June 12th, 2023

soldier's helmet

Good morning from Donbas

Yesterday was probably one of the best days I have had in Ukraine. We drove from Kharkiv to the city of Kramatorsk in the Donbas region of Ukraine. This area has been the epicenter of the war for many months. Kramatorsk ia about 35 miles west of Bakhmut.

As we drove south, the the traffic transitioned from civilian vehicles around Kharkiv to almost all military vehicles. Destroyed tanks and BMPs still litter the roadside and the checkpoints are more frequent.

Initially we passed through Kramatorsk on the way to a village further south which I won’t name. We met up with two old friends “Goodie” and “Braveheart.” Soldiers here all have callsigns and never use their real names. But they are Frasier from the UK, and Adam from Scotland. I have known them since last summer after a chance meeting in Irpen. Both are Legionaires assigned to a recon team led by a guy named Yuri. I have only seen Yuri on the internet thus far, and he is something of a legend here for his battlefield exploits. We met most of the team, shared breakfast and dropped off aid bags and a rifle optic for Yuri. My teammate Hymie also brought the guys a huge bag of food and supplies unique to the UK and Goodie and Adam were beyond thrilled.

Two-weeks ago Goodie and some of the other guys were injured in a 30 hour battle with over 200 Russian soliders and two tanks. I had been speaking to Goodie on Signal and then we couldn’t find him or communicate with him. Two days later they reappeared. Goodie had shrapnel removed from his eye but he still has it in his shoulder and knee. He was his usual bright and chipper self though.

We then proceeded back north to the village of Druzhkivka to drop off medical supplies to a hospital. These were given to us by our contact in Kyiv, Dr. Maryanna, the director of a hospital there. The hospital was like something out of 1917. Stretchers lined the wall, and the gurneys and wheelchairs were ancient. Wounded soliders milled around and walked the grounds which were covered in dead pigeons. Pigeons here are apparently suicidal and just sit there as the ambulances and Humvees deliver patients one after the other. The staff looked exhausted and all had blank stares and emotionless voices. We unloaded the supplies and headed back to Kramatorsk.

We met back up with teammates Brett and Eddy and crashed at Eddys place. It is an abandoned house on a hill with a view of the city. We later met Eddy’s roomates Ben from the UK, who runs a team called Aquaducks, and PH from France. Aquaducks delivers water to frontline villages and I hope to join up with them later. We sat on the patio and had dinner, all the time seranaded by the steady boom of artillery in the distance and entertained by Eddy’s adopted battlefield dogs, Muffin and Charlie.

The next day we all went south to another village and met up with an army team that Eddy supports from the Ukrainian 5th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. We met soldiers, Sasha and Slavic, and Yannick. Sasha had a bullet hole in his back and Slavic had one in his helmet. Another younger one whose name I can’t recall right now, was wearing a field jacket liner with bullet holes in the armpit.

Brett and I dropped off aid bags and then visited with the guys, practiced Ukrainian and heard their stories. Listening to what they endure was one of the most sobering and humbling things I have ever experienced. I asked to see their weapons and they produced the most dilapidated AK 47s anywhere on earth. Most UA military use the AK-74 and increasingly the US M-4 and other European rifles.

Mark with Ukrainian soldiers

As an assault team, whose primary responsibility is clearing trenches. l knew they were perfect candidates for my last two optics. We went back into town and horse traded for a good lockable picatinny rail system and then outfitted Sasha’s rifle. I also gave him a single point sling I had, and he went from standard grumpy looking East European, to smiling, hugging and animated. Slavic also needs a rail system to mount then optic and we are looking for one now. As we were leaving the kid with the bullet holes in his shirt showed me his rifle and told me his story. I could hold onto the optic which I was keeping for another friend who is waiting to go into the fight, or I could give my last one to this young man, who as I write this is probably already back in the fight. The choice was easy. We also got him a new cammo helmet cover.

We said goodbye to our new friends and me, Brett and Hymie headed out of town to meet at a supply collection point and then onto Kherson later today.

I want to thank everyone again for helping me make all this possible. Some have asked that their donations only go to humanitarian efforts and I respect and honor that request. Others want to support the military and that is what we did the last two days. Now it is on to Kherson.

More to follow

Ukranian soldiers
Mark servicing a rifle
soldier displaying hole in jacket
Mark and Ukrainian soldiers sitting