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Foreign volunteers race to train new Ukrainian troops to be sent to the front

Magnus Ek, 53, a retired Swedish lieutenant, is teaching a group of Ukrainian conscripts how to fire an AK-47 in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. Ek, who spent a decade as an instructor in Sweden, is among a group of foreign military volunteers who have gone to help Ukrainians defend their country from Russia's invasion.
Frank Langfitt/NPR
Magnus Ek, 53, a retired Swedish lieutenant, is teaching a group of Ukrainian conscripts how to fire an AK-47 in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. Ek, who spent a decade as an instructor in Sweden, is among a group of foreign military volunteers who have gone to help Ukrainians defend their country from Russia's invasion.

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Magnus Ek, 53, a retired Swedish lieutenant, is teaching a group of Ukrainian conscripts how to fire an AK-47 in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. Ek, who spent a decade as an instructor in Sweden, is among a group of foreign military volunteers who have gone to train Ukrainians how defend their country from Russia's invasion.

"You will find yourself in many strange shooting positions," Ek says, as he tromps around the snow-covered firing range where the temperatures hover around 16 degrees.

"So funny, so funny," says one of his students, a Ukrainian conscript.

Ek, who has served as a volunteer military trainer for months in Ukraine, uses physical comedy to hold the attention of his students. The situation, however, is not a joke.

He is teaching a group of 15 conscripts who were assigned to Ukraine's Border Force a week earlier. Most have no experience with weapons and Ek has only a few hours to expose them to as much as he can. He won't even have the opportunity to show them something basic: how to adjust the sights of their rifles so they can aim accurately.

"Maybe some other time," Ek says wistfully.

Ukraine is conscripting thousands of new soldiers to help replenish huge losses on the battlefield here in the country's east as the war grinds into a second, bloody year. The pressure to train civilians quickly and then send them to the front is tremendous as Ukraine faces an enemy with four times the population.

Lt. Col. Vyacheslav Andrusenko, deputy head of combat training for Ukraine's Border Force, says these conscripts will get about 17 days of instruction. By comparison, U.S. Army boot camp lasts 10 weeks. Andrusenko says he'd like to provide at least 35 days of training and appears uncomfortable with the short time frame.

"I would say I'm concerned," he says. "I'm a bit concerned, I just hope that everything we give them they will use in battle and it will help them to do their tasks to the maximum potential."

Three to five days is often all the conscripts receive, foreign trainers say

The war in Ukraine has been a magnet for foreign retired military. But there have been problems. The Mozart Group, one of the best-known American organizations operating in Ukraine, trained Ukrainian military and evacuated civilians, but collapsed amid acrimony, defections and a lawsuit in January.

Magnus Ek has spent months as a volunteer training Ukrainian conscripts in basic weapons handling. His small team of foreign trainers are funded by donations to a website, their savings and help from friends and family back home.
/ Frank Langfitt/NPR
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Frank Langfitt/NPR
Magnus Ek has spent months as a volunteer training Ukrainian conscripts in basic weapons handling. He works with a small team of foreign trainers, who are funded by donations to a website, their savings and help from friends and family back home.

Ek is part of a small team that operates out of a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian army's military hub in the eastern Donbas region. In addition to providing training, Ek has a website called Stop the War, which raises money to support the trainers and purchase gear for Ukrainian soldiers. Team members also rely on personal savings and donations from friends and family back home.

The trainers refer to themselves, tongue-in-cheek, as the "A Team," a reference to the popular 1980s action-adventure TV show about a motley crew of former special forces soldiers trying to clear their names of a crime they didn't commit.

Kelly Kilhoffer, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, volunteered with the team last year. On a couple of occasions, he says, he was able to get three to four weeks to train a group of soldiers. Far more often, he says, he got three to five days. Kilhoffer, who has since returned to the United States, raised his concerns with a Ukrainian officer.

"I'm like, 'Look, if we had more time, these guys would last longer," Kilhoffer recalls.

He says the officer insisted the conscripts learned a lot during their three days of training and would learn more on the job.

"I said, 'Well, yeah, but you're talking to the alive ones,' " Kilhoffer recalls. "'You're not talking to the dead ones.' "

One of the dead ones was a gung-ho Ukrainian graphic artist turned soldier named Ed. His passing hit Kilhoffer and the rest of the team hard. They recalled Ed as funny, always smiling and devoted to training and improvement.

Lt. Col. Andrusenko Vyacheslav, deputy head of combat training for Ukraine's Border Force, says these conscripts will get about 17 days of instruction. He would prefer at least 35 days and appears uncomfortable with the short time frame. "I would say I'm concerned," he says.
/ Frank Langfitt/NPR
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Frank Langfitt/NPR
Lt. Col. Vyacheslav Andrusenko, deputy head of combat training for Ukraine's Border Force, says these conscripts will get about 17 days of instruction. He would prefer at least 35 days and appears uncomfortable with the short time frame. "I would say I'm concerned," he says.

"He'd load up extra magazines, he practiced shooting," Kilhoffer recalls. "His total duration of military service was less than two weeks from conscription to death."

Another team member, Stan, a retired U.S. Marine staff sergeant, says Ed was killed on his first mission, an assault on a Russian trench line that went wrong. Ed, who had a wife and toddler son, lost both legs in a minefield.

"They couldn't retrieve him and he's still out there to this day," says Stan. "This is what hurts the most; they said that they heard him. They still heard him."

Stan, who declined to give his full name citing privacy reasons, says the messages he and Ed shared are still on his phone. Then Stan begins to weep.

Shannon Taylor, 25, a trauma nurse from New Zealand, teaches a Ukrainian conscript battlefield first aid. Soldiers have told her what she has taught them has helped them save lives.
/ Frank Langfitt/NPR
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Frank Langfitt/NPR
Shannon Taylor, 25, a trauma nurse from New Zealand, teaches a Ukrainian conscript battlefield first aid. Soldiers have told her what she has taught them has helped them save lives.

The volunteers come for different reasons and from varied backgrounds

The team members say they came here for various reasons. Kilhoffer, 56, a retired database administrator, says he saw Russia as a bully and was appalled by the human rights abuses. Ek, 53, wanted to put his skills to use from a decade as an instructor in Sweden.

Another member is Shannon Taylor, 25, a trauma nurse from New Zealand who provides battlefield first-aid training. She was inspired by a TV series back home about combat nurses in World War I, who turn an abandoned building into a field hospital.

"They just treated all the wounded soldiers," recalls Taylor with a sense of wonder. "Since then, I have always just wanted to do that."

Stan, 38, has come here because he loves military life, is a battlefield tactics nerd and sees himself as something of a crusader. He also says there is a common thread among those drawn to this war.

"Atonement," he says. "A lot of people [are] escaping their past, escaping supposed sins that they think they have the chance to, I guess, redo and make the cosmos good again."

Stan declined to elaborate.

Back at the training range, a group of Border Force soldiers huddle around Taylor, who kneels in the snow, showing them how to patch an abdominal wound.

Shannon Taylor was inspired to volunteer in Ukraine by a TV series she saw back home in New Zealand about battlefield nurses who served in World War I.
/ Frank Langfitt/NPR
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Frank Langfitt/NPR
Shannon Taylor was inspired to volunteer in Ukraine by a TV series she saw back home in New Zealand about battlefield nurses who served in World War I.

"Do not apply pressure," she warns. Instead, she says, wrap the wound to keep the bandage in place, and, if some intestines come out, don't push them back inside.

Taylor was scheduled to return home in January, but she continues to delay. She says her training is paying off. One soldier she trained told her he was able to use what he'd learned to treat a fellow soldier who had suffered a head wound and another who had lost half his hand.

"He just walked in the door and gave me a massive hug and said that he was able to use those skills ... to rescue these two guys," Taylor recalls. "That just made it all worth it."

Producer Ross Pelekh and London Producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.