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Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, over 16,000 people from all over the world have joined the International Legion of the Territorial Defense Force of Ukraine. Many of them are veterans from other wars or people with military experience, others are just regular people.
Hieu Le was among the volunteers who decided to take arms to defend Ukraine. Hieu, a U.S. Army veteran, served in Afghanistan where he was deployed for seven years and then worked as an intelligence contractor other three years more.
After retiring from the military, Hieu decided to move to Medellín, Colombia, where he started a Vietnamese cuisine restaurant, District 1-Cocina Vietnamita. While Hieu was living a quiet life in Colombia, Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, an act that changed Hieu’s life.
“Based on my experience in Afghanistan, the Afghans pretty much gave up and let the Taliban take over their country in just a matter of days. So when I saw Ukraine was invaded by Russia, I thought that they were going to be the same, that they were going to give up after like two days,” Hieu explains.
“But by day three, I was seeing these old ladies still in the middle of these villages, making Molotov cocktails. I saw people giving up their jobs and picking up a gun to defend their country and, you know, very inspired by the people of Ukraine. So I saw that and I said, I have to go there and help them.”
When President Volodymyr Zelensky called for military experienced soldiers to help with the Defense of Ukraine, Hieu took it as a sign, and contacted the Ukrainian embassy in Poland, he had to fill out an application form and then travel to Poland to a place which name Hieu prefers to keep undisclosed.
“There were a bunch of other foreigners waiting to hop on the bus to join. I just chatted with a couple of them. Some of them had military experience. Others did not have it at all and they just showed up,” remembers Hieu.
After going to the meeting point in Poland, a bus took Hieu and the other volunteers to a base in Ukraine where he got assigned to a unit with people who already have combat experience.
Hieu describes the composition of The International Legion as a “mixed bag” in which were more people with military experience, but most likely with little or no combat experience.
Hieu was provided with an FN FNC-3 rifle and as he explains “some people got the Ukrainian modern armor and helmet, but they were not very good, but there were a lot of people, myself included, who brought their own equipment, which was better.”
People with no combat experience were put into training. Because of his previous military experience, Hieu went straight to the front. For his time in Afghanistan, he was considered already trained by the legion. “We were put there for about like three days and the ideas from there, we moved to the frontline,” Hieu says.
Hieu and his unit were sent to Kyiv, where he encountered the bulk of the Russian offensive trying to knock down the center of power in Ukraine. “It felt like cannon fodder”, Hieu says, “They were putting us into the most dangerous missions…and you know, it makes sense, we weren’t Ukrainian citizens, we were foreign legion.”
“Some people were really good soldiers you could tell that they were special forces, that they were experienced, other people were just to kill things. Foreign Legion in general attracts a lot of honorable people who want to go and help, but it also attracts people who just want an excuse to hurt people”, Hieu reflects.
In Kyiv, Hieu had to survive the constant shelling of cruise missiles, Russians night raids, and the extreme cold of the season. Also, Hieu was suspicious of the Ukrainian people in charge of the legion in Kyiv.
Hieu was weary about potential corruption in the Legion, he heard from a fellow soldier that “one of the Ukrainian guys in charge of the Legion in Kyiv, was stealing stuff from guys that were on a mission. Like you’d go into their rooms and steal stuff or stealing their salary, something like that.”
During one night a squad of legionaries got killed by Russian fire in Irpin on the north side of Kyiv, “One died on the way back, he was injured and he died on the way back And the other one died there and they couldn’t take both. So they took the one that might stay alive,” Hieu remembers.
Avoiding the detection of patrols, Hieu’s squad moved to Irpin, on the north side of Kyiv, “now Irpin is clear of the enemy right now, but when I was there, it was surrounded by Russians. There were Russians everywhere,” Hieu tells.
His squad moved during the day because, according to Hieu, Russians prefer to operate at night, since visibility is low, so Ukrainian artillery can’t suppress them.
Hieu’s squad went behind enemy lines and trekked for 5 miles to the last known fighting position and carried the body of their fallen comrade back to Kyiv, all the time they were under constant shelling. During the journey back, the legionnaires met a patrol of Russians, who rushed to shout “Glory to Ukraine”, “I think it was because they didn’t want to fight us,” Hieu reflects.
After a 13-hour trip behind enemy lines, the legionaries managed to reach the edge of Kyiv and deliver the soldier’s body, then Hieu reached his breaking point: “looking through his body for his identification and then writing his name and ID number on a piece of cardboard and then covering him with a blanket and then eventually having to just break his legs and his arms to fit him inside the ambulance…when you see it you got to have a heart of stone, or something is wrong with you, to see the body of one of your fallen soldiers and not feel anything.”
“I was prepared to die fighting for Ukraine a hundred percent. What I was unprepared for, was to be alive and have to carry the dead bodies of my friends… I decided I did enough, I didn’t want to do it anymore”.
A couple of days later Hieu saw a news article “about how that body and the other Kia made it back to the country of Georgia to a hero’s welcome.” The Georgian Government organized a state funeral for the fallen legionnaire which was presided by Salome Zourabichvili, the president of Georgia.
“I saw a photo of his mama at the funeral, and you know…that helped because I felt satisfied that I was able to bring this son back home to his mother”
A couple of days later after recovering his comrade’s body, Hieu decided to retire from the Legion, “It’s like when you quit a job, so it’s never going to feel good, but I won’t say that I was mistreated by the Ukrainians. They did everything the right way for me”.
After retiring, Hieu decided to travel around Europe for a while before getting back to his home in Medellín, Hieu plans to remain in Europe “until I can calm my mind down, because when you go from a constant near-death experience when you go from a war zone where like people are dying, where you are surrounded by the enemy all the time, you’re going to be at…they call it like hyper-vigilance, it’s like a psychological condition where it takes some time, where you have to relax and cool down”.
Hieu traveled to Zagreb in Croatia to visit a couple of friends. Hieu remembers that one of his friends told him that his grandfather died fighting in the Croatian independence war, and after 30 years they were never able to find his body.
“So there was no place to put flowers or no place to say any prayers for his grandfather. So when I told him this story about what I did for the soldier, he said that it was something really important that something good. A lot of people who have fallen soldiers, they never make it back home, like these Russian soldiers that just abandoned all their dead, these bodies will generally, probably never make it back home to their mothers”, Hieu reflects.
Economist, writer and liberal. With a focus on finance, the war on drugs, history, and geopolitics // Economista, escritor y liberal. Con enfoque en finanzas, guerra contra las drogas, historia y geopolítica