” and a strong motivation to teach, Paul Maimer said.
His death, apparently in a building collapse somewhere near the besieged city of Bakhmut earlier this month, was disclosed in a poorly lit video showing Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin. A close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin and his private army have assumed a lead role in the war. In the video, he stands near a lifeless body and taunts the United States. In his hands is a notebook holding Maimer’s Idaho driver’s license and Veterans Affairs card.
Ukrainian forces have since received the remains, and the Maimer family expects they will be returned to the United States soon.
“It’s amazing, concerning the circumstances,” Paul Maimer said. “There can be some closure. At this point that is all that we can ask for.”
A burial beside his father
In Mobile, Alabama, the mother of Cooper Andrews, a retired Marine Corps sergeant killed around Bakhmut on April 19, is fighting to have her son’s remains brought back to the United States.
Andrews, 26, had been in Ukraine for months, having gravitated toward the opportunity to fight fascism, said his mother, Willow Andrews. He knew it was dangerous, she said, but he was eager to help evacuate those in danger.
“He kind of had the attitude, ‘If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?’ ” his mother recalled.
Andrews, who grew up outside Cleveland, was passionate about social justice and inspired by the 2014 police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, his mother said. Since Andrews’s death, his family has raised more than $20,000 in his name to assist charities focused on food insecurity and community organizing.
Andrews, who was Black and had become an Eagle Scout as a teenager, liked the structure of the Marine Corps, his mother said, though he was disturbed by the racism he encountered in the ranks. In one case, he was called a “Black nationalist” by white colleagues who confronted him for reading a book about Malcolm X, Willow Andrews said.
“They just couldn’t grasp the idea that he could want all kinds of knowledge and still just be a person,” she said.
His experiences were better in his Ukrainian unit, his mother said. “We are brothers, Mom,” she recalled him saying.
The family held a memorial service for Cooper on May 20 at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Cleveland Heights.
When his remains return to the United States, Cooper will be buried alongside his father in Cleveland, his mother said. She has sought help from the Ukrainian community in Ohio after losing faith that the State Department will get the job done, she said. Communication with the U.S. government, she said, has been frustrating, inconsistent and at times exasperating. She has relied, in part, on updates from European families with connections to her son’s unit.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the agency, defended the administration’s efforts in this case and others, saying the U.S. government “takes its role in such a situation very seriously” and shares information with families “whenever possible.”
‘What shores know not our blood’
Earlier this month, a plane carrying the remains of Marine Corps veteran Grady Kurpasi arrived on U.S. soil, bringing a measure of closure after 13 months of work to bring him home.
Kurpasi, 50, endured challenges early in life, said his friend Don Turner, who served with him in the Marines. Born in South Korea, he was put up for adoption as an infant, and an American family welcomed him into their home. That helped shape Kurpasi’s empathy and devotion, Turner said, leading him to enlist immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Reflecting on the loss of his friend and others to the war in Ukraine, Turner said that every U.S. veteran killed in Ukraine “absolutely, 100 percent sacrificed for what we believe in, which is our freedom and democracy. … There is no distinction.”
Kurpasi served 20 years in the Marines, including in Iraq. His retirement from the military, in November 2021, was short-lived, however. After Russia invaded Ukraine the following February, he joined a unit of international volunteers that fought near the capital, Kyiv, before moving south in April 2022.
The group, named Team Raven, was tasked with holding an observation post. Kurpasi and a British volunteer left to investigate the source of incoming fire. A German volunteer on the team told the Washington Post last year this is when he last saw Kurpasi alive.
Kurpasi’s family and Marine Corps comrades turned to volunteers in Ukraine and beyond to help determine his fate, and they pressed the Biden administration to get directly involved.
The State Department was “absolutely awful,” said George Heath, another friend of Kurpasi’s who assisted with the recovery effort. “I expected nothing less from them after the botched Afghan withdrawal. It was probably beneficial in a way their incompetence wasn’t involved with getting Grady home,” he said.
The family instead relied on outside groups and the R.T. Weatherman Foundation to coordinate search efforts with the Ukrainian government and volunteers on the ground. That effort led to a collection of trees in the fields near Oleksandrivka, west of Kherson, said Andrew Duncan, the group’s co-founder. Kurpasi’s skeletal remains were identified last month, along with his boots, backpack and other gear, some of which will be used in exhibits for a Ukrainian museum honoring foreign fighters, he said. A band of grain plucked from the site was delivered to Kurpasi’s daughter.
The State Department said U.S. officials “worked closely with Ukrainian authorities as they carried out their search efforts” and sought to be transparent with Kurpasi’s family.
Heath, who was on hand to receive Kurpasi’s remains in New York, said his repatriation is a “bittersweet” ending for an effort that brought together passionate volunteers, some of whom never met Kurpasi but were driven to find him because of his character.
Heath already has the names of other Marines killed in Afghanistan tattooed on his skin. He intends a similar tribute for Kurpasi. “Grady would sign off his emails, ‘What shores know not our blood,’ ” he said. “I plan on getting that on my arm.”
‘To the wind’
Memorial Day hits “much harder this year, for obvious reasons,” said Alex Potter, whose husband, Pete Reed, was working as a humanitarian medic in Ukraine when, on Feb. 2, his ambulance was hit by a suspected Russian missile.
Potter met Reed, a Marine Corps veteran, in Iraq in 2016 while she was there as a journalist and he was doing humanitarian work. While Reed was no longer serving in uniform, she said, he was killed saving lives “in service to humanity.”
Reed, 33, died while working as country director for Global Outreach Doctors, a nonprofit that sent teams of medical personnel to assist people affected by conflict and famine. After deploying to Afghanistan twice as an infantryman, his humanitarian work also took him to Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Poland.
“He was always willing to help everyone and anyone,” Potter said, noting that Reed’s team had treated some wounded Russians in Ukraine. “His core values were compassion and kindness and helping out people who needed it, no matter their circumstances. I think that’s a value that we as a nation should always strive towards.”
Reed struggled at times with the loss of friends killed while serving in the U.S. military, Potter said. One death that seemed particularly disheartening was that of Andrew Carpenter, 27, who was shot on a patrol in Afghanistan on Feb. 14, 2011, and died days later at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. Potter and Reed, generally warm and supportive, never did much to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a result, she said.
Eight or nine years later, while the couple was on a road trip, Potter dropped off Reed at Polk Memorial Gardens in Tennessee, where Carpenter had been laid to rest. Reed spent hours there with a book and a lawn chair, a day after visiting Carpenter’s wife and their son, who had not yet been born when Carpenter died.
Potter, who lives in Anchorage, recalled the memory while reflecting on her own grieving process. The hardest moments now, she said, are shortly after friends visit and she is again alone in an empty house.
Potter laughed recalling how she found a “bucket list” of things that Reed wanted to accomplish before dying. One of them was to make a name for himself, and there have since been more than a dozen memorial services of various kinds in his honor. Seeing how many people were affected by him has been striking, she said, and likely would have taken him aback.
Potter is still close with Reed’s family, and they are planning to spread his ashes in June in rural Beckett, Massachusetts, where Reed found meaning at a day camp he attended as a child.
“We’re just going to gather some friends and family,” she said, “and toss Pete to the wind.”
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites, Magda Jean-Louis, Monika Mathur and Sammy Westfall in Washington and Rachel Pannett in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.